How I Became a Feminist

In 1998 my wife discovered a mass in her abdomen. It was about the size of a softball. We scheduled an appointment with an ob-gyn, who told us that it was probably not a cancerous ovarian cyst. It was more likely a uterine fibroid. An ultrasound confirmed that two very large cysts were growing, distorting the shape of her uterus so that their placement was unclear. Were they inside or outside? On her ovaries or not?

We scheduled laparoscopic surgery and a biopsy, and learned that they were, in fact, uterine fibroids. “Very unusual for a white woman to have such large fibroids,” said the doctor, a statement we’d hear more than once in the following years. “I can’t believe you’re not having more pain.” We’d hear that one, too. We scheduled a follow-up appointment and spent a couple of weeks in a haze of mild anxiety.

This was just as Google was becoming a household word, but internet searches didn’t turn up much about uterine fibroids. I was a seminary student at Vanderbilt University, and there was a fabulous medical library on campus. We spent several hours looking through journals and learned that although fibroids are very common, they are not typically dangerous. There were a variety of possible treatments, from embolization (killing the fibroids’ blood supply) to myomectomy (cutting them out), but cutting out such large cysts increased the risk that scar tissue would complicate pregnancy—if we could even get pregnant. We learned that a majority of women have fibroids, and they are the main reason women have hysterectomies.

I was surprised that neither of us had ever learned about this common problem, and frustrated that every article we read said that nobody really knows why fibroids happen. In addition to creating fertility problems, we learned that fibroids might sometimes be responsible for dangerous ectopic pregnancies. Everything we learned about them only increased our uncertainty. My wife had been taking birth control pills for years to control painful periods. Did that contribute to the growth of fibroids? There was no consensus. Some said yes, others said no.

When we went in for our follow-up appointment, we brought all of our questions. Would we be able to get pregnant? Would it be safe to do so? Would insurance cover some kind of surgery or treatment? The doctor listened to our questions and was impressed with our research, but he couldn’t really tell us much more. He referred us to a specialist.

The specialist wasn’t much help, either. Our biggest concern was a dangerous pregnancy. He basically shrugged and said, “Whatever your plans for having children, you should probably do it sooner rather than later. These things tend to grow. It may grow a little, or it may grow a lot. If it grows a lot, you could have a complicated pregnancy.”

As a student, I was required to buy health insurance. We seldom used or needed it. Every August as the semester began, I had to scrape together enough money to buy our coverage. Most of our doctor visits happened at the university, and we never had trouble with insurance.

The following month we got a statement from our insurance company saying that we owed $260 for an uncovered doctor’s appointment. We were school-poor. We budgeted each month down to pennies. Our entertainment was whatever was free on campus. We had $100 in a savings account. The bill might as well have been for $1000—there was no way we could pay it.

I called the number on the back of my insurance card. The customer service representative on the other end of the line was a young guy—probably my age. I asked him why our insurance was refusing to pay. He looked up something on his computer.

“Ummmmm… oh, here it is. Yeah, we don’t cover contraceptive charges.”

“What? No, this isn’t a contraceptive charge. This was a consultation about tumors on my wife’s uterus.”

“This doesn’t say anything about tumors,” he said.

“They are fibroids. A kind of cyst. We were just thankful it wasn’t cancerous, but we were worried about complications. So that’s why we had the consultation.”

“So, were you asking about getting pregnant?”

I didn’t like where this was going. “Yes—I mean, no, not really. Getting pregnant is part of it, we just want to make sure there wasn’t any danger. This is about her health.”

“Well, if you were talking about getting pregnant, then it’s a contraceptive charge. Or a fertility charge, and we don’t cover fertility consultations, either.”

“No, listen, you’re not hearing me.” I had tangled the cord around my fingers. “I want to make sure my wife is safe. This is about her health. I wanted to know if she gets pregnant, would it put her life in danger.”

“If you were talking about preventing pregnancy, then it’s a contraceptive charge.”

“What the hell? Look, if I had a tumor the size of a softball on my testicle, would that be covered?”

The cubicle jockey on the other end laughed, “Sir, men can’t get pregnant.”

I’d always heard of sentences being felt “like a punch in the gut,” but had dismissed them as cliche. But that’s where I felt his words: a physical pain, a cold, hollow place in my abdomen. Then I felt the rage. I started cussing.

I asked to speak to a manager, and I was referred to another man with whom I had the same conversation. They informed me of an appeal process, but said they doubted it would change anything. If I couldn’t pay the $260 at once, I could probably work out an arrangement with the doctor’s office to pay in installments.

When I hung up the phone, my wife and I were both shaking and crying, the frustration and helplessness we felt having no other outlet. I do not believe violence is the answer to problems, but in that moment, I wanted to reach through the phone and throttle the idiot on the other end. He was probably just a student, like me, working a call center to pay his way. He spoke out of his ignorance. But my wife and I had scraped together what little money we had to buy this insurance, only to hear them laugh at our physical and financial distress. They laughed at my protest of unfairness. HIs words echoed in my mind: “Sir, men can’t get pregnant. Men can’t get pregnant.” As if it explained everything in the world.

I had never experienced the dehumanizing effects of sexism myself, the devaluation of half of humanity’s fundamental life concerns: health, freedom, and responsibility. For the first time, I felt was on the receiving end of systemic misogyny. At least, I felt it financially. My own health problems were classified as health problems, but my wife’s health problems were contraceptive or fertility problems—convenient labels that allowed our insurance company to refuse to give us the money we had already paid to them for our health care. The fact that I was concerned about her life and well-being was irrelevant. The minute we started talking about her lady-parts, her identity as a human being ceased to matter.

I would never stand for an insurance company or an employer telling me what kind of medical care I could get for my man parts. The only person who can make educated decisions about my body is me. And if part of the compensation of my employment is health insurance, then I’d better get the care that I’ve already paid for.

Of course, I was worried about our family planning, too. But getting any kind of financial help with such things had never crossed my mind. We had been paying for her pills for ages. It never occurred to us that we were actually saving the insurance company money. We were not trying to freeload birth control from a corporation. We just wanted the money we had already paid.

This was also the first time I had seen first-hand the banal dismissiveness of men who fail to see the sexism present in the medical system, or their complicity in it. My attempt to point out that my wife and I were treated differently was laughed off.

I’m a bit ashamed that I had to be hit where it really matters—in the wallet—for me to understand the demeaning way our society treats women every single day. If I had been wealthier, the bill would have been a minor annoyance. Why not just pay it? Instead, I had felt the physical threat to our existence those policies represent because we were riding the edge of poverty. Of course, the worst thing that would have happened is that I would have had to drop out of school and get a job. But I was suddenly much more sympathetic to people in real poverty.

Now, when I hear someone use cowardly rhetoric to talk about birth control, or of “being a slut on someone else’s dime,” I think about all the dimes I collected to pay an insurance company for nothing. I think about the corporate jets their executives fly. I think about the very tall buildings on Wall Street that I helped finance. And I think about the sluts in congress who sell their morals to healthcare industries, and the pimps in corporate boardrooms who control them.

We did manage to have a child, eventually, though we don’t know whether or not to blame the fibroids for her two miscarriages—they still don’t know much about them, you see. And they don’t know why black women get them more often than white. If white men got fibroids on their testicles, and it required castrations, you can be damn sure we’d know what causes fibroids and how to treat them. And you know insurance would pay every cent.

When she delivered by caesarian, the ob-gyn said the largest fibroid was the size of a basketball. It had shrunk by the time she had a hysterectomy. At that point, it weighed only six pounds. By that time in our lives we had decent insurance that treated her like a human being. We only had to pay a few thousand dollars for the surgery—still far out of reach of most of America’s poor.

So, that’s how I became a feminist. That’s when I claimed the label and decided that I would work hard to be a better ally, because being on the losing side of a double standard really sucks. When defenders of that double standard accuse you of being morally deficient, it adds insult to injury. When they laugh at your distress, it makes you fighting mad. Militant, even. I am thankful for the epiphany.

While nobody ever took our medical choices completely away, we were jerked around financially and emotionally by an insurance company, and we paid for the privilege. I wished at the time that we either had no insurance or a public option. Either would have given my wife more autonomy over her own body. If we had not had the financial and moral support of our extended family, I can easily see how this kind of uncaring “care” could cost us the ability to have children… or worse.

Jesus described his problem with the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The concept of universalizability is one of the bedrock fundamentals of ethics: what applies to one, applies to all. Yet we continue to place a heavier burden on one half of humanity than the other in so many ways.

As I said, I’m grateful for the experience. It’s not the only one that has helped me to see my own privilege, and look past it, even when I thought I’d already dealt with it. I hope that our descendants can inherit a world in which the burdens of the world are shared equally between rich and poor, women and men, and where access to healthcare is no longer used as a tool of oppression.

 

Modern Parables 9: The Good ______

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A preacher stood up to test Jesus: “Level with us, Rabbi: Who gets into heaven?” Jesus said: “A man was beaten and bloody on the side of the road. A Southern Baptist preacher passed him by. An non-denominational pastor passed him by. Finally, a Muslim stopped to help him. She bandaged his wounds and took him to the hospital. When they asked about insurance, his doctor, an agnostic Jew, paid for his care in cash. Which of these demonstrated their desire for heaven?” The preacher mumbled, “The ones who helped him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Then the religious leaders went out and plotted how to destroy him.

Modern Parables 8: Late to Work

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

To what shall I compare the reign of God? It is like a maid who apologizes to the lady of the house for arriving late to work. “And why were you late?” the wealthy woman demanded. “Please, ma’am,” said the maid, “my old junker wouldn’t start, so I had to take the bus. That is why I did not arrive until after noon.” The wealthy woman gave the maid the keys to her own car and said, “You may have my car. And come, marry into my family. Take my oldest child’s hand in marriage, and live with us, so that you will not be late again.” The gardener overheard this exchange, and grumbled about it. “This new girl has the easiest job of all the staff. I have worked for you for years in the heat and the snow. Why should this irresponsible girl be given an expensive car, and your daughter’s hand in marriage, when I’ve given you years of faithful service?” The woman replied, “Friend, you never asked. You are welcome to sleep in the shed any time you like. But now, get to work: I need flowers for a wedding.”

 

Modern Parables 7: Beach-Front Property

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

Climate change and rising sea levels began destroying a wealthy industrialist’s beach-front property. So she sold that house and bought a mountain cabin. “I feel closer to God up here,” she said. “And one day, this will be beach-front property, too.”

 

Modern Parables 6: Round Up

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The kingdom of God is like dandelions spreading across your lawn. You can spray with herbicide, but it kills the grass, and the dandelions spread even more.

 

Modern Parables 5: The Escape

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A Wall Street banker encountered an angry mob, so he invited them into his home. “Take whatever you want,” he told them. While they ransacked his house, he and his family fled to France. “But we don’t even speak the language!” said his wife. “At least we’ll have decent health care and will eat well,” he replied.

 


Modern Parables 4: Genes

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The reign of God is like a tiny mutation on a single gene, and that mutation is spread to the whole human race. Overnight, we woke up with the ability to fly.

 

Modern Parables 3: The Revival

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few. (This one is inspired by David Buttrick):

A hedge-fund manager and a pastor both attended a revival. The pastor knew all the lyrics to all of the songs, raised his hands in worship, and gave his personal testimony. The hedge-fund manager stood at the door, too ashamed to sit among the congregation. “God, I shouldn’t even be here. I’m no damned good,” he prayed. At the altar call, he turned around and left. Truly I tell you, of the two, the hedge-fund manager went home justified.

 

Zacchaeus: Honest and Tall

(This post originally appeared at Ministry Matters.)

In Jewish tradition, Scripture is not merely read and applied: it is debated and examined from multiple angles. Like a gem, the sages say, “The Torah has seventy faces.” We turn it around and examine each angle carefully. I think we should do the same with the New Testament, because its compilers clearly intended that we have multiple angles: That’s why we have four Gospels, right? That’s why I love the story of Zacchaeus.

A tax collector was a greedy combination of embezzler and extortionist, a traitor to his people and a sinner of the worst sort—or so I’ve been told in countless sermons. This is why they are lumped together with prostitutes and other sinners. Jesus himself uses tax collectors in parables designed to shock his hearers (Luke 18:10). Although Jesus counted a tax collector among his disciples (Luke 5:27), the most notorious tax collector in the Bible is Zacchaeus (Luke 19), that tiny weasel of a man who was loathed by his neighbors.

Tax farming was an ingenious tool used by the Roman Empire to both collect income and turn indigenous populations against each other. It was a essentially a series of contractors and sub-contractors who bid to collect money from an area they knew well. A tax collector had his finger on the pulse of business in the neighborhood. He knew what you did for a living, who your relatives were, and for how much you could be squeezed. As a “chief tax collector,” Zacchaeus supervised his own sub-contractors for his area. Tax farming was not easy. You had to be rich and bid high, but not more than you could reasonably collect—otherwise you would make up the difference out of your own personal fortune.

The Zacchaeus story is usually told with the assumption that what the crowd believes about Zacchaeus is true: He is a crook. But what if he isn’t? When Zacchaeus learns that Jesus wants to dine at his house, he is happy to welcome him, but the crowd murmurs against him. He stops, turns to Jesus, and says: “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

The Common English Bible and King James Version (in contrast to the NIV and NRSV) accurately render these Greek verbs in the present tense, which leaves open the possibility that Zacchaeus isn’t actually admitting any guilt. In fact, he may be vindicating himself to Jesus against the grumbling of the crowd. It’s possible to read Zacchaeus’ statement this way: “Jesus, you hear the nasty things these people say about me, but look—I already give away half of everything I have to the poor. And if anyone can show me that I’ve cheated them, I return four times as much. I’m an honest man, Lord, in spite of what they say.”

Do the math: Zacchaeus couldn’t give away half of his possessions to the poor if he felt he had earned more than 1/8 of his fortune dishonestly.

There are other clues that support this reading of the story. Luke doesn’t include any of the usual language common to his other repentance stories (5:20, 7:47, 15:21, 18:13). Could it be possible that Zacchaeus is one of the reformed tax collectors who heard John the Baptist’s instructions to take no more than his fair share (Luke 3:12-13)? Luke also gives us his name: Zacchaeus, which means “pure.”

Read from this direction, Jesus’ statement that “Today, salvation has come to this household,” sounds very different. Zacchaeus, like Mary who sits at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:42), is an outsider who becomes a disciple, welcomed in from the margins. Like the blind man in the previous story (Luke 18:35-43) and Levi (5:27), he becomes part of Jesus’ entourage. Perhaps this is less a story of conversion than of inclusion.

Not everyone enjoys “reading against the grain” this way, but for me, it makes the Bible far more interesting and engaging. Too often we read and interpret through a lens of platitudes and conventional church wisdom, even though there is plenty of scholarship that backs alternative readings (see below). When we read uncritically, we unintentionally take the role of the crowd in this very story: judging by presumption instead of evidence. While I’m open to the conventional interpretation, the alternative needs to be heard.

There’s one more alternative reading that upsets the conventional reading of this story. The Bible says Zacchaeus climbed the tree because “he was short.” But the text does not say to whom “he” refers. What if he climbed the tree because Jesus was short?

Would you love Jesus any less if he were short? What if he were bald and beardless? While it’s easy to dismiss these details as irrelevant, acknowledging them shows how biased we are in our reading of Scripture, and why we need to examine this multifaceted gem from every angle.


See also

Corbin-Reuschling, Wyndy. “Zacchaeus’s conversion: to be or not to be a tax collector.” Ex auditu. 25 (2009): 67-88.

White, Richard. “A good word for Zacchaeus: exegetical comment on Luke 19:1-10.” Lexington Theological Quarterly. 14:4 (1979): 89-96.