This is one of many #ThisIsHowSexismEnds prompts, essays, podcasts, memes, interviews, reviews, and articles over the next month that will focus on sexism, gender bias, misogyny, and ending prejudice against women as well as ending toxic hypermasculinity against men (and the overlap attitudes against all of us).
Blessed are You, God, who has not made me a non-Jew.
Blessed are You, God, who has not made me a slave.
Blessed are You, God, who has not made me a woman.
For centuries, a version of these lines have been prayed every day by Jewish men.
The words express a widespread religious belief that persists today, and they stand in stark contrast to a verse in the New Testament:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
This begs the question: how did Jesus react to gender and sexism in his culture?
In the middle of a wide-ranging sermon, Jesus brings up sex.
“You’ve heard the commandment that says, ‘Don’t commit adultery’,” he said, referring to #7 of the Ten Commandments. “But I’m telling you: anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Forget the old phrase, “Look but don’t touch.” Jesus is telling guys that if they’re looking at a woman with sex on their mind—assuming she’s not their wife, anyway—they have already broken the spirit of the Seventh Commandment.
“But wait,” we can predict the protests then as we often hear today. “You can’t blame men. It was the clothes she wore! Only a woman trying to arouse a man would walk just so. And she smiled at me! Don’t you know women are guilty until proven innocent?!” (On this last bit: see the rules in Deuteronomy 22 and Numbers 5 for women accused of extramarital sex.)
Jesus allowed no room for any of that. “If your eye causes you to lust, gouge it out of your head,” he stated, putting responsibility on the man seeing, not the woman being seen. “And if your hand, even your stronger hand, causes you to sin? Chop it off.” It is left to the reader to imagine what a guy might do with his “stronger hand” while lusting, but regardless: it ain’t the woman’s fault.
Jesus adds, “Better for you to throw away one part of your body than condemn your whole body to hell.”
He says this twice just to make sure men understand. It’s your thoughts and behavior that is the sin in that moment, not the woman’s; and it is you who needs to change, maybe severely and painfully, if you want to stop the sin.
In short: guys, take responsibility.
It’s not her fault you’re thinking about sex.
Later, religious leaders dragged a woman before Jesus. “We caught her in the act of adultery,” they said. “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?”
Three double standards were at play. First: it takes two to tango. Nobody can commit an act of adultery by themselves, and yet the leaders only caught the woman.
Second: the law said nothing about “such women”—you know, that kind of women?!—but stated any man and woman caught in adultery were to be stoned.
Third: the law provided for a trial before stoning, but the leaders here relied entirely on the court of public opinion, in which “such women” were automatically guilty.
All three double standards only made sense within a sexist mindset.
Of course, this was a trap. Israel at the time was occupied by a foreign power, the Romans, who prohibited Jews from carrying out capital punishment. So, if Jesus said, “Don’t stone her,” he would contradict Jewish law, and the leaders would condemn him. And saying “Stone her” would put him in hot water with the Romans.
Shrewdly, Jesus didn’t answer their question, but spoke one of his most famous lines: “Let whoever is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” After quiet consideration, the entire group of leaders dispersed, no stones thrown.
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” asked Jesus.
“No one, sir,” she said.
“I don’t condemn you, either,” Jesus replied. “Go now and don’t sin anymore.”
Once again, Jesus bucked sexism in his culture. Rather than endorsing punishment, he bypassed questions of guilt and guaranteed that the woman would not be stoned, since he knew none of the religious leaders wanted to answer to the Romans. He also goaded the leaders into admitting (if silently) that their own sinfulness made them unworthy of casting judgement, even on “such women.” Finally, although he tells her not to sin further, he does not condemn her.
He doesn’t deny that she did something wrong, but it seems irrelevant to him: she is let free of condemnation and taint, and treated with respect.
Contrast that with the connotation of “such women” and how, in the story, no man spoke to her until Jesus did. To him, she was not a mere sinner, or a target for penance; she was a person.
So far we’ve only talked about salacious stuff, but that’s just a fraction of Jesus’ comments on women.
He routinely engaged them as equals and suggested they behave with the same agency as men.
Once, when Jesus arrived at the house of Mary and Martha, one sister sat and listened to Jesus’ teachings, as a man might. The other got busy with dinner prep, but soon complained to Jesus. “Since I’m expected to do all this work, don’t you care that I’m doing it all by myself?” Martha said bitterly. “Tell Mary to help me!”
In response, Jesus gently destroyed her expectations. “Oh, Martha, Martha,” he said. “You aren’t required to run around fulfilling the traditional requirements of your sex. Mary is sitting here listening to a rabbi, fully capable of such intellectual activity, and I think that’s awesome, even though this is far outside gender norms. And you know what? She’s made the better choice, even if it means housework doesn’t get done.”
I am paraphrasing, but this meaning is obvious once you grasp the full weight of the scene.
In his ministry, Jesus did not merely travel with a dozen male disciples, but included women. Luke mentions three by name and says there were “many others.” These women went from town to town as part of Jesus & Company, watched Christ die on the cross, and were with the disciples on the Day of Pentecost.
Many believe these women were disciples themselves, treated as equals as Mary and Martha.
Jesus further broke taboos of gender when he chatted with a minority divorcée at a public drinking fountain. His disciples had gone to buy lunch, and when they returned, “they were surprised to find him talking with a woman.” It wasn’t the topic of the conversation that was a surprise, but the mere fact that a Jewish man would speak in public to a woman, with respect, as if talking to a man.
Notably, this woman—not any man—was the first person Jesus tells plainly that he is the Messiah.
Jesus even used feminine imagery to explain the joy in heaven when sinners repent. He told a parable in which a woman and a lost coin represented God and lost sinners.
Don’t underestimate the shock value of a woman symbolizing God.
Whatever your belief about Jesus, the Biblical stories are clear.
Contrary to his culture, he saw women as equal to men, and encouraged women to behave in equal intellectual activities. He also squarely rebutted the idea that women were guilty and men were innocent.
Almost two millennia have passed, and many of these inequalities still exist. To Christians, at least, Jesus’ example should lead us to #StopSexism.
Are you with him?
Read more of Tor on The Good Men Project!
Sources cited in hyperlinks.