Think about the strongest woman you know. Think about the challenges life has presented her and about all that she has endured and overcome. Think about her resiliency, all the ways she has sacrificed and survived. Think about the ways that she has not only carried herself, but the ways she has held others together. Think about the ways her strength is accompanied by softness, her persistence is parallelled with presence, her courage is coupled with compassion.
Chances are, the longer you think about these qualities, the more women you are able to bring to mind -- whether they are women close to you in your life, women you have come to admire from afar, or women you have only ever studied in history books.
Women around the world sustain lives, uphold families, and keep communities afloat. Women bear the weight of life in every sense. Brilliant and bold women. Competent and capable women.
Undeterred and unwavering women.
However, from the dawn of civilization to this very day, women around the globe have been, and still are, individually, collectively, and structurally treated as inherently inferior to men. We have never known a world where women have had equal opportunity, equal access, or equal agency.
The discrepancies women face today are vast, ranging from gaps in wages to the ability to be bought and sold as pieces of property.
In the hopes to belittle, silence, and invalidate the voice, intellect, and influence of women around the world, some of the most prevalent injustices women still endure today include:
Having significantly less access to fundamental human rights
Being kept from receiving an education
Being withheld from economic institutions (in regard to obtaining bank accounts, real estate titles, businesses licenses, etc)
Disproportionate experience of violence, abuse, and exploitation
These realities hurt individual, beautiful, beloved women made in the image of God. That should not be brushed over. Let’s pause for a moment to sit with that reality.
However, in addition to their devastating impact on the individual lives of women, these injustices also prohibit the progress of the world as a whole. Gender inequalities impact every aspect of development and progress.
In her book The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, Melinda Gates states, “If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings.”
In many places, government policies and legal rights are determined by systems and structures of power that create a gendered divide between men and women. However, much more nuanced but even more prevalent, the dignity of a woman’s humanity is diminished by culture and creed -- by tradition and belief.
What does this have to do with the mission and vision of Kindred Exchange as we seek to reframe modern missions? Absolutely everything. Missional efforts sit directly in the tension between all of these factors.
If the intentions of followers of Jesus Christ in engaging across cultures and continents is to do the multi-faceted work of alleviating the presence and impact of poverty as well as building disciples of Jesus Christ, women’s empowerment must be addressed on every front.
The United Nations, the World Bank, and every other major governmental and non-governmental development organization alike agree that poverty will not be eradicated, development cannot be achieved, and human flourishing cannot fully happen until the status of women -- their levels of agency, access, and protection-- is equal to that of men.
Today, we ask the question, Does the Christian faith believe in and work to this end?
First, we must wrestle with the history of our faith tradition that is intertwined with gendered identity roles. Before we can navigate entering into countries where there may be systematic policies that oppress women or cultural traditions that diminish their dignity or humanity, must also recognize how the Christian tradition is still evolving in understanding God’s intention for the creation of women.
What do we believe about the inherent, God-intended worth of women? And, if we attempt to live our lives in alignment with the heart of God, through the example of Jesus, what can we see from his life?
Throughout his life, Jesus chose to associate himself with women. He chose to spend time with women. He chose to go out of his way to see women, to care for their needs, to heal them. Much of Jesus’ missional efforts were hosted, funded, and supported by women. There are numerous stories we could focus on to unpack the ways Jesus empowered women, but aptly appropriate for Holy Week, let’s look at the woman who was present for Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.
We call her Mary Magdalene, though her name, like her story, has been a point of confusion and controversy. Some believe ‘Magdalene’ indicated that she was from the town of Magala, though many biblical scholars argue that the original Greek connotes her title being “Mary the Magdala” or “Mary called Magdalene,” not “Mary from Magdala.”
Magdala means mighty tower or fortress in Aramaic. These scholars believe that similar to calling the apostles James and John, Boanerges, meaning ‘Sons of Thunder,’ or the apostle Simon, Cephas, meaning ‘the Rock,’ Jesus perhaps referred to Mary as Magdala, ‘the Tower.’
This debate is not our focus here, though it does seem that in looking at the ways Jesus valued and entrusted Mary, he would have viewed her as strong and secure (like a tower!) and worthy of building up and empowering (because he did!).
Mary Magdalene’s devotion to Jesus was unwavering throughout his life and ministry. She traveled alongside Jesus and the twelve indicated male disciples and is mentioned by name in all four canonical gospel accounts.
However, unlike any other disciple, Mary’s fierce loyalty to Jesus was also unwavering through his death and burial. Her devotion persisted long after the others had given up hope and left the scene. Mary Magdalene watched her beloved Christ die before her eyes and she did not look away until His tomb was closed.
We recount often that Jesus died alone and rejected, but in doing so, we fail to recognize the one who stayed.
In John 20, verses 11-18, we are able to read the account of Jesus revealing Himself to Mary the next day when her faithful grief brought her back to his tomb, which she found empty.
Of all of those who followed Him, of everyone alive He could have picked, Jesus chose to appear to Mary. She showed up in her grief and He entrusted her with the weight of being the apostle to all other apostles, the first person of all people to be bestowed the responsibility to share the news of a Christ who defeated and conquered death and darkness -- a Christ who would be near even after our hands could no longer clinch His garments.
“My Lord is alive!” The declaration of unfathomable truth that shifted and is still shifting everything.
Think back to the women you most admire. Think back to the injustices plaguing women around the world today. Think about how many other ‘towers’ are there throughout the globe, persistent in showing up and staying, willing to grieve without giving up, enduring suffering to be able to bring back hope to those around them.
Think about the familial, communal, societal, and global good that would come from these ‘towers’ being empowered to be apostles to the apostles -- equipped with a gospel that isn’t just a nice idea or hope for a life after death, but with good news that results in tangible resurrection that can be experienced today.
May this be the work we are about.