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Complementarianism, pt. 1: The Asinine.

December 31, 2012

Title paraphrased from Jo Labadie‘s Anarchism : Genuine and Asinine., because it just seemed so appropriate. (Available as part of University of Michigan’s very interesting Anarchism Pamphlets in the Labadie Collection.) I was originally going to do one post, but could tell not far in that this needs split up.

I had been tempted to write something before about this, but it’s another pretty big topic. But, I was reminded again today, reading Echidne’s Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia and the Vatican. There is plenty to be said about this quoted bit: “Clerics who oppose gender mixing at the workplace have given an ultimatum to Saudi Minister of Labor Adel Fakieh: he has one month to roll back on the policy allowing women to work in retail, or they will pray to God to give him cancer.” (Really?!) But, that’s not what got me going (as much) today.

What did was the Pope’s need to throw the cosmic importance of fake complementarian BS into his Christmas message. It’s almost as bizarre as part of a Christmas message as that other priest’s “women were partly to blame for encouraging domestic violence by failing to clean their houses and cook properly and for wearing tight and provocative clothing” rant, but about equally desperate-sounding in the The Distress of the Privileged  department.  (Key observation from there: “Supremacy itself isn’t hate. You may even have affection for the person you feel superior to. But supremacy contains the seeds of hate”, especially when you imagine that somebody is trying to thwart that supremacy. Or, indeed, they really are. Too much narcissism there, yeah.)

If you think you can stomach it, you might want to see either the quotes in Echidne’s post, or click through the link above for more. But, some of her observations; I ended up quoting more than I’d intended, because it’s just that good:

I don’t know about you but mostly when I read or hear that “complementary natures” argument it leaves all the boring and tedious stuff for the female half  and all the fun and leadership stuff for the male half of the duality.   In other words, someone here on earth has taken the role to interpret what those Biblical phrases might mean, and that interpretation is rather flavored with patriarchal overtones and undertones.

Put in other terms, “male and female he created them” doesn’t tell us anything about the essential natures of men and women or insist that there is not considerable overlap between those natures if some part of them is essentialist…

That difference cannot be captured by someone who regards creation as if it was a Christmas gift with one pink and one blue parcel, containing two quite opposite toys, all fixed and unchangeable in how they play.  For the Pope everything is preset and tampering with those settings means the end of the world.  The idea that only a part of us depends on biological aspects of sex and that the rest: what it means to be a woman, is  indeed, created by our interactions with the society is anathema to him.

What kind of “complementary” roles are involved here? (Yes, I am resorting to Wikipedia, but it looks like a decent summary.)

For some of those whose complementarian view is biblically-prescribed, these separate roles preclude women from specific functions of ministry within the Church,[2] with the notable exception of the leadership role of the deaconess, in many Christian denominations.[3] It assigns leadership roles to men and support roles to women, based on certain biblical passages. One of its precepts is that while women may assist in the decision making process, the ultimate authority for the decision is the purview of the male in marriage, courtship, and in the polity of churches subscribing to this view…

Complementarianism holds that “God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church.”[4] Proponents of Complementarianism see the Bible as the infallible word of God.[5]

The complementarian position is seen to uphold what has been the most traditional teaching[6] on gender roles in the church. However, the terms traditionalist or hierarchicalist are usually avoided by complementarians, as the former “implies an unwillingness to let Scripture challenge traditional patterns of behavior”, while the latter “overemphasizes structured authority while giving no suggestion of equality or the beauty of mutual interdependence”. Therefore, they prefer the term complementarian, “since it suggests both equality and beneficial differences”.[7]

The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church both advocate complementarianism with regards to the social doctrine of the Church. The former, for example, asserts that “God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity”[8] but also that the harmony of society “depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.”[8]

Apparently, in some versions, “[t]he husband is also meant to hold moral accountability for his wife”. (I’m still wondering how that could even work, but I am a big old heathen.) Also, we are right back around to the ideas about women’s inferiority, such as Aquinas’, that became part of official doctrine. How that could even allow for “equal personal dignity”, when they’re not even doing so well at putting a better spin on things these days, I don’t know. I guess “dignity” really is like “honor”, with so many different meanings. And the special kind of “dignity” some people are allowed comes through submission.

Now, I was lucky enough not to grow up with any kind of emphasis whatsoever on that kind of “complementary” approach, but have been very interested in what Libby Anne has had to say about it (among other things) at Love, Joy, Feminism. She grew up in a family influenced by the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements, and I keep being struck at how they just seem to keep taking common cultural themes and running to absurd and really, really hurtful extremes with them. And what she has experience dealing with on the evangelical Protestant end of things does not sound very different from what the Pope is continuing to push as God’s revealed plan for Being A Human. See also Fred Clark’s excellent  (and, no, some Neopagans, atheists, etc. really are not exempt. 😐 )

An excellent post, with a title that just about covers it, AFAICT: 

Like Kaelee, I was always taught that Christian Patriarchy wasn’t about inequality or subordinating women, but rather about simply having “different” roles. I still remember when I first started to realize that this was not equality. And like Kaelee, I remember the anger I felt when I realized how duped I had been. I’ve written about this before:

I have to ask, how can men and women be equal if women were created to serve men? How can men and women be equal if men’s role is to act in the world and women’s role is to serve men? I don’t understand how I didn’t see this as a child or a teen. I totally bought the lie that men and women have separate but equal roles. I never felt pushed down as a woman. Rather, I prepared to excel within my female role, being the best I possibly good be and serving God by serving my husband. How was I so blind?

It’s not just me, though. This lie helps to keep women in the Christian Patriarchy movement, persuading them that they are not being treated as inferior, or being degraded or used. Indeed, they are convinced that their role as wife, mother, and homemaker is of equal worth and value to men’s role as protector and provider, and work to excel within their role, for which they gain praise and admiration from their companions. By some slight of the hand, Christian Patriarchy convinces women to willingly and eagerly be subservient slaves while seeing themselves at the same time as being of equal value to their masters. You have to give some credit to the Christian Patriarchy movement: such a feat is as mind-boggling and impressive as it is horrifying and tragic.

From :

At some point I think I just got too angry to do it. Maybe I was just burned that badly, but when I hear someone arguing for complementarianism, I feel like I’m going to explode.

Men and women are equal, they just have different roles in life, and especially in the marital relationship.

Complementarianism is actually a sweet deal for women – they’re protected and provided for.

It’s not hierarchy – it’s loving, Christ-like, servant leadership. Who wouldn’t want that?

No. Just, no. Because I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I know what it means. I feel like I want to bubble over in rage because it’s all just code language. It’s an attempt to paper over the inequality of women by pretending it doesn’t exist while simultaneously endorsing it.

I grew up in a family that practiced complementarianism. The language makes it sound all pretty, but the language doesn’t mention the tears, the tension, the anger. The language doesn’t mention that complementarianism means forcing yourself into a one-size-fits-all role, and then hobbling along like you’re walking in shoes two sizes too small when it doesn’t fit. For, you know, the rest of your life.

It’s all about the prescribed roles, and the most important thing about you being your sex/gender (which are assumed to be exactly the same thing)–all wrapped up in authoritarianism. By not fitting the roles well, you are supposedly disappointing/”sinning against” God. No pressure there, not at all. 😐

And, once again, if this were all so natural, you wouldn’t think they would need to keep harping on about it and threatening people who aren’t totally down with the plan. Either with direct harm or some kind of societal “disharmony”.

And we’re right back around to the way ideological frameworks can drive the idea of , and the way this shit gets used to control people. As if that shouldn’t already be evident, given how often the pressure comes from hierarchical institutions–like, oh, the Vatican. And, back around to the bullying/abuse culture theme, if some of us don’t perform those roles adequately, we might deserve to be beaten and even killed. (Yes, the same link from earlier, with that horrible priest.) Which is all sounding so equal, yes.

This is another case where it’s hard to tell how much of the secular version of the roles as tiny boxes, and blaming/beating down anyone who doesn’t fit into them is coming from Christian hegemony, and how much from existing nasty cultural memes feeding back into and being reinforced by organized religion.

This, BTW, is one of the reasons I get irked at some self-congratulatory back-patting over greater secularism in the UK and some other Western European nations, especially as compared to the US. That does not take into account that they’ve been stewing in certain types of ideology for at least a millennium now. A lot of ideas based in that are largely invisible as such, by now. See also the Living in a Christian Dominant Culture exercise (PDF) at Paul Kivel’s site.

Also, making it clearer that these prescribed roles are all about what kind of plumbing you were born with, from  (which I just ran across there, but had to include because yuck):

Remember how I said that emphasizing that complementarianism is about who you are rather than what you do is a sort of pointless distinction? Well, here we see why: because they believe who you are dictates what you do. Saying that men and women are to perform different roles in sex isn’t a check list, they insist; rather, men and women perform these different roles in sex as a reflection of who men and women are.

Anyway, what you see here is a nod to Doug Wilson’s writing on dominance and submission in the marriage bed. Not merely a nod, really; it’s more of an endorsement. It’s a welcome embrace of the words “authority” and “submission,” and an attempt to explain any negative connections with this away…

That was in response to this really horribly gross quote (I am not even linking that original article; click through if you want more):

Sex is the union of two complementary beings—a male, who God created with a physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual bent to lovingly and self-sacrificially bestow and give, and a female, who God created with a physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual bent to actively and joyfully welcome and receive“Authority” and “submission” are flat-lettered, black-and-white words that hint at, but are woefully inadequate to express the color, depth, wonder, and mystery of who God has created us to be as male and female.

A man is at no time more “manly” and woman is at no time more “womanly” than in the act of sex. (Sex as God intended it, that is.) His body “gives” in a way that hers can’t. Her body “receives” in a way that his can’t. Sex is where complementarity reaches its apex and is eclipsed by the “oneness” that ensues at the joining of the counterparts. It is the place where complementarity and mutuality kiss.

So, yeah, we can get all the essentialist and homophobic BS, wrapped up into one gigantically gross burrito full of prescriptivism about how you’re supposed to be living your whole life. Some of the other quotes from there make it clear that the “giving” is, indeed, penetration. And this is all somehow related to your designated roles in life, in some deep mystical way. (Its flip side, which is still depressingly similar: )

I don’t think I can stand to write more ATM about this kind of “complementary” garbage, but you probably get the idea. It does make me even angrier, the way this kind of hierarchical setup is sold as “equal”, having grown up with more actually egalitarian ideas here. Not to mention their twisting the very idea of balance and things working in a truly complementary–rather than an oppositional, hierarchical–way. Not all dualism is oppositional, but that’s pretty much what you’re going to find in Christian theologies/ideologies. (More on that in the second part.)  See also: ; there are, indeed, other ways of looking at things.

Now, I am aware that anything can “be twisted by individuals with ulterior motives to push a particular agenda”.# Humans seem to be very good at that, especially where any kind of power might be involved. But, I also can’t help but think of some musings on Binary Opposition, Hierarchy, and God’s Power in Early Christian Writing, with bolding added. (The color scheme on that site just about makes my eyes bleed until I override it, but some excellent stuff there.)

One might even be able to argue that it has become impossible for anyone schooled in Western thought to conceive of any rational discourse that does not depend on concepts grounded in binary opposition, hierarchical structures, and the omnipotent presence of some force or another that first sanctioned the complex into being, whether one calls it “God” or something else, and continues to sustain it now in the face of any criticism that might be voiced against its claim to validity….

The point to be taken here is that statements like these clearly express the notion that God exists on an exalted plane of pure being and power that necessarily transcends the world that He has created. That transcendence necessarily creates a disparity between the Creator and His creation that establishes the first, and only, step necessary in the fabrication of hierarchical structure. Hence, the ground is well established for the rise of the ideology of binary opposition and hierarchy in the single “fact” that God, as an All-Powerful entity, created the universe. There is need for nothing else to establish the existence of these two ideas as the only legitimate way to comprehend any aspect of the created world and everything that exists in it. What is most obvious here as well is that power plays the dominant role in understanding how binary opposition and hierarchy are meant to function as aspects of all social relationships that evolve on the ground of these primary and immutable concepts.

What is fair to say in this context, since any new or novel idea was treated as a capital crime against orthodoxy, is that these ideas have enjoyed longevity in human consciousness not because they are necessarily true and valid, not because they describe the actual condition of the world, but because to say or think otherwise, as long as the church maintained a judicial power over individuals, which it did throughout the Middle Ages and even well into the Enlightenment, was the same as committing a crime punishable by death. In an ideology where power is defined by, if not derived from, the habit of thinking in terms of binary opposites and hierarchical structures, reinforced by compliance to that rule punishable by death for anyone who varies from it, there is virtually no chance at all that any other way of perceiving the reality of social and political relationships is ever likely to arise, much less take hold, in a culture that embraces such notions. No one in such a culture gives up the will to power, no one gives up the quest to become like God. That quest instead becomes the defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

Is it even possible for The Big Hierarch to plausibly speak of “equal dignity” within “complementarian” marriages within that kind of history and framework? Hmm.

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