In Celebration of International Women’s Day
Today I celebrate with women around the globe. “Annually on 8 March, thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate achievements. A global web of rich and diverse local activity connects women from all around the world ranging from political rallies, business conferences, government activities and networking events through to local women’s craft markets, theatric performances, fashion parades and more.”
In celebration of International Women’s Day, I am posting my review of Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology written for my Global Theology class last term.
Oh, the comfort —
The inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words — but pouring them
All right out — just as they are —
Chaff and grain together —
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them —
Keep what is worth keeping — and with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.
This oft quoted saying about friendship deeply influences my study of theology, for whether theologies are written by women or men, by my contemporaries or ancient fathers, by third world and indigenous people or white Western men and women, we have all been invited to be cooperative friends of Jesus in this work of theology and as friends, we must offer each other safe places to think theologically where we trust each other’s faithful hands to sift our words. We must also pray to be imbued with the wisdom of Christ to discern what is worth keeping and empowered by the kind breath of the Spirit to blow the rest away. This friendship quote has occasionally been misattributed to George Eliot, a female author of the Victorian era who used a male pen name in hopes that her works would be taken seriously and to avoid stereotypes about female authors. Unfortunately, our situation today has not changed much in the realm of theological and religious writing by women. As in the Victorian era, women theologians are often not taken seriously or stereotyped in one way or another. One recent example is from an article regarding reviews of Sarah Sentilles’ spiritual memoir. Sarah Sentilles writes, “Even though I have two graduate degrees from Harvard—including a doctorate in theology—many reviewers failed to treat me as a scholar of religion. The reviews were infantilizing and patronizing.”# In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, Kwok Pui-Lan, originally from Hong Kong and currently Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, seeks to give an overview of Third World and Indigenous Women doing theology from a place of struggle against patriarchal church structures where they are often not taken seriously or stereotyped in some way. In their struggle against patriarchy many of these women have worked to create alternative and safer spaces in which to nurture their theological thinking# and so I read their articles as a cooperative friend of Jesus with them and receive their outpouring of theological thinking in this spirit of friendship.
Hope Abundant is divided into four parts: Context and Theology; Scripture; Christology; and Body, Sexuality and Spirituality. While the first section deals primarily with critiquing historical theologies and explaining the contextual nature of indigenous and Third World women’s theologies, this theme is a constant theme throughout the volume. The contextual nature of women’s theology is not limited to the context of social setting or geopolitical location, but includes the context of embodiment and is an “engendered” theology.# This engendered theology affirms the biblical conviction that men and women are created in God’s image. Such an engendered theology “in itself demands that women too must live in dignity. Any pattern of discrimination, domination, or oppression is contrary to God’s justice.”# Kanyoro argues that engendered theology must reject “the assumption that the roles of men and women have been fixed, either by Creator or by culture” and must include women’s voices, especially African women’s voices, as a “matter of justice, not simply one of choice.”#
In reading the various articles critiquing patriarchy, and nearly every article offered some sort of critique of systems of domination, one could conclude that patriarchy as it is often experienced by women is a form of sicut deus# – a way of humanity, including men in power especially, seeking to rule in place of God. Wong Wai Ching Angela argues that patriarchy “makes captives of men as well as women” and that both men and women need to see the true nature of patriarchal systems of domination in order to work together as the cooperative friends God intended them to be in creation.# We see this theme again as Mercy Amba Oduyoye writes, “I am convinced that Jesus died so that the patriarchal God might die and that Jesus rose so that the true God revealed in Jesus might rise in our lives, and in our communities.”# Wong Wai Ching Angela writes powerfully of the hope of Asian women theologians:
“Our vision is to see men and women in communities of genuine partnership, with true reciprocity and mutual respect, in communities that care not only for people but for our whole planet earth. We envision a new world; a transformed world; a world that truly mirrors God’s design; a just, caring, and peace-filled world – indeed a new creation. We dare to dream…”#
New creation and creation-care themes offer another common thread in the tapestry of Third World and idigenous women’s theologies. Native feminist liberation theologies tend to give priority to a right ordering of relations so as to be in balance with one another and in balance with with all creation, as well as focus on ethics as integral to the discipline of theology.# Aboriginal spirituality illumines the ideas of salvation as the healing of creation and sabbath as integral to that healing by promoting “healing concepts such as stillness, a natural closeness to God, and an intimate relationship with nature.”# While some of the authors went a little too far in removing God from the image of male powers and imbuing the earth with a life of it’s own, their work of reimagining our understanding of God’s intimate relationship with creation and our embodied existence is worthy work. They entrust us with their outpourings – “chaff and grain together” – and it is up to others to sift through them with a faithful hand and a breath of kindness. African women’s theologies continue in this theme offering a theology of creation that shows “God’s plan for the sacredness of all life.” Another key theme regarding creation care is expressed succinctly by Isabel Apawo Phiri when she says, “There is interdependency and goodness of creation.”# That these ideas are born in the midst of such suffering amazes me, but should we be surprised by the hope these women find in Jesus Christ? Of her experience with HIV/AIDS affected and infected people who go to churches seeking healing, Phiri writes:
“Despite the fact that many people who are critically ill die at the churches, people do not lose hope in a God who is a healer. They still go to church in droves to seek Jesus the healer. Jesus becomes their last hope. They hope for physical healing. Hope in Jesus as healer is what gives them motivation to face another day, even up to the deathbed. They cling to hope for healing.”#
Indeed, hope is abundant in these Third World and indigenous women’s theologies as they discover a God of justice who is on the side of the oppressed – who is on their side as oppressed women – the God who’s highness is most beautifully revealed in his descending# through the incarnation and suffering on the cross. Carmelita Usog explains her understanding of women’s spirituality for justice as a spirituality to and for the other, especially the oppressed. This spirituality is not just understood in the context of God as creator, or the incarnation of Jesus, but through the ongoing and indwelling life of the Spirit. “It is a holistic spirituality in touch with the movement of the Holy Spirit, not only in people’s lives but also in the whole of creation.”# The idea of trinity as interdependence instead of hierarchy and as related to creation care not just human relationships is addressed in a number of articles, but the hope of being included in this dance of interdependence is beautifully portrayed as Usog writes, “Women’s spirituality for justice can blossom only if the liberating Spirit is allowed to move us beyond our fears, doubts, hesitations, and insecurities. Everything and everyone is related. No one can be herself without doing work for justice.”# This abundant hope that flourishes among these women who have experienced much exclusion and suffering gives me hope in the possibility of God’s new creation. As these women show us, we must work together as cooperative friends of Jesus with men and women around the world from all races, genders, class, and cultures to live lives of creative goodness in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of others.
One of the new ideas I encountered in Hope Abundant is the idea of using gender analysis for theological explorations. By using gender analysis women theologians “seek to learn about and understand how our societies are organized and how power is used by different groups of people, by men and women, by young and old, and by people of varying economic means.”# This idea of gender analysis is built upon the concept of intersectionality, a feminist sociological theory explaining the interrelatedness between systems of oppression including race, gender, class and ethnicity. This type of analysis makes sense to me as we are encouraged that whatever we do for the least of these we do for Christ. (Matthew 25:40) This new concept connects with another new idea of doing theology from the perspective of the oppressed. Privileging the poor and oppressed in our theological endeavors affects me personally as an aspiring woman theologian who, while I may have experienced mild forms of oppression and feeling silenced in the Church, my experience as a somewhat silenced yet privileged woman may help bridge the gap between the theologies of privileged white men and oppressed Third World and indigenous women as I experience an interrelatedness with both. Meng Yanling of China explains the value of feminist theology well when she says,
“It is difficult for people to accept Chinese feminist theology because of the influence of traditional culture on the one hand, and because of misunderstanding of many biblical passages on the other. So from the very beginning the term ‘feminist theology’ often raises a lot of doubts, even a lot of hackles. But I believe it is a very suitable term to express an important theological trend in the church today. Perhaps in the course of its development, there has been this or that type of deviation, but no development leads smoothly from beginning to maturity and perfection. There must be a process of searching and exploration before moving onto a healthy path.”#
A third somewhat new idea encountered in my reading is the idea of enacted theology. Musa Dube argues, “The question of how different flesh and blood readers have acted out the biblical story in history, and how their act illumines some meaning of the text needs to be integrated into academic biblical studies.” She goes on to say, “The biblical story itself invites its readers to identify with it and to act it out in history.”# It feels like it’s a dance – by acting out the narrative we are interpreting the narrative while the narrative is also interpreting us. The community plays a critical role as we enact the narrative together and offer helpful correctives when our interpretations go awry. And of course, the Trinity plays an important role in this dance of narrative with humanity in leading us into all truth as Barth notes of Jesus Christ the centre of the drama, “It is the truth of the real or the reality of the true which here enters the field: God speaks, God acts, God is in the midst. The very Word with which we are here concerned is an act, this act, which as such is the Word, is Revelation.”# This connects with something we have been talking about in the Society of Vineyard Scholars to which I belong. We say that our practices are often smarter than our best theologies and we need to learn to exegete our practices in developing a theology of the Vineyard movement. Perhaps a post-colonial feminist exegesis of Vineyard practices will be a valuable contribution to the developing theology of the movement.
One of the biggest questions that was raised for me in reading this text is how do I engage with and learn from feminist theology without going so far as to reject all male images of God and ascribe to the earth some sort of goddess status. Roger Olson, an evangelical and Arminian theologian, has been posting some blogs about feminism. I respect his scholarship and his blogs might be a good place to start to engage the topic from a perspective of suspicion. But, I would also like to read more from feminist theologians who have gone too far, in my opinion and in the opinion of other Christian theologians I respect, and try to understand for myself where the falling off points are. I hope to be able to engage theologians I disagree with from the standpoint of friendship I noted at the beginning and rather than go on a witch hunt or search for heresy, I hope to take and sift with a faithful hand the chaff and the grain together, trusting the kind wind of the Spirit to blow in and through me.
Another question that was raised for me is the role of formal theological education. As noted before about the Vineyard movement recognizing that our practices are often smarter than our theologies, what do we need to do in our theological education institutions to exegete the practices of Third World and indigenous women, as well as others who are oppressed to learn from them and understand God from their perspective? I’m not sure how to explore this question more fully, but I do believe that assignments like this are a step in the right direction. Perhaps doing some ministry work in a context with oppressed people may lead to a better understanding of how the oppressed view God.
It never ceases to amaze me how hope is so abundant among the poor and the oppressed. We would do well to be the kind of friends to the poor and oppressed so they can safely do the the work of theology and enlighten those of us in positions of privilege and power.
[#]Sarah Sentilles, “The Pen is Mightier: Sexist Responses to Women Writing About Religion,” (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Summer/Autumn 2012 (Vol. 40, Nos. 3 & 4)), http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news-events/harvard-divinity-bulletin/articles/the-pen-is-mightier accessed 10/15/12.
[#] Kwok Pui-lan, Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010),10.
[#] Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, Engendered Communal Theology: African Women’s Contribution to Theology in the Twenty-first Century, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 19-35.
[#] Ibid., 25.
[#] Ibid., 26, 32.
[# Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: a Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, ed. Martin Rüter, vol. 3 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 111.
[#] Wong Wai Chang Angela, Women Doing Theology with the Asian Ecumenical Movement, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 36-50.
[#] Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Jesus Christ, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 167-185.
[#] Wong, ibid., 48.
[#] Andrea Smith, Dismantling the Master’s House with the Master’s Tools: Native Feminist Liberation Theologies, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 72-85.
[#] Lee Miena Skye, Australian Aboriginal Women’s Christologies, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 194-202.
[#] Isabel Apawo Phiri, HIV/AIDS: An African Theological Response in Mission, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 219-228.
[#] Ibid., 226.
[#] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper Perennial, 1959), 40.
[#] Carmelita Usog, Women’s Spirituality for Justice, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 255-266.
[#] Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, ibid., 23.
[#] Meng Yanling, Women, Faith, Marriage: A Feminist Look at the Challenges for Women, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 239.
[#] Musa W. Dube, Toward A Post-Colonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 90.
[#] Barth, ibid., 67.
Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline. New York: Harper Perennial, 1959.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall: a Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Edited by Martin Rüter. Vol. 3) of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Pui-lan, Kwok. Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.
Sentilles, Sarah. “The Pen is Mightier: Sexist Responses to Women Writing About Religion.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Summer/Autumn 2012 (Vol. 40, Nos. 3 & 4). http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news-events/harvard-divinity-bulletin/articles/the-pen-is-mightier accessed 10/15/12.
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