Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The Greatest Preacher. Ever

“Equal but Different” is the name of an organization founded in Sydney to oppose to the ordination of anyone not a heterosexual male, although their website says that all they really want to do is promote “relationships of loving male leadership and intelligent, willing female submission in the family and the church.” No, I haven’t made that quote up. Honestly. Google them if you don’t believe me.

They claim to have “members all around Australia and overseas, including men and women” (are there any other genders silly enough to send in their $15 joining fee?), but the steering committee is entirely female, and they don’t explain how these seven women – two of who have the surname “Jensen” – are able to lead the organisation’s men without contradicting their own charter.

Curiously enough, “Equal but Different” is also the sub-title of a particularly nasty little old book I found in a deceased estate sale. Published in the 1870s, it’s called “Slavery Defended”, and contains essays by a dozen or more post-bellum clergy (not all of whom are Southerners, I must hasten to add) explaining why emancipation and the end of North American slavery was contrary to the Bible’s teaching.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the arguments advanced by the 21st century women invoke the same exegetic and hermeneutic processes as their 19th century male namesakes, and both groups allege the real issue at stake is one of Scriptural authority. Neither group ever seems to consider their opponents may actually be people with a deep and abiding faith of their own; in each case the other side is dismissed as faddish and opportunistic modernists at best, and immoral devil’s spawn at worst.

To be fair, one can be more forgiving of the women on the grounds that many of them are undoubtedly suffering from a kind of long-term Stockholm Syndrome: they’ve been repressed for so long that they’ve come to identify with their oppressors’ ideology. There’s no such excuse for the nasty little 19th century racists; they seem to actually take pride in converting the Gospels into something poisonous. Both of them, however, are big fans of the “slippery slope” argument: one sees the ordination of women as leading to ordination of homosexuals, while the other sees the abolition of slavery as drawing inevitably towards female suffrage and equal pay for equal work, and both are conviced that the bottom of the slope is A Very Bad Place.

In reponse to both groups stands a woman I’ve only recently learned of: Sojurner Truth. Born into slavery around 1797, she endured heartache, suffering and oppression of a degree I can’t even begin to comprehend, and rose to become a preacher of such strength that her words bring the same courage and inspiration today as when first spoken in 1851. And that’s not just because her opponents and ours use the same rhetoric; it’s because a fire as intense and truthful as hers never burns cold.

This is her most famous sermon, called “ Ain’t I A Woman?", as recorded by Frances Gage in “History of Woman Suffrage”, using Sojurner Truth's 19th century African-american patois:

"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout?

Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!" And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. 'And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man--when I could get it--and bear de lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

"Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head; what dis dey call it?" ("Intellect," whispered some one near.) "Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do wid womin's rights or nigger's rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn't ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?" And she pointed her significant finger, and sent a keen glance at the minister who had made the argument. The cheering was long and loud.

"Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wan't a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?" Rolling thunder couldn't have stilled that crowd, as did those deep, wonderful tones, as she stood there with out-stretched arms and eyes of fire. Raising her voice still louder, she repeated, "Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do wid Him."

Oh, what a rebuke that was to that little man. Turning again to another objector, she took up the defense of Mother Eve. I can not follow her through it all. It was pointed, and witty, and solemn; eliciting at almost every sentence deafening applause; and she ended by asserting:

"If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder (and she glanced her eye over the platform) ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let 'em." Long-continued cheering greeted this. "'Bleeged to ye for hearin' on me, and now ole Sojourner han't got nothin' more to say."

If anyone’s taking bets on who’s the Archbishop of Canterbury in heaven, I’d like to lay a years’ pay on Sojourner Truth. But then again, she might have already been appointed Pope.


Wormwood's Doxy said...


Your comment about just having discovered Sojourner Truth's story made me ask myself "Can I name a single historical figure in Australia?" And the shameful answer was "No." (Celebrities don't count...)

So who were/are the feminist heroes Down Under?

Alcibiades said...

Don't feel too ashamed Doxy; Australia has a strange history (and I say that as someone with a post-graduate degree in Oz history ;-), and other than sporting figures we tend to embrace anti-heroism: probably the only true folk-hero is Ned Kelly, although his mother's story would have been the one really worth hearing, it wasn't recorded - we don't have the tradition of proudly outspoken protest that your country can boast.

Of women, only three spring to mind. The first, Edith Cowan, was our first female parliamentarian. The second, is Vida Goldstein, a complex woman now virtually forgotten, but who made an unimaginable stand against the mores of her day, including Australia's participation in the carnage of WW1 (about 1 in 6 of the population's men aged 18-35 were killed, and another 2 in 6 seriously injured). We're still fighting other country's pointless wars, BTW, but she saw the stupidity of this a century ago.

The third is a woman named Molly Craig - try and see the film Rabbit Proof Fence for her story.

Thanks for a great question - I'll give some thought and try and come up with something more soon.