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Remember learning about similes and metaphors in 5th grade and writing all sorts of strange sentences to practice the concept? Metaphors are actually more important than your 5th grade teacher led you to believe. Metaphors, and language in general, are really powerful. Metaphors spark our imagination and influence how we interpret and see people, places, and as I will demonstrate, God.

Metaphors are so deeply woven into our language and culture that we often fail to realize their presence and prevalence. Even the Bible is replete with metaphors for God, for humanity and for creation. Metaphors ignite our thoughts and emotions and help us to relate to other subjects or understand others. This is partly why film, art or poetry are so powerful. They express things through image or language that hold far deeper meaning than the mere words themselves. Words can hold immense power, and two or three words strung together can radically influence how you interpret something. Allow an experiment. The following list of metaphors make statements, but the statements are jam packed with assumptions, questions, beliefs, and biases.

1. The Bible is truth

2. This bread is the body of Christ

3. God is love

4. God is King

Far from an attempt at deconstructing these theological statements, it becomes apparent that our theological statements and beliefs are deeply entangled and even dependent upon particular metaphors. What does it mean, then, that the Bible is truth? What is truth and what does it mean to equate the Bible with such an idea? What does it mean that bread is the “body of Christ”? What is love? And what does it mean to equate God with it? Lastly, what is a king? Who are kings? How do kings function, and what does it mean to refer to God as a king?

This monarchical––and gendered––metaphor is a glimpse into the patriarchal language embedded into Christianity that dominates theological discourse, worship, the ways in which people relate to God, and even anthropology. Such monarchical metaphors may simply express a reverence for God, but the reality is that such reverence subtly speaks to our views of both men and women in ways that align divinity and power with men over and above women. Feminist critiques of Christianity have driven this point home for decades, but dominant Christianity has been unable to disengage its beliefs and declarations about God from its traditional, historical metaphors created by patriarchal cultures. In other words, Christianity has allowed imperfect images and language to determine the boundaries of acceptable ways to talk about God, humanity, and the universe. By imperfect images, I am referring to the ways in which our language always falls short of fully encompassing reality. This is no more true than within our language about God. What we say about God can never fully capture who God is, but are attempts at describing the Divine.

Here is a simple exercise in how this plays out and why we must rethink the ways in which we speak about God. Claiming that God is King assumes that God is male. Do you believe God is a man? Probably not. Do you believe God is a woman? Of course you don’t. However, you are likely to be far more comfortable relating to God as a man than as a woman because centuries of tradition, art and worship have declared God to be male, and for God to be more feminine than masculine would denude God of power. Consequently, this associates women with inferiority, weakness and a lack of power. Unfortunately, this is exactly how Christianity has treated women for the majority of history. This subtlety in language about God shapes a multitude of cultural assumptions and biases about men, women, power and equality that always tip the scales of privilege toward the male experience. Christianity must recognize this, resist it, and refuse to be constrained by a limited vocabulary, and in so doing begin to move closer toward mutuality and gender equality. Rethinking our language is a vital step in the process of rethinking our images, our identities, and who God is.

The powerful metaphors “God is King,” “Jesus is Lord” and “the Kingdom of God” are not only unhelpful, but damaging because of the assumptions they make about who God is, God’s relationship to the world, engendered power structures, and because of the problematic association with a hierarchical and royal relationship which is no longer relevant in the 21st century West and elsewhere.

So what do we do and where do we go from here? It is important to rethink how we speak of God. We cannot escape gender, but we can escape gender exclusivity in a way that matches our language to what we believe about who God is. While one option is to avoid gendered pronouns altogether (using God, Godself, etc.), I think it is important to make use of both male and female pronouns together. That means we need to get comfortable referring to God as She and praying to our Holy Mother. Next, we come up with better metaphors and images and language by which we capture and describe participation in the life of God that makes sense to and values all of our gendered bodies and experiences and reconcile them to Christ. It is through this movement that we will begin to reconcile ourselves to one another, living in mutuality, love, and honor for others.

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Station 8 – Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem

As Jesus is nearing the top of the hill where he will meet death, Luke records the following scene:

A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.”

Jesus endures his own suffering while directing our attention toward the suffering all around us, encouraging us toward empathy and intervention; to step into the messes of life and bring healing. Reflections on this passage in the 21st century require more of us. What is required of us is seeing that these messes go beyond humanity and extend to all of creation. Jesus’ words take on greater meaning when we reflect on the reality that environmental degradation disproportionally affects women in the two-thirds world. 

A few weeks ago I wrote about the blind man in Mark 8 who, partially able to see, says that he sees people but “they look like trees walking.” We often find ourselves with the same cloudy vision, unable (and perhaps unwilling) to see the reality of hurt and brokenness around us. We need a second healing or conversion experience in which our vision becomes clear and we start to see the injustices of inequality, exclusion, racism and patriarchy. We can and should indeed weep because it is such lament that motivates us toward healing the brokenness of ourselves, the earth and all the relationships in between.

Norm Habel writes:

Do you want to see Christ suffering? . . .First look at the cross. Then look at hundreds of stations of the cross scattered around the earth. At every station God suffers. To name just a few: Maralinga in Australia, Ok Tedi in Papua New Guinea, the Amazon Rain Forest, the saline farmlands of Western Australia, the Gulag of Siberia, or the lost soil from the Darling Downs. God ensoiled in this desecrated earth suffers.[1]

Language about God suffering is often avoided in many Christian circles. We prefer instead to preserve God as omnipotent and impervious to emotion and pain. This can no longer be the way that we relate to God, as one outside of human experience. The incarnation, and Jesus’ grinding stagger toward the cross tell us that God does not only suffer, but suffers alongside creation. In Jesus, God breathes and bleeds in divine vulnerability, risking the finitude and mortality of humanity for the sake of making divine love visible and tangible.

God inhabits carbon, permeating and pulsing through all life. Recognizing this is part of a second conversion that we must make in following Jesus. Sallie McFague uses the beautiful and striking metaphor of “the world as God’s Body.” The earth, creation, is not simply a backdrop for human history, or an instrument for human use, consumption or exploitation, but part of God’s self-revelation. We say along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning,

Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God: but only he who sees takes off his shoes – the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

It is when we see the presence of God unfolding in the emergence of life that we are able to see Christ suffering and enduring pain in depleted aquifers, fracked landscapes, toxic rivers, strip-mined mountains, and plains now victims of desertification.

Prayer: God, help me to see you embedded and en-soiled within creation. May I treat the earth and its inhabitants with love because you are present in them.

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1. Norman C. Habel,  “The Third Mission of the Church” in Trinity Occasional Papers (Brisbane: Trinity Theological College, 1998)XVII, I, pages 31-43.

I had the privilege of attending The Justice Conference here in Portland over the weekend. With the help of a handful of scholars, activists and artists, it was a great weekend that inspired, challenged, and disturbed many people. I’d like to share a few thoughts about some things that were highlights for me.

1. Burn, baby, burn!

One of the most powerful, subversive and simple acts of resistance took place during “Jesus, Bombs, and Ice Cream,” the presentation by Shane Claiborne and Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen. The two took our country’s priorities to task as they exposed the enormity of military spending in light of poverty, poor education, poor health, and the down spiraling economy. The two talked about the billions of dollars spent on military spending and how those dollars kill twice. The first time they kill is when they are kept from the poor and the second time is when they have created the bombs or the guns or the missiles that kill our enemies. Before a crowd of 4,000 people, Shane Claiborne burned a $100 bill. In that moment a tension filled the room and all the thousands of thoughts regarding what that $100 could do hung over us all like a blanket and silenced us. The point Shane was making was that justice is not about handing money out. Sure, fair distribution and redistribution are certainly crucial and necessary components of a just society and economic structure, but money will never replace hearts that care and are moved by the plight of a neighbor, stranger, enemy, or neighborhood in pain. That act of non-violent resistance in the face of a society that worships money and views it as the cure for all our problems illuminates another and a better story: love of neighbor and the act of humanizing those who have been dehumanized robs money of its power and changes everything. That is the kind of gospel I want to be a part of.

2. Honor. Everyone.

Last semester I wrote a paper in which I kind of called Miroslav Volf “dystopian” and disagreed with him on the scope and influence of a social trinitarian theology. Don’t tell him about that. Miroslav’s lecture on Friday night was phenomenal. Miroslav spoke on the words “Honor everyone” found in 1 Peter 2:17 and challenged everyone to imagine what that might mean. Honor goes beyond tolerance and respect. This has profound implications for interfaith dialogue, as well as how Christians must carry themselves to command honor as well.

In talking through this with my wife, I agree with her that it is easier to honor people who do not claim to follow Jesus than it is to honor people to who do profess Jesus yet fail to embrace and value all people equally. My wife and I were discussing Volf’s challenge on Friday night and questioning whether or not honoring the oppressor demeans the oppressed. You can say that in a myriad of ways, but here is an example. Does honoring people who demean and devalue women hurt my sisters?

3. The low-points…

That kind of segues into my reflection on the low-points of The Justice Conference. While I am sure there were many different traditions represented, The Justice Conference is by and large an Evangelical production. Thus, it is disturbing that a progressive Evangelical conference dedicated to the topic of justice would not turn its attention toward the tremendous split between genders in Evangelical Christianity. This was indeed the elephant in the room. More than 4000 people were gathered to talk about justice issues facing our society–and don’t get me wrong, many pressing issues were addressed along with opportunities to get involved and create change–but a pressing injustice in our own Christian culture went largely unaddressed. The problem of sexism within Christianity is no big secret. Various celebrity Christian leaders are outspoken about gender roles, and gender inequality is pervasive within Evangelical churches. This was the perfect opportunity to tell another story and present another side of Christianity. Justice is a thread that includes women as equals.

Where were the female scholars and theologians and pastors? They exist. Dr. Mimi Haddad from CBE International was in attendance and presented in the pre-conference, though it would have been great to see her in the main conference. With more than 60 presentations in pre-conference and main conference sessions only 3 dealt specifically with the topic of gender, none of which took place in the main conference. Additionally, there was nothing on the topic of sexual orientation.

As Christians getting together to talk about justice, we cannot overlook the continued injustice of theology and practice that wrongly devalues women and cements men in a role of superiority above women. This dualist sexism has no place within Christianity.

I’m deeply thankful for what The Justice Conference has done right and well. It was life giving in many ways, but was also very much a product of Evangelical Christianity in other less hopeful and life giving ways.