Men are sitting on the floor, plates in front of them. They talk easily among themselves, barely acknowledging the presence of the young unmarried women who move around the group, first with water and a basin to wash their hands, then coming with food to fill their plates. The conversation shifts to focus on eating: and the young women come in again to refill their plates until the men have had enough. Eventually they are full, and they get up and leave the room, a few lingering longer to finish whatever they were discussing. The women of the household have been waiting patiently elsewhere while the men finish their meal and leave the room. Now the married and older women and children come and take their seats, and again the youngest unmarried women serve them from what is left over after the men have eaten. When the women are done, the young unmarried women who have been serving are able to take their turn and eat.
Variations on this theme happen in communities around the world. There is a clear hierarchy here of gender, age and marital status: a hierarchy with immediate implications for workload, how people are treated, and even basic food availability. It is not difficult for those entering this space at the point of privilege to sit back and enjoy the sense of entitlement – this is how it should be!
Every community has its hierarchy. How do we respond when we enter a community with different hierarchies than the ones we are used to? and when the details of daily life are so shaped by them? Take a minute to think about the hierarchies operating where you are. Where do you fit in them? How does that affect how you are treated, what you can contribute to the community, and the honour you do (or don’t) receive?
What’s Christian? What’s cultural? The answer may not always be particular behaviours so much as how we occupy the space, how we inhabit particular behavioural patterns. Living in the Middle East, as I served drinks and food to my husband’s guests, I noticed those who noticed me and thanked me as I did so, and those for whom I was just part of the furniture, entitled to no more consideration than a chair or table. How do those who are higher up the food chain treat those who are lower? Do we assume a greater right to honour and privilege: or do we seek ways to honour others with less privilege?
The household codes[i] in the New Testament demonstrate traditional hierarchies based on gender (husband-wife), age (father-child) and social status (master-slave). They do not overturn these hierarchies, but at the same time they challenge how they operate. Rather than responsibility going one way up the hierarchy, the New Testament household codes ask for mutual lines of submission and accountability. Those who are accounted higher in the hierarchy have correspondingly more responsibility for how they behave towards others. Privilege is not entitlement, but rather leads to greater responsibility for others. And everyone is given equal significance before God, with equal right of access to God.
How then do I function from lower status, from a position lower down in the hierarchy? For example, if I am a younger woman, when social ranking is conferred by (male) gender and age? How can I embrace the privilege of service, going beyond being the victim of society’s or another’s decisions, to make it my own choice? (Matt 4:39-41) How can I honour others from a position of security in the honour Jesus Messiah gives me? This is harder when society and culture undermine that honour and worth in a thousand daily ways and interactions. We may need to consider what things nourish that realisation of our worth in Jesus, for us. How can I encourage others around me to contribute to it? How can we realise both the diminishing impact of living daily in such a context, and proactively find ways to reach beyond it? How can we help those who are higher up the hierarchy to take up their role in Jesus of honouring and being responsible for others?
It can be valuable for a group which goes across hierarchical divisions to talk together about their experience. These questions may be helpful:
- What things in my daily life, role and community affirm who I am as someone who bears the image of God, and is redeemed and honoured in Jesus Messiah?
- What things in my daily life, role and community challenge or undermine who I am as someone who bears the image of God, and is redeemed and honoured in Jesus Messiah?
- In what ways am I honouring and serving others, especially those who occupy less honoured positions in the social hierarchy of which I am a part?
- In what ways am I living out Paul’s instructions in Phil 2:3-5, in my daily life and interactions with others?
As members of the Jesus community, we go beyond divisions and hierarchies (Jew-Greek, male-female, master-slave) to oneness in Jesus Messiah. This is not a revolution – revolutions only lead to new hierarchies and oppressions – but rather a calling us to inhabit space and community in a different way. God met Hagar, and sent her back into the slavery she had fled from: but he sent her back with a promise. And God met her again when she had been thrown out and was destitute.
How then can we extend grace to others? How can we reflect on the hierarchies we inhabit, and our place in them? And where we are higher up in the hierarchy, how can we consciously beware of the enticement of entitlement, and seek the way of service and mutual honour instead?
[i] Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1: also 1 Pet 2:13-3:7.
© When Women Speak… August 2021
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she has been writing, teaching, training, and superviseing students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women. Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and Doctor of Theology (Melbourne School of Theology).