Tuesday, April 13, 2010

1 Corinthians 11: Should Christian Women Veil Themselves?

Across the Atlantic in the City of Lights, l'affaire du voile simmers on. Last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a highly publicized speech, proposed a national ban on the headscarves traditionally worn by conservative Muslim women. Al Jazeera's English-language news broadcast has been following the story from the Muslim perspective:



For Sarkozy, women who wear the veil threaten laicite, an ideal of French secularism enshrined in the nation's constitution. For his opponents, such a ban would infringe upon Muslims' right to free religious expression. Peter Berkowitz lists some of the difficulties involved in justifying a full veil ban in an op-ed published last week in the Wall Street Journal. (Coincidentally, the Quebecois government is debating similar legislation.)

But scholars, politicians, and pundits who get bent out of shape over the veil in Islam often forget that early Christianity had its own affaire du voile. In a vexing chapter in 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul urges women to veil themselves in church--and perhaps even all the time. President Sarkozy would not have been amused.

1 Corinthians 11 opens with progressive Christian women's least favorite line from the Bible: "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife" (11:3). This passages introduces a concept that comes to be known in some religious circles as "headship"--the not-so-vaguely misogynistic notion that men are the superior partners in Christian marriage.

Sorry ladies, but it doesn't get any better going forward. Paul continues, "any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head--it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil" (11:5-6).

This is a complex passage, and it gets no easier in the Greek, as Paul uses certain words in unprecedented ways. (The discussion of head-shaving may pertain to widows who would remove their hair to mourn; it may also pertain to cult prostitutes.) However, the message is relatively clear: Paul urges women to cover themselves when they are engaged in religious activity. And given the fact that Paul elsewhere calls believers to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), some argue that the last phrase--"she should wear a veil"--applies to women at all times.

Paul cites the second creation story in Genesis as support: "a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man" (11:7-9).

This passage recalls Genesis 2, in which woman is created from man's rib. Because woman does not come directly from God, Paul contends, she must cover herself when coming into the divine presence. Some scholars argue that Paul makes a strategic choice here in referring to the second creation story--in which man precedes woman--instead of the first--in which man and woman are created simultaneously, and both "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). This other story undermines Paul's veiling argument, so he ignores it.

In verse 13, Paul asks a rhetorical question that serves to drive his point home: "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?" From the preceding, it seems the answer is "no," though the final verse of the passage has Paul backtracking: "But if anyone is disposed to be contentious--we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God" (11:16). Some contemporary apologists for Paul argue that this "custom" is veiling itself, and that verse 16 turns the difficult paragraphs that precede it into a clumsy send-up of Corinthian discussions of gender.

However, to cast Paul in this light--as a satirizing crusader against gender inequalities--is to ignore other sexist passages in his letters. Take, as just one example, lines from later on in 1 Corinthians: "As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church" (14:33-36).

You heard Paul, women: pipe down! Your husband can explain all that hard stuff to you later on. And put your veil back on--we're going to church.

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