Male Shame, and the Projection of Blame onto Women

When Adam ate fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, he knowingly disobeyed God’s command (Romans 12:5-14). Prior to this event, Adam knew no shame (Genesis 2:25). After his decision to sin, however, his feelings changed dramatically (Genesis 3:10).

When questioned by God about his actions, Adam’s first words were, “The woman you gave to be with me — she gave me fruit from the tree…” (Genesis 3:12). Why does Adam focus attention on his wife, when he is questioned about his own actions? Is this the first example in biblical history of attempting to defend against shame by projecting blame onto someone else? It may well be.

Even if this inference about Adam’s response to God is not an exact reflection of his motives, theologians throughout church history have projected blame for the fall of humanity onto women more overtly:

Tertullian: You are the devil’s gateway, you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. (https://equalityinchrist.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/must-women-keep-silent-1-corinthians-14-the-apostle-paul-and-the-traditions-of-men/)

St. Jerome: And that the lot of a woman might not seem a hard one, [because of God] reducing her to the condition of a slave to her husband, the Apostle recalls the ancient law and goes back to the first example: that Adam was first made, then the woman out of his rib; and that the Devil could not seduce Adam, but did seduce Eve; and that after displeasing God she was immediately subjected to the man, and began to turn to her husband; and he points out that she who was once tied with the bonds of marriage and was reduced to the condition of Eve, might blot out the old transgression by the procreation of children: provided, however, that she bring up the children themselves in the faith and love of Christ, and in sanctification and chastity… (http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/jerome.asp#undone)

According to both of these influential theologians, Adam (the man) was too formidable a target for the devil to tempt. They tell us that Satan had to work through humanity’s “weak link”—woman–to achieve his goal.

According to this incredibly sexist interpretation of the Genesis account, Adam (the man) is portrayed as a victim of female influence. It seems as though the commentators hoped to believe, “There’s no shame in being victimized by irresistible feminine wiles.”[1] Jerome even offers a solution to the alleged problem of a woman’s influence: women must be reduced to the condition of slaves.[2] Specifically, he tells us that female sin will be blotted out when women submit to men in marriage, bear them children (i.e. have sex with them), and raise their offspring “in sanctification and chastity.”

Male shame is transformed into the blame of women, which leads to their subjugation: Historically, this is the foundation for every doctrinal tradition that subjects women to the authority of men in the church or in the home.

Why were some of the early church fathers so inclined to defend against shame by projecting blame onto women? Answering this question requires at least a brief exploration of what theologians like St. Jerome were so deeply ashamed of. Put bluntly, Jerome was ashamed of simply being human. More specifically, he was ashamed of the passionate emotions that are part of human nature. This shame stems from the fact that Jerome was an ascetic. This means that he had embraced a philosophy that said the mind and the spirit are good, whereas the body and the emotions are less good. When he combined this worldview with the Bible, he came to the conclusion that his passionate emotions (especially sexual feelings) needed to be put to death (i.e. mortified). His self had to be annihilated—crucified with Christ. He felt especially successful in his pursuit of this understanding of spirituality, when he was not in the company of a woman he found attractive. If he did notice a woman that he found attractive, and if he did experience the involuntary arousal of sexual feelings, he believed he had already sinned. It seems as though the acknowledgement and healthy regulation of sexual emotions was not a concept he was familiar with. Jerome and other like-minded theologians seem to make no distinction between impulse and action.

At one point in his pursuit of ascetic spirituality, St Jerome spent three years as a desert hermit, hoping to isolate himself from environmental cues that might stimulate “concupiscence” (i.e. sinful desire). The following passage from a book entitled, “After Eve” describes this experience:

Jerome spent about three years in the desert, studying, mortifying the flesh, learning Hebrew to prevent his mind being filled with erotic fantasies. (He tells us that his mind boiled with lust in the desert and he was much troubled with visions of dancing-girls.) To his disappointment he found that the desert-hermits were less saintly than he had expected, and, not by any means for the first time, or indeed the last, he quarrelled with those around him, and gave up desert-life in disgust. (http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/barr.asp)

After this experience, Jerome returned to Rome where at last he found himself reasonably comfortable in the company of women who also embraced an ascetic lifestyle. They too denied their emotions in general (sexuality in particular) and went to great lengths to conceal their femininity, lest they allegedly cause men (like Jerome) to stumble:

Jerome became deeply involved in the religious life of Rome, the Pope took a great interest in his work, he started on a new translation of the Bible ([the Latin] Vulgate) and, very important for our subject, he became very friendly with a group of well-born Roman matrons. These ladies had already become very interested in asceticism, and when Jerome, with his own recent desert experience, arrived and became known to them, they hailed him with joy, and their delight was reciprocated. They met frequently for prayer and Bible study. They exchanged letters constantly on matters of Biblical exegesis and meanings of Hebrew words. This intimacy gave rise to prurient gossip. There were accusations of sexual impropriety, which Jerome hotly denied, and there was indignation that these ladies, with their high social standing, their beautiful villas on the Aventine Hill, were following a regime which involved dressing in rags, never bathing, and indeed carrying mortification of the flesh to such lengths that one young woman died…

…Jerome had a horror of women’s sexuality. How is his attachment to [these women] and their devotion to him reconcilable with his anti-feminist views? I think he succeeded in seeing these women, with their saintliness, their love of Scripture, their ready acceptance of asceticism, as being no longer women, but men. Let me quote a letter he wrote to Lucinius, a wealthy Spanish nobleman who has made a vow with his wife that they will live the rest of their married lives in complete continence [sexual abstinence]: “You have with you one who was once your partner in the flesh, but is now your partner in the spirit, once your wife but now your sister, once a woman but now a man, once an inferior but now an equal.” (http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/barr.asp)

When Jerome experienced passionate emotion, he felt ashamed. He believed that such feelings were an indication that he had failed to successfully “mortify the flesh” through faith in Christ’s crucifixion. To help maintain the illusion that he had succeeded at annihilating his emotional self, he spent time in the company of women who denied their femininity and their sexuality. They dressed in rags and did not bathe. Other ascetic theologians from this era (e.g. St. Augustine) insisted that women be veiled in public to avoid causing men to experience “sinful” desire. ( Edwards, A God I’d Like to Meet, 2014)

In Adam’s case, moral failure evidently led to feelings of guilt and shame. He apparently dealt with these feelings by focusing his attention on Eve’s role in humanity’s fall, rather than his own.

In Jerome’s case, the experience of passionate emotion was wrongly perceived as sin. Evidently he felt guilty and ashamed for simply being human. He also failed to distinguish between feeling and action, temptation and sin. He apparently dealt with his feelings by avoiding women who did not conceal their femininity from him with filth and rags.

In the case of both Adam and Jerome, responsibility for male guilt and shame is projected onto women. Historically, this has led to the subjugation of women, and—ironically–the disempowerment of men. Women have been compelled by the church to hide their femininity, lest they cause men to stumble. This line of thinking suggests that men cannot find a woman attractive, and yet choose not to engage in sexually sinful behavior. Men, it would seem, have no choice but to sin in the presence of female beauty. Some complementarian church leaders have told me this is exactly what they believe. This is why some faith communities insist that women clothe themselves in loose fitting attire from head to toe. This is why some religious traditions insist that a woman cover her hair.  In some faith communities the sight of a woman’s hair is perceived as an irresistible sexual cue.  There is relevance here to the all-too-prevalent practice of blaming female victims for sexual assault.

Is projecting blame onto women for male guilt and shame God’s plan for his church? No, I don’t believe it is. In fact, I strongly believe that the status quo we find in many churches is the opposite of what God would have us do.

In the case of Jerome, rather than spending time only with women who wore rags and refused to bathe, I think he needed to encounter the truth that human emotions are not evil. I believe he needed to recognize that impulse and action are not the same thing; there is an important difference between temptation and sin (Hebrews 4:15). Rather than compelling women to deny their femininity, Jerome needed to be set free from a lie—the human philosophy of asceticism: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

I also believe that God has provided a solution to guilt and shame other than the projection of blame onto others. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). To experience forgiveness, however, we must first acknowledge when we have done wrong (1 John 1:18). Then we can turn from sin to God, with faith that Jesus took our sins to the cross and nailed them there (Colossians 2:14). This is how we can experience real forgiveness from God.

Further, Jesus’ coming shows us that shame is essentially a lie. Shame tells us that if we have made mistakes we are worthless failures that cannot be loved. The truth of the matter is that God does not see us this way. God loves us, even though we are not perfect. Jesus died for us on the cross to take our sins away, while we were yet his enemies (Romans 5:10). God sees us as people who are worth saving. He sees that we are worth loving. I recognize that some theologians dispute this, claiming that God can’t help loving us, because he is love and we are all just loathsome worms. This is the very theological tradition, however, that springs from St. Jerome’s blending of the gospel with the human philosophy of asceticism. I do not believe it is an accurate interpretation of God’s love, made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Ascetic philosophy would have us believe that passionate emotion is evil. It would have us make no distinction between impulse and action, temptation and sin. Human defense mechanisms would have men deny responsibility for their own behavior and project blame for any wrong-doing—be it actual or merely perceived—onto women. Continuing in this direction will continue to oppress women and disempower men.

I don’t believe this is God’s redemptive plan for humanity. Rather, I believe God would have us trust in the love that has been revealed to us in Christ, accept ourselves as God’s dearly loved children, and love our neighbour as ourselves by saying “no” to impulses that would lead us to engage in hurtful behaviour. I believe this is the promise and hope of the “gospel” message, and that we can continue to grow in this direction, with the help of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:14-25). Surely this is a better solution to male shame than blaming and subjugating women.

End Notes

[1]In the Middle Ages, this belief had horrific consequences. Men caught in sexual sin would accuse women of irresistibly enticing them, with the aid of the Devil, through witchcraft. Many women were subsequently put to death. Shockingly, women who challenge patriarchal traditions in the church today are still accused of witchcraft, or of having a “Jezebel spirit.”  Have patriarchal church leaders forgotten that similar accusations were made against Jesus (i.e. that he had a demon) when he challenged the religious traditions of his day?

[2]Yet the Bible tells us that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free (Galatians 3:28).

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