Submission

I haven’t blogged on this site for a couple of years now. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll pick it up again on any sort of regular basis.

Either way, I’ve had a few thoughts bubbling around in my head and thought I’d write them down, and it felt like it needed more than a Facebook post.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘submission’ — specifically in regards to some of the arguments us Christians have about theologies of marriage relationships and how this concept of submission may or may not fit into it all.

Let me nail my colours to the mast: I am firmly of the opinion that marriage relationships are best founded on the concept of mutual submission. I think this is not just a good idea but also happens to be the best way to understand and apply the biblical material regarding these matters, and I am convinced that the structures of patriarchy are far less than God’s ideal (that is, ‘sinful’), destructive, and in need of being dismantled.

I sometimes get asked, though, as to why male headship/female submission ‘works’.

(Though there are a number of ways one could understand this statement, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt to mean something along the lines of ‘contributes to marriage relationships that allow both partners to flourish,’ or at least ‘contributes to a happy and functional marriage relationship.’)

I’d say two things in response:

  1. ‘Submission’ is not necessarily a dirty word.

    The model given to us by Jesus is one of laying down one’s own rights in order to seek the best for the other (in all kinds of relationships, including marriage), so wherever this happens we see glimpses of the Kingdom. Of course, this kind of selflessness is so often exploited and abused by selfish and broken people, and can become genuinely dangerous (and, in the light of everything we have been learning about domestic & family violence recently, is something we need to take very seriously indeed!). Nevertheless (and I truly don’t say that flippantly), in the desire of one partner to truly seek the best for the other we see something of Jesus.

    In situations where the husband is not a total jerk (and certainly in situations where the husband truly, deeply values his wife), I can see how this sort of arrangement might be considered to ‘work’. I just wonder how much fuller this Kingdom glimpse could be if both partners were committed to the same kind of selfless dedication to the flourishing of the other.

  2. At it’s very, very best, the model of ‘wives submitting to their husbands’ and ‘husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the Church’ begins to look, funnily enough, remarkably like mutual submission.

    Of course, I’d argue that this is because that’s precisely the goal to which these phrases point but, even if one is seeking to avoid the notion of ‘mutual’ submission at all costs (for whatever reason), the idea of loving another person ‘as Christ loved the Church’ can only mean the laying down of one’s rights — even one’s own life — for the sake of the other. (Thus, any notion of any Christian husband demanding wifely submission seems to have completely missed the point. It might even be called ‘anti-Christ’, if we are to to be honest with ourselves.)

    If one is to take this command for sacrificial service seriously, the result — whatever you want to call it — is, functionally, mutual submission.

    I’d ask the simple question at this point, though, as to why one would hold so tight to a doctrine that only approaches something beautiful at its very best, rather than one that takes that ‘best’ as the starting point? I’m certainly not suggesting that all couples who claim ‘mutual submission’ actually live it out; I am simply saying that the foundation of mutual submission makes this ‘best’ an explicit, core feature.

    Doesn’t seem like a difficult choice to me.

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The Energy Continues

A little while ago, I wrote about The ‘Energy’ of Violence, in which I suggested that violence can never be fully and truly defeated by violence; it takes something much more powerful.

In response to this, my friend labalienne reminded us that the sort of argument I advanced in my original post must take into consideration the violence against women that, scandalously, so often gets brushed aside.

In response to labalienne’s excellent response, I’d like to offer three points:

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge that I was wrong.

My first instinct, when confronted with this point, was a kind of self-defence, arguing that this wasn’t what I was talking about and that I would never advocate a kind of ‘passive-ism’ that accepts but does not confront and expose such violence.

Such for my ‘mansplaining’.

My first response *should* have been unconditional listening.

The point that labalienne makes is all too real, and all too often ignored. Us men so often respond with #notallmen (or #notmyblogpost, it seems), without necessarily allowing the gravity of the point to sink in. This is real, and it’s disgusting, and we—I—need to listen to the voices of women far more attentively.

Secondly, I feel it’s necessary to post the links to the series of articles written by Julia Baird in the Sydney Morning Herald, on the topic of the theology of ‘submission’ and ‘headship’ in Christian marriage and domestic violence (labalienne linked to the first of these in her post, but the second two were not yet written):

  1. “Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church”
  2. “Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect”
  3. “Church cannot afford to walk past domestic abuse”

Thirdly, and finally, I want to make a point that I should have in the original post.

I’m white. I’m very, very white.

Violence in our world disproportionately affects people of colour (and especially women of colour), and is all too often inflicted by white men—by people like me.

What we don’t need is for people like me to stand up and talk like we’ve figured out all the ‘solutions’. In my post, the examples I was thinking of as I wrote included a poor Jewish rabbi (Jesus of Nazareth), masses of Indians standing up to the might of the British Empire (Gandhi and his followers), the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and the nonviolence outlined by (post-prison) Nelson Mandela.*

My job is not to suggest (or appear to suggest) that I have the answers to these things, but to point to those who have experienced such violence and who have overcome not through responding with violence of their own, but with something more powerful. I also need to acknowledge the very real bodily pain and suffering that they experienced, and those who lost their lives in the process (and I thank labalienne, again, for reminding me of this point).

I’d like to keep this conversation going, and I hope the points above are helpful.

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* Yes, I am aware (and somewhat disappointed) that all the main examples that were in my mind (Jesus, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela) were male.