by Elizabeth Johnson
Almost all theology in the Christian tradition, including liberation theology done from the perspective of the poor and oppressed, has been done by male theologians. In our day we are witnessing the phenomenon that all over the world the "other half" of the human race, women, are waking up to their own dignity and finding their own voice. One result has been that within the community of disciples, faith is now being reflected upon explicitly from the perspective and experience of women. This type of theology is commonly called feminist theology, or theology based upon the conviction that women share equally with men in the dignity of being human. The christological question "Who do you say that I am?" receives a response with yet another dimension when answered from the experience of believing women.
There are many types of feminist theology, but they can be divided roughly into two categories. One is called revolutionary feminist theology and the other reformist. The revolutionary school of thought is produced by women who, upon examining the Christian tradition, find it so male-dominated that they pronounce it hopelessly irredeemable. These women have usually voted with their feet and have left the church, a growing phenomenon at least in some countries. Purging religion of its male-dominating elements, they form groups to pray and worship together in which sisterhood is the great value and the deity addressed is the goddess. Obviously, revolutionary feminist theologians would not be interested in typical Catholic theology, let alone reflection on Jesus Christ. On the other hand, while agreeing about the male-dominated character of the Christian tradition, reformist feminist theologians find reason to hope that it may be transformed, for this tradition also contains powerful liberating elements. Thus they choose to stay within the church and work for reform. Within this group there are many different approaches (fundamentalist, symbolic, liberal) but interestingly, the majority of Catholic feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Anne Carr, and Margaret Farley work with the liberation model in the sense that they seek the dismantling of patriarchy and equal justice especially for the dispossessed. This is the perspective that will be explored here.
The same characteristics that mark liberation theology as a whole also mark feminist liberation theology. It arises out of the recognition of the suffering of a particular oppressed group in this case women. Consciousness of the ways women are perpetually relegated to second-class citizenship in society and church, in contrast to women's essential human dignity, gives rise to outrage: this should not be; this is against the will of God. Reflection arises in groups actively engaged in praxis, or prayerful resistance to patriarchal oppression. Sedimented in structures, the social nature of the sin of sexism is laid bare by feminist social analysis. The goal of this form of theologizing is not only to understand the meaning of the faith tradition, but also to change it insofar as it has not meant good news for human beings who are women. Finally, the vision which guides feminist theology is that of a new human community based on the values of mutuality and reciprocity. The goal is not reverse discrimination, with women dominating men; that would be the same problem in reverse. Rather, the dream of a new heaven and a new earth takes hold here, with no one group dominating and no one group being subordinated, but each person in his or her own right participating according to their gifts, without preconceived stereotyping, in genuine mutuality. It is not envisioned that everyone be the same, but that the uniqueness of each be equally respected in a community of brothers and sisters. The three steps of the method of liberation theology-analyzing the situation, searching the tradition for what contributes to the oppression, and searching again for what liberates-yield a new appreciation of the meaning of Jesus Christ for human beings who are women.
The fundamental analysis of the situation made by feminist theologians is that sexism is pervasive. A sign of broken mutuality between the two genders, sexism like racism classifies human beings, prescribes certain roles and denies certain rights to them on the basis of physical characteristics. just as racism assigns an inferior dignity to people on the basis of the color of their skin or ethnic heritage and labors mightily to keep people of color in their preordained "place," so too on the basis of gender sexism considers women essentially less worthy as human beings than men and sets up powerful forces to keep women in their proper "place." In both "isms," 'physical characteristics are made to count for the essence of the human being, so that the fundamental human dignity of the person is violated. This is to be noted: there is a fundamental interlocking of oppressions. The kind of attitude that considers women less than genuinely human in their own right is the same attitude which demeans people of different race or economic class. The prejudicial attitude stems from an inability to deal with the otherness of people who are different from oneself or to count them as fully human as oneself.
Sexism shows itself in two ways. The first is in structures which are so shaped that power is always in the hands of the dominant male; other males are ranked in a series of graded subordinations, with the least powerful forming a large base. This kind of structure is known as patriarchy, from the Latin pater understood as father of the family. It is best imaged as a triangle, with control at the top and less-to-no power below. Where do women fit into this picture? In their own right, they do not fit in at all. In patriarchal structures, women are defined by the men to whom they belong, with the wife of the chief having a greater status than the women of the men at the base. It needs little reflection to see that structures of family life, of social, political, and economic life, and of ecclesial life, are predominately patriarchal.
Sexism shows itself, secondly, in patterns of thinking that take the humanity of male human beings and make it normative for all. This way of thinking is called androcentrism, from the Greek andros, or adult male; its vision of humanity is centered on the adult male. Women are considered human not in their own right, but in a secondary way, in a way derivative from and dependent on the male. Rather than both genders being seen as two coequal ways in which human nature is embodied, the male way of being in the world is privileged as "normal," while what is unique to women is human "by exception" to that norm.
As with patriarchal structures, it is quickly obvious that androcentric thinking is pervasive throughout society and church. Virtually all of the influential male theologians in the tradition have thought in this pattern. Tertullian, for example, is famous (or infamous) for his view of woman as the temptress, writing:
"Do you not realize that you are each an Eve? The curse of God on this sex of yours lives on even in our times. Guilty, you must bear its hardship You are the devil's gateway; you desecrated the fatal tree; you first betrayed the law of God; you softened up with your cajoling words the one against whom the devil could not prevail by force. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, Adam. You are the one who deserved death, and yet it was the Son of God who had to die."
There are dozens of statements in Augustine's writings that make androcentrisrn out to be the very nature of things:
"Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one."
Following Aristotle's biology, Thomas Aquinas was of the opinion that "woman is a misbegotten man," a physiological view which then determined his assessment of woman's essential nature. These are but samplings of a view that is pervasive in the Catholic tradition, influencing not only theology but canon law and practice as well. Note that this way of thinking about women is the product of male reflection. Left to their own devices, women would not define themselves this way.
In sexism with its patriarchal structures and androcentric thinking, women experience systematic oppression. They are excluded, marginalized, and rendered invisible in language and public life. They are subordinated in theory and practice to men (making the tea, while men make the important decisions). Stereotyped as mindless, emotional, weak, they are prevented from assuming leadership roles. Women are denied economic, legal, and educational rights, paid less money for the same work, and in many a place made to need the signature of a man for certain transactions such as buying land. As UN. statistics show, while forming one-half of the world's population, women do three-fourths of the world's work, receive one-tenth of the world's salary, and own one one hundredth of the world's land. Two-thirds of illiterate adults are women. Over three-fourths of starving people are women and their dependent children. To make a dark picture even bleaker, women are bodily and sexually exploited, used, battered, and raped. The fact is, men do this to women in a way that women do not do to men. Sexism is pervasive on a global scale.
Within these kinds of experiences, women's own self-image comes in for a great battering. There is widespread lack of self esteem and self-confidence that has been documented even among very competent women. The entire system tells women every day that they are not quite as good as men are. In the classical tradition, Augustine and many others are of the opinion that pride was the original sin which caused the Fall. Feminist theologians are of the opinion that this may well be true for men, but that for women the original sin is more likely the opposite: loss of a center, diffuseness of personality, lack of a sense of self leading one to drift or take direction unthinkingly from others. On the other hand, the system of sexism is also demeaning to men, who are conditioned to develop only a narrow band of human characteristics (to be strong, rational, in control). Men are not allowed to develop their humanity in all of its dimensions either; we all are preset in stereotyped ways. Thus, the overcoming of sexism in a new kind of community where women recover their full humanity is envisioned as being very much to the advantage of the full humanity of men as well.
Out of the system of sexism in all of its manifestations, feminist theology has developed a criterion or critical principle for judging structures and theories. Phrased by Rosemary Radford Ruether, the principle is the value of the full humanity of women. Whatever enables this to flourish is redemptive and of God; whatever damages this is nonredemptive and contrary to God's intent. With this in mind, sexism itself is judged to be sinful. When Catholic theologians say this, they appeal to the Second Vatican Council. The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, 29), in the section on human community, states:
"True, all persons are not alike from the point of view of varying physical power and the diversity of intellectual and moral resources. Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion is to be overcome and irradicated as contrary to God's intent."
Notice that sex leads the list of the different bases of discrimination. The council goes on to give an example:
"For in truth it must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are not universally honored. Such is the case of a woman who is denied the right and freedom to choose a husband, to embrace a state of life, or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men."
The one example used to illustrate all of these discriminations is the denial of the rights of women as persons. What is called for is transformation of the self and of social systems that support exploitative relations, the relations between men and women key among them.
Critique of Christology
The second step involves analysis of tradition and there, when the turn is made to christology, the judgment is made that of all the doctrines of the church christology is the one most used to oppress women. In what way? Basically it comes down to the way in which the maleness of Jesus has been interpreted. That Jesus was a male human being is beyond question. This is part of his historical particularity and is to be respected, along with the fact that he was a carpenter who lived in the first century, spoke Aramaic, and so on. Each of us as a human being is characterized in such particular ways. The problem arises when Jesus? maleness, this particular aspect of himself as a person, is lifted up and made into a universal principle. This then operates in two ways which contribute to the subordination of women.
First, it comes to be taken for granted that the maleness of Jesus reveals the maleness of God, or that the only proper way to represent God is in male images. Certainly Jesus called God Abba; and he is also presented in the gospels saying such things as, "he who sees me sees the Father" Jn 14:9). But due to a literal and naive idea of revelation, this is interpreted as meaning that God should be imaged exclusively as male, or at least that God is more suitably thought of in analogy with male human beings than with female. While God is Spirit, neither male nor female but Creator of both in the divine image, in the tradition the maleness of Jesus has been taken as a pointer to the exclusive maleness of God. Consequently, we have named the highest power of the universe (Ultimate Reality) in male terms, a naming which rebounds to the benefit of male human beings. Women never find themselves characterised equally in the image of God or as dose to the divine. In Genesis chapter 1, when God creates the human couple, male and female, in the divine image, no such discrimination is made; neither male nor female is more in the divine image than the other. In fact, both taken together are in the divine image. Feminist theology reasons that since both male and female are created in God's image, then presumably God can be imaged either as male or as female, always aware of the limitation of our metaphors.
In fact, in the Jewish scriptures, God is imaged in female form by some of the prophets in very moving and beautiful ways„as mother, as midwife, as nurse, as a mother bird spreading her wings over her chicks, as Sophia (Wisdom). Jesus, too, spun out female images in his preaching. The reign of God is like the yeast that a woman kneads into dough so that the whole loaf rises: this is an image of God as baker woman, kneading the yeast of the new creation into the world and working over it until the whole world rises. What a great image for God's redeeming work! Even more startling, perhaps, is the parable of the woman searching for her lost coin. This parable appears together with the parable of the good shepherd in Luke chapter 15 (1-10). They both tell the same story of God's active search for the sinner. In one, a man loses a sheep and leaves his ninety-nine others to seek for it vigorously; when he finds it, he calls upon his neighbors to rejoice. This marvelous image of God the Redeemer has worked its way into the Christian imagination. But the same drama is played out in the other story. A woman loses one of her ten coins and drops everything to search the whole house until she finds it; when she does, she calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. Here we have another image of God the Redeemer. Jesus is saying that we are as precious to God, even when we sin, as money is to a woman who cares very much for it. God goes after us in the same way. The same message is being proclaimed in both stories, one in terms of male work and the other in terms of female work. Both reflect the active, consuming love of God the Redeemer. (Someday, somewhere, some bishop is going to consecrate a church to God the good homemaker; and some artist is going to draw, paint, or sculpt God the searching woman in a way parallel to our pictures and churches dedicated to the Good Shepherd. Both symbols are in our tradition, but the imagination of Christians has latched onto one and neglected the other). In a saying reminiscent of Lady Wisdom, Jesus even referred to himself in female imagery, wishing he could gather the people of Jerusalem within his arms as a mother hen gathers chicks under her wings (Mt 23:37-39).
At various times in the Christian tradition, female metaphors for God did come into use. The Syriac liturgy, for example, refers to the Holy Spirit as our Mother. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich understands Jesus as our mother, nourishing us from his own body. In our own day, Pope John Paul I said memorably that just as God is truly our Father, even more is God our Mother, especially when we are in trouble through sin. Overall, however, we have neglected these scriptural and traditional images of God, seldom if ever using them in liturgy, catechisis, or personal prayer. Instead, we use the maleness of Jesus to concentrate on a male God.
Our language about God, furthermore, makes constant use of the male pronoun "be," which again summons up in the mind a male image. Even sophisticated theologians fall into this trap, claiming, for example, "God is not male, He is spirit." Why does it always have to be "he"? It is because we are operating within an androcentric framework, supported by the maleness of Jesus, which presumes that God always has to be considered male. On the other hand, French theologian Yves Congar has recently written a three-volume work on the Holy Spirit in which he tries to recover the Holy Spirit as the feminine person of God or the feminine dimension of God, using all the scriptural images of the Spirit (ruah) as feminine-hovering, creating, renewing the earth. God as Spirit may also be referred to as "she." This kind of thinking basically breaks open the male metaphor of "father" and makes us realize deeply the mystery of God who goes beyond all our images and concepts. God can also be imaged in nonpersonal terms, such as rock, water, fire, and wind; the scriptures have a great deal of this. The important theological question is: Who is God and how do we best image God? But the point that feminist theologians make is that in the Christian tradition and continuing today in our ecclesial life, God is constantly referred to in male terms. The naive use of the historical maleness of Jesus is a main contributing factor.
The second way in which the maleness of Jesus has operated to subordinate women concerns human beings more than God. The gender of Jesus has been taken to be the mode or paradigm of what it means to be human. This is interpreted literally to mean that maleness is closer to the human ideal than is femaleness. Proof of this attitude is seen in reactions to a hypothetical question about the incarnation. The Word became flesh.. God who is beyond gender became a human being. Could God have become a human being as a woman? The question strikes some people as silly or worse. Theologically, though, the answer is Yes. Why not? If women are genuinely human and if God is the deep mystery of holy love, then what is to prevent such an incarnation? But taking for granted the implicit inferiority of women, Christian theology has dignified maleness as the only genuine way of being human, thus making Jesus' embodiment as male an ontological necessity rather than a historical option. Owing to the way christology has been handled in an unthinking androcentric perspective, Jesus' maleness has been so interpreted that he has become the male revealer of a male God whose full representative can only be male. As a package, this christology relegates women to the margins of significance.
Feminist Liberation Christology
In searching the tradition for elements of a christology that would liberate women, feminist theologians strike gold in Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection, and the tradition of wisdom christology.
1. Jesus' preaching proclaims justice and peace for all people, inclusive of women. The reign of God is diametrically opposed to any group setting itself up as exclusively privileged and relegating others to the periphery. The vision of the reign of God is precisely a vision of community where every human person is valued and all interrelate in a mutually respectful way. Feminist theologians note that in Jesus! preaching it is precisely those on the periphery of established structures who are counted first in the reign of God, not in order to reverse discrimination but to break the old pattern of discrimination and set up a new pattern of relating. It sounds startling, but the prostitute will enter the kingdom of heaven before the Pharisees. Tables are turned as the sacred male religious leaders receive no priority over a woman who engages in prostitution, but the opposite happens. Jesus! preaching of the reign of God is a powerful liberating force.
2. Jesus' naming God Abba is also liberating, because in Jesus' understanding, Abba is the very opposite of a dominating patriarch. Rather, this compassionate, intimate, and close Abba releases everyone from pat-terns of domination and calls for another kind of community:
"Call no man on earth Father, for one is your Abba who is in heaven; nor should you be called leader, for only the Messiah is that. The greatest among you must be the servant. Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great. (Mt 23:9-12)"
The one Abba creates a human community of mutuality. Far from legitimating patriarchy, the one Abba subverts it, setting up in its place a community of brothers and sisters.
3. Jesus' characteristic behavior of partiality for the marginalized included women at every turn as the oppressed of the oppressed in every group. Treating women with a grace and respect commensurate with their human dignity, Jesus healed, exorcised, forgave, and restored women to shalom. His table community was inclusive, and women, both sinners and those who were part of "his own" as Luke called the band of followers, shared in the joy of the approach of the reign of God. His own example has led one feminist theologian to remark that the problem is not that Jesus is a male, but that more males are not like Jesus.
4. Feminist interpretation of the stories of women in the gospels is making clear that while this point has been suppressed in our androcentric tradition, Jesus called women to be disciples. They formed part of his company in Galilee, leaving their families and homes to follow him. The wealthy among them bankrolled the ministry, providing for the needs of the community out of their own pocket (Lk 8:1-3). The names of these women are given several times in the gospels but have become a forgotten part of the story. Mary Magdalene, the "apostle to the apostle?' as Augustine called her, usually heads the list but is accompanied by Johanna, Susanna, Salome, Mary the wife of Clopas, and others. Even the Samaritan woman at the well On 4) is important not for her sexual impropriety, but for her preaching which brought a whole town to Jesus: "Many Samaritans from the city believed in him because of the women's testimony" On 4:39). "Testimony" is a technical word signifying the word of apostolic witness. What is buried in this story is the memory of a successful missionary to the Samaritans, one who happens to be a woman with a checkered past. There are dozens of stories like this in the gospels, usually preached upon in a spiritualizing way, but actually containing the memory of women's discipleship in the ministry of Jesus.
5. Besides moving around with him in Galilee, the women disciples also followed Jesus up to Jerusalem. Every gospel makes it clear that they did not run and hide but stood by him in his hour of suffering. In fact, the only person named by all four gospels as having stood by the cross is Mary Magdalene. It is simply not true to say that all his disciples left him and fled. In addition, some women disciples knew where the tomb was, since they had helped to anoint the dead body of Jesus and to bury him. Every gospel recounts the fact that it was women disciples who discovered the tomb empty and first received the news of the resurrection. In one gospel the message is proclaimed by an angel, but in the other three it is the risen Lord himself who appears. Thus women were the first recipients of a resurrection appearance. All four gospels show that the women were commanded to "Go and tell"-that is, they received the apostolic commission to preach in witness to the risen Lord. All four gospels show that the women do so. And they are not believed, since the male disciples think they are telling idle tales (a point that has remained sadly true to life!). Nevertheless, the testimony of the scriptures is that both in his earthly life and risen life Jesus Christ included women in his community, not as subordinates to mates, but as equal sisters to their brothers and, in the case of the resurrection stories, even as those first entrusted.
6. In the early decades of the church there is strong evidence for a vigorous ministry of women as colleagues with men. From the Acts of the Apostles and letters of Paul, we get the picture of women as missionaries, preachers, teachers, prophets, apostles, heaters, speakers in tongues, leaders of house churches. They are co-workers with Paul and the others, gifted with all of the charisms which were given for the building up of the church. Scholars are now trying to piece together what forces brought this public ministry of women in the early church to a diminished state.
7. As we have seen, virtually every reading of Jesus! death in contemporary theology connects his end to his ministry. The conflictual forces set up by his ministry brought him to his death. In the feminist perspective, his inclusion of women coequally in the reign of God was part of the offense he gave. Furthermore, Jesus! crucifixion is seen as mounting a tremendous critique against patriarchy. On the cross Jesus symbolizes the exact opposite of male dominating power. Rather, on the cross power is poured out in self-sacrificing love. The cross is the kenosis of patriarchy. Looking at the cross, some feminists have reflected that sociologically it was probably better that the incarnation happened in a male human being; for if a woman had preached and enacted compassion and given the gift of self even unto death, the world would have shrugged-is not this what women are supposed to do anyway? But for a man to live and die this way in a world of male privilege is to challenge the patriarchal ideal of the dominating male at its root.
8. In the resurrection, the Spirit of God fills Jesus with new life and, present in the community in a new way, he becomes the cornerstone of the coming reign of God. His Spirit is poured out on all who believe, women equally with men. The early Christians adopted the initiation rite of baptism. Unlike the gender-specific Jewish ritual of circumcision, open only to males, baptism is inclusive since it is administered the same way to persons of both genders. Indicative of this, Paul's letter to the Galatians contains an early Christian baptismal hymn. As the newly baptized come up out of the water, all in white, wet robes, they sing, "Now there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus!' (3:28). All divisions based on race, or class, or even gender are transcended in the oneness of the body of Christ. The power of the risen Christ becomes effective to the extent that this vision becomes reality in the community.
9. The early Christians named Jesus "Lord," "Christ," using images and titles taken from the Jewish and secular cultures with which they were familiar. One of the figures of the Jewish scriptures with which they identified him very early on (some think it was the first) was "Sophia," or Wisdom. This figure is a female personification of God in outreach to the world. Sophia creates, redeems, establishes justice, protects the poor, teaches the mysteries of the world, and most especially gives life (see the Book of Wisdom). From Paul, who calls Jesus the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24), to John who models Jesus and his long discourses upon Sophia, wisdom christology offers the possibility of affirming the significance of Jesus Christ and of confessing even his divinity in a nonandrocentric framework. As Sophia incarnate Jesus can he discerned as a coincidence of opposites in every respect: crucified yet glorified; Gods own being yet made flesh; a man yet the prophet and very presence of Sophia herself. An ancient christological title is emerging with new dynamism in feminist reflection: Jesus-Sophia, or Jesus, the Wisdom of God.
In conclusion, feminist liberation christology has discovered Jesus as Liberator, not in a generic sense with regard to the poor but specifically with regard to women. He brings salvation through his life and Spirit, restoring women to full personal dignity in the reign of God, and inspiring their liberation from structures of domination and subordination. This is a challenging christology, as is every form of liberation theology. It signals a genuine Copernican revolution, this time not dethroning the earth in favor of the sun, but patriarchy in favor of a community of genuine mutuality. If it is good news to those oppressed, it can be a fearful thing to the oppressor. The call once again is for conversion of hearts, minds, and structures, so that the reign of God may take firmer hold in this world.
Reprinted with permission from Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology by Elizabeth A. Johnson. Crossroad, 1990.
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