A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
I was raised a Christian, and went with my mother and my sister most Sundays to Baptist Sunday School classes and church services. I’m not religious now, but I owe much of my personal philosophy and ways of being to my spiritual upbringing.
“God is love,” taken from the Bible, is my theology. To me, it means that we attain our highest spiritual fulfillment in performing acts of love. Jesus’s teachings are filled with admonitions to love one another, to “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” to live not by dogma but by the spirit of love. Jesus, I learned, saved an adulteress from stoning, wept not at his own mistreatment but at injustices done to others, and taught that God loves us all, sinner and saint, believer and non-believer, alike.
This God fit well with the Sunday night sermons of Brother Tommy at Vernon Hall, the mansion-turned-house-of-worship in Kinston, North Carolina, where I lived as a teen. Tommy’s long, rambling sermons were all about love, and he taught that God, for example, doesn’t care if a girl wears mini-skirts, because all He sees is our souls, not our clothing. Later, in Philadelphia, my friend David Moon introduced me to the Quaker faith, which teaches that each of us contains a bit of God inside us, called the Inner Light, rendering all — male, female, adult, child — worthy of respect and love.
Yet I encountered a darker side of my religion, too. I accompanied a friend to church services at the Free Will Baptist Church where her father was a deacon, and quickly discovered that “Free Will” is an oxymoron. One night I engaged in a heated discussion with the deacon-dad about whether it’s sinful for women to wear pants! His argument was a passage in the New Testament in which women are admonished not to wear men’s clothing. Mr. Deacon didn’t buy Brother Tommy’s position that God sees the inner person, not the outerwear; nor did my own question faze him that that pants didn’t even exist when the verses were written, so who got to decide later that pants were men’s wear? I dropped out of that church when a teen ice-skating party mandated that girls wear skirts. Ouch!
The Prophet Muhammad, who lived in a much different culture, presented a somewhat different image of God, one more akin to Old Testament teachings than to those in the New Testament. Muhammad’s God is a warrior, vengeful and filled with wrath against the Prophet’s enemies. Of course, God was speaking to Muhammad’s situation, not to the entire planet for all eternity — if there’s a God, then surely It understands the concept of change.
The same applies when it comes to verses delineating women’s rights. The Qur’an’s granting of a woman’s right to inherit property, but in smaller proportions than men could inherit, is seen today as being misogynist because it’s unequal. But as “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina” demonstrate, this was a right women hadn’t possessed at all before that time. The same holds true for a woman’s right to testify in court.
All this brings me to the question posed by the recent UK book, “Does God Hate Women?” History has shown that religious mavericks such as Jesus and Muhammad were, essentially, egalitarian in their teachings and their life practices. But Muhammad, who, unlike Christ, consciously created a new religious community and religious practices, also knew — or God told him — that you can only go so far before you lose followers. Rather than throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, Muhammad compromised. Or God did.
Does God hate women? I would say “no.” God is love, remember? It’s men who hate women — men who appropriate the religious beliefs of holy men (and ignore those of holy women) and, with the help of the sword and the iron fist, turn them from tools of liberation into tools of oppression. The Catholic Church did it to women in the Middle Ages, and the Muslim religion has done it to women almost since the day Muhammad died.
I’m looking forward to reading Jeremy Stangroom and Ophelia Benson’s book, and gaining more insight into the history of female oppression in the name of patriarchal religion. However, I want to caution those who point with glee at the authors’ assertion that Muhammad’s marriage to A’isha at age nine is “not entirely compatible with the idea that he had the best interests of women at heart.”
I’m researching a new novel, one taking place in 13th-century Europe, and I’m finding girls as young as six being wed to men many times their age. As Jesus reportedly said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Not until the 19th century did the Catholic Church raise the age of consent for girls above nine years old! Times were different back then; people didn’t have our knowledge or insights regarding the physical and emotional effects on girls of marrying and procreating at such young ages.
Some will point to contemporary Muslim practices and argue that child marriage continues in the example of Muhammad. My response is this: The practice is wrong, but rare. We should be condemning those who subject girls to slavery and rape in the name of religion — while persecuting those who kill abortion doctors in the name of Christianity, as well. There is nothing God-like about any of it. “God is love” — remember?