Sorting by

Skip to main content

Was Rosa Parks Proud?

By October 16, 2006 No Comments


Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who refused to give up her seat so a white man could sit, sparking the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, has been highly honored. The bus stop at which she boarded is now the site of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. Former President Clinton signed a bill bestowing on her Congress’ highest recognition: the Congressional Gold Medal. After her death on October 24, 2005, she was eulogized as the “mother of the civil rights movement” and described as the woman who changed the course of American history.

Although the story of Rosa Parks’ resistance and arrest primarily concerns racism, it also contains elements of sexism. Rosa Parks was a woman, and the patron expecting a seat was a man. There was an overlapping system of hierarchies that maintained her subordination, while for him this same system maintained his privilege. Their social context shaped both of them in subtle, and not so subtle, ways to play a certain role. As an African American woman, she had been socialized to be deferential, to put others first and self last, to be a peacekeeper, and to have few personal plans and ambitions. However, the man had been given many opportunities that maintained his privilege and his sense of entitlement. He considered deferential treatment ordinary and thought his contributions significant and worthy of support. She had been socialized to be self-sacrificing; he had been raised to be assertive and ambitious. In resisting the demand of the bus driver, Rosa Parks rebelled against the complex system that kept African American women subordinate.1

Was Rosa Parks proud? From the point of view of the bus driver who required her to stand up, the answer would be yes. She was being “uppity.” She did not know her place. She claimed a privilege to which she was not entitled. Fifty years later, with the advantage of hindsight, such analysis seems self-serving. Describing Rosa Parks as proud justifies white privilege. Today the honor accorded her indicates that views about white supremacy have changed. Her actions, once illegal, are now legal and are applauded. Rather than being uppity, she is now praised as courageous for claiming her rights as a human being. She acted on the conviction that she was a person worthy of dignity and respect who should, therefore, be allowed to keep her seat.

Pride, Love, and Self-Sacrifice

Rosa Parks’ resistance in December 1955 provides an entry point for the feminist critique of pride as the quintessential sin and the concomitant view of love as selfsacrifice. Valerie Saiving, in an essay published in 1960, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,”2 first called into question whether these characterizations of sin and love were adequate for women socialized in a patriarchal culture. She engages the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr in particular and makes the claim that his analysis of the human condition is rather an analysis of the male condition. She summarizes his depiction of sin as: “the unjustified concern of the self for its own power and prestige; it is the imperialistic drive to close the gap between the individual, separate self and others by reducing those others to the status of mere objects… . . Sin is not an occasional, isolated act but pervades everything man does.”3 The life of love to which we are called is the exact opposite, according to Niebuhr: “Love is the true norm of human existence… it is completely selfgiving, taking no thought for its own interests but seeking only the good of the other. Love is unconditional forgiveness… Love is personal; it is the concrete relatedness of an I to a Thou, in which the I casts aside all its particularities, all its self-affirmations.”4 Saiving points out that these two concepts are mutually dependent. Because the sin has been described as pride, it follows that love as self-sacrifice is redemptive. If the definition of sin changes, then the nature of redeeming love will also change.

Saiving asserts that Niebuhr’s understanding of sin and love pertains to only the half of the human race that has been privileged in a patriarchal society. In our example of Rosa Parks, the bus driver could benefit by hearing that he is proud and that he should aspire to a life of love characterized by self-giving. However, Saiving would claim that Rosa Parks does not need this message. She does not need to hear that she is proud, that she should be living a life characterized by self-sacrifice. Because of racial and sexual discrimination, Rosa Parks had not developed a robust sense of self. The segregation laws reminded her daily that she was not a human being with dignity, that she was not worthy of respect. To be told that she was fundamentally proud, that pride was a sin to be repented of, would not have equipped her to stay seated. Rosa Parks did not need to be more self-giving. Rather, privileged white people needed to realize that African Americans were fellow human beings whose lives were not to be lived for whites’ convenience. Saiving would conclude that the experience of Rosa Parks, and all women living in a patriarchal culture, is quite different from men’s experience, and as a result Niebuhr’s description of humanity’s brokenness and deepest need does not fit the female half of the human race.

Saiving does not claim that women are morally superior to men. Women, too, are sinful, and she describes the sins of women “as triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s selfdefinition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence; inability to respect the boundaries of privacy; sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason–in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self.”5 If this is the situation of women, then telling them that they are proud and that they need to embrace self-sacrificing love misses the mark. Rather, they need encouragement to create “a room of one’s own,” to have an agenda that might not be convenient for those around them, to speak up in public, and so forth. They need to develop a self. They need a healthy dose of pride.

Feminist theorists have claimed that pride is not necessarily a sin. In Saiving’s and Hampson’s6 analyses, what oppressed people need is pride. Pride can be an empowering virtue that equips those who are oppressed with the strength to fight injustice.7 Pride, according to these authors, can be an appropriate response to the love of God. This healthy pride does not drive us away from God. It is bounded and can be kept in check. Because it is not selfgrounded, because it does not arise out of the illusion of autonomy, this pride is appropriate.

The Story of Genesis 2 and 3

In the years since Saiving’s essay was published, more work has been done by feminist scholars on Niebuhr’s analysis of human nature.8 Some have pointed out that Niebuhr did not invent this characterization of human sin but that it reaches back through the Western Christian tradition to Augustine, who based his analysis primarily on Genesis 2 and 3. Augustine comments on the woman’s response to the serpent’s words, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4b,5).9 He asks, “How could these words persuade the woman that it was a good and useful thing that had been forbidden by God if there was not already in her heart a love of her own independence and a proud presumption of self which through that temptation was destined to be found out and cast down?”10 For Augustine, pride is the first of the seven deadly sins. It is the primary cause of oppression and injustice. As the self exalts itself in place of God, it destroys its own being as well as others’. Pride blinds the self to its true nature and moves one away from God. There is no place for healthy pride, a sense of one’s intri
nsic self worth or dignity. Pride is ever and only a sin.

If we combine this interpretation of Genesis 3 with the evaluation of feminists such as Saiving, we might conclude that this chapter presents us with a male picture of humanity’s fall–one that does not address the situation of women. This thesis requires further exploration. Do Genesis 2 and 3 support Augustine’s reading? Is his characterization of humanity’s first act of disobedience, a picture that has dominated the Western theological tradition, the best or only interpretation of this passage?

Our exploration begins with this basic question: do these chapters reflect androcentric thinking? (Do they take male experience as the norm for human experience and so value what is typically male over against what is typically female?) I would argue that Genesis 2:4b-24, the second creation account, quite consistently reflects androcentric thinking. It begins by listing what is not there, noticing that there are no plants, no herbs, no rain, and no one to till the soil.   This passage depicts both man and woman as derivative creatures, profoundly connected to the world they live in, to each other, and to the God who created them. They are rightly described as “selves in relation.”  God responds to these lackings in reverse order. First, God creates the adam. Depending on context, this word is translated as man, person, or human being. Phyllis Trible suggests that this being is not male but androgynous.11 She draws attention to the word play in Hebrew, adam, taken from adamah (earth), and translates adam as earthling. According to her analysis, man does not come into being until the woman is created (Gen 2:21-23). Only then are the words designating male and female found in the text. The last act of creation, according to this theory, is not the creation of woman from man, but the simultaneous creation of both the man and the woman from an androgynous creature. Thus human sexuality was brought into being.

Trible’s reading emphasizes the egalitarian, liberating aspects of the text, and I agree that there is support for her interpretation in the text. She is correct in noting, for example, that the words denoting male and female occur only after the first human is operated on. However, the text implies that the original creation is male. There is clear continuity between the first human being and the man–it is the woman who is an addition. Notice that, when confronted with his sin, the man replies to God, “It was the woman you gave to be with me… “(Gen 3:12). It is more correct to conclude that the text primarily concerns man and meeting man’s needs. He is the center of the narrative. His need for companionship is met in the creation of woman, rather than the needs of both. We know only how he reacts to the creation of woman but we hear nothing from her. We hear about marriage from the man’s point of view. We hear nothing about the woman leaving her father and mother and cleaving to her man. Although Trible is correct in analyzing the vocabulary of the narrative, when considered in their narrative context, these words compose a story primarily about the creation of man.

Next, we need to consider the nature of the woman created in this account. Does it also reflect androcentric thinking? In the history of interpretation, woman has been described as derivative (created from man’s rib) as opposed to the autonomous man. In addition, she has been described as subordinate, i.e., created to be his helper. Both of these depictions are worth considering anew. First, it is correct that the woman is derived from the man as indicated in the etiology of the Hebrew word for woman. “This one shall be called Woman (ishshah), for out of Man (ish) this one was taken”(Gen 2:23b). Yet, the text does not claim that man is autonomous. The man is also derivative, adam from adamah. He was taken from the ground, and then God breathed the breath of life into him. The passage depicts both man and woman as derivative creatures, profoundly connected to the world they live in, to each other, and to the God who created them. They are rightly described as “selves in relation.”

Although the woman is derived from the man, it is not correct that the woman is created to be man’s subordinate. The Hebrew word, ezer, variously translated as help meet (KJV), helper suitable for him (NASV), helper fit for him (RSV), suitable helper (NIV), helper as his partner (NRSV) in Genesis 2:20b is also used to describe God as our helper/deliverer (See Gen 49:25, for example). The context of ezer indicates what sort of help is needed, and if the helper should be considered an inferior, superior, or equal. In the context of Genesis 2, the man needs help to alleviate his aloneness. He needs a mate, a sexual partner, and cannot find one in the animal kingdom. In this context, being a helper does not mean being a subordinate, but rather a suitable companion, a partner.

Tension emerges in the text from the words with which the man greets the woman and their context. Although she is created to meet his needs, and is derived from him, when he greets her, he cries, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23a). He concludes that ontologically they are the same. It is significant that he does not initially notice difference but similarity.   If humans are created to be in relationship with others, then it will follow that the rupture of those relationships will be deeply wounding.  In this way the anthropology of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 is identical. Both claim that men and women are first of all alike. Both are human beings, both are in the image of God (to use the language of Genesis 1), and both have the same bones and flesh (to use the language of Genesis 2). Only secondarily are they male and female. Their primary identity is not as sexual beings, but as human beings. They stand side by side before their creator God. According to this text, there is no created hierarchy of being in which man is elevated above woman. Yet this similarity of woman and man is at odds with the purpose and process of woman’s creation. The creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 both reflects and challenges androcentric thinking.

The next event (Gen 2:25-3:7) occasions the transition from paradise to the real world. The scene is set by noting that the man and woman are naked and not ashamed. They are in a state of innocence. They are so safe that they can be vulnerable with each other and before God. The action begins as the serpent initiates dialogue with the woman. He inquires concerning God’s instructions to them: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?'” (Gen 3:1b) The woman replies, “We may eat of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die” (Gen 3:3). She is faithful in reporting that the laws are first of all expansive and only secondarily limiting. Only after being told that they may eat from all the trees in the garden do they receive a restriction on one particular tree. This prohibition accords with the character of God that has been presented thus far. The Creator is a generous, benevolent deity, who has fashioned a world so that human beings will flourish.

The serpent contests this character of God. He responds to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4,5). He attacks God’s truthfulness and portrays God as a deceitful deity who does not want human beings to be like himself. The woman’s response to this disparagement of God’s character is not a defense of God in light of the generous treatment they have received. Rather, with the serpent’s words in her mind, she considers the tree, notices its good qualities, eats, and gives some to the man who was with her. Her action was the result of heeding the serpent’s words. She allowed God’s character to be maligned, opened herself to mistrust of God’s motives, and studied the tree out of suspicion rather than trust. Perhaps the original disobedience was giving credence to slander: not defending God and then, having broken faith with God, acting on the scenario presented by the serpent. The woman in the Garden of Eden betrayed God in parallel fashion to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Neither reciprocated the loving care they had received but turned against the giver.

The characterization of the woman’s actions as betrayal fits with the subsequent scenes, in which distrust and brokenness, the effects of betrayal, are rampant. The man and woman distrust each other and hence clothe themselves. Then they fear God and hide. Finally, they break faith with themselves as they pass responsibility for their deed to one another. All relationships are shattered, and harmony is replaced with alienation.


Depicting the woman’s disobedience as betrayal also accords with our basic human nature as it is presented in Genesis 2. After meeting our physical needs, God notices that the man is alone and sees that it is not good (Gen 2:18). According to the text, man is not an autonomous being, but needs companionship and connection. If humans are created to be in relationship with others, then it will follow that the rupture of those relationships will be deeply wounding. The recasting of the woman’s action as betrayal coheres better with the nature of humanity and the plot of Genesis 2 and 3. This reinterpretation is one part of a response to the characterization of pride as humanity’s original sin. According to Saiving’s analysis, sin and the life to which Christians are called are two sides of the same coin. Hence, Niebuhr’s depiction of the quintessential sin as pride led to his further theorizing that the life to which we are called is a life of self-giving love. If, however, betrayal better describes the primary sin, then the life to which we are called also needs reinterpretation. Two key New Testament passages suggest an alternative possibility. They call us to live a life characterized by love, but do not hold up self-sacrificial love as the epitome of love. In conversation with the young man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replies with a question: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (Luke 10:26) The man answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Jesus commends him. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus summarizes the law in the same way in response to the question of a Pharisee, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In both of these texts, Jesus addresses a man, and the assumption of each passage is that there is already self-love. This self-love does not need negation but needs to be extended to others. The requirement does not call for the elimination or sacrifice of the self, but requires according others the same love. There is a place for self-love and love for the other. This love is mutual, reciprocal love.12

It was such a positive regard for her self-worth that equipped Rosa Parks to remain seated. She had learned that she was indeed created in the image of God, a human being on whom God had conferred dignity. She had a healthy dose of pride that was grounded in her conviction that God loved her. This appropriate and robust sense of self gave her the courage to resist the instructions of the bus driver and become the mother of the civil rights movement. Rather than being criticized, Rosa Parks became a role model for those who are oppressed by unjust social systems. She showed them that their actions matter, that change was possible, and that even the most marginalized had some power to shape a better future.

Was Rosa Parks proud? Yes she was, and it’s time for the Western Christian tradition to rethink the nature of pride and to cultivate appropriate pride among those who are downtrodden. It’s also time to reexamine the meaning of Genesis 2 and 3. Using this text to teach women that they are intrinsically proud supports the privilege of men in a patriarchal society. This message turns Scripture into a tool of oppression rather than a means of liberation. The good news of Genesis 2 and 3, that we are loved by God, that we are radically selves in relation, and that we are prone to betray each other, God, and the world we live in, needs to be recovered.