Thomas Jefferson, although he did not consider himself anywhere near a traditional Christian in his beliefs, held a high regard for Jesus’ moral teachings. He knew that the teachings of Christ influenced the development of political thought in the West. Indeed, he understood their importance in his own promotion of universal human rights. Even though he failed to live out the full ramifications of his ideals, it is clear that he helped promote the tradition, found in Christ’s teachings, which established the dignity of the human person.
This dignity is a fundamental position behind New Feminist teachings. We are called to respect each other’s dignity, to recognize the concrete reality of each human person and to recognize the voice this gives to them. Men and women must be willing to listen to each other, to help each other, to work together with equal dignity, even if their experiences in the world will differ as a result of their genders. We must respect those differences, because they help establish who we are, but they must not be used to diminish or devalue the value we give to anyone.
Christians have had this presented to them not only in their Scriptures, but in the way early Christians helped create significant social changes in the Roman world. Sadly, the respect Christians are to give has not always been lived as they should. Cultural influences sometimes got the best of them, turning them away from what Christ and the early Apostles taught them.
This is especially true in regards to the treatment Christians gave to women. We see in history the recognition of the value and dignity of women, especially the value of their intuition and ideas, waxing and waning through the centuries. Yet it is hard to deny, however much Christians failed to follow their principles, they were there for them to reflect upon, and this means those principles helped shape and influence world history for the better. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to learn from them. Indeed, it is often non-Christians like Mahatma Gandhi who, in examining these principles, often help promote them in the world and call the Christian to task for their failure to meet the expectations of the Gospel.
As Owen Chadwick in The Early Church pointed out, Christianity had great success with women because of the way they were treated by the early Christians. Women who had no voice in society found their voice affirmed. Jesus chose women to be the first ones to proclaim his resurrection from the dead. Mary Magdalene is said to the “Apostle to the Apostles” because she was sent to the Apostles and declared to them his resurrection to them, giving her voice a priority over that of men in a society which ordinarily ignored the testimony of women.
Married women found security in the Christian faith because of the way men were told to treat them: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25 RSV). Christianity was seen as radical because it went against the social conventions of the day as it promoted the dignity of everyone. One’s race, gender, and condition in society were relativized because of everyone’s equality in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 RSV). Social conventions were lost. One must not read Paul’s words to the Galatians as rejecting the concrete person. Rather, they were no longer the ultimate representation of the value of the person. This principle was and is a necessary precondition for any society in which the dignity of the human person is neglected. And this is what Christianity offered to Western history.
New Feminism can be, and is, often followed by people of the Christian faith because they see support for the principles of New Feminism coming from their own faith tradition. They can see how, in history, these principles have actually helped elevate women. The early Christians gave to women a voice which, sadly, later Christians would fight against. But that voice was there, and was to never be entirely silenced. This is one of the gifts the Christian faith gave to the world. Let us hope today Christian and non-Christian alike can build upon this gift and make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.