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Reassignment of responsibility

Boys will be boys?

Note: The following is an excerpt from Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower (Convergent, 2016). I offer it to lend perspective to the galling revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other sexually predatory men.

“It’s like ordering Seamless. But you’re ordering a person.”
— A user of the hookup app Tinder, comparing it to the meal- delivery service popular in his city.

The way some men talk about these things, it’s as if lustful thoughts cannot be helped. Boys, after all, will be boys. Women have to help us out here, they say, by being modest in their behavior and dress and, better yet, by simply being absent from the premises when men must really concentrate.
But is this how things must be? Are we to believe that men have no impulse control? That women and men must therefore be segregated— often, let’s face it, at the expense of the women?

Nonsense. And, furthermore, potentially dangerous.

There is a direct line between this reassignment of responsibility and the convenient shifting of blame that we often see when women are victims of rape or other forms of sexual aggression. If the woman’s shape or clothing choices are just a bit too appealing, some men say, if she was drinking, if she was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” then she asked for it— and the perpetrator is largely innocent.

As a world, as a culture, as individuals, we need to grow up in these matters. We must, I propose, treat women the way Jesus did. It’s really quite impressive and instructive when you watch him in the gospel accounts. The stories make it clear that women were part of the Jesus community and were among the people he called friends. Jesus was downright profligate at times in his extension of love, warmth, and acceptance to women, even to women of questionable reputation. He would have been within his rights and the cultural norms of his time to have excluded women from his ministry altogether, or kept them at a “safer” distance. Doing so certainly would have made him less conspicuous in the eyes of the authorities who had it in for him.

Consider the story in Luke 7 about the “sinful” woman with the jar of perfume and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s the scene: Jesus is part of a gathering at the home of a Pharisee, a member of an all- male, highly respected religious group. Jesus is seated. His feet are dirty and, likely, sore and tired from the day’s walking. His host has not done Jesus the courtesy of giving him a chance to wash those dirty feet. Nor has the host had one of his servants attend to it, as would be the custom with an important guest.

A woman enters uninvited. The locals recognize her as someone of poor reputation— a prostitute, we are led to believe. They are aghast to find her approaching Jesus. Something about him is deeply moving to her, and she begins to weep. Noticing his feet have been not been washed, she kneels, and begins to use her tears to cleanse them. Then she wipes his feet with her hair, applies perfume to them, and kisses them.

The Pharisee is affronted. If Jesus were truly a prophet, he grouses, he would have known who this woman was, and would certainly not have allowed this transgressive intimacy. Instead, Jesus has allowed her near, receiving her humble service. What a strangely moving moment has unfolded!
The picture of this nameless, outcast woman, this persona non-grata, washing and kissing the traveling prophet’s feet might strike us as subservience, but I don’t think that view does the story justice. We can see that the woman’s act is willingly offered, and deeply heartfelt. By receiving her care, Jesus seems to be vouching for her humanity, her dignity. And he does so with full knowledge that it will rub some important people the wrong way.

Jesus is aware of the Pharisee’s censure, so he asks his host a simple but searing question: “Do you see this woman?” I read that as Jesus saying to the Pharisee: Are you willing to see only a stock character, a function, an object? Or can you see the real, live, multidimensional human being she is, whatever her profession?

Jesus, with his stubborn insistence on seeing humanity even where it might be hardest to find, tended to stick up for prostitutes. These women of ill repute, he declared, had moral standing superior to that of the pious but judgmental Pharisees.

As the religion scholar Harvey Cox points out, Jesus was able to see prostitutes and their circumstances in a deeper, more compassionate way than both those who judged them and those who used them. He could see that prostitutes in his time (not unlike ours) were generally pressured into their occupation by poverty, trafficking, and other factors that left them little choice.

In the interaction between Jesus and the woman of ill repute that day, lines of authority and status were crossed— lines of gender, too. And something transgressively beautiful happened.