Early this year in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, his colleague, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court. Her answer caused quite a stir as she quickly retorted, “When there are nine.” In the following days and weeks, I heard a number of people respond to her statements with anger and frustration at such “reverse sexism.”
There was more scrutiny given to her response it seemed than to the question it sought to answer. I have never heard anyone ask how many men on the Supreme Court would be enough. Asking how many women (or even people of color) will be enough implied that the standard for the court is white males and that diversity of gender or ethnicity are mere additions.
The question Ginsberg answered was sexist from the beginning.
Her suggestion that the court should be composed of nine women, however, is a legitimate proposal. Americans can conceive of a reality in which the court is composed of all men, because this has been the reality for nearly all of our history. While in the 21st century we may suggest that an all male court is less than ideal, until we can conceive of a reality in which an all female court exists — until our perception of the court is not fundamentally white and male — we are beholden to the sin of sexism.
The sins of sexism, much like racism and homophobia certainly affect people on an individual level, but they are social sins that are socially learned. In the early 20th century, Walter Rauschenbusch, theologian of the Social Gospel, sought to reframe an understanding of original sin from something that is biologically transmitted to something that is culturally inherited. Children are not born sexists, racists, classists or homophobes. These are learned sins that are passed down from generation to generation.
The sin of homophobia has been front and center in much of the media cycle over the past few weeks and days as a result of the horror inflicted upon the LGBT community in Orlando. The battleground has been set certainly within the Baptist community between those who are welcoming and affirming and those who are not.
Such a battleground belies the reality that these sins are, in fact, social, and social sins do not die so easily. There is no magic switch that turns an individual from being homophobic one day to being completely freed of homophobia the next. The same goes for racism and sexism. These are sins that are culturally transmitted to us as children, and they are sins that continue to resurface even when we are unaware.
Angela Yarber and Cody Sander’s recent book Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Hidden Violence of Everyday Church does an excellent job explaining how such social sins manifest themselves unbeknownst to even the most progressive congregations. Voting for progressive causes is important, commendable and must be done. What comes after, however, is the difficult work of correcting years of learned sexist, racist and homophobic behavior that we often fail to recognize is hurtful or damaging.
While support for Women in Ministry is now a cornerstone commitment of the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, history shows that this support was not a given from the start of either organization — a wrongful assumption countless people make in progressive Baptist life regularly. Such bastardized histories erase the stories of women like Nancy Hastings Sehested, Susan Lockwood, Anne Thomas Neil and others who had to fight at early organizational meetings back in 1987 for the Alliance to support women in ministry. Years later, at the founding the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the organization refused to financially support Baptist Women in Ministry. Eventually, CBF came to support the organization, but suggesting they were inclusive of female ministers from day one erases the struggle many women faced in those early years.
By erasing the sexism that was present in the Alliance and the CBF back at its founding, we fool ourselves into thinking that we have been cured of this social sin.
Today, the commitment to women in ministry has manifested itself into roughly 41.9 percent of Alliance churches having a female senior pastor or co-pastor and around 6.5 percent of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches. The American Baptist Churches USA bolsters a percentage of churches with female ministers at around of 10 percent. The statistics of our fellow Christians in other mainline denominations hovers around 30 percent. Yes, we progressive Baptists support women in ministry, and that is important, but we cannot think that we have moved beyond the sin of sexism nor any other social sin we have “voted” on. Social sins are not things one merely moves on from, they are things we must continue to strive to combat.
I can hear the question already: “What percentage of ministers who are women will be enough?” I choose to cast my answer with Justice Ginsberg — when all ministers are women, that will be enough.