By REV. LUNA DINGAYAN
“Today I give you authority over nations and kingdoms to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” – Jeremiah 1:10
Church as Oppressor
History painfully shows that the church has been one of the chief oppressors of women by virtue of its relationship with the world. For while the Gospel affirms that Christians have the responsibility to stand up against the world when it poses its values as ultimate, the church has continually perpetuated the very social institutions, customs, and myths for which it is called to criticize.
Asian church’s women recognized this role of the church in the oppression of women in a consultation in Manila sometime ago. They said: “As church people, we have come to realize that the highly patriarchal churches have definitely contributed to the subjugation and marginalization of women. Thus, we see an urgent need to re-examine our church structures, traditions, and practices in order to remedy injustice and correct misinterpretations and distortions that have crippled us. We saw how theology itself has added to these distortions. We unearthed theological premises, traditions, and beliefs that have prevented us from becoming fully human and have blurred the image of God that we are.”
Throughout church history we could see the process of patriarchalization of the church. We could cite some key historical figures at this point. For instance, one of the harshest words against women is attributed to Tertullian, a distinguished theologian of the later part of the Early Church. He said, “Women, you ought to dress yourselves in mourning and rags, representing yourselves as penitents bathed in tears, reducing thus the fault of having ruined the human race. You are the door of hell. You corrupt him whom the devil dared not approach. You, finally, are the cause why Jesus Christ had to die.”
Another key theologian of the church, St. Augustine, considers women as “unstable animals,” and cites three arguments with which faithless husbands seek to silence their wives: “We are men, you are women: We are the head, you are the members; We are masters, you are slaves.”
St. Thomas Aquinas also regards women as “frustrated males”. According to him, the male is supposed to be the vital principle, and the female a mere receptacle in the process of generation. When a male is conceived, the soul enters the fetus on the same day of its conception, whereas the soul penetrates a female fetus only on the 50th day. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas concludes that the female must be subject to the male who has more rationality.
In the Middle Ages, there was a systematic persecution of “charismatic women” who were condemned as witches. Pope Innocent issued in 1484 a papal bull that made official the persecution of “witches”. There was a conservative estimate of one million people who were killed as “witches”, mostly women, between the years 1400 to 1700 as a result of persecutions carried out in the name of Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths.
The 16th Century Protestant Reformation also failed to promote the role of women as it did for the laity. Even Martin Luther failed to see the sexism in Biblical interpretation. To him, the role of women was still limited to procreation and nurturing. However, the Lutheran and Calvinist churches later on recognized women’s social and theological role. Women preachers were accepted in the 17th Century. This was the same kind of patriarchal church tradition that the Spanish and American colonizers had introduced in the Philippines.
Emergence of Women’s Theology
The emergence of women’s theology in recent years has been basically a result of the realization that traditional theology has been done primarily by men. It has been observed that until recently women have been excluded from the study of theology at the advance level in seminaries and universities, as well as from the professions that flow from such advance theological studies, like the ordained ministry, public preaching and teaching at the advance level. Philippine Protestant denominations have started ordaining women in recent years.
Women’s theology has two interacting agenda: Firstly, it is meant to critique the sexist bias of theology itself. Its tasks are to unmask and name the bias and to question its normative status and claim to truth. These are done through a systematic investigation in order to demonstrate the nature and pattern of the sexist bias in various theologians and periods of theological development.
And secondly, women’s theology is also meant to reconstruct the authentic base from which to critique the sexist bias. It starts with the affirmation that God indeed underlies, includes, supports, and promotes female personhood as much as male personhood. From there, it continues to engage in a systematic reconstruction of all the symbols of human relation to God in order to de-legitimize sexist bias and to manifest an authentic vision of redemption as liberation from the evils of sexism.
A genuine women’s theology is not meant merely for the academe. Rather, it is a theology that leads people to a redemptive action. We could start by re-reading the Bible. Needless to say, the authority of the Bible is given a primary importance. Thus, the conservative’s use of the Bible to reinforce patriarchal relations should be critically questioned. Interpretations of Scriptures should be done in the service of women’s struggles under the whole rubric of people’s struggles for justice and peace.
Moreover, we should change our understanding of the humanity of women. There can be no wholeness in the church if women are considered to be inferior to men mentally, physically, spiritually, and morally. Hence, in dealing with the passages of Scriptures, for instance, whatever denies the full humanity of women should be appraised as not redemptive, it does not reflect the divine nor is it the message of an authentic redeemer. On the other hand, those passages that promote the humanity of women are from God and therefore authoritative for faith and practice.
Furthermore, we should look at church ministry as service and not as the privilege of a few male clergy. Those who are in the leadership should use their power to empower others in the community of faith. Those who have been given the responsibility to administer sacraments do so as service to the community and not because they have authority over the community. In other words, there should be no room for clericalism in the church.
The language and liturgy of the church should be inclusive. This does not only mean just taking out male symbols and images and replacing them with inclusive ones. It also means including Biblical passages that affirm the “discipleship of equals”, the reformulation of patriarchal prayers, and the creation of rituals for the celebration of our mothers as well as fathers of the faith.
It is not enough for the church to create space for women and start ordaining them. The church is being called to go beyond that by demolishing all vestiges of patriarchal structures, and to start creating church structures that empower both men and women. In the words of Prophet Jeremiah, the church is called upon “to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer.1:10). # nordis.net