VIEW VIDEO I was talking with a man not long ago who learned during our conversation that I was a Quaker minister. He said, “I used to be a pastor.”
I asked him how long he had served as a pastor and he said, “Well, it was a long time ago, and I only lasted three months.”
I knew there had to be a good story there. Three months? How do you only last three months? It turns out he forgot Mother’s Day. He said, “Actually, I think they would have forgiven that, but the next week I preached on women and the church and quoted from Genesis about men ruling over women and 1st Corinthians about women being silent in church and that turned out to be my last Sunday.”
I didn’t know him well, so didn’t feel free to call him a birdbrain, but I thought it.
I asked him if he still believed those things, and he said no, that he’d gotten married and his wife had straightened him out, and I say good for her.
So Happy Mother’s Day, women, and greetings from a church that doesn’t believe you should be ruled by anyone but yourself and if you want to speak, feel free. If you’re not a mother, we still celebrate you. Today, we honor all those women who create, nurture, and love. Some women give birth to children, others to ideas, and still others to transformative social change. We honor you and applaud the many and various ways you have nurtured life.
We begin with an apology. Religion, perhaps more than any other institution, has conspired to keep women down. The American suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, once said, “The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.” We can talk until we are blue in the face how the Church reveres women, how the Church elevates women, but when Christianity’s largest denomination, Roman Catholicism, does not permit women to serve as priests, when a religious majority in the Supreme Court conspires to deny women their medical and reproductive freedom, when 48,000 Southern Baptist churches do not permit women to lead, when 17 million Mormons worldwide will not permit women to serve in the priesthood, the Church’s words ring hollow.
We’ve been talking about what it means to be spiritual, contrasting religion and spirituality. I want to continue our exploration by observing that religions, not all religions, but certainly a plurality of religions in history, have endeavored to keep women down and powerless, and have done so by claiming the subjugation of women is God’s will. We contrast this with spirituality, whose purpose is always to connect and affirm, believes women were not intended to be managed, but emancipated. Spirituality speaks not of conquest and control, but of connection and liberation.
When our Christian ancestors encountered strong and independent women, they called them witches and put them to death, a warning to women everywhere to know their place and stay there. Philip Smith, writing in the academic journal Historical Social Research, estimated that from 1400-1700 AD up to one million women were accused of witchcraft and half of them were put to death, with full approval of the Church. Then we became “civilized,” so rather than killing powerful and free-thinking women, we forbid them from owning property, made them stay with abusive husbands, denied them a voice in political matters, and still forbid them from terminating an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy. When we peer behind this grim curtain, we see the hand of oppressive religion pulling the strings.
When women expressed great spiritual truths, they were corralled, told what they could and couldn’t say, what they could and couldn’t feel, what they could and couldn’t do. But spirituality never corrals, it never controls. It seeks only to enlighten and illuminate. When I hear a woman say, “I am spiritual, but not religious,” I am hearing a women realize she has been ill-served and abused by religion, though has not lost her passion for truth, meaning, and beauty. It means religion has tried to silence her, but she has nevertheless persisted. For too many years our image of the perfect woman was related to her willingness and ability to serve men. She was not valued for her intelligence, for her insight, for her creativity, for her strength, but valued only for her compliance and submission. Wives, obey your husbands, religion told her. Cover your head. Keep silent. Bear children. Don’t argue. Know your place.
But know this, compliance and submission are the dreaded enemies of true spirituality, which serves always to emancipate and empower, especially those who’ve been held down and held back.
Today is Mother’s Day, so I think naturally of my mother and her life. My mother had 78 organs, of which the womb was only one. When that was removed, her value was in no way diminished.
I remember my mother telling me of the day she told religion to stop concerning itself with her womb. She’d had five children in six years and one Sunday morning sat through a homily given by a man telling her birth control was a sin. Afterwards, she asked him, “Are you going to help me raise all the children you want me to have?”
He said, “That is not my business.”
She said, “Exactly.”
I loved my mother. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t think of her, that I don’t miss her, that I don’t cherish her memory. I am grateful she gave me life. But I am even more grateful for her strength, her intelligence, and her refusal to be reduced to a womb.
In the last decades of her life, my mother was not a religious woman. She was however, deeply spiritual, and walked freely and joyfully among the fragrant and gorgeous mysteries of life. I pray all of us may do the same.