By Edgar Metzler
Originally published October 15, 1985 in the Gospel Herald (the “Old” Mennonite Church predecessor to The Mennonite). At the time Edgar Metzler, the author, was associate secretary for peace and social concerns at the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries.
Since then Ed has continued to speak out about undoing sexism and the inclusion of women in all levels of leadership in the church. This groundbreaking article in 1985, continues to be relevant today.
Having read Joanna Shenk’s recent column in Mennonite World Review, “Let’s talk about sexism,” Ed got in touch with her. Together they decided it was a good time to re-release Ed’s article and see what kind of feedback resulted as the church continues to wrestle with the realities of sexism.
The Women in Leadership Project both applauds Ed’s prophetic voice, and we lament that the church still has a long way to go on the journey of undoing sexism and patriarchy. As you read this article, reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t since 1985.
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Several years ago the minutes of the Mennonite Church General Board noted, “It was suggested that perhaps the Women’s Missionary and Service Commission should call men’s meetings in which husbands discover how to liberate their wives.”
A well-intentioned suggestion, but, in my opinion, off target. Our first responsibility as men is to liberate ourselves. The apostle Paul proclaimed, “Christ set us free,” but followed immediately with, “refuse to be tied to the yoke of slavery again” (Gal. 5:1, NEB).
This article is an invitation to my fellow men in the Mennonite Church to first look at our own attitudes and behavior so we can be freed to join women in mutual celebration and service in the kingdom of God.
Can we help each other be liberated:
- From society’s stereotypes of what we should be?
- From gender roles we have unconsciously adopted from our environment since birth and have never examined?
- From a need to control others?
- From the illusion that power used in the service of the church would never be destructive?
- From patterns of thought, attitude, language, and behavior that demean, patronize, or do not take women seriously?
I invite critique and additions to the following suggestions of what we need to begin doing as men so that we may become capable of a new mutuality and equality in Christ. (Gal. 3:28)
1. Begin to talk together as men.
Most of our congregations have no male equivalent of WMSC to call us together to discover how to liberate ourselves. We’ll have to make an effort to find another man or two willing to share our life stories about what it means to grow up male. We usually don’t share feelings of the conflicting demands of what is expected of us, what we want for ourselves, and the occasional glimpses of who we really are and were created to be.
We need each other’s help as men to become aware of how we use power and how we protect it. We are usually secretive about our feelings. Self-disclosure, the basis for intimacy, makes us vulnerable. We need honest feedback from our friends to become less controlling and more open.
We also need to help each other as men to overcome the deep-seated fear of compromising our “masculinity” by exhibiting those characteristics which society has labeled “feminine.” When we begin to get in touch with the deepest levels of our humanity we can recognize the positive aspects of our gender differences and claim them all as possibilities for ourselves. Contrary to some of our society’s molding, it is all right for men to cry.
For men interested in a sensitive guide on the journey of personal liberation in the context of faith, the book by Clayton Barbeau, Delivering the Male (Winston Press), is a good beginning.
2. Recognize our sexism.
It isn’t necessary to do psychological or sociological surveys among members of the Mennonite Church to discover how much sexism still prevails. We need only look at our actions.
Women have always done the “work of the church” without much recognition, authority, or pay. But at the level of denominational policy, and decision-making, there has been little progress in the Mennonite Church.
In 1975, 20 percent of the delegates to General Assembly were women. Ten years later—at Ames 85—women still only made up 23 percent of the delegate body. At that snail’s pace, how many decades will it be until the challenge set forth in the 1983 bylaws is fulfilled? “Delegations shall attempt to reflect all elements of their constituency” (Article VII, Section 2e). A slightly faster snail’s pace increased female participation on Mennonite Church boards and committees during the same 10-year period from 20 percent to 28 percent.
A sexist society is one in which people of one gender are favored over another at the level of unconscious reaction. At the level of overt behavior, a sexist society is one in which people of one gender have more power and privilege. The pervasiveness of sexism, as well as racism, in our society demonstrates the power of the world over us and the need to be nonconformed to the world in these areas.
White males in North American society need to exert intentional effort to change our sexist and racist attitudes and behavior. Claiming that I have no prejudice is not good enough. I am part of a society where structures reinforce the privilege of being male and there will be no justice until those structures begin to change.
The first step in the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous is the admission, “I am an alcoholic.” Similarly the first step away from my own sexism is the recognition of my own attitudes and how much I (and the church) have been shaped by the world around me.
3. Listen to women’s experience.
Recently a group in a congregation tried an experiment. The women sat in an inner circle and talked about their experiences with the power of men in their lives and the men sat in an outer circle and were not allowed to speak. Many of the men reported extreme uneasiness at not being able to explain and defend themselves. It is difficult for us to listen to the honest reporting of women’s experience without being defensive or grasping any possible exception to discount any criticism.
The domination of men in our homes, churches, and institutions is knowledge that can be documented, analyzed, and theorized about and thus kept at arm’s length. I find it more difficult to face up to my personal attitudes.
Those who perpetuate injustice are rarely aware of the experiences of those whom they exclude or confine to restricted roles. Most men do not intend to treat women unjustly. But we do. How can we become aware of what we’re doing?
We can listen. Some of us will be lucky enough to have friends, wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and aunts strong enough to share their perceptions and feelings with us. But many of us have the strong male need to control and always be right to such a degree that it has intimidated the women with whom we live and share life in the church. Thus women have little desire to share with us how they perceive the world. This situation will change only when we become free to listen and relate without defensiveness and in the recognition that we are equal while being different.
We can read articles and books by women describing how they experience the world. Many women have read the book Women’s Reality, by Anne Wilson Schaef (Winston Press), and said, “Yes, that’s how it is!” One need not agree with all the values of the author to benefit from the shock of recognizing how much we part of the “White Male System.”
We can begin to observe how we and other men react in conversations with women. Do we really take them seriously? Do we assume that they are mainly qualified in roles traditionally considered “women’s spheres”? That on certain subjects men will “naturally” have more to contribute? That we must take the lead?
One way to begin this awareness process as a man would be to ask a woman to read this article and listen to her responses. Do the same with a man.
4. Pay attention to language.
As a teenager I worked on a farm in a Mennonite community where married women were referred to as their husband’s property—“John’s Lena” or “Jake’s Mary.” Years later I asked of those women how she felt about that. “Awful,” she said, “but I never told anyone.”
We would like to think that it is the intention of our words that count. But what communicates is what others hear. Few things reveal how insensitive we are as men to women’s experience as when we deny or trivialize the impact of language.
Several years ago I was asked to offer a prayer at a conference. When several women thanked me for the language of the prayer, I was surprised. I had been trying to use more of the rich variety of image for God found in the Bible, including female images. What shocked me was the realization that the experience of these women with exclusive language was so negative that a few inclusive terms could be so meaningful. This revealed my own lack of awareness.
Once I asked a group of men to join in singing a hymn in which we would change the 16 male pronouns to female and discover how we felt. There was a lot of stumbling in the singing, but we began to get the feeling of how language can create and perpetuate a sense of exclusion, inferiority, and lack of identity, nonbeing, and not belonging.
The appeal to generic usage—that “men” or “brotherhood” really mean everybody—will not do. Even a child senses the illogic and hypocrisy of that. A mother singing Christmas carols with her daughter sang, “Give gifts to all men.” The child asked, “Why don’t I get any?” (The mother who had that experience, Dorothy Yoder Nyce, wrote an excellent article, “Redeeming Our Language,” in the April 1985 issue of In Search, available from Mennonite Board of Missions at Box 370, Elkhart, IN 46515.)
Language is a two-way street. It expresses our thoughts and also shapes them. An elementary act of justice for men is to be become aware of how our language excludes others and to adapt the language of our speaking, praying, and singing in ways that express and shape us toward a true equality, however awkward that may feel initially.
5. Act for the equality of all in Christ.
Repentance from the sin of sexism will be followed by turning to action based on the recognition of the gifts God has given to both women and men.
Each of us, men and women, must experience for ourselves the transformation of internal spiritual perspectives and attitudes which constitute freedom in Christ. But there are social structures which men can help to change. We can be allies of women, supporting them in the use of their God-given gifts in the total work of the kingdom.
Given the history of men’s domination in the church, that action must take some specific forms. One is affirmative action to enable more women to use their gifts in the structures of the church. We need to support women in training for the use of their gifts and then trust women in decision-making and leadership roles.
This means men must give up power. How else will there ever be change? There will be fewer men in positions of leadership. We men have grown up assuming that if we have certain gifts and are good stewards of them, we will be recognized with positions of responsibility in the church. Some of these expectations will be disappointed if the church develops a true sense of justice and mutuality in women-men relationships. Men will need to learn to grieve about that loss. We may also then become aware of the feelings of our sisters who have been excluded for generations.
Men have usually defined the shape and dynamics of power between men and women. For the emerging redefinition we will need to listen and to learn. There are biblical images that point the way. “Mutual submission” is a concept that needs to be rehabilitated because for so long “submission” in a patriarchal society and church has meant the domination of men over women.
“Reciprocal servanthood” is a concept suggested recently by Gayle Gerber Koontz. It assumes that there are differences between men and women, but that gender is not a relevant factor in assigning roles in the mission of the church. It promises the possibility of mutuality without dependency.
Servanthood has too often been a way for men to talk piously about the nature of our service, while retaining most of the positions of power. The fact that we deny that we are using “power” when doing the work the Lord is only another indication of how blind we are to the realities experienced by many women.
Can we learn that giving up and letting go can also be liberating? That we can discover a new kind of energizing power as we empower each other as women and men?