I finally read Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist, a book that’s been on my “To Be Read” list for years.
It’s the book that launched her writing career into The New York Times’ best-seller notoriety. As someone who’s always considered myself a feminist, I was honestly a little embarrassed that I hadn’t read it earlier.
I mean, it did come out in 2010. So, I pulled the copy off my bookshelf last year and began reading.
Honestly, I was underwhelmed.
Don’t get me wrong. She made some fantastic points about how the life that Jesus lived naturally recognized the importance of the women in community and how, based on the life Jesus lived, we should all embrace feminism as part of good Christian witness. College Kali would have eaten that up in 2010.
As seminal as her work was in 2010, Sarah Bessey fell prey to the trap that so many well-meaning white moderate-to-progressive Christians fall into: she assumed her experience as a cishet white woman was one universal to all women (except for those who lived in places like Haiti, and those references were the only times she mentioned women of color).
The utter lack of conversation about what Kimbrelé Crenshaw calls intersectionality – the recognition of the various oppressions someone experiences based on the marginalized parts of their identities – made this book read as a reflection guide for privileged Christians.
As she’s evolved and done things like co-create Evolving Faith, it’s clear that intersectionality is now an incredibly important part of her life and ministry. I hope she’s able to release an updated edition of Jesus Feminist that highlights the intersectionality she overlooked in 2010.
The insights she had in 2010 about Jesus’ radical inclusion of women, combined with her current observations about intersectionality and privilege, would make such a book a tour de force.
But she’s not the only one to overlook the importance of intersectionality in the work of feminism. Historically, feminist movements have been about white women elevating their status as close as they could get to the status of white men, using the bodies of Black women to add to their number.
This strategy has been clear from the inaugural Women’s March on Washington in 1913, when the white organizers asked the Black women to march at the back of the protest block.
As white women have opened their spaces to more women of color, though, they’ve made the same mistake Bessey did in assuming that the female experience is a monolith. This reality is especially true in the church.
We made women’s ministries that center the experiences of white women and their relationships, assuming that even if all the women in the church weren’t white, then they were aspiring to the standards of Whiteness as part of their salvation. That’s to say nothing of how these ministries also cater to cishet women, completely overlooking the needs of LGBTQ+ women in their congregations.
Women of color deserve better than that. Jesus’ ministry would have been impossible if not for the women of color who birthed him, raised him, encouraged him, taught his teachings, buried him and preached the good news of his resurrection.
Jesus welcomed them into his following with open arms and empowered them to lead. When Jesus ascended into heaven, women disciples worked alongside the men in their communities to create worship communities, to create chosen family where no one was in need.
Just as a feminism that doesn’t center intersectionality is hollow, a Christianity that doesn’t center women of color is Christless.
Jesus wasn’t a feminist; he was a champion for the immediate inclusion of the most marginalized. That may not sound as sexy or emotionally charged as the word “feminist”, but it’s more accurate. Why? Because he’s always been about welcome now.
From the moment he first preached about the “Kin-dom of God,” he’s insisted that everyone is a beloved child of God now. He’s insisted that the “Kin-dom of God” is for everyone now.
Not that some group would access it before others, not that they’d have to wait after all the white men got saved, not that they’d have to wait for the right cishet white man to come teach them a watered-down, shallow version of the gospel.
No. Jesus says that the “Kin-dom of God” is for everyone now. Period.
And the women of color in his life are the ones that helped him become the cornerstone of that “kin-dom.” There would be no Jesus without women of color.
In a season when women of color, trans women and gay women are losing more and more rights in states across the U.S., we don’t have time for a feminism or a Christianity that doesn’t work for the liberation and justice of all of us.
This year for Women’s History Month, it is my earnest prayer that you don’t use it as a time to simply honor the white women in your history because that’s what feels comfortable.
Listen to the women who are screaming for justice now. Ask yourself how you can partner with them now. Only then can you follow Christ’s example in bringing the “Kin-dom of God” on earth as it will be in heaven.
A bivocational pastor, writer and spiritual director based in Atlanta, Georgia, she currently works as a Spiritual Director at Reclamation Theology. Cawthon-Freels is the author of Reclamation: A Queer Pastor’s Guide to Finding Spiritual Growth in the Passages Used to Harm Us (Nurturing Faith Books), and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.