A well-known egalitarian scholar once told me that the reason Africans read hierarchical gender roles in the Bible is because they don’t have the theological scholarship that we do, so we need to go and educate them. I smiled politely because this guy was significantly older than me, and ironically wasn’t really willing to listen to a young woman, but his elitism and condescension horrified me. While I believe in scholarship, and western ways of doing theology resonate most for me, I’d hate to think that only the literate or the theologically educated could have access to this issue.
We in the west have for too long seen ourselves as the guardians of the gospel and of theology, and the ones to deliver that to the majority world. We have viewed them as being in need of our tutelage rather than as participants with us in doing theology. We need to listen well and with respect to our brothers and sisters in the majority world, because the Holy Spirit is doing his thing big time here, so as we look for the Spirit’s work, we need to listen to his voice from and in the majority world as well.
Therefore, when it comes to discussions of gender, we cannot afford to ignore the cross-cultural dimension. I am suspicious of any position that ascribes a universal structure for how relationships ought to work, whether it claims that men ought to lead and women submit, or that relationships ought to be non-hierarchical. Other cultures don’t have the same hang ups or assumptions about hierarchy, so making equality or mutual submission the measure seems beholden to western values and ways of reading the Bible. It’s a neo-colonialism where we insist that ‘they’ must think and be like ‘us’.
In recent years, the pointy end of the gender debate has played out as Australians, including Christians, have wrestled with the issue of domestic violence. Egalitarians insist that their theology provides a resource to combat men’s abuse of women by arguing for equality and non-hierarchy in marriage. Terms like ‘equality’ also feature in the UN’s approach to gender-based violence. However, I’m not sure it’s an adequate antidote in Tanzania, because Tanzanians do not share the same conviction that hierarchy is inherently oppressive.
Gender-based violence is common in Tanzania (as it is in Australia), and yet, when I put it to Tanzanian women that the problem is hierarchy itself, they are invariably surprised by the notion, and reject it. For them, gender-based violence is not the natural end of hierarchy. Yes, they see abused hierarchies everywhere from the schoolyard to marriage to government, and yet they don’t see the overturning of hierarchy as the solution, because they don’t see hierarchy itself as a problem.
Rather, the solution involves good hierarchy. This was such a surprise for me when I first encountered it because, with my cultural background, my most natural stance is to be suspicious of whether such a thing as ‘good hierarchy’ exists. Not so my Tanzanian friends. They love Paul’s words in Ephesians chapter 5 which, rather than destroying hierarchy, transforms it. Yes, they say, those at the top should care and serve, not dominate and exploit! The Holy Spirit empowers us to live different lives.
In the next post I want to address the issue of violence more specifically, including the question of some cultural factors that influence how we think about violence.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.