Sunday, 8 March 2020

Patriarchy, Paternalism and Patronage: A sermon for International Women's Day

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 8/3/20
Mark 10.32-52

In case you hadn’t noticed, today is International Women’s Day.

For more than a century people around the world
            have been marking 8 March as a special day for women.

The idea grew out of the labour movement,
            to become a United Nations recognised annual event.

The seeds of it were planted in 1908,
            when 15,000 women marched through New York City
demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote.

And it was the Socialist Party of America
            who declared the first National Woman's Day, a year later.

This year's International Women’s Day
            focuses on the theme that "An equal world is an enabled world",
and asks for people to work together to create a gender equal world.[1]

This theme of ‘enabling’ is something that we have encountered again and again
            in our journey through Mark’s Gospel,
as Jesus consistently challenges and removes
            the barriers to social inclusion
            that hold the vulnerable, the weak, and the marginalised
                        in positions of exclusion.

So we’ve seen Jesus casting out spirits of uncleanness,
            declaring women acceptable and equal,
                        removing the stigma of poor mental health,
            and welcoming the powerless to the very centre of his circle.

And Mark tells these stories,
            not just to educate his readers about the life of Jesus,
but because he wants those who follow Jesus
            to create new communities where these values are made real.

To help his readers realise what kind of disciples they are to be,
            Mark offers us the disciples gathered around Jesus,
            as a kind of object lesson in how to get it badly wrong.

We saw this last week,
            with the argument about which disciple was the greatest,
and we meet it again this week
            in the story of James and John vying for positions of power.

The key issue here is one of leadership,
            and of what kind of person should be a leader
            within the group of Jesus’ disciples.

Now, I have to confess a certain level of vested interest in this question.

After all, for the last twenty years in various capacities,
            eight of them here at Bloomsbury,
I’ve been involved in the task of leadership within Christian communities.

I was talking about this with my Spiritual Director this week,
            and he asked me how I would describe myself and my role,
and my answer was clear:
            I’m a minister.

I’m not an academic,
            although I have some academic skills that I use in the task of ministry.
I’m not a musician,
            although I have some musical skills.
I’m not even a pastor,
            although I do a lot of pastoral work.
I’m a minister.

And the key thing here is that the word ‘minister’
            comes from the Latin word for ‘servant’.

The leadership that I offer to Bloomsbury, and within the wider Christian world,
            is - or at least should be - a leadership that is grounded in serving others.

It is not a leadership founded on status, or domination, or power.
            And yes, sometimes, I know that I need to remind myself of this.

And I can think of other ministers who might need reminding of it too,
            not just church ministers but, of course, those servants of the people
            who serve as ministers in government.

So, what kind of a person should be a leader
            within the community of Jesus’ disciples?

Seeing as today is International Women’s Day,
            I need to note that for many centuries,
                        and indeed still in many churches today,
            the prime criteria for Christian leadership
                        is that you need to be a man.

Even in these enlightened times, and within our own Baptist family,
            ordained ministry is still overwhelmingly male,
and within many churches there remains strong resistance
            to women preaching or serving in roles such as deacon or elder.

And yet I could point you to Dorothy Hazzard,
            who is recognised as a pioneer church planter
            who started Broadmead Baptist Church in Bristol in 1640.

I could point you to Anne Steele,
            who was a prolific Baptist hymn writer,
                        with her works being included in almost all hymnals
                        published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

I could point you to Hannah Marshman,
            who is considered to be the first Baptist woman to be a missionary.
In 1799, Hannah and her family set sail for India
            landing at the Dutch colony of Serampore.
Within a year, she had opened two boarding schools.

I could point you to Edith Gates,
            who became the first female minister
            in pastoral charge of a Baptist Church in 1918, aged 35.

I could point you to Violet Hedger,
            who was the first woman to train at a Baptist College,
                        and was called to her first pastorate
                        at Littleover Baptist Church, Derbyshire in 1926.[2]

I could point you to many women
            who today serve as ministers across our Baptist family of churches,
including our General Secretary Lynn Green,
            my colleague Dawn here at Bloomsbury,
            and of course our former minister Ruth.

And Bloomsbury has a long and proud history
            of recognising and affirming the ministry of women.

But still, these stories are a minority,
            and Bloomsbury is a minority;
and part of the problem is that leadership in our world more generally
            is still predicated on systems
            that we have inherited from the ancient world,
which we might call patriarchy, paternalism, and patronage.

The world in which Jesus lived was one where leadership was male,
            and from the Emperor downwards, power in Roman society
            flowed through deeply entrenched systems of male privilege.

Every man had a master,
            and every master had people who were dependent on him.
Your status within society was determined
            by how high you managed to climb in the social pyramid of preferment.

This client-patron relationship system was called patronage
            and determined most of the social and cultural infrastructure
            of the Roman Empire.

Patronage was not just confined
            to the military, economic, and political aspects of the Roman lifestyle,
it was linked with public display of status, social ranking,
            the legal system, and even the arts.[3]

To this day, we call a person who gives money
            to a theatre or cultural project in exchange for recognition
            a patron of the arts.

Roman mythology told that Romulus, the founder of Rome,
            had appointed 100 men to serve as senators in about 750 BCE.
These men were known as ‘Patricians’, from the Roman word for ‘father’,
            and the idea was that Roman society
                        should mirror the power structure of the Roman home,
            where the father was the head of the household.

Lower class Roman men would be the clients
            of these upper class patricians, or patrons,
who would bestow status and power on those that served them,
            like a father giving special gifts to his most loyal and faithful sons.

Women, children, and slaves were excluded from the system,
            and had no power, and no way of gaining any.

So, it was something of an ideological bombshell
            for Jesus to say that within the community of his followers:

‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
            and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’ (10.43-44).

This was not the way ancient society worked at all!

Certainly it wasn’t the way
            that James and John the sons of Zebedee thought it would work.

The brothers’ petition to Jesus,
            to be allowed to sit at his right hand and his left,
demonstrates that they have completely misunderstood
            everything that Jesus has been saying to them
            about why he is going to Jerusalem.

They clearly seem to think that they are part of some kind of messianic coup,
            a regime change where the Jews finally get their autonomy back from the Romans,
and here in Mark’s gospel we see them lobbying for, in effect,
            the positions of Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary
            in Jesus’ new government, when it comes into power.

There was then, and still is today,
            an expectation that a newly powerful leader
            would reward their most faithful followers with positions of power.

We have seen this in some of the appointments within our own government,
            and it was the same back then.
It was the rule of client-patron obligation, that loyalty paid.

It’s worth our while noting that this system of patronage
            didn’t die with the end of the Roman empire,
it just moved over into the medieval societies of the tenth century
            through systems of feudalism,
and then segued into the middle ages
            in terms of courtly power,
then merged into the class structures
            of the European imperial powers,
entrenched itself in our education system,
            and is still with us today in the patterns of preferment
                        that we see in government
                        and other powerful institutions in our society.

It remains as true today as it was in the first century,
            that the best way to get money and power
is to be part of a wealthy family, to go to a powerful school,
            and to make influential friends.

So for James and John,
            mistakenly expecting Jesus to be the next king of Israel,
the request to sit at his right hand and his left hand was a perfectly sensible,
            if rather self-serving, request
to be those with power and influence
            in the new world of Jesus’ kingdom.

In exasperation, Jesus throws the question back at them,
            using the sacramental language of baptism and cup.

‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,
            or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (10.38).

Baptism, of course, harks back to the beginning of the story,
            where it all began;
and for Mark’s readers at least, if not yet for James and John in the story,
            the cup anticipates the end,
shed blood on the cross
            and the shared cup of the last supper.

In effect, Jesus is asking them if they truly can walk ‘the way’,
            the path that he is going to walk,
which won’t be one of power and glory
            but of suffering and death.

James and John, the gung-ho sons of thunder, of course say ‘of course’,
            but as Jesus points out to them,
they don’t really know what they are asking for, or saying yes to.

They never get an answer to their original question,
            you may notice.
Jesus just says that such positions of preferment
            are not for him to grant.

But those of us who read on through the gospel
            will get to see the answer in due course,
as the next time two men appear at the left and right hands of Jesus,
            it is the criminals crucified next to him (15.27)

Jesus doesn’t repudiate the vocation of leadership,
            rather, he insists that it is not transferred through patronage.

Leadership amongst the disciples
            can belong only to those who learn to follow ‘the way’ of nonviolence,
and who are prepared not to dominate,
            but to serve and suffer at Jesus’ side.

These are tough words to hear for those of us who are leaders,
            and they are a reminder to us
                        that we are here to serve a cause
                        that goes way beyond our personal needs.

So please, don’t forget to pray for your ministers
            and for your deacons and for your officers.

We are very fortunate here at Bloomsbury to have a wonderful group of leaders,
            but they need the support of the congregation if they are to serve well.

Anyway, back to Mark’s story,
            and perhaps predictably things start to escalate
            as the other disciples get indignant.

It starts to look as though the whole community of disciples
            are part of this great struggle for power.

So Jesus ramps up his language,
            and compares the disciples to the Roman power structures
                        that oppress and dominate his society,
            whilst telling them that this is not the way it should be amongst them!

The very powers that will kill Jesus
            are the Roman administrators
            who practice the philosophy of leadership-as-domination
            that Jesus has laboriously taught against.

Roman power structures demanded that the Romans ‘Lord over’ their subjects,
            and tyrannise their people;
but, like the Herods and the Pharisees,
            the disciples are getting sucked into these systems of domination,
            and are enacting them in their own community.

Which raises the questions for us to consider,
            of where we encounter dominating power in our society?
            And where we encounter it in our own Christian community?

As I’ve said, our world runs along similar lines to the first century world,
            with systems of patronage that privilege the powerful and disadvantage the weak,
and the temptation for the church
            is that we end up mirroring or, worse, emulating
            those systems in our own community.

So, let me put it clearly…

Whenever a church excludes someone
            on the basis of their powerlessness or minority status,
we emulate patronage.

Whenever a church denies or restricts the ministry of women,
            or those who are LGBTQ+, or those who are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic,
we emulate patronage.

Whenever a church prefers those who are powerful or wealthy,
we emulate patronage.

Whenever a church does a deal with power to gain influence in society,
we emulate patronage.

Whenever a church justifies violence,
we emulate patronage.

The path of Christ is a path of peace, a path of inclusion,
            a path of service, of putting others ahead of ourselves.

And Jesus identifies himself as the embodiment of the way of nonviolence,
            saying that he came to serve, and to give his life;
not to dominate or to take the lives of others.

Last week I started with a quote that,
            despite often being attributed to Ghandi, wasn’t actually said by him.
However, here I’d like to share a quote that was:

Ghandi said that the way of nonviolence
            will not prevail on account of words or argument,
but that ‘it shall be proved by persons living it in their lives
            with utter disregard of the consequences to themselves.’ (1948).

I can’t help but feel that Ghandi understood Jesus better
            than his disciples did!

The path to great leadership lies not in eloquence or power,
            but in a shared commitment to non-violently resisting
                        the power structures that keep some down and raise others up.
The path to great leadership lies in centring the marginalised,
            in casting out spirits of uncleanness that exclude and oppress,
and in taking decisive action to restore people
            to right relationships with each other and with God.

So let’s go back to the issue of women in church life.
            It is International Women’s Day, after all.

And in these thoughts that follow I should acknowledge my debt
            to the wonderful commentary on Mark’s gospel by Ched Myers.[4]

Consistently on our journey through the gospel,
            we have seen Mark critiquing the systems of power
            that are at work in society.

He’s addressed political domination, patriarchy, and the family system.
            And we should pay attention to the fact
                        that all three of these are domination systems
                        based on the subjugation of women by men.

Mark has already argued that women
            should have equal rights in the marriage contract,
            by rewriting the Pharisees’ regulations on divorce (10.11-12);
and further on in the gospel he will defend women
            against the ideology of patriarchy,
            by ridiculing the Sadducees argument about Levirate marriage (12.18f).

It’s also noticeable that married couples
            are almost entirely absent from the stage of Mark’s gospel,
with the only two minor exceptions
            being Jairus and his wife (5.40)
            and the illegitimate marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife (6.17).

More to the point,
            women otherwise always appear in Mark without husbands.

In a world where the patriarchal system
            considered women as second class citizens,
            and unmarried women as third class citizens,
this is a truly subversive narrative strategy.

So why does Mark do this?

Mark seems to go out of his way to discredit the male disciples,
            especially regarding their aspirations to leadership and power (9.34; 10.35ff).

In contrast, Jesus advocates and embodies
            a vocation of leadership predicated upon an ideology of service.

The only other characters in Mark, beyond Jesus,
            who are shown to have a vocation of service are women,
from the beginning of the story where Simon’s mother in law
            served the disciples after being healed (1.31),
to the end of the story where the women minister to Jesus and the disciples
            as they go up to Jerusalem (15.41).

We need to be careful here not to take Mark’s positive role models
            of women embodying servant leadership,
and turn them into a model of femininity based on service to men!

There are strands of Christianity
            which would require a faithful woman
            to be obedient and subservient to men
            both in the home and in church life.

To which I would just observe that patriarchy is very effective
            at turning women’s emancipation against them.

Interestingly, if the word ‘minister’ comes from the Latin word for service,
            did you know that ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek?

Our models of leadership should be deeply rooted in serving others.

The disparity between Mark’s portrait of male and female disciples
            is intensified in his conclusion;
whereas the men desert Jesus
            at the very point at which their following becomes politically risky,
the women stay with him to the cross and after.

Consequently it is the women who are the witnesses to the resurrection,
            not the men.

I don’t think it’s too much to suggest
            that the model of leadership which Jesus teaches,
where the leader must be the slave and servant of others,
            is a model which was primarily fulfilled in Mark’s gospel
            by women rather than by men.

The male disciples are constantly jockeying for position,
            taking the patriarchal, paternalistic models of patronage
            and emulating them in their desire for power.

It is the women who serve,
            and therefore who are the models for servant leadership.

By this reading, Mark is suggesting
            that in a thoroughly patriarchal socio-cultural order,
            women alone are fit to act as servant leaders.

This would help explain the appearance
            of various ‘independent’ women in the gospel,
who appear without reference to their husbands.

It’s not that Mark is rejecting the vocation of marriage,
            any more than he would reject the vocation of leadership.

However, he understands that the whole social system of patriarchy,
            which renders tyrants strong in the world
            and women subject in the home,
                        must be overturned.

So the first concrete step in the ‘last as first’ revolution
            is to bring women into leadership,
and in order to do that
            the rigid definitions of their traditional social roles,
                        as wives and child-bearers only,
            must itself be undermined.

In our world, we have more nuanced understandings
            of gender and gender roles,
and we no longer have a pattern in our society
            where women can only occupy servant roles,
but Mark’s challenge,
            that the least and the last will be the first and the greatest,
still echoes down to our world,
            challenging us to notice those places
            where women are marginalised, oppressed, and violated,
and to take action to bring equality
            not only by raising up the weak and the vulnerable
but by undermining the structures and patterns of leadership
            that perpetuate dysfunctional and abusive gender roles.

Patriarchy, paternalism and patronage
            have no place in Christian communities.

And, like Bartimaeus,
            we need Christ to give us the gift of clear sight
if we are to follow faithfully the path of discipleship
            where the last are the first, and the first are the last.

[4] What follows is from Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 280-281

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