June 25th, 2014
11:29 AM ET
Opinion by Randal Maurice Jelks, special to CNN
(CNN) – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from South Africa, called one of his books “God is Not a Christian.”
He might have added a subtitle, “God is not a man, either!”
One of the great problems in our world is patriarchy. The late James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, put best in song, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.”
Patriarchy assumes that men are made to lead and women are simply cooperative and reproductive subordinates.
These assumptions come to light in all kinds of ways, but especially through religion — the various faiths that treat women as though they are not equal to men.
We read it in the Quran and the Bible. We see it in iconic imagery, and religious taboos about sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality. And we see that around the world these days, from Salt Lake City to Sudan.
Men continue to dominate religious institutions, and use them to judge whether women can be in religious leadership or change faiths.
There is a direct link between Kate Kelly, a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter day-Saints, who was excommunicated on charges of apostasy, and Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death for her supposed apostasy.
And the link is deeper than the charge of abandoning one's faith.
Patriarchy comes in all forms, but religious patriarchy seems particularly pernicious because it assumes that male rule is constituent of God or the gods.
In other words, God or the gods behave like men — wrathful, scornful, jealous, and imperious.
However, this is not why so many people — women and men alike — are religious.
Religious faith at its best is an attempt to define the meaningfulness of life and give life ultimate nobility in facing death.
Religious faith also provide many communities moral rules and grammar for all types of relationships—marriage, neighborliness, sisterhood, brotherhood, and governance.
And religious faiths often inspire individuals and communities to transcend their limitations in acts of reconciliation and justice through human rights campaigns and acts of mercy.
Nevertheless, the goodness of religion can be mired in ideologies of exclusion that can lead to bigotry on many levels, especially toward women.
In one sense of the word, Kelly and Ibrahim are apostates.
One dared to say that women could exercise religious authority where men are the “elders” and keepers of the Kingdom.
The other, standing before an all-male court, refused to renounce her faith.
In both cases, men were the judges and held the keys to life and death - literally, in Ibrahim’s case.
It would be utter silliness to argue that these two faith traditions are more sexist than Roman Catholics or Protestant Evangelicals or Japanese Shintoism. The practice of male dominance of spiritual authority is not peculiar to Mormons or Muslims.
In America, the pattern of male dominance began early, with the 1692 Salem Witch Trials and Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan woman who was tried for insisting that God’s grace was freely given to everyone.
Hutchinson, a mother of 15 children, dared to challenge the male Calvinist clergy about whether they were being true to their theological convictions on questions of grace.
The case hinged on Hutchinson’s claim to spiritual authority, and this is always where the rubber meets the road.
Whenever women challenge the spiritual authority of men, whether by claiming a new faith or interpreting the orthodoxies of establish faith, their views have been seen as a political challenge to male dominance.
And the response has consistently been to either shut them up through shunning or eliminating them as enemies of the state.
For centuries, women have been stoned, burned at the stake, murdered in honor killings and more for spiritual daring.
Historically, women have displayed enormous piety and faith in all religions. Nevertheless, male religious authorities have tried to keep women’s faith expressions tame.
They note the Virgin in the Roman Catholic tradition or how there was a rough equality between the Prophet Muhammad and his first wife Khadīja al-Kubra or the great perseverance Mormon women as they trekked to Utah.
And all those examples hold some truth.
However, history demonstrates that patriarchy often rules.
What Kate Kelly and Meriam Ibrahim have done is what all religious people must do: challenge the patriarchal assumptions of institutional religion and governments alike.
Their bravery demonstrates that the province of faith does not belong to a male bishop or a political state.
The good news here is that these two brave women stand in a long tradition of women who have challenged male religious and political authority in the name of freedom.
For religious believers, agnostics, and atheists alike, the one thing we can all agree on is that the freedom to believe - or not to believe – can’t be based on gender.
After all, God is not a man.
Randal Maurice Jelks is a professor of American and African-American studies at the University of Kansas and co-editor of the blog The Black Bottom. The views expressed in this column belong to Jelks.
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