Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Kingdom"* Gender Politics

I’ve been reading a chapter from my friend Kristy’s book-in-progress recently (I’ve been taking forever, sorry, Kristy), and ran into a footnote (among other things of course) that made me think. She was discussing a book that talks about "kingdom questions" as opposed to earthly ones, and "kingdom thinking". Here's the footnote:
Given my feminist politics, I have serious reservations about using the term “kingdom.” Not only does it imply a male god, it also hearkens back to an antiquated form of patriarchy, where a male sovereign monarch ruled over powerless subjects. That is hardly a system of government I find promising, so it is certainly not an analogy to the divine I find meaningful. Because this term is so common in the contemporary debate over Christianity and civic engagement, however, I use it out of convenience and simplicity in this chapter. I also fear that avoiding the term “kingdom” would only obscure the sexism that haunts Christian thought.

This objection had never occurred to me before; I’m glad I have smart friends to point these things out to me. I find Kristy’s argument compelling – why do we rely so heavily on the authoritarian male terms for God and the people, animals and things that follow God? While the kingdom of God is a term used in the Bible, it made sense in the context of that culture and it’s first English translation. Today doesn’t the “city of God” and “new earth” language in revelation make more sense for our understanding of how God’s care and plan for the earth and its inhabitants works? Is patriarchal culture so woven into the bible and Christian thought that we have no choice but to take the negative consequences of that language with the good ones?

These are the questions I am most interested in discussion about: are there alternative ways to talk about God and God’s way of thinking, and what are the benefits and costs to Christians of using that language instead?

* These quotation marks are necessary, because they are drawing attention to the term. Ok? Ok.


Katherine said...

A lot of my colleagues and professors in seminary echoed her concern. Many used the term "Kin-dom," which doesn't shimmer for me the way "Kingdom" does. Others use "realm of heaven/God."

Even when I was very conscientious about not using male pronouns for God (I've since gotten practical and/or lazy in the pulpit), I still used the phrase "Kingdom of God" because it just plain resonates for me. It's such an upside-down, subversive concept in the Bible, and you lose some of that by not calling it a Kingdom.

Jesse said...

First time commenter. Long time reader. Love the "other" blog as well.

On the one hand I do see your point. The language is rife with this male filter. My objection is to the idea of altering precise wording that living humans put to paper for a particular reason. Yes the argument you make stands. It was a male emphasized context. However there are many modern Christians who seek to embody the ancient teachings and practice the original traditions (and Traditions). They are male and female alike. They are able to encounter the objective Truth these men were trying to convey, despite the specific terms used and more often than not, entirely because of that terminology. "Kingdom" and "father" are very calculated ideas within the larger framework that makes up the Christian lexicon.

Change is inevitable. I'm just not so sure we should continue calling it Christianity when that change is clearly disconnected from the orthodox ideas.

bethany said...

Katherine: that makes a lot of sense. I am inclined to like the term for the reasons you say (not to mention the ways it brings about sparkly narnia ideas for me) but now am questioning if others would work as well at least some of the time.

Jesse: I understand your concern (and thanks for delurking!) but I think it's a poor excuse for over-emphasizing some biblical terms over others that are also part of the tradition. Certainly, we are making a new post-christian religion if we do away with all biblical language and make up new, but can we select other metaphors from the bible instead?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bethany, for pursuing these thoughts. I'm behind the times in studying the Bible, but my adult daughter's recent comment: "The Bible is so sexist!" gave me a start. How do we approach the Bible and know how to filter out what's culture, what's relevant, what can threaten our interpretation? Jennifer

kristylyn said...

I absolutely agree that the term "kingdom" can be useful and meaningful because it does imply certain connotations unavailable with any substitute terms. I just think that we need to recognize that any term we choose to describe God, Christ, Christendom, humanity, etc. will necessarily be insufficient and sometimes have troublesome implications. That's the nature of trying to give language to the ineffable. So, when "kingdom" is one word we choose, and we recognize its value and limitations, I don't see a problem. It's only a problem when kingdom becomes the ONLY way to understand the relationship between God and humanity--as if that is the TRUE relationship, rather one of many possible metaphors to explain something we cannot possibly understand.

Jesse, I'm glad you de-lurked and joined the conversation, but I just don't buy your argument. We can never be entirely true to the early church, and we are always just borrowing what still makes sense in our context. MANY of the terms we take from the Bible--e.g. kingdom, shepherd, lamb--simply do not have the relevance for us that they did for the writers of the gospels and epistles (and their communities). I agree with Katherine that trusting in a "kingdom of God" was radically subversive to a people subject to a real, physical king who had the power to make their lives miserable. And I like the idea of using that term to remind ourselves of how subversive Christianity can be. We simply do not have the same experience, however. But we do live in an era largely defined by broken and dysfunctional families, so might it be equally subversive for us to refer to the "kin-dom of God"? (I'm not trying to open a can of worms there--I'm not trying to say we should abandon our biological families for a "kin-dom of God," though goodness knows Luke describes Jesus saying as much.)

Anyway, thanks for the interesting conversation, Bethany!

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for the always thoughtful thoughts. "King"dom is so gendered. For kingdom of God, I really like your "'city of God' and 'new earth' language in revelation [to] make more sense for our understanding of how God’s care and plan for the earth and its inhabitants works" And what a great question, "Is patriarchal culture so woven into the bible and Christian thought that we have no choice but to take the negative consequences of that language with the good ones?"

Hopefully feminist rhetorical translating can weave in other things. For "kingdom of heaven," I've tried "royal palace in the skies."

Michael said...

What criteria should we use in translating a word? Words have implications in a particular culture beyond their technical meaning, and so I can sort of understand where you are coming from. Tweaking translations, for good reasons, is probably fine. A paraphrase might be better for a reader that doesn't know a great deal about the history and language of the times, though it also means the translator's interpretation of things has a deeper effect on everything being read. I don't like the idea of tweaking terms the actual writers of Scripture (or Jesus, when quoted) used.

Maybe some people think "kingdom" has unnecessary patriarchal overtones in English in the 21st Century. I think you have to go back to the original language and see whether that word has "=king =male" overtones. If not, I think it'd still probably be better to educate people about that fact than change the terminology you use.

It's not clear to me whether the Greek word "basileia" does or doesn't have male connotations. But one important point I'd make is that it doesn't seem to fit the suggested alternatives. It doesn't mean "family" so "kin-dom" is out. It also doesn't simply mean "realm" - it also means something like "reign." It's not just the nation that God is in charge of.

I think most people miss that fact, partly because the English word Kingdom doesn't convey it all that well. But the alternatives suggested here are even worse. Maybe the answer is to educate people about the terms we use.

And ps: if nobody realizes "Kingdom" has male connotations until it's pointed out to them, is that really a problem?

bethany said...

michael: I think your argument would work if we were referencing a specific passage to do this kind of cultural talk, but the discourse I'm talking about isn't the bible itself, it's pop theology. I still think we could reference other passages that don't invoke a tyrannical masculine God at least some of the time instead of using so much of the "kingdom" language.

Also, the feeling of terms we use matters a lot, even if not everyone can articulate what the problem is.

Michael said...

"A tyrannical masculine God"?

I'm trying to get on the same page as you. I don't know if you mean that the passages of scripture that talk about the "basileia* of heaven" are tyrannical and masculine, or if you just mean that our current basileia = Kingdom translation makes it sound that way. If it's the latter, then I can understand why you'd want to, come up with a better English word to use. But if it's the former - if those passages of scripture about the basileia of Heaven sound tyrannical and not immensely wonderful, I'm lost.

As for the term you're looking for to use in pop theology, maybe I don't understand what's needed. What kind of culture talk do you mean?

(*my link to the concordance didn't work, which is a bummer)

Jesse said...

I would first like to say how comforting it is to engage in wholesome thoughtful dialog online again. I fled from a world of name calling. It’s nice to be back.

So I’m compelled to disclose my bias. I am a member of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. I happen to have joined via the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. (It has a large arabic influence as its home base is in Damascus, Syria. Though I am as white bread American as they come...for what it’s worth.)

Bethany: You have an awesome blog. Your choice of words is a tremendous help to me in my personal effort to develop my own rhetoric skills. Keep it up! To your first point I agree. I am a big defender of a borderline all or nothing approach to the Christian tradition. I personally challenge many modern Christians I meet not to take portions of the scriptures out of context, and away from the entire tradition that makes them so great. And, yes. Let’s look to all the metaphors. It isn’t entirely male dominated. I could rant for days regarding the pedestal Mary is placed upon.

I also agree with your first paragraph. The ineffable is ultimately indescribable. Which explains why we traditionally have been known to take an apophatic approach to describing God. And so yes, we lean on our cultural context to explicitly convey all there is. And consequently there will always be limitations. For example, the tribes in Africa who don’t have a word in their vocabulary whatsoever that even comes close to the idea of a man rising from the dead, let alone, “resurrection.”

As for your certainty that we cannot understand something like the relationship between God and humanity, I say don’t be too certain. There is another time and place for talk about how we understand God. But for now I will say to understand God goes far beyond verbal or written explanation.

I would also argue that, yes, we can actually be true to the early church. I am a member of that same church in the most literal sense historically possible. I have an exhaustive amount of anecdotes of people I have encountered who practice Christianity in its most historically pure form indistinguishable from practices dating as far back as the 2nd and 3rd centuries. I subscribe to a tradition that rests many of its foundational tenets on that very language and practice, even academically. There are currently, and have been for centuries, several million people, make and female alike, that find fulfillment in those words. 

Also I will say that the level of relevance the words have to modern situations does not warrant elimination or even rephrasing. Your point regarding the modern understanding of kingdoms and fatherhood is well taken. We do live in a time when kingdom is more synonymous with dictator and father with oppressor. That does not mean those words have been redefined and therefore need to be substituted. I would also echo the general point I think Michael is trying to make. The modern popular English language is just insufficient to fully detail the meaning of the ancient writings. You really have to look at the original Greek and Hebrew.

Ultimately I believe that the total objective Truth behind these calculated terms can be easily conveyed even if deemed “gendered” by modern standards.

P.S. Bethany I am hyper sensitive to my use of “quotations” thanks to you. Sheesh.

bethany said...

I'm meaning the connotations the term has today.

The original critique was not in reference to the bible itself, but to the ubiquity in christian culture of terms like "kingdom attitudes" "kingdom questions" etc. - see the top of the post. I'm not advocating for a retranslation of the bible, but I'm all for reinterpreting things that are cultural interpretations in the first place. There is more than one biblical way to talk about God's way of doing things, we're not just stuck with one metaphor.

Bob K said...

What a good conversation.

There are many good points here but I'd like to respond to Michael's PS: "And ps: if nobody realizes "Kingdom" has male connotations until it's pointed out to them, is that really a problem?"

Bethany responded but didn't really stick the landing so I'll give it another shot.

Yes, it can matter a lot because many times the problem is subtle and the fact that it's effect is not noticed is precisely the problem. If a term like Kingdom does indeed give a patriarchal slant to these discussions - whether we think about it or not - then it is worth discussing. Frankly, it never occurred to me that Kingdom was a patriarchal term until Bethany mentioned it in a phone conversation leading up to this blog post. I'm still not 100% convinced that it is a patriarchal term but if there are better alternatives then I'm happy to consider them.

Paul said...

Bias disclosure: Catholic who wandered over from the "other" blog.

In my circle of discussion I don't hear terms such as "kingdom attitudes" or "kingdom questions", so this issue at first did not seem very pressing to me, though I do believe it is an important one.

While it is an impossible to do so literally, I think it is important to try and view the Bible as whole in light of itself. That is to understand each passage in light of every other passage silmutaneously. When we take a few concepts a focus on them too much lose truth, which eventually leads to spiritual slavery and unhappiness.

That said, I do not think there is any good reason to shy away from using masculine words in reference to Him or His reign.

Hopefully I can describe why without being too verbose.

God is the creator, therefore he decided that humans should have this duality. If He didn't want us to have to confront the implications of masculinity and femininity, He could have created a single type of humans or three sexes (Isaac Asimov once tackled this in a story.) or whatever. God chose to have males and females.

God chose the time and place for the incarnation. He worked throughout history after the Fall to bring about the historical portion of our redemption story. He was in control of the cultural setting.

Even within the cultural setting Jesus was rebellious. So to say that He was constrained by the times in His language ignores a significant portion of His message and ministry. If He can tell us to eat His Body and His Blood, He certainly could have told us or shown us by example to speak in gender inclusive language. He didn't.

Instead we have Mary conceiving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, The Word Incarnate is a male - and he is the King or Kings and the Lord of Lords. We are taught to pray to "Our Father".

God has a reason for this. I'm going to be honest with you, I don't know what that reason is.

I will also point out that in several places throughout scripture, God is referred to in feminine ways. Remember what I said about seeing the whole in light of the whole. Well, I think it is fine to generally refer to God in the masculine, and thus terms such as kingdom are okay. However to be so restrictive to ignore that God Himself in Sacred Scripture has indicated that He embodies both the masculine and the feminine loses out on some truth which He wants to convey to us.

I may just be rambling at this point, I hope someone considers this contribution worthwhile.

Joyce said...

I don't mean to sound harsh, only to disagree, but I wonder about this kind of worry in general, Bethany; connotations for the world today. Yes, we live in the modern world (we can't help it, obviously) but our faith is an ancient one, and neither its tenets and sacraments nor language is meant for the uninitiated. Christian women can be offended all they like by masculine pronouns but they're hardly essential to salvation or worship. Yes, it may be difficult to get past male metaphor but Christian worship/life is not in place (solely) as a comfort. No one is going to like it all (e.g., I don't like family based metaphors and I prefer justice to compassion but as I'm called to be compassionate I'm called to the church body). It's a whole, our faith, we don't get to pick only the pieces that resonate.

If the Christian's goal (male or female) is to live a life like Christ's then I question whether or not we should even bother with questions like these. He took the disciples that came to him leaving everything behind - including their pet politics - and he didn't care about their sex.

And as a language note, while I can't speak to Hebrew, Greek's masculine plural nouns include all of humanity. It's a fault of English and its speakers that its pronouns do not.

bethany said...

Joyce: I certainly agree that we can't revise the bible for our contemporary politics, but I do think in our imperfection we overemphasize some parts of the bible in ways that could be damaging. Ideologies can help us maybe see the way our masculine bias has read itself into our understanding of the bible. I believe language always has ways of reflecting, selecting and deflecting, so we need to be aware of what we might be leaving out, especially in issues of translation, which you point out has different connotations in english.

Jim said...

The word kingdom is used 166 times in the old testament and 150 times in the new. (I am grateful to the folks at for their search facility.)

The earlier writers generally employed the word to mean a nation ruled by a male monarch. Whether or not we prefer male monarchies, the word precisely described the institution.

What were the other writers saying? Was there use of the word offensive then? Is the word offensive now?

I suspect that the writers intended no offense. Also, the goodness of the kingdom, in my opinion, will overcome all feelings of hurt and end all inequalities. However, the word kingdom offends me personally, not so much because of sexism, but rather as a result of misconstruction.

If you’d prefer an alternative term, you might consider reading
...thy will be done on earth.... Your comments are welcome AND needed. Thank you.

bethany said...

Jim, perhaps if you read the comment thread you will understand that I am not suggesting that the Bible itself is offensive, and certainly it isn't when it is calling literal kingdoms kingdoms. What I am saying is that perhaps when we call God's politics "kingdom politics" and God's work "kingdom work" that we are perhaps overemphasizing an imperfect metaphor that is loaded with human's sinful history in a particularly gendered and classed way.
Perhaps that is what you mean by misconstruction. That word isn't generally in my lexicon.

Jim said...

Dear Bethany:

Thank you for your prompt reply.

Like you, I don't normally use the word misconstruction. However, while reading and re-reading this wonderful thread over a period of months, that word came to mind and seemed to fit. Merriam agreed.

I agree with you about both gender and class but, to me, that is only the beginning. Also like you, I gain a great deal from a particular church and wonder about divisive leaders (re: Manly Calvinism?).

Personally, I suspect that all churches need us to supply more savor (another word that I never used before).

Jesus was a learned traditional Jew when most learned Jews had been spiritually influenced by repeated conquests of other cultures. I am grateful that Paul took the message to those other cultures but those cultures generally lacked Jesus before Paul arrived.

Consequently, we (you, I and our churches) may benefit if we rediscover the basic teachings of Jesus. Then, we can understand both Paul and Revelation in the context of Jesus...rather than Jesus in the context of Paul.

You and several other online presences have catalyzed me to action, Bethany. After six years since my last blog, I posted a couple of things to begin my view of Jesus' teachings. I would be grateful for company and, more importantly, to help keep me on track. In summary, would you please read and comment on thy will be done.

Thank you again everyone, jim