Gender and Justification within Empire: Toward a Christian Ethic of Gender Justice

Versions of this article were given in seminars at the Galatians and Christian Theology Conference, St. Andrews University, Scotland,, July, 2012 and the International Luther Congress, Helsinki, Finland, August, 2012

[1] The company that makes the soft drink Dr. Pepper Ten ran commercials in 2011 that showed manly men driving a jeep through the jungle, fighting snakes and other men. They were in a potentially dangerous situation, and they were getting dirty. Real manliness, the commercial leads viewers to conclude, is supported—not negated—by drinking this new low-calorie Dr. Pepper. One man talks to viewers as he tries to pour his soda into a glass while bouncing along the road. “’Hey ladies. Enjoying the film? Of course not. Because this is our movie and this is our soda. You can keep the romantic comedies and lady drinks. We’re good.’”[1] Men, viewers are led to believe, are clearly and thankfully not women, no matter what they drink.

[2] At about the same time this commercial ran during American football games, a FaceBook page related to the commercial appeared, for males only. The object of one game is to detonate as many symbols of Western femininity in as short a time as possible: lipsticks, high heels, purses, etc.[2] Although the game is no longer restricted to males only, if a player does not shoot enough female-identified targets, one is told, “The shooting gallery is no place for a woman like you.” Men, players are led to believe, are clearly and thankfully not women, and they can symbolically participate in otherizing females in a universalized online space.

[3] Ancient Rome also otherized females in their universalized spaces, including buildings and art. The Roman Empire was, in fact, represented as a conquering man over a woman about to be raped. In this masculinized context of empire, recent feminist scholarship on the book of Galatians demonstrates, justification and the cross had particular meanings linked to the statuses of being lawful or lawless. Rome “argued” through both words and images that people could be justified—redeemed—by participating in Rome’s version of reality, an empire of the consumption of others that Rome created through the force of the military and the form of colonial cities. Anyone who refused Rome’s version of reality found the cross. And usually, the people whom Rome deigned to label lawless—outside of Rome’s “law” or version of reality—did find the cross.

[4] Justification and the cross are central expressions of faith in the Lutheran tradition. Feminist Lutheran theologians consistently work with these articulations of faith to criticize patriarchy and abusive interpretations of the cross. [3] Recent feminist and gender critical scholarship on Galatians by Brigitte Kahl and Davina C. Lopez re-reads its Roman context and thereby deepens feminist Lutheran interpretations of justification and the cross.

[5] Galatians is a key text for understanding Paul’s expressions of justification, the cross, and law, but it is likewise a crucial transvaluation of Imperial Rome’s gendered construction of power that positively affects interpretations of Luther on justification, particularly through the paradox of freedom and bondage articulated in “The Freedom of a Christian.” Faith sets us free from all “imperial” law—law that claims to be above God because it relies on binaries of power and value between various humans. My proposal is that we can interpret justification by grace through faith to mean that grace through Christ radicalizes our knowledge and experience of our collective and personal place before God. We are freed from the idolatry of Self over Other and are simultaneously bound to each other. Our position in relation to God and each other is justified. Yet we act at the risk of the cross because of these relationships, wrought by God’s grace. Such a theological conclusion is one basis for an ethic of gender justice that addresses the image, idol, and ideology of patriarchal empire in social culture and in the Lutheran tradition.

[6] My argument is that re-reading justification and the cross by contextualizing Galatians in the Roman Empire contributes to a Christian ethic of intersectional gender justice. First, because justification is re-read through Kahl’s analysis of law and lawlessness to be a radical communal intervention of patriarchal domination, contemporary ecclesiological self-understanding in terms of gender justice is reoriented from a women’s issue to a church issue and from a human rights issue to a theological issue. Second, Lopez’s analysis of visual communication in Rome illuminates similar patterns of masculinized domination operative in America’s church and society. She argues that New Testament scholarship has been largely focused on women and what they were doing, but that attention must shift to a gender-critical reading of Roman ideology in order to understand better the complexities of Paul’s letters.[4] Current understandings of gender justice are similarly distracted by women and what we are doing. Instead, Christian faith should be attentive to similar patterns of patriarchal ideology in church and society.

[7] Luther on Justification

[8] Luther reads Paul to proclaim justification by grace through faith in stark contrast to justification by law—Jewish law. The “arrogant Jews,” Luther writes, are unsure of their sinfulness because of their dependence upon works.[5] Luther argues that Paul is focused on Christian righteousness in contradistinction to any other. He writes, “For if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost. And those in the world who do not teach it are either Jews or Turks or papists or sectarians.”[6] Justification by grace, rather than works, is foundational for Luther.

[9] Luther applies his anti-Jewish and anti-Turk reading of Paul to his own situation of curial works righteousness. Luther’s arguments against the papists, as he calls them, center on his concern that God alone be accepted as the arbiter of righteousness. In essence, Luther proclaims an anti-idolatrous message. To Pope Leo X Luther writes that he attacks his opponents due to their “ungodly doctrines . . . not because of their bad morals, but because of their ungodliness.” He continues, “I have truly despised your see, the Roman Curia . . . which, as far as I can see, is characterized by a completely depraved, hopeless, and notorious godlessness.”[7] Luther is concerned to undermine idolatry, godlessness. This is his argument against Rome.

[10] While Paul in some respects may have been making a distinction between the faith of his birth and the new movement surrounding Jesus, there is more to the story in interpreting Paul.[8] Luther’s arguments against the papists have a corollary to the Roman social and religious context against which Paul argues. Both Luther and Paul take an anti-idolatrous stance. The God of Jesus Christ is supreme, and this divinity alone “justifies.” From his reading of Paul, Luther writes, “[F]aith alone is the righteousness of a Christian and the fulfilling of all the commandments.”[9] Faith alone veers people away from the idolatry of works righteousness. What I will demonstrate is that the righteousness proscribed by Imperial Rome in Paul’s time and the Roman Curia in Luther’s time correlates with the contemporary expression of patriarchal images, idols, and ideology. The “human works and laws” of the Roman Empire, the papists against whom Luther argued, and contemporary patriarchal ideology all bind humans in idolatry. Humans should not be in bondage to each other for their righteousness, their “lawfulness,” Luther argues. Thus in reference to the priesthood of all believers in “The Freedom of a Christian,” he writes:

[11] Through this perversion [the hierarchy of value between clergy and lay people] the knowledge of Christian grace, faith, liberty, and of Christ himself has altogether perished, and its place has been taken by an unbearable bondage of human works and laws until we have become, as the Lamentations of Jeremiah say, servants of the vilest men on earth who abuse our misfortune to serve only their base and shameless will.[10]

[12] We have from Luther a compelling basis out of which to decry the bondage of human forms of righteousness, including patriarchy, and to embrace gender justice as a theological, ecclesial and social enterprise.

[13] The problem is that Luther focuses so ardently on Jews, papists, and Turks when he reads Paul. We need to imagine Paul’s Roman context to deepen our reading of Paul speaking to the Galatians. If we focus on Jewish law, we allow Roman law to disappear from this richly complex landscape within which and to which Paul speaks. Re-reading the Roman context of justification helps us to re-read Luther.

[14] Feminists on Galatians

[15] Brigitte Kahl’s work addresses the meaning of law in Roman imperial ideology and thereby disrupts the popular Protestant interpretation of justification as a forensic act of God through Christ for individual believers. Instead, she argues, justification by faith is better understood in Paul’s context as a new law, love as self-othering. Davina Lopez’s work delves into the meaning of “the nations” in Galatians through a gender-critical perspective she emerges with insights valuable for a theology of the cross. The cross stands for transgression into the lowest position in the Roman Empire, a place that according to Paul both God and humanity take on by crossing boundaries. Their collective work contributes to a Christian ethic of intersectional gender justice.

[16] Kahl offers a critical re-reading of Galatians by re-imagining Paul’s world particularly through the Pergamon Altar.[11] In short, Paul’s message of the cross “’transvalues’” the imperial masculinity essential to empire.[12] Kahl’s conclusion is that a critical re-imagination in dialogue with Pergamene imagery “enables a new understanding of Paul’s core theme of justification by grace through faith as nothing less than an intervention into the world of the eid­ōla, that is, the images, idols, and ideology of Roman imperial rule.”[13] And Roman eidōla, according to Lopez, is marked by gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. In a word—it is patriarchal. To unpack this transvaluation, I offer a brief look at Kahl’s explication of lawfulness and lawlessness under Roman rule.

Kahl graphic[17] To be outside of Roman law was to be lawless, and this binary depended upon the semiotics of the unrighteous, lawless other, most notably portrayed in the Pergamon Altar. The works of Roman law depended on the good news, benefaction, and salvation of the Roman order. The good news was that colonized peoples could be justified through Roman law[14] by submission to it.[15] Participating in Roman law, which accorded with the Roman cosmic orderthat Caesar ruled as Father brought benefits. Submission to Roman order required participating in the sacrifice of others.[16] Such participation reaped people benefits or benefactions from the Emperor. For example, in the arena all classes of people were brought together and unified through the common gaze on the death of someone else—someone who deserved to die, according to the cultural mythos. Participating in the “righteous” death of others is predicated upon the semiotics of otherness. The others in the Pergamene Altar are barbarians who, according to the mythos, disrupt lawfulness or civilization; their deaths are therefore righteous. The visuals in both the Altar and in a multitude of Roman Imperial art, Kahl argues, are designed to keep us from seeing the pain of the other. The violence against those who are “down,” “out,” and “low,” both visually and literally, is made invisible in the beauty of the art.[17] Figures are literally lower than others in multiple ways. (See image 1.) Ultimately, Rome is universal, and this universalism is held in the cross. No one can cross Rome without seeing the cross, and no one can see the cross without seeing Rome. The righteousness of Roman rule is held together through the threat of the cross. Indeed peoples are saved from whoever is lawless—outside of Roman law—because of the cross. The Galatians were one such people.[18]

[19] Paul brings the good news of a new law: love and mutuality,[19] rather than the “old” law of Rome—the consumption of others.[20] Paul transgresses Roman Law. He heralds the good news of a different cosmic order, rooted firmly in Jewish tradition and Paul’s theological heritage of anti-idolatry. Paul’s good news proclaims resurrection, exodus, and a new creation through a different Father, the God of Israel. Paul also proclaims a new universalism—in the cross, the sign of Roman universalism.[21] In other words, the good news (benefaction) Paul proclaims to the Galatians is about the cosmic order of Jesus Christ (not Rome) known through love (not Roman law) from the hand of the God of Israel (not Caesar).

[20] One provocative way in which Paul urges followers in the messianic kingdom to transgress Roman Law is through disordered identity markers.[22] Uncircumcised Galatians in the Roman Empire were going against Rome’s edict of identities. Only Jews, who had been given special dispensation to avoid direct worship of Caesar, could be circumcised. Uncircumcised Galatians embodied extreme lawlessness because they disrupted the identity markers of the semiotics of in/out and high/low in the Empire when they joined circumcised Jews in worshipping the God of Israel, not Caesar. The act of creating community between uncircumcised Galatians and circumcised Jews created a third identity, a space outside of Caesar’s rule. For Rome, this is lawlessness. For Paul, this is unity in difference—or difference in unity. Paul urged the Galatians to reject lawfulness according to Rome; justification for Paul is about being freed from what feigns to be God, offering the illusion of benefaction, good news, and salvation.[23] Paul writes against idolatry in Galatians. The Roman Empire and Emperor feigned to be their God, and Lopez’s gender-critical analysis helps us to see the character of this false god as male-dominated, male-centered, male-identified, and operating out of a penchant for control.

[21] Lopez sharpens an analysis of gendered Self and Other through her argument that the dominant ideology of Rome is marked by an intersectional rhetoric of gender, race, and sexuality. First, her analysis allows us to re-view the cross in the context of gendered imperial power, which was constructed through the force of the military and the form of the city. Second, her attention to gendered imperial ideology and its relationship to the Gospel Paul preached prompts contemporary attention to gendered ideology. Both contemporary culture in the United States and the Lutheran tradition in the United States continue to labor under a gendered dichotomy of Self and Other.

[22] The basic aim of Lopez’s study is to explore the meaning of ethnē, the nations, and Paul’s relationship with them. Her assertion is that the nations—commonly translated as Gentiles—are not in opposition to Jews.[24] She offers the theory that the Jews are actually included in “the nations” due to their common status as Roman-defeated nations, personified as females defeated by strong males. The key image she uses to explain her analysis that the nations are gendered and sexualized is in the largest Roman imperial cult complex found to date, the Julio-Claudian Sebasteion at Aphrodisias in Asia Minor, where a man, Claudius, who stands for Rome, conqueres a woman, Britannia. She is about to be raped. This carved relief stands across from about 50 more reliefs of Roman conquered nations, all personified as ethnic-specific women.[25] The image “argues” that Roman conquest and rule are predestined, justified, and eternal.[26] An ideology of “Roman is to nation as male is to female” guides and pervades Roman communication, both visually and literally, about its domination and rule.[27]

[24] Paul also uses gender, Lopez points out, but he uses it to intervene in the Roman patriarchal ideology, which he does from below by joining—by “becoming like” the nations/ethnē.[28] Paul urges a gospel of radical solidarity through his motherhood, as we see in Galatians 4:12-19, which reads in part:

[25] 12Friends, I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. . . . 19My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (NRSV)

[26] Paul comes to speak and perform as mother Paul.

[27] As mother, Paul longs for the nations to be in communion, in relationship. Lopez argues that the nations defeated by Rome include both Gentiles and Jews.Yet Paul sees them all needing to be “reincorporated into Israel under the one God.” [29] Paul’s mission to the nations begins with his own transformation, his own consciousness-raising, “expressed through gender constructs.”[30] Paul does not leave Judaism but experiences a change in his view and experience of the world—“from Roman-aligned conqueror to conquered nation—and from impenetrably-male-identified to penetrably-female-identified.”[31] He highlights the change in his identity and perspective from the outset in 1:13-16:

[28] 13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being[.]

[29] Before his Damascus experience, Paul was acting like a Roman man should: “dominating others, policing boundaries, and employing his right of imperium.” Afterwards, he comes to “present himself as a different man, and even a woman of sorts.”[32] He becomes a gender transgressor.[33]

[30] Paul becomes like the nations, and his consciousness is raised in two ways. He realizes that the nations are not to be against each other but to be reconciled in one God at the cross and that he himself is marginalized.[34] By portraying himself not as a father with the vertical relationships of imperial paterfamilias but as a mother, he encourages horizontal relationships.[35] His connection to others, as he urges there to be among the nations, is in freedom a freedom marked by risks. Those who disagree with such a model of relationships may harm him.

[31] A key critical value for re-imagining a theology of the cross is that when Paul urges the Galatians to “become like me” in Galatians 4:12, he is not urging sameness. Rather, because of the two keys of conversion, that his body is now at risk and that he is conscious of his solidarity with the nations, becoming “like” Paul means something radically different. As Lopez so adroitly states it, “Becoming like Paul means giving up the dynamics of domination symbolized by impenetrable imperial masculinity, unveiling a larger umbrella of patriarchal power relationships.”[36] Paul identifies with the feminized nations and articulates and embodies a “non-dominant masculinity.”[37] If we ignore what she calls “the gendered texture of Roman imperial ideology,”[38] then we miss Paul’s critique that patriarchy is antithetical to the gospel.

[32] This interpretation does not necessarily make a feminist out of Paul. Rather, it shows us that the gospel itself is anti-patriarchal. Whereas Roman “universalism [is] through patriarchal domination,” the universalism Paul preached is “through solidarity among the defeated.”[39] The body of Christ, then, is not wrought through assimilation into another conquered nation (by Galatians or other nations becoming Jews) but “through seeing themselves in the others.”[40] The body of Christ is engendered by becoming “like me,” which Lopez points out is done through solidarity and in freedom, what Kahl refers to as “one-an(d)-otherness.”[41] Such love expressed through solidarity and known in freedom contrasts starkly with the strife of the old order to consume others.

[33] Cultural Force and Form in the United States

[34] Rome consumed and dominated others through the twofold venues of the military and the city, force and form. That is, Rome had the physical and psychological force of the military, and the creation of Roman cities out of conquered cities involved coercing the vanquished to want to belong to the form of Rome, its culture and values. Colonization often involved controlling the fertility of vanquished nations. From a feminist perspective, who is consumed today? I offer a brief analysis of the gendered force and form in the United States and in the Lutheran tradition in this country.

[35] Force keeps females in their places in the United States. Significant numbers of women and girls are abused, violated, and killed each year. Violence at the hand of an intimate partner in the United States is very high: One study revealed that one in four women (24.3%) and one in seven men (13.8%) suffers abuse.[42] The incidence of rape is also very high. One in five women (18.3%) reported being raped, and one in 71 men (1.4%) reported being raped. More than half of the women who report being raped are raped by intimate partners. Rape is also racialized. The highest incidences of rape are among American Indians, Alaska Natives, and multi-racial women and girls.[43] Not surprisingly, the summary of the survey states: “Across all types of violence, the majority of female victims reported that their perpetrators were male.”[44] And according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, over the period since 1976, women remain at greater risk than men to be the victim of homicide by an intimate partner.[45] These numbers are actual women of flesh and blood, the vanquished of the Claudio-Brittania relief. Women and girls who have not (yet) experienced gender-based violence often pattern their lives according to the threat of violence. Both actual violence and the threat thereof shape the lives of women and girls across the country. In addition to illegal physical force, women in the United States regularly meets up with waves of legalized force, as well.

[36] This force strikingly mirrors Rome’s control of the fertility of colonized peoples.[46] In the United States, politicians regularly debate and prescribe limits on the bodies of persons understood to be female. I offer three brief snapshots. The first snapshot is that geographical and therefore economic access to abortion services has decreased. In 1978 23% of the counties in the United States had abortion services; in 2000 13% of U.S. counties had abortion services.[47] The second snapshot is that states are furthering their restrictions on female bodies. In 2011, the United States saw introduced over 1,100 legal provisions to control reproductive health and decision-making by women themselves; 135 were enacted in 36 states, compared to 89 in 2010 and 33 in 2008.[48] Although not all of these provisions relate to abortion, one recent example is that Virginia governor Bob McDonnell supported a legal clause mandating that every woman and girl who wanted an abortion must first receive an ultrasound to establish a fetal heartbeat. In some cases, this would require a trans-vaginal ultrasound.[49] The governor retracted this provision in the eleventh hour after pressure from women’s groups. According to newly revised federal law, inserting something into a female’s vagina against her will is an act of rape. The third snapshot is former Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum’s view on access to birth control. In 2006 he stated: “I . . . have voted for contraception, although I don’t think it works. I think it’s harmful to women. I think it’s harmful to our society.” Although he declares that he does not support federal laws to ban contraception, he does support states’ rights to legalize such bans.[50] Clearly, the ideology infusing these snapshots is that females are down/out/low. We experience both illegal and legal force.

[37] Form also keeps females in their places in the United States. Advertising is infused with an ideology of a patriarchal gendered hierarchy that remarkably mirrors Roman visual media. The images reproduced here, here, and here, represent culturally naturalized communication about who is “high” and who is “low.” These are just a sampling of the thousands that speak loudly in the West.

[39] Video advertising, whether on television or social media, likewise mirrors Roman patriarchal media, and readers are encouraged to investigate advertising for alcohol, for example, with the following questions: Whose eyes see and consume whom? For what purposes? Who “owns” whose bodies? Why? Women and girls who strive to belong to this patriarchal reality—lawfulness—can expect to be justified by or given benefactions from a patriarchal culture.

[40] Lutheran Force and Form in the United States

[41] The Lutheran tradition likewise reflects gendered force and form. I offer a few examples with significant caution, for although naming what is wrong is important, it is likewise crucial to gain and collaborate with allies in dialogue and action towards change. One person cannot stand alone to offer critique; I therefore offer in part what I learn and hear from others.

[42] First, due to non-formal force, ministry in the ELCA remains male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. It remains white-dominated, white-identified, and white-centered. Among rostered leaders, women, especially women of color, wait longer for their first calls than do men.[51] The most recent report with a gender analysis of ELCA rostered leadership states, “White males are more likely than all other clergy to have a current call as Senior Pastor.”[52] Rostered leaders in the ELCA live out their vocations under economic disparity, both gendered and racial. According to the report, “White males are more likely than all other clergy to receive compensation above synod guidelines. Women are more likely than men to receive compensation at synod guidelines. Persons of Color are more likely than those who are White to receive compensation below synod guidelines.”[53] And some congregations refuse to consider or call women.[54] Those that do call women often have members who undermine or question their leadership or focus on aspects of their personhoods in ways that men would not experience from the same members. [55] This non-formal force is effective, despite the formal “force” of policy that supports the ordination of women, people of color—and now people who are in committed same-sex relationships.

[43] Second, the 2013 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elected its first female presiding bishop. This historic moment reflects a church body’s growing support of ministry from women. Yet this notable election that came over half a century after the ordination of the first Lutheran woman in the United States should not cloud the fact that out of the 65-member Conference of Bishops, nine are women, up from six in 2011. This small number has remained relatively steady over the last 15 years.

[44] Third, theological education in the United States has ample room to affirm, encourage, and support feminist, womanist, and mujerista theological engagement and scholarship among undergraduates and graduates alike. There exist more opportunities than are being taken for these fields to shape students, faculty, departments, and institutions. Women who are now tenured in Lutheran institutions were sometimes advised to avoid feminist scholarship in order to attain tenure and professional recognition, some were outright disdained by male Lutheran scholars, and others gave up on academic or church leadership, given roadblocks and accusations.[56] Among ELCA-affiliated colleges, universities, and seminaries, there are few mujerista, womanist, or feminist professors hired, tenured, and promoted.

[45] Lastly, language creates form. Contemporary advertising mirrors Roman visual media in that they all make clear who is “high/up/in” and who is “low/down/out.” The form of Christian language and liturgy similarly mirrors these gendered hierarchical dichotomies. While certainly favorable to exclusively male language, liturgical language that is entirely androcentric and gender-neutral only continues to render scripturally and theologically faithful female God-language heterodox, and therefore, low/down/out.

[46] Freedom and Bondage

[47] Having relied on Lopez as a guide for discerning the correlation between the eidelon of the Roman Empire and society and church in the United States, we see clearly who is “better” than whom, who is “above” and who is “below.” Kahl’s careful re-reading of the Roman Imperial context in which Paul lived and ministered to the Galatians moves us into an earth-shaking embrace of the Gospel of Christ: no human or human system may rule our lives; only the God of Israel through Jesus Christ may claim our allegiance. Truly, the body of Christ exists in a worldly marginal space of solidarity and freedom. The body of Christ is no longer bound to false idols. The old law of consumption of others is disrupted by a new law of “one-an(d)-otherness.”[57] As we have seen from Kahl, such a new law disrupts the patriarchal Roman law.

[48] When justification is no longer bound to be interpreted exclusively in individualistic forensic terms, and is rather perceived likewise to be a radical communal intervention of patriarchal domination, two important shifts occur in ecclesial self-perception. The first important shift is that Christian communions can no longer cast feminism and its critique of patriarchy as having nothing to do with the church or to be antithetical to the church. In other words, all the effects of patriarchal social and religious systems, such as poverty and economic inequality, domestic abuse, sexual violence, and educational and leadership discrepancies, are central concerns of Christians, institutionally and personally. Radical communal intervention of patriarchal domination is not for women only. In solidarity and freedom, Paul urges messianic followers to take the place of the vanquished female. Paul’s shift from vanquishing male to mother in labor comes vividly to life in the famous and overused Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The clothing of Christ through baptism dissolves the idolatrous meaning of gender, race, and class from a vertical structure to a horizontal solidarity that flies in the face of Rome’s obsession to signify “real men as stable, virile, and free, and the nations as penetrated women enslaved to their conquerors.”[58] Paul is a gender transgressor, indeed. We simply have not noticed it well. The church is called to become like Paul.

[49] The second shift in ecclesiological self-understanding is that the Church has a theological basis out of which to transgress patriarchy. The overwhelming basis for secular gender justice is through theories of human rights.[59] For example, the UN Commission on the Status of Women holds the human rights of women and girls as the center of its work to advance gender justice, [60] which is done primarily through the legal arena and through the education and empowerment of women and girls. Remaining without a theological basis for gender justice in Christian thinking serves to keep gender justice at a distance from “what really matters” in the Church.

[50] Instead, Paul’s letter to the Galatians compels us to turn our thinking around. Rather than peripheral work that someone else can do to help others to be lifted up, a theological basis for gender justice places the church at the center of the action. The church’s confession of God above Caesar—above that which feigns to be our god—swoops the church into the reality of those cast as the vanquished in patriarchal ideology. The church exists at this nexus—of becoming “like me”—as Paul writes, rather than seeing challenges to patriarchy and the realities of its effects in people’s lives as a feminist distraction from the church’s “real” work. Indeed, the cross shows us the form of boundary transgression the church will find when it joins—becomes—the lowest/the down/the out.

[51] Keener awareness of gendered imperial conquest alerts Christians to Paul’s own gender-bending when he exhorts the Galatians to become like him in Galatians 4:12. As noted, Paul portrays himself as a suffering mother in Galatians 4:19. He has moved downward from a conquering male into a mother in labor—and, as Lopez reminds us, a single mother, no less. Lopez contends that the birth pangs of which Paul moans are over the labor for a new relationship among Jews and the nations—all the conquered peoples.[61] Paul has crossed over into that which he is not, setting up a gender-transgressive image in stark contrast to the Roman fertility imagery in which Rome literally and figuratively controls the fertility of the conquered.[62] Paul’s birthing is a conduit for a new creation among the nations and is spoken of through what Lopez calls “gender instability.”[63] Paul has made the unnatural move in the Roman Empire to become the defeated woman.[64] The cross may be the result of crossing over to the conquered, those who are raped, tortured, and otherwise violated.[65] The cross shows us the form of transgressing boundaries to be the lowest/the out/the down.

[52] Just as Mother Paul entreats the Galatians to “become like me,” so are members of the church called to transgress and subvert that which feigns to be our God. What Paul proclaims is welcome news to a feminist theologian such as myself, but what are the practical implications? First, in this concluding section of the paper, I will offer two key ethical norms for the transvaluation of patriarchal power. Briefly stated, these norms are the solidarity and freedom which Lopez sees in Paul and are specific ethical norms drawn from Kahl’s description of Paul’s theology of “one-an(d)-otherness.” These ethical norms relate specifically to Luther’s central paradox of freedom and bondage in “The Freedom of a Christian.”

[53] Ethical Norms Towards Gender Justice

[54] There is a film in American culture titled Get Low, about one man staging his own funeral party. I think that Paul’s description of solidarity tells us to “get low,” too. Paul’s gender transgression from conquering male to woman in labor embodies the self-othering (Kahl) and solidarity (Lopez) that surface in re-readings of justification and the cross. Solidarity is often interpreted to mean to stand with or alongside of, but I think that Paul takes the body of Christ further. If the faithful become like him, they will transgress boundaries and become someone or something which they are not. This may mean becoming vanquished along with others, even while we do not become homogenized. Institutions, organizations, and individuals need to ask how we will “get low.” The details of getting low will vary according to contexts, and the results may surprise us. An ethical norm of solidarity, read to mean “get low,” places the Christian Church in a vanquished role. What does this look like? Those who belong to Christ will “get low” with others and resist and transform the force and form that binds. And this does not mean just men “get low.” Women need to “get low,” too, because gender justice is intersectional; it involves race and ethnicity, class, and sexuality.

[55] An ethical norm of freedom is beyond the yoke of imperial slavery that demands the non-humanity of the Other in relationship to the Self. This freedom seems to be a particular stance of existence and flourishing “despite” the empire; it is freedom found within and because of solidarity. It is freedom for a life that is not foreclosed—life that God grants out of grace.

[56] Conclusion

[57] When Luther speaks of bondage, he refers to “human works and laws,”[66] arguing that righteousness from God replaces righteousness proscribed by humans, which he finds flourishing in the Roman Curia. Kahl identifies such human bondage in the Roman Empire’s system of law, its own form of works righteousness that claimed cosmic supremacy. Paul, according to Kahl’s exegesis, argues against this form of human bondage. Contemporary patriarchal social and religious ideology and idols likewise bind humans through the force of righteousness they require. Feminists argue against this form of human bondage—and find brothers in Christ in Luther and Paul in our exhortations against idolatry.

[58] Like Luther and Paul, the bondage this feminist knows through Christ is that of putting on the other, of transgressing boundaries that are kept in place by many forms of works righteousness or law. Yet God’s goodness comes to humans in faith, according to Luther, which then flows to one another. We are not alone in our transgressions to and with each other. Towards the end of the treatise, Luther writes, “[T]he good things we have from God should flow from one to the other and be common to all, so that everyone should ‘put on’ [one’s] neighbor and so conduct [oneself] toward [the other] as if [one] were in the other’s place.”[67] Christians, are, indeed, called to “get low.” With everyone.

[59] The well-known freedom of which Luther writes, that of royalty,[68] means that we are free from works, free from the demands of human works.[69] The freedom of which Luther writes, the freedom that spins only in a paradoxical circle of royal freedom and priestly servanthood, utterly binds us to the bodies of others. Those who have taken the form of Christ[70]—those who have “gotten low”—“consider nothing except the need and the advantage of the neighbor.”[71]

[60] When women and girls are placed by force and form into the low/down/out, Christians should notice. By re-reading Paul on justification and the cross in a Roman Empire-enmeshed letter to the Galatians, the helpful interpretation that the new law is love and self-giving by means of what Kahl calls one-an(d)-otherness breaks open the Church’s institutional and popular stance on gender justice, for if love is truly the alienation of the Self into the place of the Other, we have much to look forward to, for we will also become “like Paul,” a boundary transgressor of idolatrous patriarchal power because Christ, not Caesar, rules the cosmos.


[1] Mae Anderson, “Dr. Pepper’s macho ad campaign seeks to persuade men to try the diet drink” ( AP), October 17, 2011 [Accessed September 12, 2013]

[2] Amina Khan, “Dr. Pepper Ten—the manliest soft drink of them all?” (Los Angeles Times), October 10, 2011 [Accessed August 22, 2013]

[3] See Lois Malcolm, “The Gospel and Feminist: A Proposal for Lutheran Dogmatics,” Word & World XV, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 290-298; Mary M. Solberg, Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997); Mary J. Streufert, ed., Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010); Deanna A. Thompson, Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004); Marit Trelstad, ed., Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006). For related work outside the United States, see, e.g., Arnifríður Guðmundsdóttir, Meeting God on the Cross: Christ, the Cross, and the Feminist Critique (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[4] Davina C. Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission, Paul in Critical Contexts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 123.

[5] “Lectures on Romans,” 1515-1516, LW 25:35. See also 25: 30.

[6] “Lectures on Galatians,” 1535, LW 26: 9

[7] “The Freedom of a Christian,” 1520, LW 31 in Martin Luther: Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 267- 268.

[8] See Brigitte Kahl, Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, Paul in Critical Contexts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 40-41. She convincingly argues that while the New Perspective was valuable insofar as it reasserted Paul’s Jewishness and importantly started to break open the otherizing tendencies of Christian interpretations of Paul as contra-Jewish, there is much left unaddressed by scholars in the New Perspective. This central hole is what she seeks to fill: the Roman Imperial context of law and works righteousness in which Paul’s letter to the Galatians reverberates.

[9] “The Freedom of a Christian,” 288.

[10] Ibid., 292.Emphasis added.

[11] Kahl, 6.

[12] Ibid., 8-10.

[13] Ibid., 245.

[14] Ibid., 170.

[15] Ibid., 125-126.

[16] Ibid., 150-151.

[17] Ibid., 105; 147.

[18] See Ibid., passim.

[19] Ibid., 246.

[20] Ibid., 263.

[21] Ibid., 166.

[22] Ibid., 222.

[23] Ibid., 245; 255-256.

[24] Davina C. Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission, Paul in Critical Contexts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 6.

[25] Ibid., 1-2.

[26] Ibid., xiii-xiv.

[27] Ibid., xiv, 119.

[28] Ibid., 119.

[29] Ibid..

[30] Ibid., 120.

[31] Ibid..

[32] Ibid., 133. Emphasis in original.

[33] See Ibid., 131.

[34] See Ibid., 134-137.

[35] Ibid., 140.

[36] Ibid., 141.

[37] Ibid..

[38] Ibid., 123.

[39] Ibid., 167-168.

[40] Ibid., 168.

[41] Kahl, 268.

[42] Michele C. Black, Kathleen C. Basile, Matthew J. Breiding, Sharon G. SmithMikel L. Walters, Melissa T. MerrickJieru Chen and Mark R. Stevens, “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS)” 2010 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 2011), [Accessed June 20, 2012.]

[43] “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report” [Accessed June 20, 2012.]

[44] Ibid.

[45] Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Homicide Trends in the U.S.” (Source, FBI, Supplementary Homicide Reports, 1976-2005), According to their statistics, males commit 65.5% of intimate partner murders and 93.6% of sex-related murders. [Accessed June 20, 2012.]

[46] See Lopez, 108-110.

[47]Lawrence B. Finer and Stanley K. Henshaw, “Abortion Incidence and Services in the United States in 2000” (Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health vol 35, No.1, January/February 2003), Women aged 15-44 living in counties without abortion services also increased in the same time period, going from 28% in 1978 to 34% in 2000.

[48] “Laws Affecting Reproductive Health and Rights: 2011 State Policy Review,” Guttmacher Institute. and “Laws Affecting Reproductive Health and Rights: 2010 State Policy Review,” Guttmacher Institute. [Accessed June 20, 2011.] [Accessed June 20, 2012.]

[49] Matthew Ward, “Virginia Senate passes ultrasound law minus vaginal probe,” Reuters, February 29, 2012, [Accessed June 20, 2012.]

[50] Z. Byron Wolf, “Rick Santorum Declared Contraception ‘Harmful to Women’ in 2006” (abc news, Feb. 15, 2012), [Accessed June 20, 2012.] See also a news summary of Santorum’s position, which purports that he would rather that the states decide what is legal, rather than the U.S. Supreme Court making decisions on behalf of human rights that affect everyone. Z. Byron Wolf, “Santorum Logic on Contraception, Homosexuality,” (abc news, Jan. 6, 2012), [Accessed June 20, 2012.]

[51] “For first calls, an even higher percentage, overall, received their call within one to four months.

However, the percentage receiving their first call within one to four months was higher for White

males than all other clergy; 75 percent compared to 60 percent for White females, 56 percent for

male Persons of Color, and 56 percent for female Persons of Color.” “35th Anniversary of Ordination of Women,” Rostered Leader Survey, 2005—Report 1, Research and Evaluation, ELCA, Kenneth W. Inskeep and Victoria Flood, September, 2006, 2.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Personal conversation with an ELCA Regional Director and an assistant to a bishop in a synod outside of said region, February 17, 2011.

[55] See, e.g., “Little Lady,” “Lucky,” “Who Says?,” “Your Lovely Family,” “Women’s Things,” “What do the ‘lady pastors’ wear?,” “A Call and Calling,” and “A Dream Denied,” in “Our Voices, Our Stories,” (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2011), 6-7, 7-8, 25-27, 28, 29-30, 43-46, 46-48, 48.

[56]Personal conversations with Lutheran women during the past seven years.

[57] Kahl, 268.

[58] Lopez, 152.

[59] This is not to say that human rights did not grow out of theology; rather, secular organizations do not need to be able to articulate theological grounds for its work to address patriarchy. The church, however, does. See Kaari Reierson, ed. Journal of Lutheran Ethics (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2009), [Accessed August 23, 2013.]

[60] “UN Women is committed to the advancement of women’s human rights and places their realization at the centre of its work in all thematic areas.” UN Women homepage, [Accessed June 20, 2012.]

[61] Lopez, 142.

[62] Ibid., 144.

[63] Ibid., 145-146.

[64] Ibid., 138.

[65] For example, when Paul stands before the Jerusalem company, he goes with Titus, an uncircumcised Greek, to embody the connection with others in freedom. Yet this freedom is marked by risks; they could both have been harmed by people who thought otherwise. See Kahl, 224-227.

[66] ”The Freedom of a Christian,”, 292.

[67] Ibid., 309.

[68] Ibid., 289-90.

[69] Ibid., 294.

[70] See FoC, 304.

[71] FoC, 302.

Mary Streufert

Streufert holds a doctorate in philosophy of religion and theology from Claremont Graduate University and serves as director for Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her publications include feminist systematic theology; sex, gender, and sexuality theories; Luther scholarship—and most recently, Language for God: A Lutheran Perspective (Fortress Press, 2022).