Evangelical author Lisa Sharon Harper spoke at The Justice Conference in Chicago last month, shortly before the release of her book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. Since the launch, she’s been hosting short live video broadcasts where she comments on each book chapter and highlights the key issues it raises.
I listened to one tonight (via Facebook Live; not captioned).
In this video, Harper acknowledges the impact of gender injustice and patriarchy on women who lead. She argues that the ideal of shalom (a) decouples gender from leadership “calls” and “capabilities,” and (b) further refuses to make gender an excuse to dominate any category of human.1
It breaks relationship when there is the impetus to dominate one over the other… We were created to partner in our dominion with no distinction in the way that partnership looks in Genesis 1 or Genesis 2. The way that [domination] plays out is consequential. It has the potential to squash people’s calling, to squash their spirit.” —Lisa Sharon Harper
I resonated with Harper’s observations on the women of Nuns on the Bus, aninitiative of NETWORK that I’ve tracked since hearing NETWORK’s executive director Sr. Simone Campbell and her peers live at Georgetown a few years ago. As Harper says in the video, these women are people who have “found their voices” despite the cultural tale that older people should consider winding down and stepping back, and despite ecclesiastical discomfort with vocal, public, and moral female leadership. These women are using their voice nationwide to challenge federal budget priorities, advocate for fair and equitable access to housing and healthcare, and promote consciousness about issues from immigration to voting rights.
Harper also shares some of her personal experience with being demoted from worship teams and prayer groups when men began to debate whether women who were doing ministry could do ministry. she reflects on how that controversy about her and other women’s capacity to exercise dominion, to steward, and to serve yielded in her a deeply corrosive doubt about the value of her skills, the quality of her ideas, and the merit of her voice.
Years later, I was on-staff with another Christian ministry that actually really valued women’s leadership. And I began to see the difference between [me] and the women who came up through that ministry. Those women assumed leadership. Those women actually—they had great ideas, and they would just run with them… and they would just get stuff together and they would do it and it would be brilliant and amazing! And people would be served, and stuff would flourish.
But with me, having had that [domination] background, I realized I…had to step back and wait to be asked to lead, and then when somebody asked me, I was like ‘No, that’s not me; I can’t do that,’ or my ideas would never get put forward because I didn’t think that they were valuable enough.” —Lisa Sharon Harper
Systemic social oppression damages its targets. It also damages those who wield it. But it especially damages its targets in minority stress and internalized devaluation as well as in overt violence and discrimination. It corrodes both social interactions and the health of our cells.
So we can ask, as Harper does, “Where have we believed the lie that we are not fully made in the image of God?”
And then we must go further to ask, “How can we transform the social structures and institutions and laws and environments that teach and reinforce that lie, so that we can all instead live the truth?”
It’s not enough for a few fortunate individuals to declare the truth in our private universes: truths that the external world never validates can easily be reframed as delusion. I’m more interested in a world where we don’t have to scratch up remedial self-concepts against an oppressive social current, and where individuals can be whole because we all are.
- Throughout the video, and the book chapter it’s based on, Harper refers to “both” genders—just two. That model leaves quite a few people out from the ancient world of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, let alone variously gendered people in contemporary society. I suspect that this focus is about the kinds of evangelicals she is writing to. [Back to text: ◄]