My teens care deeply about issues that affect the marginalized in society. They long to make sense of what their faith says about such things and wrestle with how they can make a difference in regard to these issues. To that end, my student leaders suggested we begin our year with a series on “Isms” during which we've wrestled with materialism, patriotism, sexism, classism, and racism. Some of these are new topics for my teens; others aren't.
Sexism is something we've talked about before. To do so, we've always wrestled with the words of Paul – those that seem, at first glance, so hell-bent on putting women in their place. You know the ones I'm talking about: Those that call for women to be silent or to submit to their male counterparts or to carefully regulate how they dress. They've always been my starting point because they're the ones that are most often used to oppress women.
The problem with these passages is that they're super easy to take out of context and yet they're really hard to put into a context that teens understand. Since teens don't often know the larger Biblical arc, these passages also offer little redemption or hope to girls. Their impact on teen girls can, in fact, be detrimental.
Trust me, I know.
The last time we discussed sexism and feminism in my youth ministry, one girl came up to me afterward and said emphatically, “If this is really what Christianity has to say about women, I'm out.”
That certainly wasn't my intention. I mean, as a female youth pastor, I don't even believe the Pauline passages are meant to be taken literally.
Knowing this, when my teens suggested we once again talk about sexism and feminism, I decided to try a different, more narrative approach. So I zeroed in on the story of Tamar found in Genesis 38.
This story is weird and because of that, it's one that gets the attention of high school teens. It's got sex, intrigue, and a fiery ending. It's also one filled with sexism.
Throughout it, Tamar is oppressed simply because of her gender. She's married off multiple times. When her husbands die, she's got no good way to care for herself. Left with no other choice, she sets a trap for her father-in-law that leaves her pregnant. Her father-in-law then singlehandedly decides to burn her at the stake without a trial or any opportunity to defend herself. To say this story lends itself to a thought-provoking discussion on sexism might be an understatement.
But here's the beauty of Tamar's story. Because it's a story, it's much easier to understand it's context and also much harder to ignore it. We could not wrestle with the sexism in Tamar's story without also exploring the patriarchal culture of the day. In doing so, we were also forced to wrestle with whether or not it's fair for us to judge another culture or way of life as sexist in the first place.
Beyond that, however, the beauty of Tamar's story is that even though it's filled with vivid examples of sexism, it's also filled with redemption. Her father-in-law acknowledges that she's more righteous than him. What's more, Tamar is found in Jesus' genealogy. Despite her gender and auspicious beginning, she – like all of us – is redeemed through Jesus. Her story is, therefore, one of hope.
Using the story of Tamar, my high school teens and I had a rich, deep conversation about sexism. During it, we confronted (head-on) the ways in which our faith has sometimes discriminated against women. We wrestled with why sexist stories are found in our sacred book. We debated how we can and should work together as followers of Jesus to ensure that no one is discriminated against on the basis of their gender. And we did so in a way that left girls feeling affirmed and valued not in spite of their gender, but because of it.
This time around, I'm certain that no one left the room saying or even thinking, “If this is really what Christianity has to say about women, I'm out.”
Instead, I'm hopeful the opposite is true; that people left thinking, “If this is really what Christianity has to say about women, if this is how much God loves and values ALL people, then I'm in.”