By Heather W. Reichgott
As Easter approaches, here is a feminist perspective on the resurrection.
Plenty of feminist theologians take a dim view of miracles, for a variety of reasons. Some feminists react against the authoritarian/literalist(1) view of the Bible that insists at the same time on miracles and on the superiority of men over women. Others are closely aligned with academic and other communities that prefer a scientific view of the world, or rather, one form of science in which miracles are not considered a possibility. While I respect these positions, I am a feminist who takes a strong view of miracles, especially the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection, a gracious act of God subverting the normal processes of nature, has crucial implications for theologies of gender that base themselves in natural law.
In her article “Queering Death,” Elizabeth Stuart reaches back to the ancient linkage of death and reproduction. Male and female cleave together in intercourse to produce children; the parents die; the children live on and produce more children. Meditating on the resurrection account in the gospel of John, Stuart claims that the resurrection undoes the necessity of this pattern, for it undoes the finality of death.
The natural law tradition in theology, which argues from evidence in the created world to make propositions about what should be, holds to a theology of gender that is based on the physical events of heterosexual intercourse and reproduction. Since heterosexual genitals can be made to fit together, and since this activity sometimes produces children who grow in the womb of the woman and nurse from her breasts, the argument claims that therefore procreative heterosexual intercourse is the only legitimate context for human sexuality, and that women’s existence is ineluctably tied to their responsibility to bear children in a way that men’s existence is not.
The problem with this argument is that the link between natural process and ethical necessity has been broken completely by the resurrection. In the resurrection God demonstrates that She is beyond death. Jesus, who had been killed, is restored to Mary Magdalene and Peter and Thomas, all those who loved him and all those who hated him. The work of God that Jesus was doing was not stopped by the resurrection. Jesus rose from the grave, undoing death once and for all, giving us reason to hope even in the midst of the tombs.
If this is what God can do with such a natural process of death, what does that mean for gender?
Clearly we cannot look merely at the world we see in front of us to understand what God wishes us to be. This is not all there is. That is the basis for Christian hope, whether such hopes are directed at survival, healing, social change or life after death.
Stuart writes, “It was not just that God defeated death, but that God did so in human flesh, and this has profound implications for flesh itself. It bursts from the tomb, the same but different: a flesh no longer made for cleaving nor for oblivion. … For a Christian, death does not even threaten the end of bodiliness, but rather becomes a physical experience/encounter with the divine.” (2)
If God’s plan for life and death is not limited by the grave, then there is no reason to believe God’s plan for gender is limited by the natural process of heterosexual reproduction. And in fact, a thorough reading of the Bible presents us with numerous women whose importance to the work of God far outstrips their reproductive roles. Women in God’s eyes are much more than wives and mothers; indeed, they need not be wives and mothers in order to be pivotal figures in Biblical narrative, or to be pivotal figures in God’s work in the world today.
In the resurrection God takes a natural process and subverts it completely. As people of the resurrection, Christian women may be confident that God has completely subverted the “natural” rules of gender once and for all.
(1) No one can really be a literalist, since it is impossible to obey the entire Bible at the same time; however, I use the term since it points to a frame of mind which readers will recognize.
(2) “Queering Death” in The Sexual Theologian, eds. Althaus-Reid and Isherwood (T&T Clark, 2004), p. 62-63.