I’m a staunch feminist. However, that doesn’t mean I have hatred for men, or, have a deep-seated desire for men to drop off the face of the planet. Honestly, I like men.
Yet, I have known men to exert violent behavior, be arrogant in the workplace, get paid more than women in almost all fields, harass and cat call women as they walk down the street, and, in the theological context, exercise patriarchal privilege often.
My work as a theologian has taken me many places. I’ve worked side by side with some of the most oppressed women in the world in the Slums of Mumbai, India, and I’ve sat and listened to women that have lived through conflict in Africa and the Middle East. I have also made sure to connect with men around the world and all too often I’ve found myself sitting, as not the only Christian woman in the room, but the only woman, holding my own, listening, and understanding.
This has brought me to a new question – why? Why do men control? Why do men kill women? Why do men walk into schools and kill children? Why do men kill each other because of race? Why do men lead wars and conflicts?
Last year I attended a session with the Restorative Justice program with the San Francisco County Jail. This entailed sitting in a room with fifty violent offenders, most of them in jail for domestic violence. The first part of the day was listening to a guest speaker who had as they had, encountered violence. The men then get to ask questions of the speaker. Afterward, the men break in to groups to discuss their understanding of what violence they have perpetrated and how they are accountable in their own situation. In the end, they meditate or do yoga. The program is not guaranteed to produce 100% recidivism, however, it does succeed where other punitive programs fail. Many of the men spoke authentically, sharing about the drug-infested and violent households they were raised in, the trauma they suffered, and how that manifested in their adult lives. Several of these men turn their lives around and choose to never harm another person again.
The harsh truth is that humans are broken. We’re all wounded. We’re all hurting and we’re all struggling. Woundedness, I am finding, has various degrees.
Take these two people: Fred, a homeless man in my neighborhood here in San Francisco, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh. Two men, in two very different places in the world, facing different challenges, with two very different outcomes.
Fred grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. He fought in Vietnam and receives a VA check, but, it’s not large enough to cover rent here in the City, so, he spends his check on a hotel room for half the month, and spends the other half on the street. An alcoholic with PTSD, he also lost his 2 year old son in 1979 to a surgery that went horribly wrong. Belligerent, hungry, alone, scared, he called me a “bitch” when I couldn’t stop and speak with him one day, he is acceptingly paralyzed by his situation.
Al-Baghadi was about twenty years old when the first Gulf War began in 1991. He lived through Sanctions and most likely witnessed countless family members and friends die, not to mention the utter destruction of his homeland, Iraq. Playing witness to the unspeakable and undeniable consequences of “collateral damage,” al-Baghdadi is now the most vicious and powerful man on the planet.
Both of these men act out their woundedness in different ways. They have both experienced trauma, pain and inexplicable loss. Their choices are in no way to be condoned, yet, the fact remains, people, for the most part, don’t harm others, unless they have been harmed themselves.
This is what I feel every feminist needs to understand.
So many feminists work tirelessly to better women’s lives, including our own, but, that alone is not enough. It’s not that overt oppression against women doesn’t exist, because it does. But we must also understand the socialization men experience, why (violent and oppressive) men are the way they are, to then be able to ask, How do we change this?
I doubt al-Baghdadi dreamt of becoming the world’s most feared terrorist. He didn’t wake up one day and say, “I am going to kill thousands.” As a child, Fred didn’t hope for a life as a 70 year old, belligerent, homeless man, the loss of a child, and unrecoverable war trauma. The men who have walked in to our schools, theatres, and places of work didn’t all plan to go down in the history books as mass killers. The men we work with who get higher salaries than we do, didn’t go to college with the notion, I will make more money than the women in my workplace do. The men who commit domestic violence didn’t flirt with the first girl they had a crush on in grade school, dreaming they would someday kill a woman. I don’t believe men grow up desiring to be oppressors of any kind. Why would they?
Humans need to be taught to hold ourselves accountable. How? Reciprocally, by offering grace. This theological word is loaded, I know, but, I believe God has grace for all of us, we, however, often fail to offer grace to each other.
I speak from a place of my conversations with and my learning from men all over the world – from self-proclaimed Zionists, to Muftis, to domestic violence offenders, to the homeless, to Imams, to American snipers, to Priests, Rabbis, and Pastors. In these conversations I have come to realize one thing – in being a staunch feminist, I must offer grace. Grace when it isn’t deserved. Grace when no one else will offer it. Grace in listening. Grace in understanding. Offering grace does not mean I accept anyone’s oppressive ways. No, not at all. Offering Feminist Grace is a way of saying, We are all, both women and men, worthy and deserving of human dignity.
Simplistic? Maybe. Infuriating? To some, no doubt. Easy? Not at all.
Feminist Grace. A new concept. A way of offering compassion, understanding and most importantly, helping us get to the crux of the issue of Why? Which can and will eventually lead to the How.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a Theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist, doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. She loves to teach and last year designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, is consulting with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, and she also does Domestic Violence Faith Advocacy work across the US.