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Chains That Bind: Racism, Sexism and Classism

Chains That Bind: Racism, Sexism and Classism

by Sheila D. Collins

New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry

Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women
November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A. pp 17 - 30.
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

Sheila D.Collins, author of A Different Heaven and Earth: A Feminist Perspective on Religion, is director of the Office of Voluntary Services in the national mission arm of the United Methodist Church. She has taught at New York Theological Seminary, Pacific School of Religion and Union Theological Seminary and serves on the executive committee of the Theology in the Americas. She is married to the Rev. John A. CoIIins and has two daughters, Jennifer and Megan.

I want to examine the function of religion — specifically institutionalized Christianity — as a supporter and legitimator of sexual, racial and class oppression. Then I want to ask how women, in light of this analysis, might begin to reclaim Christianity in order to de-legitimate, to subvert sexual, racial and class oppression, thus freeing humanity to fulfill its God-intended destiny. Christianity too will be liberated from its own perversion — that perversion which has pinned down Jesus on the cross like some beautiful, but dead and ineffective, butterfly.

As a means of uncovering how religion has served to support inequality and inhumanity, we must first examine the interrelationship of the two cultural organizing patterns which shape this society and increasingly determine what happens to people around the world — namely patriarchy and capitalism. It is in the intersection of these two organizing forces that the clues to racism, sexism and class exploitation are to be found.

In order to see this interrelationship, however, we will have to reorient the way in which we perceive social reality. There is a fairly common tendency in our culture to think of racism, sexism and class exploitation as entities which seem to have a life of their own. They become “things” “out there” which take possession of people so that their identity becomes merged with the thing as in the statement: “He is a racist” or “sexist.” They become demonic powers to which people automatically gravitate, as in the oft repeated comment: “racism is increasing in our society,” or “racism is rampant.”

The tendency to anthropomorphize terms which really indicate flawed relationships results in two ineffectual ways of dealing with these problems. When racism or sexism are seen as entities, the cure involves workshops or consciousness raising sessions, to rid individuals of their pathological responses to unlike others. When the possession is felt to be total, the tendency is to condemn the racist or sexist person, seeking to thwart that person or group’s power over others. Members of the oppressor group tend to opt for workshops, while those who are the extreme victims of racism or sexism tend to take the latter approach. The history of the 60’s and 70’s is the history of the failure of these two approaches to make any significant dent in the problem; for racism and sexism continue at even deeper and more impenetrable levels.

To give racism, sexism or classism superhuman identities is first, to treat them as causes rather than as symptoms of an organic dysfunctioning of the body politic. Second, to give them superhuman power is to decide that there is really very little we can do to overcome them. The tendency in our culture, and especially among religious people is to see racism and sexisrn as manifestations of original sin, for which there is ultimately no redemption except through some mystical intervention of a God who has no strategy and no timetable. And so we salve our consciences by making attempts to convert people through consciousness-raising, by passing resolutions on inclusive language and by begging those who monopolize power to move over so that the rest of us can have some. Meanwhile, the juggernaut of dominance and subjection rolls on. A few of us — females, blacks, poor people — have made it into the boardrooms or the rectories, but often at the expense of having cut ourselves off from the potential collective power of our peers. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor increases; the gap between women and men’s earnings widens; the ability of people to control their own environment diminishes; and the arms race escalates to ever more horrifying levels.

To understand the interstructuring of racism, sexism and class exploitation and the way they keep re-emerging, we need to place them in historical/sociological context. We need to see them in connection with the two great social systems within which each of us is born and must live out our lives, namely patriarchy and capitalism. We need to ask how these systems came into being and how they operate and change over time. To do this requires a bit of abstraction, but it is abstraction for the sake of greater clarity in understanding the forces which shape our consciousness and help to determine our life’s parameters.

First, some definitions:

By “patriarchy,” I refer to a term which arose to explain the apparent dominance in terms of status and power of older men within certain kinship systems. Though feminists have extended the term to include the whole pattern of superior/subordinate relations between men and women, I will be using the term in its more limited technical sense: an anthropological term which defines a social system in which women are defined primarily as wards of their husbands, fathers or brothers. Patriarchy, in this sense, is a time and culture-specific reference point. It defines a set of particular social relationships which may not always have existed and need not exist in the future.

“Capitalism” defines a set of economic relationships, that is, it defines the relationship between those who produce the goods and services needed to make a society function and those who own the resources and tools needed to produce the goods and services. In capitalist societies the relationship between workers and owners is one of class antagonism — the owners generally having the power to manage and to buy the labor power of the workers, that is, to treat the producers as products which can be bought and exchanged just as land, natural resources or manufactured goods are bought and exchanged.

We live in a patriarchal capitalist society. That is to say, we are socialized within families on the basis of an old patriarchal model of dominance and subordination along lines of gender and age, and we are organized by the economy into antagonistic classes of workers and owners, though the consciousness of this two-class system is masked by our internalization of patriarchal family role patterns. The interpenetration of these two spheres, the family and the workplace is what I want to explore here.

First, let’s examine the patriarchal family model a little more closely. Anthropologists differ as to when the patriarchal family arose in history, but most knowledgeable investigators tie it to the rise of the state as a political entity in Western culture, to the development of class societies and to the institution of slavery. The state arose as a result of conquest and slavery which broke up the extended kin group which had been the locus of both productive and reproductive activities. With the separation of certain productive activities from the reproductive unit, and the separation of land from its collective ownership, came the differential valuing of male and female roles. Surplus wealth and power became associated with males. Females, tied to the land through child-bearing and the reproduction of daily life became, like the land, the property of men. Thus, class division, slavery, private property, hierarchy, and the differential valuing of gender roles all appear to be linked in a historical specific dynamic.

What did the patriarchal family model mean for different members of the family? Prior to the rise of capitalism in the latter half of the 18th century, economic activity took place primarily in and through the family unit with roles differentiated by age and gender. Within the family, the father had legal and symbolic authority over all other family members. Wives were legally dependent on their husbands. Their role was to maintain the reproduction of family life and to oversee the development of the younger generation within the parameters set by the patriarch. Boys grew up knowing that they would automatically inherit the patrimony when they came of age, the eldest, of course, standing to inherit more than the others. Daughters held lowest rank in the family hierarchy and were expected to serve the interests of their fathers and brothers until their identity was transferred from their father to that of another patriarch into whose home and family they would move.

This is basically the family model of biblical times, and its extension through history can be glimpsed in the marriage ceremony in which the father “gives the bride away,” in laws which prohibit a widower from getting his wife’s social security, and in the acceptance by women of their father’s and husbands’ surnames. Since women were not expected to have identity in their own right, daughters who could not be married off were literally expendable as people throughout much of this history, and old women with no male protection were burned as witches.

Capitalism inherited this basic family pattern and the internal psychic conditioning which it produces. Fortunately, the patriarchal family model suited nicely certain internal dynamics of the economic system. These needs can be described as follows:

1) In order to survive, capitalism must either have at hand or be able to reproduce inequalities between people, since it is based upon the premise that a few can own and control the resources and tools with which all need to live. The system must keep people from recognizing this basic injustice. It does so by distracting attention from the real class divisions to those that divide the working class against itself. The mechanism by which it does this is the internal conditioning produced by the patriarchal family.

2) Capitalism is a hierarchical system with a tendency to narrow the room at the top. It must therefore limit access to centers of power and decision-making. Socialized in the patriarchal family, the female half of the human race is taught not to have access to centers of power and decision-making.

3) Capitalism’s driving dynamic is competition, which fosters win/lose relationships between peoples and groups. It cannot allow for situations in which everyone wins.

4) Capitalism must keep labor costs down. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to create a climate of job scarcity and/or to have at hand a pool of people who are desperate for work and are willing to work for less than a living wage. Women and minorities — those who are not expected to be economically autonomous — have traditionally played this role in the economic system.

Let’s look now at the patriarchal family as it meets the economic system. The archetypical family consisted of four roles divided along age and gender lines. We will call these roles: Daughter, Wife, Brother, Father. I have used these particular terms instead of the usual couplings: brother/sister; husband/ wife to indicate the inequality which exists in terms of power, status and rewards between members of the same generation. In the patriarchal family, a girl is not expected to have the same access to power, privilege and responsibility as her brother. In the event that she was the eldest child, the patrimony would skip her entirely to be inherited by a younger brother.Likewise, a wife did not share equal power, privileges and status with her husband. Indeed, whatever status and power she had was vicarious, through participation in her husband’s title and property. This legacy continues in the discrimination against women in credit and housing and in the degradation with which welfare mothers without husbands are treated.

We are socialized into these roles through the family, taught to measure our life options, to relate to each other as younger and older males and females on the basis of differing life expectations and values.

Capitalism takes people who have internalized these roles and moves them within the workforce according to established patriarchal family role patterns. Whereas individual family units had been the locus of economic activity before the rise of capitalism, capitalism removes economic production from the home, turning the entire economy into a patriarchal family. The Father, in whose name and title all property and status resides now becomes the class of ruling men who own and manage the resources and tools upon which all productivity is based. Those who reproduce, discipline and maintain the workforce are, to the capitalists, as Wife to Father. The patrimony, which had formerly been passed on from father to eldest son is now, under capitalism, transformed into access to the top of the hierarchy no longer inherited but competed for by the younger generation of men. The latter are primarily white men, employed in heavy industry, small business and management, who still dream of making it to the top of their particular ladder.

The illusion of access to the Father’s prerogative produces a great deal of false consciousness in white males—prevents them from recognizing that objectively they may have more in common with the Daughters than with the Fathers they are seeking to emulate. I remember a conversation I had with a taxi driver during the Arab oil embargo who told me how his brother, a gas station owner, was being screwed by the multinational oil companies. He knew they were raking in the profits while the small franchisers and smaller oil companies were being driven out of business. “Doesn’t that make you mad?” I asked rather naively, hoping to discover in this working class man the spark of a militant class consciousness. “Naw,” he replied, somewhat wistfully, “if I were in their shoes I’d do the same thing. They made it up there, so they deserve to get rich.” Capitalism’s dissolution of the family rite of primogeniture and its tendency to narrow the room at the top mean that there is always a fierce battle in capitalist societies over the Father’s prerogatives — a battle which makes the winners appear justified in reaping the rewards.

“The archetypical family consisted of four roles divided along age and gender lines. We will call these roles: Daughter, Wife, Brother, Father. ... We are socialized into these roles through the family, taught to measure our life options, to relate to each other as younger and older males and females on the basis of differing life expectations and values.”

The Daughters are all unpaid, underpaid or unrecognized laborers. They serve the interests of the societal Fathers or promote the Brothers’ aspirations to the Father’s role. Here we include housewives and minorities with jobs as farmworkers, maintenance workers, waitresses, Kelly girls, and so forth, whose essential contribution to the economy is either unrecognized or is seen as marginal and therefore is characterized by insecurity, low wages, little status and few if any benefits.

In looking at the political economy of the family, or the familial organization of the economy, we must mention one role which remains outside the family constellation entirely— that is the role of the alien, the slave.

As we mentioned earlier, the patriarchal family seems to have arisen out of the same historical dynamics as slavery. Hannah Arendt has pointed out that in ancient Greece slaves were kept to do all those forms of work necessitated by biological needs, so that men — the only true citizens — could be freed to pursue the demands of the public realm, the poll’s. Freedom was associated with the public realm which was, in fact, made possible by the necessary labor of the private, or household, realm. The distinction between slaves and women was one of degree, both being relegated to the private recesses of the household and to the realm of necessity where violence and coercion were justified as the means of liberating men from such necessity.

The roots of racism and sexism are thus inextricably interwoven. It is not surprising, then, that early American slaveholders sought a legal and ideological justification for the practice of slavery, through English Common Law’s definition of women as wards of their fathers and husbands. Precapitalist forms of production utilizing labor relations similar to slavery have always existed within the heart of industrial capitalism. One thinks of the relations which characterize the life of the farmworker family or of the domestic worker. There is an important distinction between the category of Slave and Daughter, however, which we must take into account. Unlike the role of Daughter in the patriarchal family, the role of Slave was a static one, admitting of no change in status or power. Growing up within the family, the Daughter could at least look forward to being a Wife which at least set her over the younger generation and slaves. Though in the American system of slavery subtle class distinctions a-rose between house slaves and field hands, there was nevertheless the knowledge that one was outside the family entirely. Even the child of a master and his slave could claim no place at the family table.

It was because of the unpaid, brutalized labor of slavery that the Daughter got to enjoy whatever perquisites came with being a member of the Family. Upon assuming the role of Wife, her managerial capacity was bought at the expense of her black sisters over whom she ruled.

Therein lies the terrible dilemma for women, for in societies built upon a foundation of exploited and alienated labor, there is no way some women can achieve a measure of status and power without stepping on the backs of other women. So long as the realm of necessity is not recognized as the essential foundation of the social good, we will continue to have progress for some met at the expense of the many. A painful memory from my childhood is of a black woman, Jeanette, whom my mother hired to do our laundry and clean our house once a week. My mother, a portrait painter, was forced to work full time to support our family. We were working class, but I was always aware that our hardships were seen as luxuries by Jeanette and that my mother’s work, though never financially well rewarded, had at least a measure of social status which gave her access to other worlds. When Jeanette finished a long day of washing floors, doing laundry and cleaning up after us, I knew that she had to go home to do the same for her family. The chains that bind are so terribly painful because they are always putting us in a position in which we are forced to choose one evil over another.

The initial accumulation of capital in this country was built upon the backs of captured Africans, but it was then used to develop manufacturing industries which eventually displaced the young white farm Daughter from her economically productive role in the family. Enticed out of the home with the promise of being able to supplement their fathers’ dwindling incomes, the daughters of New England farmers, turned textile mill workers, became the first exploited American industrial workforce. Because Daughters were not expected to provide full support for a family, nor even to have an independent income, the manufacturers could get away with using them as a pool of cheap labor with which to accumulate further surplus capital for their expanding markets. When these Daughters realized what was happening to them and began to develop a militant class consciousness, they could be sent back home to marry a Father and to become the Wife they had been groomed for since childhood.

Fortunately for the manufacturers, at about the time that the Daughters were rebelling, a whole new population was ripe for exploitation. Immigrants from Europe, displaced by the same forces which had displaced the indigenous white farmer’s daughters, flooded into America. These men and women and often children assumed the role of Daughter in the workforce. Because of their gender and skin color, immigrant men were sometimes able to move up the ladder into the role of Brother where they competed fiercely with indigenous white labor for the fewer positions of the Father. Some won the competition and became Fathers themselves — thus perpetuating the myth of class mobility; but most did not, remaining locked in the role of Brother or Daughter all their lives, sacrificing their dreams and their health in the hope that their sons would one day come into the patrimony they had been denied.

The Emancipation Proclamation provided slaves with the possibility, if not the actuality, of moving from the static role of Slave into the more dynamic roles of the economic Family, but the legacy of racism, has kept blacks and others of color from becoming full-fledged members of the family. Capitalism has always needed a pool of cheap labor which it could use as a threat to keep the rest of the labor force in line. Only very recently have blacks begun to move into the status of hierarchy. Historically and psychically linked with women, they are only let into the Family on the lowest rung—as Daughters who are not expected to have to support themselves or others and who must always play by the Father’s rules.

Each new group to enter capitalist society from the outside follows the passage of the slave. As the Family extends beyond the single nation-state to embrace the world, we are seeing in the international division of labor the extension, or perhaps the reinstitution of the static category of Slavery to all those people who are increasingly locked into a perpetual cycle of poverty and exploitable labor. Indeed, it does not take too much imagination to see in the dormitories erected by multinational corporations for young, female electronics workers in South East Asia the outlines of the old slave quarters of the southern plantation. What is Carter’s workforce program for welfare mothers but a reimposition of forced labor? Michelle Russell, an educator and economic historian has pointed out that women’s economic role vis-a-vis black women historically has been to break into production at the point when its organization is in transition from a semi-feudal and patriarchal role to an industrial one. They then pave the way for black women’s entry into those jobs at the point when necessary skill levels decline, speed-up becomes routine. The easy replacement of workers — the interchangeability of task and function-becomes rationalized. Conversely, when specifically arduous jobs, or culturally onerous forms of labor traditionally considered off-limits for white women come under improved regulation either from federal or other sources, the black women become displaced.

What does the foregoing analysis mean for those of us involved in ministry? This kind of analysis has profound implications for how we minister to people caught up in the terribly painful contradictions of patriarchal capitalism and for how we perceive of ourselves in ministry. Socialism through the family into specific familial roles based on gender and age-roles which become the psychic baggage that we carry around with us for the rest of our lives — we are moved into and out of the economy on the basis of generalizations about the functions of these roles. As they operate in the workplace (including the workplace which is the church, the parochial school, the convent), each of these roles—Daughter, Wife, Brother, Father — can be distinguished by its relations to indices such as job security, the amount and kind of space which is allocated to the worker, the relationship to others in the workplace, the amount of control over the work process and what is produced, the expectation for upward mobility, status and power.

These rote patterns can be discerned in specific workplace settings as well as on a broader scale in the relations between various sectors of the economy. Certain sectors of the economy like high finance and management relate to other sectors, like the churches, as Father to Wife. Occupations dominated by women and minorities, such as service, sales and clerical work relate to heavy industrial production as Daughter to Brother.

The consciousness, status, power and rewards related to each type of work explain the intractability of racism, sexism and classism in capitalist societies. Often the role one was conditioned to play in the family clashes with the role one is forced to play in the economy, producing the terrible antagonisms we experience between different racial groups, as well as between men and women.

Reactionary trends such as the Bakke decisions, racism among the white, working class, the tax revolt movement and the backlash against feminism and homosexuality gather converts as the promise of access to the patrimony diminishes for more and more white Brothers. Fearful of dropping back into the feminized role of Daughter, the white working male and lower middle classes are structurally prepared for racism and sexism. Knowing subconsciously that there is no secure place for them as women in the economy, working and middle class women may revolt against a women’s liberation movement that they fear may strip them of their lifeline to security. In all of this are the ingredients for fascism if the situation becomes desperate enough.

It is not enough to treat racism, sexism or class antagonisms as separable problems or as causes in themselves. They are inevitable products of a distorted family pattern which is no longer functional. As incorporated by a virulent economic system based on inequality and exploitation, the combination of patriarchy and capitalism will destroy human civilization if it is not stopped.

Our task as women in ministry is nothing short of reversing this trend. But here we have a problem, for the very system we are seeking to enter is itself part of the problem. Since the time of Constantine, if not of Paul, the Christian church has played the role of the dutiful Wife to the Fathers of every era. Through an ideology of male dominance and female submission, a disrespect for the realm of biology and necessity, a polity based on hierarchy, and a language which equates the deity with the civic and religious power brokers, the church, with some exceptions, has served the interests of the rulers in every age. It has socialized and disciplined its flock to fit into the hierarchical social schema of the medieval world and later into the roles of industrial capitalism based on gender and age. Listen to the words of the late Pope John Paul I on the roles of men and women and see if they do not echo the perorations of Madison Avenue’s version of women’s role. In an article written while he was still Patriarch (notice the language!) of Venice, Bishop Luciani counseled mothers not to lament to their children about the drudgery of housework because this could cause them to reject the joys of the family and of procreation. But “things change if the mommies joyously carry out their humble but wonderful duties of daily dedication to others.” And “the husband will always want his spouse to have a beautiful appearance and a beautiful figure, to move graciously and to dress elegantly; he will also be proud if she has read Shakespeare and Tolstoi, but he is also practical and likes to eat well so he will be doubly happy if he discovers that in addition to a beautiful spouse he has acquired a priceless queen, queen of the kitchen and queen of sparkling floors and of a house made beautiful by delicate hands and of children brought up as living flowers.” Notice not only the sexism in that statement but also its class ethos.

The notion of apostolic succession — a notion which Jesus— who gathered his ministers from fishing boats, from rural hillsides and from city streets — would have been horrified at, is the old rite of primogeniture writ large. The Father’s place can only be inherited by the male heirs. Those who challenge this assumption threaten the very foundations of our psychic conditioning from infancy onward. If the Brothers are to move over to allow the Daughters a crack at the Father’s role in a system in which there are few Father roles, the threat may be more than the Brothers can bear. This is so because all those priests (the Brothers in our family) and their religious Fathers (cardinals and the Pope) serve within a larger system as Wives to the real Fathers — that class of financiers who really run the world. The subconscious knowledge that their function vis-avis the secular world is really a feminine one — and that in the world of production, distribution and armaments they are virtually powerless — makes the male clergy ever more jealous of their male prerogatives and ever more threatened by those who would expose that role for the sublimation that it is.

By continuing to play the roles of Daughter and Wife both in the church and secular world, we women have helped to perpetuate the unholy alliance between Brothers and Fathers. Within the church, nuns have served as Wives to their religious Fathers and Brothers, carrying out the unrecognized, unrewarded work of nurturing, maintaining and socializing the younger generation according to the Father’s rules. In running hospitals and half-way houses, soup kitchens and shelters, religious women have provided the mop-up operations for the casualties from patriarchal industrial capitalism. This was nowhere more clear to me than when I attended the death of my father-in-law in St. Anthony’s Hospital in East Chicago, a steel mill town in Indiana ringed by the furnaces of open hearth mills belching pollutants into the air. Into that hospital poured wave after wave of sick men, dying of emphesema, heart disease, cancer, heads blasted open from industrial accidents. And in the lobby of the hospital was a plaque which read: “This hospital was erected under the auspices of the Manufacturer’s Association of East Chicago and the Poor Handmaidens of Christ.” The Manufacturers, of course, were nowhere to be seen, but the Poor Handmaidens of Christ were there in the corridors and at the bedsides, dispensing faith in Dixie cups, unable even to give absolution to dying men.

Just as nuns have played the Wife to the male hierarchy of the church, so laywomen, infantilized through their adulation of Mary, have occupied the marginalized, self-sacrificing yet devoted role of Daughter.

In whose interests have we played out these roles? At what expense, to ourselves and to the world have we denied our God-given right to be free and loving agents of grace and liberation untied to gender, age, race or class? Have we ever truly found ourselves or our sisters and brothers in the social and religious forms we have helped to perpetuate?

If my analysis of family roles and the economy sounds too abstract, too divorced from the exigencies of human experience, listen to the story of one woman who, in getting in touch with her past through her art work, discovered the terrible truth about the world in which we each come of age. After a long struggle to find her true identity as an artist, she wrote:

I began to paint my own family background. I painted out of love for those lower-middle-class Americans I came from and out of a great anger for what had happened to them and what they were letting happen, making happen, in the South and in Vietnam ... I had two recent photographs — one of my father, one of my mother. They were snapshots, terrible to see, revealing of what life had done to these people I loved, and of what they had done to each other. The photograph of my mother was too terrible for me to deal with. I started to paint my father.

My mother, when I was growing up, did not sew, did not cook well, and did not keep a beautiful house. She had been forced to leave elementary school when her father died. She had no social graces and no talents. She only loved me and my brother without question. When my brother died at sixteen and I left home, the long disorientation consumed her and she was committed to a state mental hospital.

Sexism and classism, male authority and poverty-and-ignorance were the forces that crippled my mother; the agent in most direct contact with her was, of course, my father. But the equation cannot be written as two equal forces of sex and class focusing their oppressive powers through one man onto my mother. Poverty (class) ground her down from the beginning (when it took a bright child out of school to make her a mother’s helper to the rich folk on the hill) and used male dominance to do it (her brother was kept in school) and religion to sanctify the arrangement and squelch her own desire. She was taught to be good. She was a good student. She was always good— until she painted the kitchen red in the middle of the night and screamed at the passing cars.

My father was helpless to deal with his hopeless, useless wife. He grew to hate her, so as not to pity her and feel the full pain . . . My father’s politics were aligned with those of management. He joined the company union and talked against commies, Jews, niggers, etc. He had his own scale of racial acceptability, with the English, Scots, and Germans at the top. The Irish Catholics (my mother’s ethnic background) were above the Mediterranean peoples but linked to them by common traits: religion, expressiveness, fondness for alcohol, and sexual promiscuity.

These ideas made me almost physically ill — as it does now to write them down. But I liked my father. I waited up for him to come home from work at 11:00 P.M. when he worked the afternoon shift. I often walked him to the shipyard gate, which was ten minutes away from our house. We laughed and talked and teased. He said I had a face like that of a kid being sassy to a cop, When I began to paint this man, I touched home base."

In pointing out how the scribes and Pharisees revelled in their position as religious and community leaders, Jesus adjures his listeners: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:8-12) In another passage in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus declares that the message he bears will tear the whole hierarchical family structure apart: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matt, 10:35-39)

We have usually managed to avoid dealing with passages like these in the church perhaps because their implicit truth subverts so much of what institutionalized Christianity has been about. When we put passages like these together with Jesus’ continuous denunciations of disparities in wealth and power and his promise that the meek shall inherit the earth, we have a powerful revolutionary stance that shakes the foundations not only of civil and religious power but also the psychic foundations upon which our identities are built. No wonder Jesus was killed!

For Jesus was about the creation of a new family. You remember the passage in which he is told that his mother and brothers are waiting for him and he replies: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?! And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’ Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister and mother.”

In the new family that Jesus was about creating, there was no earthly Father, because there was no pyramid of power. Those categorized in his time as slaves, daughters, wives and brothers were transformed in the familial economy of Jesus into ministers with equal authority to serve, heal, teach, announce, liberate, and feed. They did not have to go through the rigors of an ordination process, be certified by the ruling elders, be of a certain age, or sex or race or class. The only requirement for entry to this ministry was that they love one another, feed his sheep, liberate the oppressed, bring sight to the blind, and live out the egalitarian demands of the Gospel. To those who, in Jesus’ time, functioned as Fathers or had ambitions in that direction. Jesus had but one message. “Turn around; sell all that you have and distribute to the poor and come, follow me.” In other words, shed the trappings and illusions of authority, for there is no hierarchy in the household of God.

For centuries women have been ministering in the light of the Gospel, whether as mothers, nuns, slaves, domestic servants, unrecognized revolutionaries, factory workers, peasants, artisans, healers, teachers. We have brought good news to the poor, we have engaged in the great work of liberating the oppressed and, my God, have we fed and clothed and nurtured and sustained his sheep! Let us claim the full authority for this ministry by creating the socio/economic/religious forms which recognize it as the only true ministry worthy of Christ’s name.

Background Information

This paper was presented as an address to the second Women’s Ordination Conference for Roman Catholic Women, Baltimore, November 10, 1978. I am indebted for its theoretical model to the work which has been developed around the themes of patriarchy and capitalism by the Project on Women, Work and the Economy of Theology in the Americas, especially to Batya Weinbaum who has done pioneering work in developing the basic analytical framework, and to Viana Muller who has explored some of its historical roots. Further elaboration of the major tenets of this paper can be found in: The Curious Courtship of Women’s Liberation and Socialism, by Batya Weinbaum, South End Press, 1978, Box 68, Astor Station, Boston, MA 02123 ($4.00); “The Formation of the State and the Oppression of Women: Some Theoretical Considerations and A Case Study in England and Wales,” by Viana Muller, in Review of Radical Political Economics: Women, Class & the Family, Vol. 9, No. 3, Winter,, 1978. (Can be ordered from URPE National Office, 14 Union Square West, Room 901, New York, New York 10003,$2.50),

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