Some habits die hard — especially those we don’t even know are there.
Case in point: As an illustration for a recent chapel message, Dr. Brown showed a series of ads circa the 1950s and 60s to illustrate how popular opinion has changed. And boy, can women be glad it’s 2011.
Apparently, a lot of what passed for good marketing in those days is, by today’s standards, rather rankly sexist. Ads touting everything from coffee to appliances clearly broadcasted that a woman’s place was the kitchen, with some examples even winking at domestic abuse. Students of both sexes responded to the sheer absurdity of these ads with laughter, and some even clapped.
But then the slides changed, and so did the reaction. Ads featuring stereotypical and offensive depictions of minorities were met with a unanimous response — silence. Students seemed to understand that some things demand seriousness. Racism is one of them.
But, wait a minute … sexism isn’t?
Granted, it’s an admittedly facile conclusion to draw, and it’s impossible to analyze such a complex issue based on a 10-second audience response. But on further thought, it seems that similar scenarios play out in everyday life. Few women (and certainly fewer men) would seriously object to the sort of “make me a sandwich” jokes that are playfully thrown around in casual conversations. But when it comes to the flippant treatment of racial issues, watch out.
A number of factors could underlie this. Perhaps it’s because the bitter fruits of sexism are not as visible or violent as those of racism. Perhaps it’s because racially motivated genocide continues throughout the world while we citizens of the 21st century often see gender equality as not even our mothers’ struggle, but our grandmothers’ fight.
But I would posit another factor: simple confusion. In this day and age, gender issues carry an ambiguity that is absent in arguments about race. And, surprising though it may be, the problem seems exacerbated among the church.
Here in post-Civil-Rights-Era America, the overwhelming majority don’t have to think twice on questions of race: the condescension and outright cruelty of our not-distant-enough past rightfully — and almost uniformly — inspires discomfort and embarrassment. But gender issues remain an enigma, particularly for Christians. Two people holding the exact same ideas on the topic are impossible to find, even at Cedarville. So much of what people think about gender roles lies in spiritual “gray areas.” We’re rarely pressed to examine to what degree our opinions are based on biblical truth and how much flows from ingrained tradition alone.
And so, just as the church has in the past retained extremely lamentable ties to the racial status quo, open-minded discussion of gender roles has faced the same obstacles. And then there’s the inescapable fact that many Christians — women as well as men — tend to associate the discussion of gender roles with feminism, that great enemy of God’s plan for marriage and family. Add to all this a list of excessively loaded terms that are unique to the faith — complementarianism, egalitarianism, helper, submission — and you’ve got a problem so complex it’s a wonder it isn’t discussed more.
And that’s most of the problem. Because the only thing worse than dealing too lightly with an important issue is not dealing with it at all. The Christian community is long overdue for a reexamination of its views on God’s intentions for men and women, or we may find ourselves — much as we did in years past with racial issues — rightfully accused of standing in the way.
This is not to say that every sexist joke should inspire righteous indignation. The fact that we can laugh at the past often serves as an indication of progress — that the stinging reality of those ads has mostly gone out. But the sting won’t be removed until we’ve stopped laughing and started talking.