The Sound of Glass Cracking in the Proverbial Ceiling
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Put aside the matter of choosing for whom you personally will vote. The fact that each of us will have the opportunity to vote for a woman has to be recognized as a highly significant moment in American history, and it is my hope that all Americans – Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike – are, at least to that extend, proud of our democracy. Equality is hard to come by for some categories of persons, and throughout history, women – more than half of the human race – have suffered inequality that should now be viewed as shocking. The day is coming, and this nomination is a big step forward, when all forms of discrimination against women will be unacceptable.

I offer my viewpoint as a white male who knows something about authority and power that seems to come without necessarily being earned. I am a husband and a father, and therefore someone who realizes the need to empower women at a very personal level. I am a leader of the church, and therefore committed to the welfare of all of her members. I am a theologian and therefore someone who understands the religious and moral issues relevant in the quest for equality and justice. I am an attorney and therefore someone who is familiar with the Constitutional and legal issues at hand. But I offer you my personal perspective on discrimination against women especially as a pastor.

The first thing I have to say is really outrageous. That is, it is outrageous that it has to be said at all: Every human being is equally a child of God. Women are equal to men, and to one another, and women are due nothing less than that recognition and that standing. It simply is not enough to acknowledge that, it has to be constitutionally established and made effective within our legal, political, social, and religious spheres.

In fact, I have an outrageous question: If Mrs. Clinton is elected, should she be paid at the same level as her husband when he was President? Noting that most women holding the same job as a man do not receive equal pay, it is an outrageously meaningful question, and one that must be removed in the only way possible.

The next thing I have to say to you as a pastor is very important but seems too little considered. Those of us who participate in a system that discriminates are the people most in need of being freed from it. Martin Luther King spoke as a pastor to those who cannot see the harm to themselves in prejudice and actions of discrimination. From a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he shed the light of reality on fellow clergymen who wanted to avoid the struggle of their day in obtaining equality for all human beings:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” 

Finally, I want to say how obviously this nomination makes the case against discrimination within the institutional life of God’s church. The church is intended to be the pioneer for justice in society, but when it comes to women the church is being dragged kicking and screaming into the inevitable realization that it is its own worst enemy. The faith community in which I have a formal role as a bishop, together with most of the mainline protestant churches, has been and remains guilty enough, though decisions have been made to begin correction of our path. But when one sees the determined prejudice and discrimination against women in the very largest of our communities, ranging from the fundamentalist evangelical churches to the sacramental Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, one is staggered by the realization of how far the Christian church is from the way of our Lord. We must call each other to reform whatever is required in order to fully include women in all of the life of the church, including all leadership roles, into which they are baptized!

The model for Christians is Jesus himself, and despite the failures of his church down through the centuries of patriarchal domination, despite the way certain parts of his church still oppress women in his name, Jesus himself treated women exactly as he did with men. We see that he surrounded himself with women; He not only gathered them and associated with them, he made them part of his inner circle. We see how much trouble he got in because of his interaction with women. He was declared unclean and unworthy of leadership in that patriarchal society. We see that the first person he appeared to after the resurrection was a woman and it was this woman he chose as his first apostle to send with the news and spread it as The Good News.

Matters like racial bigotry and the oppression of women was, and for some Christians remain, examples of religious conscience. It is the religious conscience that has to change! The inequality of women and all offenses against justice must be prohibited in the church as well as in law. For where justice is violated we may find religious beliefs, but we will not find God.


Going Deeper

By: Joe Morris Doss

At the Threshold has noted previously that strategic decisions were made and acted upon by a determined and focused group of wealthy Americans as the Conservative Movement gained ascendancy. Most of these people were not active members of a Christian church, and even fewer had strong feelings for any one of the several faith communities. Yet, they invested heavily in the church. They did so for purely political purposes. Readers of modern historical material about activities such as are documented in Dark Money (Jane Mayer) and Thy Kingdom Come (Randall Balmer) will not find this surprising.

One of the important strategic goals was to convince the public, through manipulation of the media, that Christianity is politically conservative by its very nature and limited in scope to private matters of personal moral behavior, individual “spirituality,” and otherworldly aspirations. For those reasons, it was asserted, Christians support liberal causes only as the church becomes captured by a secular agenda, e.g. the “gay agenda,” the “feminists agenda,” etc. In such a light, the proper public role of the church should be to support laws and policies that will suit the views of its most conservative Christians and impose laws that they consider “God’s will” for human society.

The conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote an April 30 op-ed in which the accepted assumptions that identify Christianity with conservative political positions are exemplified. Speaking at an evangelical seminary he had no compunction about addressing his audience as though he was speaking for all of Christianity. Thomas lamented the failures of Christian influence in American government, noting the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage as an example of the secularization of society, and compared the situation of the present day church to that of the early church, “when it was the target of persecution.”

That Christians seem to be losing ground in what has erroneously been called the “culture wars” may not be a bad thing. It might force them to re-think their primary calling, which is to a kingdom “not of this world.”

This Christian vision is narrow and shallow. If it is taken as the vision of the church there can be little wonder that we have lost the imagination of society.

In striking contrast, on the morning that I read this opinion I next picked up an excerpt from Belief in God in An Age of Science by John Polkinghorne. (All quotes and references are taken from Part 5.) The author is a world-renown physicist who is also a noted philosopher and theologian. As a student of the physical makeup of the universe Polkinghorne is not to be turned away from interest in creation – its physicality, its order, and its purposes. From the very beginning in the first century the church courageously opened its mind in search of the full truth being revealed to them in the Jesus story. It certainly refused to ignore God’s design and commitment to creation.

This is not the place or the occasion for a sufficiently in-depth theological exploration, but perhaps some rudimentary sketching will offer a hint for why I found the comparison of the two essays so arresting. Polkinghorne is aware not only that transience and death have always been part of the world of human experience, but that today we realize how mortality characterizes the whole universe itself.

“Not only has it looked very different in the past from its appearance today, but eventually, after many more billions of years, it will change again, ending either in the bang of cosmic collapse or the long-drawn out whimper of an ever expanding dying world.”

The author links our own hope for resurrection with the resurrected universe and offers his studied hope that both we and it will be made new, just as God raised Jesus by transforming his dead body into a new form of embodied life.

“I have never felt that the perpetuation of the race, or of life itself, or—least of all—of selfish genes, represented sufficient fulfillment to make sense of the history of this world. The fact that we now know that all these carbon-based entities will one day perish only makes the point more clearly. If cosmic history is no more than the temporary flourishing of remarkable fruitfulness followed by its subsequent decay and disappearance, then I think Macbeth was right and it is indeed a tale told by an idiot.”

Polkinghorne perceives a deep yearning, an intuition of hope within the human spirit, that is expressed by no less than the atheist philosopher, Max Horkheimer, in his cosmic fancy that the murderer should not triumph over his innocent victim.

“Theology is—and I consciously phrase it carefully—the hope that injustice, which is typical of the world, will not have the last say… a yearning that in the end the hand of the killer will not remain on top of the innocent victim.” (Horkheimer, “Die Sehnschucht nach dem ganz Anderen,” Gesammelte Schriften, VII, s. 389, as quoted here.)

If we consider profound Christian hope and thus the role of the church in politics, we must reach into such deep and complex issues and, yes, we must consider even the “end things,” how it is all to turn out if God’s will is to be fulfilled. Only God can take from death the last word and if the human intuition of hope – that all will be well and that the world makes ultimate sense – depends on God. But, as frightening as it may be, God has made us agents of the divine will.

What Polkinghorne has to say as a profoundly modern Christian thinker sounds to me like solid Pauline scripture, surprised not that the whole world is in the process, groaning in travail though it may be, of coming to the new birth in which there shall be justice and peace – shalom – but that each of us is loved by God as though every one of us is a whole cosmos. This is a  Christian vision that can charge the people of the earth with energy and a passion for justice.


At the Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues. Our method is to examine the theories of how lawyers, judges, legal scholars, and politicians interpret laws, with a special eye to constitutional law, and then use that understanding to cast light on how scripture is interpreted by biblical scholars and theologians. We have discussed the first of the two basic schools for interpretation, the “objectivist” methodology that Americans usually refer to as “strict constructionist.” We will now turn our attention to the “subjectivist” mode of interpretation. 

Part 7 of a 10- part series

A General Review

The subjectivist method considers itself more sensitive to the actual effect it has on the moral order it seeks to uphold, to restore when violated, and to reconcile when differences arise between states and parties. Instead of standing above what is going on in order to judge objectively, subjectivists are willing to go behind, or deeper within, what is seen on the surface of a disputation into the realities as they are and as they will be affected.

Judges and other interpreters of constitutional law often consider each of the three primary schools within it to be reliant on variations of some sort of “natural law” (although not in the sense that scholastic theology defined the term.) That is, instead of limiting their consideration to that which has already been agreed upon and instituted as law, subjectivist are prepared to rely on something outside of the existing and formulated body of law that “naturally” validates the law in question, something that at once transcends concrete instances of law yet remains so fundamental that it must be allowed to govern. Adherents of these forms of interpretation do not believe it is necessary that everyone agree on what that something is or the relation that something must have to law in order to make a rule legitimate.

Even the most ardent objectivist interpreter acknowledges the existence of unwritten and pre-existing equities within the law, an understanding that there are certain inherent protections of the justice and fairness for which the law as a whole stands and which it seeks. The law cannot allow a law to be “inequitable.” If a court recognizes that this is happening in particular cases it will look to where equity is to be identified, even in the face of clearly written statues and precedents. The courts look to the foundational purposes of law itself and of the law in question. The great English jurist Francis Bacon defined equity as the set of maxims that “reign over all the law” and “from which flow all civil laws.” The equities always exist and always must be satisfied; otherwise the law would be forced to contradict its own purposes. Read More…


This is a first in a series of posts about Christian hymns in relation to poverty and human suffering.

By Joe Morris Doss

Christians sing what we claim to believe, and our song is offered as prayer and praise. This makes it a call to action for the church. The act of singing, in any context, is an action that joins and reintegrates thought and feeling. Things mean differently because we sing them and we mean them differently because we sing them repeatedly over time. These axioms are as true for a community as they are for individuals. Christian song shapes and forms us as Christians and as a church.

In light of the effect of singing on Christian belief, prayer, and action, the question regarding why the church sings little about poverty is important, deep and reaching. Indeed, the question must come to grips with the way our paucity of singing about it has shaped the church – how we think, feel, believe and act in the face of poverty.

Basically, we ignore poverty as one of the great problems of human society and limit ourselves to offerings of succor to individuals or specified groups.

Of course, we could turn the question-and-answer around to say that we don’t sing about poverty because we don’t believe it is a moral failure of our society – and thus of the church. If poverty is something that happens to particular individuals, the church’s role is to offer help to the poor to whom our members can reach out at a personal level – often part of a programmatic ministry that congregations term “outreach.” Most likely, the interplay between the effect of failing to sing about the reality and the limited Christian response to poverty is a dialectical dynamic of cause and effect.

Wait a minute! The most famous of all Christian songs is aimed straight at what God would have us do about human society and especially about poverty. The annunciation “Song of Mary” proclaims the reason for the coming of the Christ in no uncertain terms. Mary’s song declares that the nature of God and the will of God for human society have become apparent, and in her song she paints the picture.

First the creator of heaven and earth has chosen the “lowly” – not of the “high-born” possessing wealth, power, privilege, or social standing: “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Then,


His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the
powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our forebears,
to Abraham and to his children forever.


The truth is that while this is our most famous songs, and certainly one of our most often uttered, the words regarding social justice are ignored or trivialized. The song is employed for a piety that is narrowly individualistic and targeted at a certain appreciation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “God-bearer.”

Notice that it has usually been called “The Magnificat” – a title that focuses the entire song on Mary, instead of on the mission of her son on behalf of creation, human society, and kingdom. It is not used by Christians as a hymn but as a canticle within a liturgical context (e.g. the season of Advent) that defines it within the particular context and which does not point to its call to action within human society. When the words that address the grand issues are sung, they seem to be taken metaphorically in some unexamined and simplistically pietistic sense.

Wait another minute! There is an earlier song that stands among the most famous and telling within the Jewish, and, therefore, the Christian, tradition. Like Mary, the mother of Samuel raised her voice to sing in thanksgiving for the promise of an unexpected son. He became the last judge and the first prophet. The declarations of Hannah and Mary are obviously connected.

Hannah’s song defined the mission of Samuel, and Mary seemed to know that, in many ways subtle and blatant, Hannah’s was a song in preparation for her own. The Christian understanding of scripture recognizes that Samuel’s role and his mission was directly connected to, and in preparation for, that of Jesus. In this way it can be said that the Song of Hannah anticipates and is completed by the Song of Mary.

On just cursory examination, Hannah’s and Mary’s seem to be the same song – at least fundamentally. With this observation, it becomes apparent that the coming of the child to Mary is to complete the most profound hopes of the Jewish vision for shalom and for God’s action in history. Note the similarities and parallels between the visions regarding God’s plan for human society within the two songs:


Hannah: “My heart exults in the Lord!”
Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord”


Hannah: “My triumph song is lifted by my God.”
Mary: “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”


Hannah: “My mouth is stretched over my enemies because I rejoice in my victory.”
Mary: “…my Savior …has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from this day all generations will call me blessed”


Hannah: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, nor any rock to be compared to our God.”
Mary: “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”


Hannah: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is knowing and weighs all actions.”
Mary: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation…he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”


Hannah: “The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered”
Mary: “He has shown strength with his arm”


Hannah: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the weak are armored in strength….He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap to give them a seat with noblemen, bequeathing them a place of honor.”
Mary: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”


Hannah: “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry now are well fed”
Mary: “…he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”


Hannah: “…the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world. He guards the way of his faithful ones”
Mary: “He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our forebears, to Abraham and to his children forever.”


If we grasp the connection between these two songs we will better understand the failure of the church to sing them as demands for justice and, in particular, for overcoming the inequities and suffering caused by poverty. In their songs we hear the message of the prophets and of the Christ together: if there is no justice there is no God, but only idols of the illusory wealth, status, privilege and power people think will satisfy their humanity, but which leads only to sin.

Mary and Hannah sing praise for God’s favor to the humble and lowly. Unexpectedly, God has sided with the poor and the weak; unexpectedly God has overthrown the rich and hushed the proud; unexpectedly, protection and mercy is in store for the faithful who “fear” God, while the wicked will be cut off; unexpectedly, the hungry will be fed while the rich are sent away empty.

In other words, Hannah and then Mary conclude, the world will be treated the way God treated Israel in the exodus experience and as God called it to be his servant community. In other words, Mary is saying, the prophets were right after all: the future shall accord with promises made to the first ancestors and there shall be justice at last.

Luke most intentionally begins his Gospel with a pattern of surprising reversals by God. As has been demonstrated in Hannah’s Song this is not a new pattern. It calls for a new order of society under God’s reign and that new order will be a reversal of the familiar pattern. This pattern of reversals which is established will continue through the cross and resurrection, a pattern of dying and rising which borders on tragedy and on comedy – a divine play transcending ordinary human wisdom and power.

Joe Morris Doss is the President of At the Threshold, an international and ecumenical organization fostering the transformation of the Christian Church. Bishop Doss served parishes in Louisiana and California as an Episcopal priest, and the Diocese of New Jersey as Bishop. An attorney with a background in civil rights, he enjoys a national reputation in and out of the church, primarily as an advocate for justice, and in particular as a champion of minorities, women, and children.