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Why the Church Needs Some Masculine Feminists

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A friend of mine had a baby. After the shock of finding herself the proud new owner of a six-pound bundle of joy, pandemonium and excretion, she went to the mailbox and discovered a bill from the insurance company -- the presence of which bill shocked no one, since babies (if they ever did) don’t come for free anymore.

However, after she returned to the newly baby-besieged confines of her home, she opened the bill, only to find that the insurance magnates had refused to pay for her epidural (you know, the hope of chemical relief to which many women cling when the pain becomes unbearable). Sagely, the compassionate folks in underwriting had determined that an “epidural is an elective procedure for a vaginal birth.” Consequently, the insurance company refused to pay that portion of the costs.

My friend was furious. And I, though I lack the requisite equipment to give first person testimony on behalf of the advantages of an epidural for a vaginal birth, was pretty certain an outrage had been committed. I have witnessed labor up close; and I feel safe in admitting my uncertainty about whether I would have the pain tolerance to face it without a great deal of chemical handholding.

I told my wife, a postpartum nurse and mother of three herself, about the insurance company’s dodge. She got a dangerous look in her eye (the same one she got, perhaps not coincidentally, when I tried to convince her of the propriety of taking my last name when we got married) and said, “Some damn man made that decision!”

That struck me as wise.

Just the other day my 14-year-old daughter said to me in the car, “Did you know Walmart pays its women employees less than its men?”

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” I said.

Disgusted, she said, “It’s not right.”

No, it’s not right. So, to prove her point, when we got home she sent me a link detailing just how “not right” it is. Women comprise only about 15 percent of the top management positions in the retail division. Both salaried employees and hourly wage earners who are women earn less than their male counterparts. In fact, there are no regions where women make more than men as Walmart employees.

So bad, in fact, is the disparity that a class action suit was brought against Walmart on behalf of all its female employees, a suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court (Wal-Mart v. Dukes).

In a June 2011 the Court handed down a controversial decision, the substance of which argued that “all female employees” was too big to be certified as a class. The practical effect of that decision shored up a corporate structure that, at least according to the data, suggests a de facto system engineered to keep women at a financial and vocational disadvantage.

And I heard my wife’s voice in my head: “Some damn man made that decision!”

Turns out she’s right... literally: The Supreme Court delivered a decision in which the five deciding votes were all male, while of the four dissenting votes, three were female.

What sometimes gets lost in the analysis of this decision -- focusing as it almost always does on the implications for Class Action lawsuits -- is the reality that, according to both statistical evidence and the anecdotal corroboration, women are being systematically discriminated against at Walmart -- and that a male-dominated court took a look at the evidence, and said, “What’s the problem?” As Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg argued in her dissent: “The Court gives no credence to the key dispute common to the class: whether Wal-Mart's discretionary pay and promotion policies are discriminatory.”

Translation: While you boys argue over whether “all female Walmart employees” can constitute a class, women continue to get the short end of the stick at Walmart.

But then again, men making decisions about women’s lives and bodies isn’t something new. Men have been running the show forever -- not because that’s what God wanted, but because they could. The apostle Paul was pretty clear about what God really wanted in the wake of Jesus’ work: “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

So, just so we have this straight: Those people who claim to follow Jesus have a duty to embody this new reality, where men and women are not only viewed as equals... but treated, paid as equals.

I realize that for most of the culture suggesting that Christians actually ought to support female equality is swimming upstream. The church has a long history of putting its thumb on the scales of justice on behalf of men. Arguing that the church is pro-woman to many people sounds like arguing that dolphin lovers are pro-tuna -- the dolphins make out just fine under such a system, but it’s hell on the tuna.

But I don’t think those of us who take Jesus seriously as the great liberator of humanity, as the herald of the radical nature of God’s unfolding reign of peace and justice, can stand silently by while men continue to make decisions as though they possess greater understanding of the needs of women for their own health and bodies. People who actually believe that “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” cannot continue to live as though males ought to continue to have some kind of privileged status in virtue of possessing the preferred sexual appendage.

And when I say that Christians must make a stand on behalf of an equitable system, I don’t just mean female Christians. If the world we live in is ever going to look anything like the reign of God announced by Jesus, men are going to have to be just as outraged by knucklehead underwriters refusing to cover epidurals as the women who suffer by being told their pain management is a choice.

Male Christians are going to have to be some of the loudest to speak up when it becomes public knowledge that their sisters, and wives, and daughters, and mothers earn disproportionately less at the hands of corporations and industries (I’m looking at you congregations and employers of women clergy).

Those followers of Jesus who are male are precisely the ones who are going to have to raise hell when Abercrombie and Fitch tells women that they’d prefer that only “thin and beautiful” women wear their clothes. They’re going to have to be the ones who lose their minds when Victoria’s Secret markets clothing to teenage girls with phrases like “Call Me,” and “Feeling Lucky?”

It’s going to have to be men trying to remain faithful to the challenge of the gospel who call out other male politicians who say stupid things about women’s bodies and reproductive health, when those politicians act like they alone know the score and what’s best for the “weaker sex” (I’m looking at you Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Mike Huckabee).

In order to be faithful, the church needs some masculine feminists.

It’s not about being politically correct. It’s not about paternalistically protecting the women folk from the depredations of a culture bent on maintaining the power disparity. It’s not about chivalry. It’s about doing the right thing.

It’s about living like Jesus. If we take Jesus seriously, seeking justice isn’t an optional add-on after you get your personal life in order; it’s the way to pursue a personal life that’s worth ordering for everyone.

And just to be clear: some damn man can’t just make this decision... it's going to take all of us.

[A version of this post appeared on dmergent.org.]