An Early Christian #MeToo and #TimesUp Movement


Reading Laura Swan’s The Forgotten Desert Mothers as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and the #TimesUp movement for equal employment for women were getting underway, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels with the women who, alongside the Desert Fathers, went out into the desert to pray, only to be overlooked and overshadowed by a patriarchal version of church history.
I am re-reading Swan’s book in preparation for co-leading a contemplative retreat with Columbia Seminary’s Spiritual Formation Program director Debra Weir, which I referenced  in last week’s post. It is one of two texts we selected for the course, the other being Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer.
It does not in any way diminish their genuine religious devotion to be struck by how many of the women evaded sexual abuse, forced or arranged marriages, and culturally-expected duties of women in the fourth and fifth centuries by pursuing their callings/vocations. And though, like MeToo and TimesUp, it was often women of privilege and wealth and education who initiated the exodus from mistreatment and exploitation, the monastic communities they founded became refuges for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, orphaned, abandoned, mistreated, and homeless.
Meeting recently with Debra for planning our retreat, I told her I was in awe how much the women sacrificed to follow the Christian way of giving up their possessions, land, and financial resources to the poor, denying themselves even the simplest luxuries like beds, food, and other-than-simple clothing for the sake of their spirituality and their sense of justice.
Some of them cross-dressed to escape and avoid detection, joining male monastic communities as supposed eunuchs, or traveling to distant and unfamiliar places where they were unknown. Others simply resisted their family’s wishes and practiced their asceticism in the family home or on family-owned property. Many led their family members into Christian faith and practices themselves.
Unlike their male counterparts, fewer of their sayings have been preserved in the church’s memory, but what is preserved is their benevolence, their service to others, saintly attributes, and sincere devotion.
Quoting Joan M. Petersen, “Their delight was in self-control; their glory was to be unknown; their wealth was to possess nothing… Their work…consisted only of attention to the things of God, prayer without ceasing, and the uninterrupted chanting of the Psalms.” The “things of God” included the upbuilding of the Christian community and its ministry to the world in the name of Jesus, serving “the least of these.”
Decades ago John Boswell taught me that LGBT people of earlier times were drawn to monastic communities for similar reasons. These were places where they were not expected to marry, and where they could find opportunities to serve the greater good. Though Boswell recognized the church had a patriarchal bias in terms of its leadership and teachings and history, he questioned the impression that it was only men who shaped the church and its theology. Men who dominated the culture and religion, he observed, were reared by women, taught by women, related to women, influenced by women, sometimes married to women, and served in spiritual communities alongside women.
One of multiple examples of this was how Gregory of Nyssa, considered one of the early Christian theologians, was absolutely influenced and inspired by Macrina the Younger, his elder sister, who encouraged his baptism and his memorialization of her community’s monastic way of life in the Short and Long Rules. Macrina was following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Macrina the Elder, who worked closely with the local bishop. According to Swan, he and his brother Basil “acknowledged [Macrina the Younger] as the primary influence in their theological education, and each finally embraced ascetic and monastic observance.”
When the church became entwined, sometimes strangled, by the culture of the Roman empire, the Desert Mothers and Fathers sought to “re-member” the Christian community’s countercultural roots. After all, its teacher, Jesus, was executed by Rome; it faced accusations of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6); its acts of compassion contradicted a worldview of self-interest; and it suffered persecution for refusing to bow to the gods of Rome, including the emperor, considered a god. Christians then were considered “atheistic” because they believed in only one God!
#MeToo and #TimesUp are countercultural movements that resist a world in which women are demeaned and exploited. In a church that has often followed the culture’s lead in the treatment of women, these movements should remind us of our own countercultural roots in which we are “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female…for all of you are one…
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