I posted this as a comment on Rachel Held Evan’s blog. Even though I have long believed in and practiced women’s equality in ministry I am regularly frustrated by the implicit assertions of how power is used between us in conflict. Jesus came not just to hold another revolution, but to undo the way in which we do revolution.
What character did Ruth display? That is the question we must ask. Strength is not neutral, and power has a quality and that quality means everything.
Ruth is the hero of her book because of the strong character she displayed, but that character had a particular quality. If you want to see Ruth in that story watch how the story sets up a series of deliberate contrasts. Ruth vs. Naomi, Boaz vs. Elimelech, Israel vs. Moab. The village is the “Greek” chorus of sorts. The contrasts are not static, are historical and subtle, and the direction of the contrasts foundational.
Elimelech and Naomi abandon Israel in her time of struggle and head for Moab where they can secure life for themselves. Don’t forget that “Moab” is the son of Lot. Moab was conceived after the destruction of Sodom. Lot’s daughters (not weak persons either in the sense that our culture views power and weakness) fear for their future (men were required for future security, women learned how to manipulate and secure men as vehicles for their own future security) and so they get their father drunk on two successive nights and rape him. These are strong women. One of them is the mother of Ruth. The question is what is true strength?
Elimelech and Naomi and sons leave Israel (whose strength is supposed to come from dependence on the good covenant of Yhwh) for Moab and begin to live a Moabic lifestyle.That lifestyle, however, which was supposed to secure their future was one of barrenness (OT theme). All the men die (coincidence?). Men were supposed to be security (Lot’s daughters) and they are not.
Naomi (sweety) becomes Mara (bitter). She is filled with bitterness and with Ruth by her side skedaddles back to fallback Bethlehem (house of bread) and announces “I went away full (of men) but came back empty (no man next to her, just this stupid barren Moabitess who foolishly bound herself to a bitter, decaying failed Israelite.
Ruth now, a daughter of her man manipulating and securing ancestor, begins to act how Naomi should have acted all along. The daughter of Moab begins to act like a true daughter of Israel.
This is a story of election. God can make children of Abraham out of stones, even daughters of Moab.
Ruth, step by step, practices reckless, irresponsible self-donation towards and unworthy mother-in-law foretelling the reckless, irresponsible self-donation Christ will express towards his mother Israel. Boaz, likewise, unlike Elimelech, will also act like a true son of Israel and this man and this woman together (image of God in Genesis) will in their union bring hope to mother Israel.
The climax of the story will take place at the threshing floor where Boaz, like Lot, will have already had a lot to drink. Here Naomi hatches a plot that echoes the man securing strategy of the daughters of Lot. This is the first and only time in the story where Ruth is rebellious towards her mother-in-law and fails to carry our her explicit instructions. Boaz, unlike Lot, acts like a true son of Israel, and risks his own inheritance (something the nearer kinsman was unwilling to do, again now a man re-echoes the theme of trying to secure his own future) and recklessly marries Ruth, the pearl of great price. Boaz by extending himself in rescuing Ruth now echoes what Ruth did in extending himself to rescue undeserving Naomi.
In the end Naomi, like Israel, is both undeserving and extended grace and a future. This is the gospel.
I embrace the outcome (women fully free to use their gifts in the church) while resisting the self-salvation narrative that many are employing in this effort, liberation by means of demand and self-assertion. Ruth is an example of reckless self-denial while Naomi and the daughters of Lot are examples of taking whatever power they had available to them (not much given their position in the prevailing culture) and using men to achieve their goals (future security). People (men and women) are to be loved, not used.
Both men and women must be liberated but the liberation comes not by self-assertion and grabbing power, but by self-denial and self-donation in a more reckless for of love of enemy (Naomi ironically) that shames the powerful and Yhwh blesses.
If the church simply assumes the world’s style of liberation (my wellbeing at your expense, my use of power to secure my future for myself through using people via institutions) then women’s access to ministry is a hollow victory because the real conflict is not over what chairs we get to sit in or what roles we play but how we treat each other (love your enemies) and how we use power, to bless, not to harm, poured out for the powerless, poor and weak and the wellbeing of the community.