It was roughly just past the midpoint of the Olympic games that this year was declared "the year of the woman."
Several laudable statistics were proffered: this year, every participating country included at least one woman on its team--Brunei, Qatar [pronouned "cutter," if anyone is interested], and Saudi Arabia for the first time; this year, the United States team has more women than men for the first time; and, according to the NPR article from two days ago, women are well-ahead in the medal count, too, both for Team USA and for China. Finally, with the inclusion of women's boxing this year [we can argue later whether this is an achievent or not--I'm not a fan of men's boxing, and I'm not convinced it's a good idea for women to replicate it], women are competing in every Olympic sport. It is impossible to deny that these new opportunities for women, and the global stage it affords them, has the power to transform a lot more than sports.
For the past few days, I have been thinking about the religious significance of all this, and why it matters theologically. For me, it boils down to the concept of imago Dei, and the way women embody the image of God. I won't go into how women in general, and women's bodies in particular, have long been denegrated in the Christian tradition. I won't go into how, in many cultures--certainly in the past and even still today--women's bodies have been considered good primarily to the degree that they are able to bear children and/or fill out a swimsuit. And, I won't go into how the whole idea of "bodies" has long been ignored when thinking about the image of God: for centuries, human rationality and reason was considered a prime way in which humans mirror the God who created them; it was just too bad that those wonderful, divinely-inspired brains were trapped in such sinful, fallible jars of clay.
Now certainly, I am not trying to argue that God has a physical body, and that our bodies image God's body to a greater or lesser degree. Instead, what I want to emphasize is that however one understands the concept of the imago Dei, for it to have any meaning at all for human life in the world it must relate to our physical existence. Here's an example: Do we understand relationality to be at the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God? Great: then we must go on to ask how that relationality is lived out and experienced in our physical bodies. I would argue that it makes a difference for how women experience relationships within their families, with life-partners, and within a culture as a whole if they are able to participate in a wide vareity of sports to the fullest degree. It makes a difference in how they feel about themselves, in how they are treated by society, and the depth and breath of relationships they are able to have. AND, it makes a difference for how cultures and nations as a whole not only view them, but treat them as well.
Here's an example from an article on this topic in Sports Illustrated this week [August 13th, 2012]:
"Until eight years ago Botswana was like those laggard Arab states that had never sent a woman to the Games, but for a heartbreakingly different reason. If she had been fortunate enough to avoid being among the third of women between 15 and 25 to test positive for HIV/AIDS, a young woman in Botswana was still likely to be touched by the epidemic, for females of her age wound up having to look after the sick and care for the orphaned. The plague gutted the country's budget and made public health a priority over sports. But the rate of HIV/AIDS has begun to abate, and in 2004, Botswana sent to the Athens Olympics a 21 year old woman, Amantle Montsho." This year, she came within .03 of a second of becoming Botswana's very first medalist, in any sport. Can you really argue that even just that one single experience doesn't make a difference for women all over Botswana--and in other countries besides?
All that aside, to be honest, what I also love is how this enanced visibility for women of different ages, nationalities, sizes, and body types makes possible wonderful and creative metaphors for imagining and describing God--providing us new language and new images to think about God in fruitful ways.
What about a powerful God who looks like this:
Or a victorious God who looks like this:
or a joyful God who looks like this:
Pretty cool, right?
And, for all the women out there who find themselves looking for public role models to help them celebrate who they are as beautiful children, created in the image of God, thanks to these Olympics,
This could be your image:
Or this could be: [Egypt's Amina Elsergany, a beach volleyball chair umpire who judged matches in hijab]
Or this could be:
And that's something to celebrate.