I am a third-wave feminist.  And sometimes, I have no idea what that means.

At the Ecumenical Women Orientation two weeks ago, we worked with feminist theologian Caryn Riswold to elaborate on what it is to be a third-wave feminist in today’s world.  Three generations reflected on whether the distinction of “third-wave” is even helpful. They worried about where the next generation will take us.  And, they expressed concern over whether feminism itself is dead.

Caryn Riswold speaks at the EW Orientation
Caryn Riswold speaks at the EW Orientation

Women spanning six continents reminded each other of the various perspectives that a global movement brings to feminism.  We noted with joy young women like Facia Boyenoh Harris of Liberia, who hosts a radio show for young girls, embodying a bridge between the second and third waves.  Privileged feminists of Ecumenical Women were reminded of the needs of a far greater population of women—those for whom reproductive justice is not an option; whose decisions are often made for them; whose bodies are made vulnerable to domestic violence, human trafficking, and crimes of war and terror.

Suddenly, we weren’t facing the nuanced standards of a privileged third wave anymore, riding on the shoulders of our mothers who fought before us.

2 Samuel 13 tells the story of Tamar, a young woman who is raped by her brother Amnon with the permission of her father—none other than King David, who the Bible so faithfully upholds as the greatest leader in Jewish history.  Because she is physically weaker than her brother, the passage tells us, Amnon is able to force her into having sex with him against her will. After this, we are told that because of the actions that he himself chose to perpetrate against her, he comes to hate her “with a hatred greater than the love with which he had loved her.”  So Tamar puts ashes on her head and she tears her robe in grief.  Her father David is angry but does nothing, and her brother Absalom encourages her “hold her peace.”

We never hear what happens to Tamar after this story. The horror of discovering this rape in the Bible is eclipsed only by the realization that even the author cares not what happened to Tamar after all was said and done.  Her life, her name, the “rape of Tamar” – these all serve in the text only as a function to explain why later her brother Absalom, who told her to stay silent, kills her brother Amnon, who raped her.  In the story, Tamar is property to be protected or violated. She is a figure whose violation represents not her own personal grief but her family’s public shame; a woman whose grief is but a footnote in the long opus to political power that we find recorded in the Bible.

Discovering the story of Tamar, a text that is out-of-lectionary and therefore out-of-mind, is an experience that can be tragic and which can feel incredibly problematic, especially for the thoughtful Christian feminist reading the Bible.  Tamar’s story infuses the rest of the scriptures with a painful twist, a wrench in your gut reminding you that although the Apostle Paul spoke in Galatians about the equality of the Jew and the Greek, the slave and the free, the male and the female—when he mentions it in Corinthians, he conspicuously leaves the part about gender equality out.

Tamar asks us to remember her when we read the words “Love is patient, love is kind, [and] love bears all things,” tugging at us to – perhaps – limit that bearing of all things; that perhaps love is showing your neighbor mercy, is lifting another’s burden, and is sharing in one another’s grief.

And when we read the beautiful Annunciation passage in Luke, Tamar helps us to remember that God did not ask Mary’s permission before impregnating her, but she simply was informed of God’s intentions. Tamar reminds us that although Mary consented, what else could she have done in the face of such great power? Did Mary have the option to say “no”?

Perhaps Tamar’s voice, is a voice we ought to listen to.

Last week Fulata Moyo and Ezra Chitando showed us how one can use the story of Tamar another way.  They, along with other colleagues in Southern Africa, use it to teach young people – especially young men – about domestic violence, rape, and the silencing of women in their own contexts.  Asking questions about the role of power and gender in the story of Tamar, the young men to assess their own lives for whom has power and how it is utilized.  Engaging people in conversation about the roles of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom in this bible passage encourages them to identify people in their own lives who are Amnon, are Tamar, and are Absalom.

Using the story of Tamar in this way helps to create a space in which we can name that which is wrong around us.  Claiming what is unjust within a biblical text grants courage to claim injustice in the lives of women and men all around the world.

First, second, or third wave—I’m not sure it really matters.  In this space of a global movement for women’s rights, the Commission on the Status of Women, Ecumenical Women has brought to light what it means to be feminist, thoughtful, and Christian: it means that wherever we go, we bring Tamar with us.