“I’m surprised at you, a woman, not using inclusive language.” The comment, scrawled in red ink on my term paper, took me by surprise. What, I wondered, was my priest-professor talking about? As a first-year theology student, woefully ignorant of theological jargon and church lingo in general, I had no clue what he meant. What theological faux pas had I committed? When questioned, he explained that the exclusive use of masculine pronouns was exclusionary of women and reflective of a patriarchal and androcentric bias. I thought he was joking. It seemed an overly sensitive reaction to the embarrassingly loud feminist critique that was popular at the time, and one I didn’t buy. Why should I change my language simply because some women felt excluded?
I laugh at my reaction now, and am grateful for that first step of “consciousness-raising.” It took several more years of theological study before I truly understood what he was talking about. Critical Scripture study revealed the ancient world to operate under the social system of patriarchy, the absolute and unaccountable power of the male over wives, children, and property. The rights and roles of men and women both were defined by this system and the various laws, mores and language reflected it. As well, the texts were shown to be inescapably androcentric, meaning that they were male-centred in subject matter, authorship and perspective. The focus on the masculine is disclosed by these numbers alone: in the Old Testament, there are 1,426 personal names given; 1,315 of these are men; only 111 women are named. That’s less than 10 per cent. Is it that women had no stories of God’s action in their lives, or is it that their stories were not considered important?
Or consider this bias: the Tenth commandment reads, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.” At face value, that commandment doesn’t apply to half the population. Women have to edit it to make it fit — and we do, for the most part subconsciously and automatically. As I studied not only Scripture, but church history and our faith tradition with newly critical eyes, I saw the same patriarchal bias embedded in the culture that surrounded me. Newly awakened to the negative consequences that flowed from such a system, I couldn’t go back. Once I knew, I couldn’t not know.
For many, including my professor, it was the consciousness-raising of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s that awoke them to the hidden, pervasive and destructive effects of a male-dominated world. With an awakened consciousness, the discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes toward women that kept them as second-class citizens became obvious. That women had to fight for the right to vote or own property seems ludicrous to us now, but that’s because our consciousness has been raised. Such awareness is not the norm, however. Discriminatory laws still support unfair hiring practices and unequal pay in too many countries and women are voiceless and refused positions of power in too many places. Patriarchal systems still victimize women, treating them as chattels and as the property of fathers or husbands, unable to attend school, given away in arranged marriages or sold into slavery. Sex selection that favours males, the aborting of female fetuses and female infanticide are common in certain parts of the world.
“I am surprised that you, a woman do not use inclusive language.” Once you know, you can’t not know. Once started on the path to awareness, one cannot go back to blissful ignorance.
And so it is with all of us with too many issues. What is it that we don’t we know? To what injustices are we insensitive because we have never seriously considered them or because they are outside our everyday reality? First Nations people have persistently called a privileged white culture to acknowledge the systemic oppression and racism that has tainted our history, still affects our present and is shaping our future. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters have decried the prejudice and hate that condones violence and permits discrimination against them. Voices are raised on behalf of our beautiful earth pointing to the devastation we are inflicting upon it as we ignore climate change and pollution. Pope Francis and others are decrying the plight of refugees and immigrants as they wander unwelcome and abandoned. And we go about our lives oblivious.
But once you know, you can’t not know. Once you start to hear, once you become aware of the injustice, feel the pain, and experience the wrong, you can’t go back. Your consciousness has been raised and now you know. Casual racial slurs become shocking epithets; homophobic jokes are offensive and crude; wasting water and leaving lights on are unjust acts; exclusionary policies are unchristian.
Such awakening changes us: consciousness informs conscience. An awakened consciousness sensitizes us and we see the sin we didn’t know was there. We see our own part in perpetuating that sin and we feel the call to conversion.
Lent is about both conversion and transformation. We can get pretty comfortable with the sins we live with, the everyday petty transgressions which we readily and regularly confess. Perhaps it’s time to ask for something new — a consciousness-raising that allows us to see where we are blind and know the sin we are impervious to. Perhaps this Lent, we might pray for the grace to see what we need to know, and then, knowing, can’t not know. .
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.