Am I being unfair to you?

* a meditation for the Women’s World Day of Prayer based on Numbers 27:1-11*

To be born woman within this world – has been and continues to be – a social and economic disadvantage.

We bear the bulk of the household burdens. And, when we do go out to work, we earn less on average than our male counterparts.

We are underrepresented – in media, in government, even in our local church leadership.

We are more likely to face rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment, and to be told after enduring such ordeals that we deserved it, asked for it; that it’s our fault.

We are trafficked like animals, treated like slaves.

We are more likely to live under the poverty line – especially after retirement.

We are regarded in some cultures and religious to have no soul; and in many countries to have no rights – regardless of what the law of the land might say.

We are shamed into silence; threatened when we question our legal and familial status; labelled as feminists or witches or bitches when we refuse to back down from the burgeoning belief that we were made for more than the ever constant struggle for survival in a man’s world – even nearly a century after women received the right to vote.

To listen to a woman’s story is to immerse yourself in inconceivable and, oftentimes horrific, instances of abuse, neglect, persecution, and injustice by simple virtue of the fact that from the beginning the nature of creator, of companion was woven into her purpose, into her spirit, into her DNA.

The question asked by our Filipino sisters on this day, “Am I being unfair to you?” is best answered by whimpering Woman, by bleeding Africa, by groaning Earth: “When have you ever been fair to me – the one who carried the heavy burden of your weight within my belly, who – in blood and pain – gave birth to you, who nourished you at my breast though at times they were cracked and sore, who watched over your first steps, who wept at your broken heart and wiped your tears away, who rejoiced at the bittersweet moment of you independence, who encouraged you to dance and dream and live when my own life was given up moment by moment and piece by piece … for you?”

Yet, in asking the question, we are invited this day to move beyond the lament of women through countless generations to connect with the unexpected power and resilience that women have found in all of life’s unfairness to hold our heads up high, to claim an equal footing, to birth a new narrative of the full life for which we were created that is to be lived in respectful relation to God, that upholds the dignity of every human being, that builds caring communities, and that nurtures all of nature.

In our reading from Numbers 27:1-11, “am I being unfair to you?” becomes a catalyst for change.

The daughters of Zelophehad lived, like women in many African cultures, in a patrilineal society which meant that only the males in the family were entitled to an inheritance. As women, they were only recognized through their relationships with males as daughters, mothers or wives. The death of their father meant that his name would disappear from the clan and his property would be divided among more distant male relatives – leaving his daughters’ survival and prosperity entirely dependent upon the mercy of the men of Israel who they would marry.

Because they, like many women in patriarchal societies throughout the world, were dependent on men for access to land and income, they found themselves in an extremely vulnerable and powerless position which they found extremely unfair.

But instead of weeping and wailing over their plight and then settling into the situation, they went to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, to the leaders of Israel and the whole assembly of people with a challenge: “Why are you being unfair to us? Why should our father’s name disappear because of a legal requirement? Why shouldn’t we receive his inheritance when he has no son?”

And God says, “They’re right. It is only fair that they as Zelophehad’s direct descendants receive his inheritance.” And the whole law regarding the distribution of property is altered because these five sisters dared to stand up for what was right, for what was fair.

Through their story, we find three lifelines for thriving, rather than surviving, in a world that treats us unfairly:

  1. Our rightful place is provided for by our Creator. Many of us have heard over and over again that because we have wombs that make us capable of child-bearing, our rightful place is at home as nurturer. Many of us have been told that because Scripture says we were fashioned as companion, as helpmate, from Adam’s rib, we exist to support and serve the men in our lives. Many of us have not only borne but perpetuated gender stereotypes and cultural norms that men are stronger, better, smarter. It was even written into Israel’s law that if a man passed away and had no sons, then his property and possessions should be distributed among his male relatives and they would take care of his daughters. The insidious subtext is that women could not look after themselves; that they would not put an inheritance to good use and prosper. And for centuries, that was the practice until five sisters challenged the status quo. And guess what?!? God was on their side. In proclaiming that they were right and changing the law, God affirms their capacity and their strength and they are elevated from their status as dependants to that of landowners. It is a magnificent coup; a victorious challenge of the status quo; a long-overdue broadening of tightly defined gender roles and restrictions. We are just as capable of running a business, looking after the land, taking care of ourselves and our families, standing up for our rights, influencing policy, changing society, but …
  2. We need to stand in solidarity with one another. One of the most common complaints among women today is that women are far worse than men in terms of name-calling, ostracizing, and persecuting those who speak up or stand out or long to separate themselves from traditional practices. The power of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah is that their shared experience of such unfairness united their voices in protest and it was their combined petition that had power to sway the assembly, to get God’s attention. In the same way, our shared experiences of pain, of injustice, of victimization should unite us in an attempt to bring about positive change rather than divide us against one another.
  3. Let change begin with Church. We often forget that much of Scripture is rooted in patriarchal practices and that the inclusion of women into the Good News is an almost subversive act by God, especially in the person of Jesus. Ruth, Rachel, Esther, Deborah, Mary, the Samaritan woman at the well – God wove them into the unfolding story of God’s all-embracing, all-saving love. It’s ironic that even among God’s chosen people, unjust practices which lowered the status of women in society were upheld by the law. The petition of these five sisters for fairness was a subversive act. It was not just a plea to Israel’s priests and leaders but an appeal to God for a fundamental change in the religious, economic, legal, and social order of the day. Similarly, today God seeks to weave us into the continuation of God’s story through His Bride, the Church. It is even more ironic to me that with such a feminine image and a predominantly female-constitution, the Church continues to be dominated by men in terms of its leadership and vision and, for the most part, we seem to be okay with that. But if we want transformation to occur at the social, economic and legal levels of society, we have to begin by embracing a spirituality that speaks to our mutuality, equality and interdependence.

On this Women’s World Day of Prayer, let us not lose ourselves in lamenting the struggles and pain inherent in our stories, but allow the obvious answer that the world is often an unfair place for us to become a catalyst for change: helping us to claim the rightful place that our Creator has provided for us, holding us together in a powerful sisterhood made stronger through our struggles, and urging us to begin right here, right now, in God’s church so that the future becomes brighter – not just for ourselves, but for the many generations of women who will follow in our footsteps.

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