This nasty political season has gone on so long that I am embracing nastiness. Ever since Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “nasty” during the third presidential debate, many feminists have embraced the word. I get it. As a member of a group that’s both feisty and downtrodden, I appreciate the strategy of “steering into the insult.” I laughed at the meme that said, “That’s Reverend Nasty Woman to you!”
Yet I see dangers in trivializing “nasty” and ignoring what the insult represents. “Nasty” encapsulates Trump’s attitude toward women in particular, along with other “disgusting” categories of humans— notably immigrants, Muslims, news media, Mexicans, other politicians.
Disgust is Trump’s favorite flavor. We’ve seen him sprinkle it everywhere. And why not? Disgust is an all-purpose seasoning, It packs a punch. Plus, it pairs well with Trump’s favorite wine — anger. The combination of the two is contempt. We all know contempt when we see it — a curled lip.
Contempt is powerful. And convenient. And common. You could almost forget that it’s fundamentally unChristian. To regard another person with contempt is to refuse to see the image of God in them. A curled lip indicates the belief that the Other is worth less. Yet the Bible teaches us to look on the Other with love. We are to gaze upon the face of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned — and see Jesus.
Contempt does not want to gaze upon others with the eyes of Christ. To do so is inconvenient and costly. So why bother? Instead, contempt expresses an attitude that scripture expressly condemns — quick judgment and easy hostility. Jesus did not condone contempt. When the scribes and Pharisees famously wanted to stone a woman who was caught in adultery, Jesus refused, writing his reasons on the sand. (John 8) Jesus’ message was immediately lost because, presumably, every generation must ferret out this difficult lesson for themselves.
If you’re a woman you know contempt from the inside out, even if you don’t use the word. As we’ve been reminded lately, female bodies bleed from “where-ever.” Not only that, female bellies grow great with baby, then become empty pockets. Female breasts drip milk. Female bodies get used — and used up — in ways that male bodies do not. All of this is not sexy, apparently. To some people it is disgusting, even angry-making. Remember that disgust plus anger equals contempt. There you have it. All it takes to be worthy of contempt is to inhabit a woman’s skin.
Blood and flab and lactation, oh my! No matter that these biological realities preserve our species. No matter that our faith tradition proclaims a deity who was born from a woman’s body. No matter that Jesus wore flesh, allowed women to touch him, and paid special attention to the “disgusting” and marginalized persons he encountered — the Samaritan, the tax collector, the leper.
If the church wants to confront the problem of contempt — rather than continue to participate in it — there are two underlying religious messages it must expose. First is the idolization of purity. Second is the fear of contamination. Both of these messages — which we’ve seen play out on the political stage — are profoundly religious concepts.
Any scripture reader can tell you about purity and contamination. A theme throughout the scriptures is what it means to be set apart, or chosen, and worthy of approach to a holy God. Historically this has had special implications for women, whose messy bodies have been managed by men with all kinds of complicated rituals. Here’s a fun discussion question: What do the Levitical taboos about menstruation have in common with the current day “purity balls” where daughters pledge their purity to their fathers?
Books have been written on the subject, but the assumption lying underneath all this is straightforward: women are not only different from men, but worth less than men. The word for this is misogyny. Misogyny puts women in a double bind from which there is no escape.
Consider the “nasty woman” comment again. The insult came when Hillary Clinton was confidently answering a policy question about entitlement reform. To many people, the insult needed no further explanation or clarification. It was hurled and it stuck. She was a woman speaking her mind, therefore she was nasty. There is no way out of this bind. Hence the feminist embrace of the word.
As a faith leader I find it painful to admit this, but religion often reinforces the double bind. Religious people like to speak about honoring women, but what that looks like is problematic. Religion would rather place women on unhelpful pedestals than work side-by-side or — heavens-to-Betsy — cultivate female leadership!
Instead, women are treated as window dressing, shut down as soon as they want an equal place at the table. Issues like sexual violence are termed “women’s issues” and given secondary priority. Women are still told to smile more, and to weigh less. Yes, still.
Churches should recognize the problem of contempt, and admit their own complicity. I call upon churches everywhere to follow Jesus. Embrace the message of incarnation. Expose contempt for what it is.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud. ~ Psalm 123:3-4