In Tribute: Suzanne McCarthy, 1955-2015
Naively I thought that any Christian who learned of this liberating new way of looking at Scripture would feel the same way I did. Surely it would be a relief to them, too, to stop fighting against their better instincts the way I had had to fight mine. Surely they would be happy to understand that God’s ways were higher than the church’s ways. Surely they would be happy to see women set free.
And then, jarringly, upsettingly, I began to come across the counter-arguments. The ones that said egalitarian Christians were in rebellion against God; that they were twisting the Scriptures because they didn’t want to fulfill their God-given gender roles; that in their heart of hearts they loved the world and the world’s culture too much to stand against it for Christ. The Bible was plain and clear, they said. How could I go against it?
Once I would have been willing to believe them, but the cage door was open and swinging, and I had found my way outside. How could I go back in? Dismayed, doubting myself, I looked for scholarly support for what I hoped, what I had to believe was somehow true, no matter what the accusations against it. Men of God with credentials and letters after their names– men like John Piper and Wayne Grudem– were insisting that egalitarian scholarship regarding Greek words like “kephale” (translated “head” as in “the husband is the head of the wife”) was mistaken and wrong-headed. I had no training in ancient languages. Who should I believe?
It was then that I came across her blog– or maybe I was directed there; I don’t remember.
Suzanne McCarthy. Suzanne’s Bookshelf.
Her bio simply said she was a woman living in Vancouver, Canada, but that she also blogged at Abecedaria, a scholarly site about language and letter systems. As I used the blog search engine, it seemed that any topic on the complementarian/egalitarian debate that I typed in, she had addressed. As I read her words, I found myself encountering a singularly wise, compassionate, articulate scholar, who seemed to feel the same way I did about being consigned to female subordination.
For anything that Grudem or Piper said, Suzanne McCarthy had a strong answer, using facts and evidence from ancient language sources, showing how the words Paul and Peter used had been used by their historical and literary contempories. For instance, here is an excerpt from one of her articles about how the word “kephale” (“head”) was used by Philo of Alexandria:
The “head” is the virtuous person. I see no indication that this person has ruling authority. In another book, Philo gives an example of this kind of person, Philadelphus,
“Ptolemy, surnamed Philadelphus, was the third in succession after Alexander, the monarch who subdued Egypt; and he was, in all virtues which can be displayed in government, the most excellent sovereign, not only of all those of his time, but of all that ever lived; so that even now, after the lapse of so many generations, his fame is still celebrated, as having left many instances and monuments of his magnanimity in the cities and districts of his kingdom, so that even now it is come to be a sort of proverbial expression to call excessive magnificence, and zeal, for honour and splendour in preparation, Philadelphian, from his name; (30) and, in a word, the whole family of the Ptolemies was exceedingly eminent and conspicuous above all other royal families, and among the Ptolemies, Philadelphus was the most illustrious; for all the rest put together scarcely did as many glorious and praiseworthy actions as this one king did by himself, being, as it were, the leader of the herd, and in a manner the head of all the kings.” On Moses II:29
Here “head” means “most illustrious” and simply cannot mean “authority over” since Philadelphus is head of the kings in his family who lived before him and followed him. He simply never had authority over the other kings in chronological succession with him. Was Philadelphus really the “ruling authority” over his own father?
. . . Much still needs to be done to release men and women from a ruler – subject relationship, and allow them to enter into a relationship of hesed, which is “covenant love” and is simply called kindness, or lovingkindness in the King James Bible. The scriptures are so clear on the fact that hesed is the core value in relationships. [Emphasis added.]
At the time I first encountered her blog, Suzanne McCarthy’s day job was teaching special-needs children. Her gentle graciousness in imparting the wisdom she gained from these children seemed to shine a light into my soul:
The learning goals for the Down’s syndrome child are to have her identify and express her choice or personal preference. The student also learns appropriate group behaviour and how to act as hostess and leader of the group. She plans, buys and prepares the food. She cleans up. She passes the food around and passes the pen for other students to record their choice. It is her event.
Experiencing and expressing personal autonomy is essential to psychological health. These students are more than just trainable. We do not train even a child of the most limited ability as if she were anything less than fully human. She also has the experience of being the leader of the group. She controls the pace and responses. We each need the experience of functioning as a leader. We ask this for all of us, that we would also be able to experience and express choice in ways that are respectful of other people.
In a comment on her own post, Ms. McCarthy adds: “I thought that it was an important statement on authority/permission and the individual. We do not restrict even children to total submission.”
To be human, she says, is to be able to make choices for oneself, to have personal agency. Even those we might consider the least capable need the dignity of self-expression, the experience of autonomy, and a chance to try leadership. Here is “do unto others” in a nutshell. And here is the definitive answer to male headship, in a post where she never overtly mentions the topic. If full humanity cannot be realized in a state of constant subordination, how can we Christians consign women to just such a state?
It seemed to me that I could hear Jesus saying, “I had Downs syndrome, and you helped me learn to make my own choices. I was a special needs child, and you gave me dignity. I had limited abilities, and you let me experience leadership. Inasmuch as you have done this to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”
Later, Suzanne began blogging here on Bible Literature Translation, and she, with the other members of that group, ended up inviting me to join. To be honest, with my simple Bachelor of Arts, I have always had a bit of an inferiority complex about posting my stuff among the much more erudite offerings of my fellow members– but Suzanne McCarthy made a special effort to make me feel valued as a contributor, however infrequently I posted.
No matter what, the overwhelming trauma of living 30 years in complementarianism will not fade. The further away I get, the more I experience a normal, loving life, the more I realize that I lived those 30 years in severe physical and psychological pain and trauma. I will never be able to describe the absolute terror of living 30 years in a form of bondage that was supposedly willed on me, not by culture, not by my own stupidity, but by God when he created the world. That is what I believed. I tremble as I write this. It brings on nausea and shaking. It was completely terrible. But that is what Carson teaches, but he has never experienced the trauma himself. He wills it on the other sex.
Not all women experience complementarianism the way I did. However, the reality is that not once, while I was in the situation, did I express my true feelings about this belief. How would anyone know what women caught in this web of suppression really think? In the situation, there was a kind of numbness that keeps one going. There is a way to live and not live, at the same time. That is what it was like.
I did not experience complementarianism in marriage like that, but I do know and have experienced how God’s name is taken in vain when it is used as an instrument of power and control. As I read her words, I was humbled and blessed by the transparency and openness with which Suzanne McCarthy wrote. Her writing was embued with the power of her mind and the beauty of her heart, and I have to say it has spoken to me as few others have in my life.
Perhaps it’s also because she loved the wild places like I do, and could write about them like this:
I am looking out my window
at the mountain now
That we climbed last fall
To train for further climbs we said
But we didn’t really know.
From the summit
we gazed down
On straits and islands
To the west
On city to the south
And to the north
The serried ranks
Of mauve tinted peaks
Reached to infinity.
We lay spreadeagled
on the soft sand table
The very topmost leaf of land
From which everywhere
And the ravens dipped
Out of the wild blue sky
And the thrumming beat
of their broad wings
Echoed through our bones
And their black serrated spans
pinned us to the earth
Then we hurried down
Heels digging in the gravel
And promised to each other
That we would return next summer
With pencils and paper,
Sketchpad and notebook
And a day’s worth of food and water
But we never did.
The mountain came to me
And I lay myself down
Face to the moss carpet
That edges the creeks
You cross as you ascend
This is the return
To the earth before Adam and Eve
When we were children playing
In the land before time
I see the children playing
— that I feel as if we were in some way kindred spirits, even though we never personally met.