This is part 2 in a 5 part series of a response to Carter Heyward’s essay “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialism,” which can be found in Sexuality and the Sacred:Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. Part One can be found here.
First, Heyward correctly points out that there is an abuse of power often evident between people in relationship with one another. Throughout the article, Heyward describes the relationships between men and women as being dominated by men through the power they hold over women in the sexual relationship. She observes that “advanced capitalism literally feeds off of men’s control of women’s bodyselves…. Sex pays, and… coercive sex—involving pain and humiliation—pays best” (Heyward, 15). There is an evident power struggle between the genders that can be seen even today as women continue to struggle to prove that they are just as capable as men in fields ranging from the military to business to athletics. It seems to be assumed that women can only achieve empowerment and wholeness through fulfillment in areas in which men have traditionally excelled and dominated. Heyward contends that this domination is fulfilled only because of man’s control over women through sex.
“The place of women in this chaotic world” is one of toil and trouble, scapegoating and violence, hatred and trivialization, poverty and despair. Economically, under global structures of late capitalism, women are kept in poverty. It is the way profit is maximized. Women’s bodies are kept in the service of heterosexist patriarchy–as wives, whores, fantasy objects, and as a vast, deep pool of cheap labor (Heyward, 14; emphasis mine).
Heyward implies in this statement that women who are married and work in the home, those women who have espoused traditional gender roles as wife and mother, have been enslaved by this tradition, or are nothing more than hired help who exchange sex and housekeeping for room and board.
This view of marriage and the arrangement held in such disdain by Heyward is justifiably detested by liberation and feminist theologians. It is indeed an incorrect and sinful model of marriage and family. The fallibility of Heyward’s argument lies not in an incorrect assessment of the problem but instead in an incorrect solution. It is true that for centuries, women have been used and abused by men. They have been treated as property, relegated to second class citizenry, and even treated as the source of man’s sin. This treatment has occurred even within the very church that claims “there is neither… male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3.28). Early church fathers taught that, like Eve, women especially carried within them “the degradation of the first sin and the hatefulness of human perdition.” Women have been blamed for the fall of man since the fall of man (Gen 3.12), and this has led to a deeply ingrained tradition within the church as well.
According to Heyward, this dynamic between men and women is bound up in the relationality of mankind. In speaking of relationality, Heyward observes, “…relationality… presupposes relativity: all of us, and all of everything, is relative to everything else—changing, becoming, living, and dying in relation. There can be nothing static in a personal identity or relationship formed in such a matrix” (Heyward, 11). Because people change due to their interactions with one another and with the world around them, it is concluded that one’s sexuality must also be open to such change. Heyward declares, “Sexuality is socially constructed” (Heyward, 11). Therefore, it is through one’s environment, life experiences, and interpersonal relationships that a person ultimately finds the center and sexuality of her “bodyself.”
This first major premise of her article, that the interrelatedness of male and female is ultimately sexual and that this relationship has been demeaned and undignified throughout history, leaving women without dignity and self-worth, can in some cases be legitimately supported. From Scripture to early church writings, to popular work such as plays and poetry, all the way through modern days, women have indeed been mistreated and used as sexual toys by men. But to say that this occurs only in heterosexual relationships, or that it occurs in all heterosexual relationships, is very far from the truth. To claim that such behavior is actually the biblical mandate for the relationships between men and women would be grossly incorrect and indeed heretical. Yet, throughout this article, Heyward draws a nearly indistinguishable line between church history and biblical doctrine.
A cursory look at Scripture shows that God’s plan for the relationship between man and woman is to be something other than domineering and abusive. While there is a set standard of man as the head of the relationship, this is not a directive for man to rule over woman in a domineering, militaristic manner. Nor does this somehow declare man to be of more intrinsic worth than woman. At the consummation of the first marriage, it was explained that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2.24). The study notes for the ESV Study Bible further explain that “the term ‘hold fast’ is used elsewhere for practicing covenant faithfulness (e.g. Deut. 10.20; see how Paul brings these texts together in 1 Cor. 6.16-17). The idea of covenant faithfulness implies love, protection, loyalty, unity; nothing of overpowering abuse and forced labor as Heyward would have her readers believe.
While the above passage in Genesis is a prescription for how marriage should function, the curses passed down by God following the fall of man in Genesis 3 give an accurate description of how relationships between men and women are adversely affected by sin. Part of the curse placed upon woman states, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3.16). This statement accurately describes the role reversal Heyward is proposing as the solution to man’s ruling over woman. Before the fall, God appointed Adam as the head and leader of the human relationship. Eve was created to be a complementary helper for Adam, not a lesser being created to be ruled over. Each was equal in the sight of God and both were fully created in the image of God.
But after the fall, sin deeply affected the relationship between Adam and Eve. Their fellowship with God was destroyed as well as their fellowship with one another. The sin of Adam and Eve was a desire to reverse roles with God so that they would become like God. The relationship between Adam and Eve was likewise reversed through sin. Eve now would taint her helpmate role by having a desire to take leadership away from Adam, and Adam would pervert his leadership role by dominating and ruling over Eve. According to Scripture, both of these are sinful responses to equally sinful choices. Heyward is not proposing anything near a Christian solution to the sinful issue of men wrongly dominating women. Instead of exposing and correcting wrong behavior in the light of the Word, Heyward is suggesting that women should respond to the sin of men by sinning in return, and completely reversing God’s intended relationship between man and woman. This rebellion against men is a physical, external symptom of a deeper issue which ultimately is a sin of the heart—rebellion against God.