Feminist Theory: From Jesus to Center

Intersectionality paves the road to understanding.

BY LYSAUNDRA CAMPBELL | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 02

Should anyone ever wonder what my passions are, simply ask what I’m currently reading. It’s a question that brings the biggest smile on my face, and the answer will almost always be a combination of theology and feminism. At the moment I’m bouncing between Roxane Gay’s critically acclaimed, Bad Feminist, and Barbara Hughes’, Disciplines of a Godly Woman. In the back of my mind I’m jokingly telling myself that one day I’ll write my own merger of the two: The Disciplines of a Godly, Bad Feminist. Baby steps, for sure. I work hard at convincing myself it isn’t ironic, this Christian feminism. Scholars in both theology and feminism, respectively, have bashed the other at some point. Then here I am. Pleading, like Rodney King, for the intersectionality of the two. 

Both Christianity and Feminism can spark negative ideas. People generalize feminism by saying that feminists hate men. And Christians? Some people say they hate and judge pretty much all people. Both generalizations are contrary to the foundation of beliefs of either. So why, you might ask, would I want to identify with or bridge the gap between these two identities? Because both have played, and continue to play, a major role in my life.

Here is my logic: One of the foundational beliefs of Christianity is the notion that all human beings are made in the image of God and therefore possess inherent dignity. If feminism is “the radical notion that women are human” (Cheris Kramarae), then being Christian is inherently being feminist. Despite advances over the past century, we still live in a world where women’s lives are valued less than our male counterparts when it comes to power and influence.

I’ll save the remainder of this thesis for my future intersectional best-seller. For now, I’ll stick to my journey in faith and feminism.

I grew up in a very typical Bible Belt home in Missouri. We attended services on Sundays, sometimes Wednesday nights, and regularly spent time with the members of our congregation as sort of an extension to our biological family. My earliest introductions to feminism can be accredited to two influences: one movie — The Color Purple (1985) — and one group of powerful women that I’m sure is how most millennial women first learned feminism: The Spice Girls. Music and movies played a major role in shaping my views of what it means to be a girl. I grew up admiring the five-part powerhouse pop group, at least until Ginger (Geri Halliwell) dropped out. Their songs taught me about life, love, female sexuality, and “girl power.” Plus, they had killer shoes and cool British accents! Between graduating from Dr. Seuss books and when I began to devour literary gems such as “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin or “Feminism is for Everybody” by bell hooks as a teen, five women with bare skin and bold hair laid a foundation that I could never shake.

Though I grew up in a Christian home, it wasn’t until college where I began to have more challenges and growth with my faith and feminism. Sometime between by sophomore and junior years I had my “come to Jesus” moment and Feminism 101 simultaneously. While learning and growing in both consecutively I discovered areas of overlap in terms of ideas and a general emphasis on helping people. However, those two worlds would rarely cross orbits, or at least I didn’t have a clue at the time how to make sense of them being in the same solar system. I tried, often. 

One time, feminism was brought up during a Bible study, and the group discussed stereotypes about being angry and anti-male — if I must say, in a manner that proved none of my peers were actually friends with a feminist. That is, until I raised my hand and revealed my true identity. Confused looks flashed across the room. “Wait, how do you do that and Christianity?” someone asked, finally breaking the dead silence. I hesitated a bit, but my nebulous response was that I didn’t see how sexism can be biblical if Jesus was all about loving your neighbor as yourself. It made sense. Well, it made sense to me. While I saw several wheels turning, that night was not a night for revolutionary breakthrough. Just a quiet chorus of unconvinced, “Oh…okay”s. Their belief was that sexism doesn’t happen in the Christian community as it does in the secular world. I begged to differ, but I’ve never been one to debate. 

Almost one year later, I was assisting a survivor of domestic violence with completing a few documents for a local shelter. A couple at her church brought her in after finally escaping a 20-year abusive marriage. As advocates, it’s our job to make sure that someone seeking shelter is comfortable with the sudden transition, so to ease some of her doubts, I didn’t rush her to complete the paperwork in a certain time frame. We mostly talked. Well, she talked and vented. I listened. She went on and on about her upbringing. She told me that her mother would be furious if she found out she had left her marriage — if only for emergency shelter. She told me about the time she first disclosed the abuse with her mother, only to be told that an unhappy husband is the responsibility of the wife. The survivor was the cause of her own abuse, and God was punishing her until she “fixed it.” She was repeatedly told that she couldn’t leave because she had to “submit to her husband’s leadership,” a popular verse that’s highly misquoted in the Christian community when speaking about abuse. 

The woman I worked with that night at the shelter was not an isolated incident. She was just the first person I’d worked with firsthand with this fear — fear that somehow not wanting to “submit” to the abuse of one’s spouse was unbiblical. Fear that caring about her well-being or desiring a respectful partnership was somehow selfish. The negative view, as I experience, about feminism in the Christian community spanned beyond that Bible study group. As I continued learning more about my faith and more about feminism, I would read books about womanhood in a biblical context and came across other anti-feminist perspectives. Here are two:

Feminism is a selfish movement, with no sustainable philosophy, a fabricated history, and an incoherent morality. It does not bring freedom and fulfillment for women, and it will not right injustices. (The Essence of Feminism by Kirsten Birkett)

Then as feminism began infiltrating the evangelical church, the idea of submission became offensive to Christian women instead of central to their identity as children of God. (Disciplines of a Godly Woman by Barbara Hughes) 

In contrast, Amy R. Buckley writes, “Evangelical feminists look to God’s word to make sense of what has gone wrong in human relationships affecting the world. Although the Bible does not explicitly refer to ‘feminism,’ it speaks to justice issues that have bearing on present-day feminist concerns: What is true of God’s design and purposes for humans? How does sin play into human brokenness and wrong ways of treating others? What hope is there for change, healing and restoration? What is necessary, practically, as Christians pursue gender reconciliation?” 

Not everyone shares ideas that I do — like how Jesus was a feminist, seen in the story of him talking to the woman at the well. I don’t think it’s a view that is utterly impossible to believe after deeper consideration. A secular perspective of feminism does nothing more than expose the ways in which the responsibility of men in a biblical context has, in many ways, failed. It’s similar to the Black Nationalist movement, which exposed the church’s perpetuation of and participation in America’s racist foundation. Today, multiple Christian denominations are talking about how to address racial reconciliation, how the Church must own up to its horrific past, and how to improve its current state. 

Likewise, the feminist movement had to — or continues to — come face-to-face with its past race realities as early as the first wave of the feminist movement, or the Suffrage Movement as it was then. While feminism may seem extreme, especially for conservatives, its foundational motives challenge the Church to admit and seek to reconcile past and current perpetuation of abusive patriarchy. As Roxane Gay put it in Bad Feminist, “We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.”

Sure, feminism and Christianity might have some differences, but an incredible human rights revolution could occur should both continue to radically intersect. Feminists, some of whom are Christians, opened the first domestic violence shelters and spearheaded legislation at the local, state and national levels to end violence against women, and continue to advocate for safe homes for all. This level of care for an entire demographic of people is what motivates me to continue to push for the intersection of feminism and Christianity. The dignity of humanity is at the core of Christian beliefs and, likewise, the feminist movement. 

No social justice movement is perfect. Not everyone thought The Spice Girls were good for womens’ self-image, either. Yet, they’re remaining relevant in the lives of 90s babies with the recent resurrection of the Wannabe music video and subsequent trending hashtag #WhatIReallyReallyWant. Writers and activists like Amy R. Buckley, and organizations like the FaithTrust Institute and the AND Campaign, are excellent examples of this intersection emerging in our culture. 

Mutual understanding produces solidarity which then bridges gaps and opens doors to create social change. And that’s a story I am writing today, built on the books of two very different (or maybe, really, not-so-different) origins. ψ

LySaundra Campbell is a storyteller, writer, and editor. She is the founder of Social Soundtrack LLC, a company dedicated to community-building, storytelling, and healing across the African Diaspora through creative art and cultural expression. Before launching Social Soundtrack, she worked in the nonprofit sector for a decade at the collegiate, local, state and national levels to address gender-based violence.


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