Sunday, October 22, 2006
St. John Chrysostom: Headship and the Culture Wars
I've been on a bit of a John Chrysostom kick recently, since I have, finally, got around to reading a couple collections of John's sermons from St. Vladimir Press' Popular Patristics series(an indispensable source of patristic writers for the patristic amateur). I really like St. John. John is an easy Father to get into because, ultimately, he is grounded in the nitty-gritty of Christian life and, while he clearly understands theology, he has a knack for relating it back to everyday life in a way that makes it clear that he knows where the rubber hits the road. That is, of course, because John is primarily a sermon writer, not a philosophical theologian, but it is a valuable gift and one that he liberally bestowed on the Church of his day and for the generations following.
So, yesterday, when I was contemplating this entry, I decided I would go back and have a second look at the Marriage and Family Life collection I had been reading until last week. In particular, I began to re-read his Homily 20 on Ephesians 5,22-3.
I have to admit I find that particular passage of Ephesians a bit difficult. Not so much because I have a particular problem with what Paul is actually saying, but, really, because of the memory of what people think Paul is actually saying. My experience, of course, is formed by my early intellectual formation at university during the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 90s. So my squeamishness on the subject comes from my discomfort with the polarization of the debate over the how the marital relationship should work.
On one side, we heard feminist accusations that the Bible promoted patriarchy and submission of women to men which had to be broken, if we expected to live in a free and democratic society amid gender equality and respect. Ephesians 5:22-3, in particular, was a passage feminists love to hate because Paul thought wives should be subject to their husbands and, after all, what call did any man have to demand that? Besides, they would argue, how many women were kept oppressed and abused because religious authorities connived in this abuse of women by citing this passage to support the unequivocal right of the man to rule in the household? Surely, we just have to accept that Paul was a misogynist and dismiss his talk of submission as mere patriarchal tripe.
On the other side, we heard the voice of the religious right which insisted that the headship of men over women meant that all the decisions of the Christian home should be made by the man. Women could take care of the babies, but shouldn't seek much more than that because they simply weren't cut out for it. Clearly, the headship of men was established by God because, clearly, men were best able to deal with the outside world. Women were too emotional and fragile to function outside the home, so they should be left where their nurturing talents were best employed: the Christian home. The ideal here was the 1950s middle class dream in which the father brings home the bacon and mother cooks it up for father and the kids.
I do recognize that both of these positions are caricatures. The reality of the visions of both sides of the Culture Wars was much more nuanced and varied that I present here. Yet, in the ideologically over-heated debates of that period (which continue until today) the subtleties and the nuances of each position were usually ignored and the broad lines of the debate in the media accentuated these caricatured positions (possibly because a clash of black and white ideas gives better ratings).
This line of thought brought me back to John's homily. In this homily, John can hardly be accused of being pro-feminist. Like most of the Fathers, he is not only unsympathetic with the idea of gender equality, but he is incredulous that anyone would propose it. He plainly thinks someone should take leadership in the family and that person should be the father. So, in that sense, he strongly favours the headship model of Christian marriage. On his side, of course, is that his position is strongly supported by Scripture. Time and again, in Ephesians and in other letters, Scripture makes the headship of the husband the norm in the Christian home. As John himself points out, Scripture even goes as far as making this marital headship the metaphor to describe Jesus' relationship with the Church as a whole. If this headship model wasn't intended to be binding on Christians, how could Scripture use such a metaphor for the whole Church?
I admit this is the point where I start getting uncomfortable. In the Culture Wars, if I was forced to align myself (my favoured position being sitting firmly on the fence), I would have aligned myself with the feminist view. I have few problems with seeing women work outside the home, although I worry when one or both parents are engrossed in their careers to the neglect of their children. I think very well of my wife's intelligence and ability to contribute to the world outside the home. All too often I hear the term headship and I start squirming because it all sounds too authoritarian and uncomfortable to me.
Yet John points the way out of this modern false dichotomy. Yes, he affirms that wives should be subject and obedience to their husbands. He makes it very clear that wives should show respect to their husbands, even if their husbands aren't very loving. Yet he also makes it clear that the obedience of the wife should not be the fearful obedience of a slave, but rather the response to the loving care of the husband. Just as Christ loves the Church and does everything to take care of it, so the human husband should do for his wife and family. That means a willingness to take the actions of love whenever they arise, even if one's wife or child aren't being particularly obedient or respectful. For John, the head of the household wasn't the authoritarian Roman pater familias with the power of life and death over his family and the willingness to use it, but the self-sacrificial Christ, who loves the Church into redemption. The true mark of the head of the family is self-sacrificial love, not naked power enforcing a fearful submission.
The trick, of course, is the application of this practice in my life. How do I, as a husband, balance the leadership which God expects of me with the loving self-sacrifice which is integral to the husband's role in a Christian marriage? I can't say I have all the answers or that the answers that I do have are the right ones. What I like about John, though, is that he points the way to a Christian practice of marriage which avoids the extremes of the modern Culture Wars, but points to an ideal which recognizes human frailty and calls on us to transcend those faults by applying the balm of love and prayer. I can't think of a better way to proceed.