Monday, December 31, 2012

St. Peter's Advice to Women

Women, submit yourselves to your husbands! This is how St. Peter begins his advice to women. One might wonder if this advice represents the morality of a patriarchal culture. Was St. Peter promoting male dominance? He didn't say, "Men, submit yourselves to your wives!"

I have had the opportunity to attend a wedding in the past week. I joined the family and friends praying for the new couple and wishing them the best possible life. Two days before the wedding, when I happened to meet the bride, whom I had known since her childhood, I felt the need to communicate to her a word of blessing and a word of advice. I thought the best advice I could give her was the one St. Peter gave to the women of his time. I opened the First letter of St. Peter from the Bible and read it along with her. Although I have been familiar with this passage all my life, this time I read it to understand exactly what St. Peter was telling, and also to find out if his advice is still relevant in our time.

St. Peter advises wives and husbands separately, but the focus of his advice is on how a wife and husband can maintain their relationship intact. Two separate individuals who lead their separate lives, a man and a woman, come together to live their life together -- to eat together, to work together, to manage their home together, to sleep together, and to bring up their children together. They are supposed to stay together supporting each other until the very end. It is easy for two individuals to get attracted to each other, and then decide to live together. But it is not easy to keep their relationship and commitment intact all the way to the end. St. Peter gives a few pieces of advice that would help a couple stay united in their commitment to each other.

There will be situations in daily life when a husband and wife cannot agree with each other. What should they do in such situations? Let us imagine a situation in which a woman feels that she is right and her husband is acting silly and stupid. She wants to correct him. But how? This is a delicate situation indeed. If things are not handled right, their relationship can get strained, and eventually, they may end up having their separate lives again. Women usually have better verbal skills than men. A woman is often tempted to reason with her husband to convince him how she is right and how he is wrong. St. Peter advises the women of his time not to give in to such a temptation. This is similar to the temptation Adam and Eve had to face in the Garden of Eden, where each of them tried to prove him/herself right condemning the others wrong, and the result was a broken relationship. St. Peter suggests an alternative. Instead of arguing with her husband to convince him how foolish he is, she needs to be a role model to him by her behavior. In this way, she will be able to win her husband's heart. This is a call to rise to a higher level, with a lot of self-discipline and patience. Although such a woman looks very submissive, this submissiveness is not one of weakness or of failure, but of strength and victory.  This victory is not just for herself, but for her husband too. If their relationship breaks, both of them fail; if they keep their relationship intact, they both win.

There is another major temptation women have to face-- to adorn themselves by braiding hair, with ornaments, and with fine clothes. Calling such adorments outward and temporary, St. Peter suggests another kind of adornment that is inward and permanent. A gentle behavior and a positive and thankful attitude are inward adornments that keep a woman beautiful always and everywhere. Without wasting their precious time, efforts, and money for external and temporary adornments, let women focus on what makes them really beautiful. Women are tempted to focus on external and temporary adornments in a culture that focuses on external adornments rather than on internal ones. In a culture in which a woman is praised for what she wears, rather than for her attitude and behavior, women tend to focus more on the externals.

St. Peter advises men to honor their wives, for they have equal rights before God. He concludes with an advice to all-- love one another, have a tender heart, and have a humble spirit. Do not repay evil for evil, but repay evil with a blessing.

St. Peter was not promoting male dominance. Nor was he promoting female dominance. He was promoting a culture in which there is no dominance of any kind. It is possible for both a man and a woman to get united as parts of a body. For example, the two feet in our body carry our body forward by cooperating with each other. Such a cooperation is possible for a man and a woman in a family setting.

Is St. Peter's advice relevant in our times? I think so. Ours is a time when family is dwindling and divorce rates are skyrocketing. There needs to be a conscious and sustained effort from husbands,wives, and also from everyone around them. Both men and women need to refrain from self-justification. This is an attempt to gain mastery not by force but by love. Women also need to learn to focus on internal beauty rather than on external beauty. Let us all turn from externals to internals. Let us stop praising people for what they wear, and let us start praising people for their positive attitude and for their good deeds. Let us create a culture in which neither men nor women dominate, but cooperate with one other, caring for and supporting one another.


Raji Johnson said...

Nicely written and good thougt process.

susan said...

Hi John,
I do not agree because I do not like the word 'submit'. If St. Peter had said 'respect', I would agree.But can a wife submit to or respect a husband who is really vile just because he is her husband?
There are many situations where wives submit to husbands out of fear or sheer helplessness. I know one girl who had quietly submitted out of helplessness and her husband had broken her leg. Her parents went from India to rescue her when neighbors telephoned for help.

Why do women concentrate on externals?To make themselves attractive to men- a woman has to be attractive and in India possess a considerable dowry to be able to have a husband.

It is society that imposes this load on girls, she is a product of her upbringing and environment.

It is a fact that men cannot withstand slights from their wives. But wives are expected to submit to physical and mental abuse and torment in the hope of saving a marriage.

We must look to God to help us find new equations. Women have grown and has broken the old mold. Some men have also done the same There are many young husbands who baby sit while wives work because she is better paid. They look to the common good of the family beyond their individual egos. This man's identity is not linked to his being the wage earner. He is self confident and is assured of his wife's love and respect of him as a person, not necessarily as a wage earner.
However, in the initial days of marriage, especially arranged marriages as it was at the time Peter spoke, a wife must submit to her husband because their equation is very fragile. There was an incident in India where a newlywed boy killed his wife as she kept goading him about his lower salary. The boy was just like any of our children and his whole life and hers too, came to an end because of marriage. I do not know who was to blame- perhaps the parents who forced an unwilling girl into a marriage she could not like- for whatever reason.

We must speak about mutual respect and bring in the 'Manassammatham' which Catholics have before the engagement in arranged marriages.

It is better to let your son or daughter marry a girl or boy from another religion or community whom he/she has chosen than have a broken marriage and single parent children.

Teach a boy about a woman who is clothed with strength and dignity as in Proverbs 31. Would that woman be submissive? I think such a woman has an iron hand in a velvet glove and guides her husband when he goes wrong. This should be mutual.

A wife who is submissive is irresponsible. Think of Valmiki's wife. All the time Valmiki was a Nishada (wild hunter) and killed animals, she accepted the sustenance he provided. But when it came to sharing the guilt, she said that she had no responsibility. A wife is responsible for her husband in every way and they ought to work for each other's spiritual growth.They move as one, god-ward.
I would not call this submission.

Susan Eapen

John Kunnathu said...

Susan, Thank you for the thought-provoking response. I think St. Peter would agree with you in your stand against irresponsible and slavish submissiveness. st. Peter calls for a submissiveness that comes from responsibility and maturity. And it has to come from both men and women. It is a call to become mature and responsible.

You argue that women focus on the external adornments to present themselves attractive to men. Also you rightly state that it is the society that imposes such standards upon women. I think what St. Peter argues is that the society needs to change its perspective about making oneself attractive. He argues that it is better to use internal adornments than external ones.

Sheeja Benny said...

Very good advice to all the married women!

Tony Daniel said...

Recently a Bishop came to our parish and asked all children to keep good company. The entire thrust of the talk was to "keep good company". After the session I asked a friend's 8 year old son, in the presence of his parent, whether he kept good company in school. He replied, honestly in his own language, that it was not easy to extricate from his disagreeable company, because they would call him a 'nerd' and other names if he did not join them. Hence he was frequently in strife with the teachers. I understood the boy's predicament, it is something all of us would have undergone in our days, and perhaps still do unwittingly.
It is easy to tell someone to be good. But telling how to be good is not easy. What vocabulary would one have used to transfer ones "vast" experience to this boy? Can we take it for granted that times have not changed and what was right in one situation is applicable in another without change. How do we assess this change, so as to effectively solve a problem? " The priests and elders are in the business of suggesting ways, not in its implementation". How do we implement St Peter's advice in this day and age, if the spouse is not open to suggestions? The problem is not so simple, as the levels of complexity arises with every apparent solution.

John Kunnathu said...

Thank you very much for the comment. As you have rightly observed, the problem is not at all simple. All that St. Peter is telling us is to strive to keep the relationships intact at whatever cost. He advises us to rise to a higher level of maturity in such situations. But rising to maturity is not at all easy. It takes time, wilingness, and effort.

Ruthamma Chacko said...

The male world wants to bring the women under their control and make them their slaves God made men and women equal.

Tony Daniel said...

The greatest problem humanity faced from time immemorial has been the desire to control others. This is often done at the expense of self-control, which is often what is required to maintain peace and harmony in life. Modernity requires this one skill like never before. We have removed ourselves so much from nature that many do not see controlling others as an unpleasant fault. Both male and female are culpable of this. It has infiltrated our personal lives as well. Sadly, we may have to look elsewhere to learn self-control in its true sense.

James 1:26 (NKJV)
26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.

John Kunnathu said...

Tony, Thank you very much for this comment. Yes, I think it is absolutely true. The contrast is between self-control and controlling others. Controlling others arises from self-righteousness.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your take on St Peters advice to women. My disagreement is not based on semantics, but on the apparent inapplicability of such prescriptions to the current day realities.

Many of the modern day apostles dissect and analyze relatively small portions of the epistles or writings and do come up with ideas and opinions that are absolutely incongruent with the whole theme of the bible. I think we should be able to deal with bible as it is – i.e. a collection of books – where eternal truths are packaged and delivered within clear constraints of time and space.

The apostles letters are written at specific contexts, many a times to address prevailing issues of the times. While presenting eternal truths, they also may give direct instructions that are appropriate for the time and place. The society of the times – predominantly judaic - was strongly tethered on the highly manipulated value model put in place by Moses where women was treated primarily as material - to be taken, kept, protected and dealt with so – a model that was evolved from the norms of nomadic existence. Examples abound in old testament -including the commandments - where woman is equated to property rather than individual self. Christ, the revolutionary stated in his liberating gospel that all human beings are equal. The new wine -.the new gospel - couldn’t be contained in old wineskins - prevailing cultural framwork.

Ignoring the very ideals of Christ, we take tremendous effort to justify the old testament in order to prove our superior orthodoxy. It is not a burden, the oriental orthodox need to carry. Though the very orthodoxy of ours is based on the call of Christ to take up his cross, and suffer (gracefully tolerate) with him - a burden which include his ideals. The oriental orthodoxy's spirituality based on deification is the most robust implementation of Christ's call for individual responsibility.. as described by PMG and others, through prayer and meditation; and exercising the words..

I believe it would be wrong to take such verbal prescriptions of the first century literally and apply it in the current context. A church that is live in spirit must face the realities of the day, and banish the artificial divisions that were put together to preserve family structure at those times. Peter and Paul were very mindful to the well-being of the family unit and as their writing obviously indicate so. The times have changed, the destabilizing forces on the family unit are different; but the eternal truths have not changed, nor the very ideals of Peter and Paul. The preservation of the family structure and participation of all in the creative love of God, require new work instructions for the new society. It is the living church's responsibility to understand the current context and provide new prescriptions. Why would it be impossible for the woman to be head of the family, or be a priest? It is only our mindset which is preventing it.. I have observed households and situations where the faminine voice is lot saner. Even as Christ's ministry evolved over the time, the spirituality based on deification is also an evolved concept. It is time for us to stop using Bible verses as tools of subjugation.

John Kunnathu said...

Dear Anonymous writer,
Thank you very much for leaving a comment. Your writing makes it clear that you are someone with a theological education. I wish you all the best with your pursuit.

I don't think you want the readers to believe that you lack the courage to speak out what you believe to be true? You may have your own reasons to be anonymous. You might be a priest or a bishop who doesn't want to take the risk. That is fine.

Also it seems that you didn't have the time to read my post before you start writing about it. If you had spared a couple of minutes to read it, you could have written a more meaningful comment. You begin saying "I disagree with your take on St Peters advice to women". But are you sure you understand what is my take?

Anonymous said...

Your post was read in full, before commenting. Semantically, your post is well thought out, well structured and extremely well presented; highlighting moderation and toleration - the basis for long lasting relationships.

Had made clear that the disagreement is at a different space, ie the applicability of direct prescriptions from bible (or scriptural texts) in diverse contextual frames that lead to errors. To prove the point, I quote the gospel where a syro-phoenician woman is told that His deal is just for the Jews, and soon revised to accommodate her stubborn faith. Jesus himself emphasizes the structuring of communications with specific eye for the impact on the recipient (general use of parables .... 'Your sins have forgiven’ to paralytic etc. ). Wouldn’t it be wrong if we focused on the exclusivity?

The spiritual and theological space is probably the worst polluted environments of all; there is so much garbage out there - justifications of all kinds of irrational behavior are god given for many of the purveyors of insanity. I tend to think that much of it comes from absolutism justified thru elaboration of few short words taken out of context without any sense of proportion. Pluralism is moderation and toleration too.. I have no theology background, am neither a priest nor bishop, but a village idiot who posts anonymously because such is possible.

Chacko Thomas, Mumbai said...

Dear Readers,
Submissiveness is the only way to live in harmony in a married life. When u refer Bible and preach , a spiritual angle is brought in. In that case, why there is Sexuality in spirituality. No body intentionally took birth as a male or female. It is by default. Then why to penalize female alone. Let any one (Husband or wife) be submissive for achieving a blissful married life.