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Theological language was fixed in the era of the early patriarchy and has never shaken itself loose, in spite

of our changing conceptions of reality. Images, solidified in language, have a way of surviving in the imagination

so that a person can function on two different and often contradictory levels. One can speak of

 the abstract conceptualization of God as spirit and still imagine "him" as male.

 

 

Toward a Feminist Theology

By Sheila D. Collins 

 

Throughout historyso textual critics and anthropologists agreesocieties have elevated certain of their social infrastructures to the realm of belief; and such belief systems in turn have become the justification for the continuation of the social structures from which they sprang. As sophisticated Christians. I think we all realize that Christianity, though revelatory, has not been without its cultural taint.

What has been dismaying church women of late is the failure of male theologians even today to distinguish between the essence of the faith and some of its most blatant cultural accretions. Just as the theory of the divine right of kings served to legitimize a feudal system which kept a vast majority of the people in subjection and poverty, so the system of male-oriented symbols, doctrines and taboos in the Judeo-Christian tradition has served to keep females in subjection to men and in spiritual, if not always physical, poverty.

Upsetting the Applecart

The women's liberation movement has awakened women theologians, seminary students, and churchwomen to the need to rethink theology in radical terms. Starting with an analysis of the patriarchal society out of which Judaism and, later, Christianity developed, these women are developing new models of Christian consciousness, based on an egalitarian ethic of liberation, and are attempting to replace outmoded symbols with fresh, dynamic, more humane symbols which give meaning and vision to the experiences of all people. 

They are not attempting to appropriate male religious symbols for themselves, but to right an imbalance in the system which has shaped religious consciousness since the time of the patriarchs. But in order to right this imbalance they must first upset the applecart; which is to say that the feminist theologians are not reformers but revolutionaries, who attack even the theology of hope as being tied to old patriarchal symbols.

Who are these new feminist theologians and what are they saying about Christianity? Surprisingly enough, the vanguard of this movement is to be found in the Roman Catholic Church. Three of today's prominent women theologians are CatholicsMary Day, Rosemary Ruether, and Elizabeth Farians. (The man who has made the most important background contribution to this movement is also a CatholicLeonard Swidler of Temple University, who in his article "Jesus Was a Feminist," in the January 1971 Catholic World, argues convincingly that Jesus himself was one of the "new" feminist theologians.) Protestant women theologiansnotably Letty Russell, Peggy Way, and Nelle Morton -- have also picked up the gauntlet and are busy exploring these new avenues and adding to the growing body of literature on the subject.

The feminist theologians see in the religion of the Scriptures as it has been transmitted by the church a reflection of the male experience of the world. In both Old and New Testament times women were regarded as an inferior species to be owned like cattle, as unclean creatures incapable of participating in the mysteries of the worship of Yahweh. For whatever historical reasonperhaps out of violent reaction to the excesses of the more female-oriented Canaanite fertility cultsancients Hebrew society was blatantly misogynist and male dominated. 

No wonder that in such a society God became male"King," "Father," "Lord," "Master," "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him." Or was it the other way around?

Of course, sophisticated thinkers have never identified God with an elderly male parent in heaven. We like to think we are beyond such anthropomorphism. But what happens to us when we change the words around? God created woman in her own image, in the image of God she created her. As linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf has observed: "The limits of my language are the limits of my thought." 

Theological language was fixed in the era of the early patriarchy and has never shaken itself loose, in spite of our changing conceptions of reality. Images, solidified in language, have a way of surviving in the imagination so that a person can function on two different and often contradictory levels. One can speak of the abstract conceptualization of God as spirit and still imagine "him" as male.

Paul, Aquinas, and Luther

When god was identified as male, a hierarchy of values was established. Since man was made in God's image and God was male, females were excluded from participation in that image. We may express what happened in an equation: man is to God as woman is to no God. Paul puts it plainly in I Corinthians: "For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not made from woman, but woman from man." Since all that was not God was sinful, woman became identified with sin; and this identification was reinforced by the myth of Adam and Eve.

With the incorporation of Hellenistic dualism into Christian theology, a further dimension was added to the growing alienation of man from woman and of woman from God in the Christian imagination. Hellenism brought with it an identification of sin with the body. And since in Hebrew culture woman was already identified (because of child-bearing and menstruation) with unclean bodily functions, it was but a natural extension to identify her with this new dimension of sin. 

Thus woman became the temptress, the devouring Earth Mother, the witch whose very existence threatened the spirituality of theocratic man. The patristic commentators on Genesis interpret the Fall as a succumbing to bodiliness, to femaleness, to sexuality. It is no historical accident that Ann Hutchinson, who dared to counsel self-determination for women in spiritual matters, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a witch.

The effect of elevating patriarchal structures to the realm of belief was to put those beliefs in the service of the hierarchical, inegalitarian infrastructures of the society. Thus St. Paul could counsel women to be quiet in church and to obey their husbands because this was ordained by God, this was the nature of creation (Ephesians 5:24; I Corinthians 11:3). Despite this insight that we are all one in Christ Jesus, Paul was very much a man of his times.

So was Thomas Aquinas, who declared in the Summa Theologica: "Woman was made to be a help to man. But she was not fitted to be a help to man except in generation, because another man would prove a more effective help in anything else." The Roman church's veneration of Mary as virgin and mother can be seen as an attempt to make sense out of a theological system which had become alienated from existential reality. To reconcile the fact of and the necessity for procreation with a theology which declared that everything having to do with the bodytherefore sexual/procreative activitywas unclean and evil, the church simply asserted that God incarnate was not conceived in a "natural" way and sentimentalized the role of Mother so that it no longer needed to be tied to natural bodily functions.

Centuries after Aquinas, Martin Luther held to the old patriarchal view. His "priesthood of all believers" challenged the hierarchy of the Roman church, but he did nothing to reform the hierarchical relationship between men and women. indeed he declared: "Women are on earth to bear children. if they die in child-bearing, it matters not; that is all they are here to do." Even in our own day a theologian of the stature Karl Barth holds to the same revelatory religion which has always excluded the existential experience of women: "Women," he wrote, "are ontologically inferior to men."

As Rosemary Ruether points out, modern psychoanalysis sees such alienation within the human psyche, as projections onto another of the fear in one's own unconscious. Man, fearing his own sexuality, passivity and emotionality, projects them onto woman, thus doing away with the need to deal with that part of his nature. (Just so white society projected similar attributes onto the black population it held inferior.)

The results of such psychic alienation are widely visible today. Thus the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches refuse to ordain women; the Protestant churches fail to take women's intellectual and moral gifts seriously; many congregations insist that female ministers would be sexually distracting or would lack the image the ministry needs if it is to be an effective interpreter for God. But perhaps the worst result is the internalization by man women of their own inferiority to men. This limits their life options and their potential, so that they can see themselves as baking cakes for the women's society but not as head of the board of trustees or the council on ministries.

Jesus and Women

Having torn down the symbols which have kept them oppressed, what would the feminist theologians substitute?

The first step is to go back to the roots of the faith to see what is meaningful in them once they are shorn of their cultural outgrowths. One of the most important contributions to this stage of inquiry has been the re-examination of Jesus' life in terms of his relationships with people. In the Gospels Jesus appears as a man at odds with his time and culture -- so much at odds that even his disciples (and much less his later followers) did not often understand what he was doing.

In the article cited above, Leonard Swidler offers evidence that, flouting the social and religious mores of his time which kept women strictly cloistered and in bondage to their husbands, Jesus went out of his way to treat women (and the other pariahs of his time) as complete human beings, equal to men and capable of being spokeswomen for God. In view of the fact that the Gospels must be seen through the lens of first century Christian communities which, obviously, shared the antiwoman culture then prevailing, it is all the more extraordinary that the Gospels reveal no negative attitude toward women on the part of Jesus. 

As Dorothy Sayers has so beautifully said it: "There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything 'funny' about woman's nature."

Seen in this light, Jesus' life and its meaning take on new dimensions and bring us to a clearer understanding of Paul's truly prophetic passage:

Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:23-28)

Though but fleetingly, Paul saw that the Hebrew laws regarding the ordering of personsamong them laws which stipulated that women were ritually unclean, that they could not be seen or talked with in public, that in adultery they were more guilty than their male partners, and that they were the property of their husbandswere all made irrelevant by Jesus and were ignored by him in his relationships with people. It is a sad commentary on the history of Christian thought that scarcely a single theologian, beginning with Paul, picked up this unique aspect of Jesus ministry.

Here is Karl Barth acknowledging (in his Church Dogmatics) not Jesus but Paul as his mentor and basing his contentions about God's will for men and women on Paul's culturally biased views

The command of God will always point man to his position and woman to hers. in every situation, in face of every task and in every conversation, their functions and possibilities when they are obedient to the command, will be distinctive and diverse and will never be interchangeable. . . . Why should not woman be the second in sequence, but only in sequence? What other choice has she, seeing she can be nothing at all apart from this sequence and her place in it?

A Pluralistic Schema

Feminist theology, then, rejects the tradition of hierarchical orders of creation in favor of an egalitarian, pluralistic schema. It finds its corroboration in the life and ministry of Jesus, who repudiated such elitist practices and attitudes and called all peoplemen and women, beggars and merchants, tax collectors and poor widowsto be true to the God within them. Feminist theology rejects the Adamic myth as bound to perpetuate the alienation of men and women from each other and from themselves. It prefers the priestly version of the creation story, which (in spite of some problems with language) emphasizes the androgynous nature of God's creation and the care which humans are to have for the earth and its creatures.

Feminist theology does not hypostasize sin as an event that happened or as something that people do. Rather, it defines sin as a basic alienation within the psyche -- a failure to lay claim to that part of one's humanity that one then projects onto an "other." The male's failure to claim his own emotionality, his insecurities or creatureliness, his capacity for nurturance and his need to be creative, as well as the female's failure to recognize her own aggressiveness, power, competence, and intellectuality are examples of such psychic alienation. many feminists, not just theologians, contend that this phenomenon accounts for many social ills, including war. We project our individual or group fears onto an "other," a "not me"be it females, an ethnic minority or "the enemy" we hear so much about from our government officials.

Just as man is alienated from himself and from  woman, so Westerners, conditioned by the Judeo-Christian tradition, are alienated from that part of themselves which belongs to the earth. Our failure to see that we are intimately tied to the rivers, the air, the land we are polluting is another form of sin which is already becoming disastrous for all of God's creation.

Overindulging in Humble Pie

Sin, then, is not so much a falling away from God or a deliberate transgression of a divine being's orders as it is a failure to recognize the God within us and our follow creatures. Feminists are therefore more likely to stress immanence rather than transcendence. They hold that sin is institutionalized wherever hierarchies are established; for hierarchies inescapably separate persons from one another or from part of themselves.

Because peoples have had different histories, sin takes different forms for different people. Herein feminists enter a crucial critique of traditional Christian ethics. Mary Daly states (in an article in the March 12, 1971, Commonweal) that "much of traditional Christian virtue appears to be the product of reactions on the part of menperhaps guilty reactions to the behavioral excesses of the stereotypic male." Christians have always been counseled to be meek, obedient, self-sacrificing and humble, to live a life of charity toward others, etc. This emphasis may have been necessary to counteract excessive aggressiveness, pride, and exploitative tendencies which characterize a male culture. 

The trouble was that these virtues were preached to women, for whom meekness, humility, and self-sacrifice were already a way of life. Man's sin is that he has not had enough humility, woman's that she has had too much of it. It is as if, by letting women carry the burden of being humble and pious for them, men have hot rid of any need to appropriate these virtues for themselves and so have felt free to visit aggression on the world. Here again, Jesus' relations with women are revealing. He did not speak to their weaknesses or coach them to eat humble pie. Remember, he said that Mary, not Martha, had chosen the better part! Jesus spoke to the capacity of women for real faith and courage and for carrying out decisions.

It is in this understanding of sin and in the critique of Christian ethics that feminist theology converges with the growing theologies of other oppressed groups, such as black theology. If we, as affluent Christians, counsel an underdeveloped people or an exploited underclass to be patient, meek, and forever self-sacrificing, we commit the very sin we hope to avoid. Christ did not counsel the beggar to sell all he had, but he did so counsel the rich young ruler."

Many Christians have written at length about the "new man," the "new humanity," that Christ came to bring about. Few, however, have explained what it means to be "new." Feminists see the man-woman relationship as the key to the new humanity. The alienation between man and woman, they say, is the primordial one from which all other false or unjust relationships derive. 

Lest any accuse us of exaggeration the man-woman thing out of all proportion, let them recall Gunnar Myrdal's discovery that when, 200 years ago, laws were needed to justify the enslavement of black Africans, the slaveholders took as their models the English laws of the time which restricted the rights of women. How can we hope to be for reconciliation with our black or poor brothers and sisters if we cannot achieve reconciliation with that other half of ourselves?

A Truly Liberating Partnership

For the feminists, salvation is that discovery and celebration of the "other" in ourselves. When men discover their femininity and women their masculinity, then perhaps we can form a truly liberating and mutually enriching partnership. And then perhaps we can discover our own "blackness" and "whiteness," our own poverty and affluence, which we have so long kept hidden from ourselves. The new humanity is a humanity which is becoming, impelled by a revelation that is not located in the distant past but is only now becoming manifest in the clamor for dignity and liberation on the part of underdeveloped peoples.

Feminist theology calls for a repudiation of the old male-oriented hierarchical symbolsGod as Lord, King, Master, and Almighty Fatherin favor of something like "Tillich's notion of the "ground and power of being" or Whitehead and Hartshorne's conception of a feeling, responding relational God. Or if we must anthropomorphize, why not God as mother/father"she" as well as "he"?

Mary Daly points out that religious symbols die when the cultural situation that supported them ceases to be acceptable. This is happening today with the emergence of the women's liberation movement and of Third World peoples. But this development, Day says, should pose no problem to authentic faith, for such "accepts the relativity of all symbols and recognizes that fixation upon any one of them as absolute is idolatrous."

Feminist theology calls also for rethinking of the traditional doctrines of sin, incarnation, and salvation in the light of our conviction that such doctrines must speak to an be consonant with the existential experience of all people, not just of white, Western males. And, finally, feminist theology calls for an ethic based on the responsible self-actualization of every person so that we may achieve deeper awareness of the ties that bind all of creation together.

Source: The Christian Century (2 August 1972)

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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