Why Feminism (and not other elements of liberation theology)?

It has sometimes been remarked that feminist theology and exegesis has had a more lasting and widespread impact upon the Western Church and Christian Academy than other expressions of liberation theology. For example, most theological journals now require that submissions consistently employ gender-inclusive language, and professors generally make a point of requiring the same in the writing of their students.
This, then, leads me to this question: why has feminism had a more widespread and lasting impact than the other forms of liberation theology? To (almost comically) pick up on our prior example, I know of no major theological journals that list “solidarity with the poor” as a requirement, and I know of few professors who require this of their students (although, to be fair, I have encountered a few profs who have strongly encouraged [to put it mildly] their students to live in that way). Why is it that the more economic elements of liberation never achieved any major influence over the Christian Academy? Why does Latin American liberation theology feel so passe?
Surely it is not because the quality of scholarship is any different. Far from it. The writings of Gutierrez, Sobrino, Arias and the Boff brothers is just as rigourous (and sometimes significantly more so), than the writings of Ruether, Schussler-Fiorenza, Daly, and Trible.
Perhaps an argument could be made that the difference is that other streams of liberation theology are just too contextual. Thus, this argument would suggest, feminist theology achieves a broader influence because women are everywhere, whereas Dalit Theology has trouble spreading beyond India because the caste system doesn’t exist in America, and Latin American liberation theology has trouble spreading north because we live in a very different world. However, I think that this argument must also be rejected. Why? Because the essential elements of liberation theology — solidarity with the poor, God’s preferential option, etc. — easily apply in any cultural situation. Gregory Baum has done a fine job of applying those principles in Canada, Jim Wallis used to do a fine job of applying those principles in the United States, and Jurgen Moltmann has done a fine job of applying those principles in Europe.
So why feminism and not these other expressions? Well, there are two major reasons why I believe feminism achieved a wider influence upon the Christian Academy.
The first is that feminism was already achieving success as a broader cultural movement within the West. In this regard, the Church and the Christian Academy, simply did what they have done so many times before — followed on the coat-tails of cultural change. A book recently published by one of my professor’s is a fine example of this. It is entitled Finally Feminist and it argues that, although God does not desire feminism at all times and in all places, God now desires feminism within the cultural milieu of the West (now I find this approach to feminism to be hugely problematical… but I am torn. Given the influence that this prof has upon Canadian Evangelicals, I’d rather see him “finally feminist” than not feminist at all). Although the Church’s tendency to follow the trends of whatever culture is dominant has generally had an, IMHO, negative impact upon the Church, this could be viewed as one of those times when the Spirit moved within the culture in order to speak prophetically to the Church (and the Christian Academy).
However, the second reason why I believe that other elements of liberation theology have not had as significant an impact as feminism is because, quite simply, they seem to require a more costly transformation in the way in which we live. To write with gender-inclusive language doesn’t cost me anything. To be taught by a female prof doesn’t cost me any more than being taught by a male prof. Heck, even if women get paid the same amount as I do, I’m still making the same amount of money that I made before. The average Christian in the Academy can, by and large, embrace feminism through a shift in rhetoric — and not a very large shift in the way in which he or she lives.
To embrace other forms of liberation theology would be far more costly. If I take liberation theology seriously I may have to move out of my comfortable home and into a far less comfortable neighbourhood. To embrace liberation theology means that I may have to study, teach, and write, with the objectives of reconciliation and shalom in mind — and those lie outside of the realm of my “expertise.” And it may force me to enter into relationships with people who don’t even speak the same language as the Academy, and people who don’t give a rip about defining an “inaugurated eschatology,” or an “Ausgustinian ecclesiology.” These people might not even care that I have a PhD in Theology, and they might even jeopardize the safety of my person and my family. No, no. Gender-inclusive language, well, I can handle that. Solidarity with those on the margins? No way, man, that’s not my calling or my gifting.
However, the surprising lack of impact that liberation theology, in general, has made upon the Western Church and the Christian Academy, should also cause us to reconsider the so-called advances of feminism. You see, my suspicion is that, just as with the rest of Western society, most people have adopted the rhetoric of feminism, without adopting the praxis thereof. This then leads to a situation where it is that much more difficult to attain to the feminist goals, because everybody thinks we’re already there!
However, at least on a cultural level, the stats suggest otherwise. Look up the stats re: violence against women in the home, the sexual trafficking and enslavement of women, and the sexual assault of women. Furthermore, look at the ways in which the police, the courts, and even the hospitals treat women. These things come together to paint a very bleak picture indeed. Most of the stats have gone up, not down (note: some have suggested that this is so because women now feel more empowered to report offences; however, although I don’t really want to get into a technical discussion here, I find that argument quite unconvincing).
Within Christian circles the same tends to hold true. Granted, my school affirms the equality of men and women — but women are a striking minority in the teaching and leadership positions. Further, to simply adopt the rhetoric of feminism, without also moving in the role of advocacy, seems especially hollow. While the Christian Academy has done a good job of changing its language, it has, generally, done hardly anything in terms of advocacy. Likewise, on another level, it seems that the most significant thing that has changed in the area of Evangelical Christianity is that the language of “complementarianism” has replaced that of patriarchy — and the end result is the same in both cases.
Thus, by beginning by asking why elements of liberation theology apart from feminism have not had a significant impact upon the Western Church and the Christian Academy, I have ended up with the conclusion that even feminism has not had much of an impact. This is so, I suspect, because we in the West do a fine job of developing theologies that serve our own ends. Christ tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, but we have ended up thinking that we are loving our neighbours by loving ourselves.

When "there, but for the grace of God, go I" is an Inappropriate Response

I think I’ve finally pinned down what has bothered me so much about the “there, but for the grace of God, go I” response to the Ted Haggard scandal.
You see, my time journeying alongside of women, children, and men who have experienced sexual violence, has disciplined me to think about the Christian community from their perspective (as best I can).
What bothers me so much is that the continual reiteration of this phrase by male Christians and male leaders is that such a response makes the Church a very unsafe place for survivors of sexual violence. It transforms Christian men and male leaders into sexually threatening figures. After all, who knows, maybe the miracle of God’s grace will stop working one day and my pastor will assault me. Maybe my pastor already fantasizes about such things, and it is only the grace of God that prevents him from enacting those fantasies — either way, it makes him unsafe.
I mean, have you ever heard pastors saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I” when they hear about priests raping boys, or soldiers torturing civilians, or parents shaking their babies when they cry at night? Of course not. So, why in the world do we think that it is okay to say such things when it comes down to paying people for sex?
As I am learning to journey more and more closely with prostitutes (at work, in my neighbourhood, and in my home), I would love to invite them to participate in Christian community, but I would never invite any of them to a church where the pastor has said, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Hell, the constant reiteration of this phrase makes me wonder what church I could bring them to.
However, it gives me hope that I have not heard a single woman respond to Haggard, or other pastoral sex scandals, with this phrase. This, I think, is rather telling, and it shows that women tend to “get” what’s going on here more than men do. I suppose I could see myself inviting my friends to a church with female leadership.

Self-Serving Acts of Grace: Evangelical Responses to Ted Haggard

There seems to be an air of self-congratulation running through certain Christian circles these days. I am, of course, talking about the various Christian responses to the Ted Haggard scandal. Time and time again, I read about Christians being “humbled” by Haggard’s scandal and Christians so rapidly offering forgiveness.
“Look,” we all seem to be saying, “see how quickly we forgave Ted? See how humble we have all been? You know, because ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ and all that jazz. Look at the radical welcome and acceptance we have shown to somebody we could have cast out for betraying us and tarnishing our image. Look at how radically we are all committed to following Jesus’ example of compassion!”
To me, it all rings a little false, it’s all just a little too, well, self-serving. Of course, I’m not arguing that grace should not be shown to those who fall within the Christian community (although one might do well to remember Paul’s words in 1 Cor 5), but I am deeply troubled that such acts of grace are rarely (if at all) extended by these same people to those who need it most desperately. When have these oh-so-gracious Evangelicals extended such compassion to other members of the GLBTQ community? When have these oh-so-welcoming Evangelicals extended this welcome to the poor and the sinners, the prostitutes and the meth dealers? When have these oh-so-radical Evangelicals ever extended genuine love to their enemies (whether those “enemies” be militant Muslims or those on the far Left of the American political spectrum)? It seems to me that this is more a case of Evangelicals “looking after their own” and protecting their marketable brand identity than it is about a genuine act of grace and reconciliation. Are these Christians going to go on and embrace other homosexuals? Not likely. Are these Christians going to go on and advocate on behalf of their brothers and sisters in Iraq and elsewhere around the world? Hardly. Are these Christians going to rethink their opinions of drug addicts, homeless people, and other social outcasts? I doubt it.
Therefore, I call bullshit on most of the Evangelical talk of forgiveness that has arisen in response to Haggard.

Only Natural?

As will be seen in a future post, I have been spending quite a bit of time wrestling with the ways in which Paul defines the Christian community over against the Jewish and pagan communities.
As I have tried to wrestle with Paul’s letters on their own terms (while trying to be aware of my own biases), it seems that Paul defines the pagan communities by three badges in particular: idolatry/self-exaltation, covetousness/seeking one’s desires over the needs of others, and sexual immorality. Furthermore, for Paul these three badges are all signs of people who have lost their true humanness. Just as the pagan nations are depicted as beasts (cf. esp. Dan 7), Paul argues that those who worship idols and those who chose to try and exalt themselves to the status of God (following the trajectory established by Adam) actually end up becoming like the animals. These things are badges of those who have ceased to be fully human and belong to the community of those who are “in Adam.”
Now what I find particularly interesting about this, is the way in which this radically subverts contemporary efforts to base ethics upon the “natural” world around us. It is common today to point to an example from the way in which animals behave and then conclude that it is “only natural” for us to behave in a similar way.
This is especially true in relation to sexual ethics (which is not surprising, given that sexual behaviour is one of the badges around which this discussion revolves). Some time ago it became popular to use examples of animal promiscuity in order to justify human acts of promiscuity (“it’s just not natural to have one partner”), and recently it has become popular to cite examples of homosexuality within the animal kingdom in order to support human acts of homosexuality (“it must be natural”).* The thing is, if Paul were to encounter any of these arguments, he would say that we’ve got it all wrong. Appealing to the animal kingdom for moral guidance is, according to Paul, a symptom of the problem, not a part of the solution.
Just as we cannot use the excuse “hey, I’m only human” to justify ongoing sin — for those who are truly human, those who belong to the community that is “in Christ” have been liberated from the power of sin — we cannot appeal to that which is “only natural” in order to justify any behaviour (sexual or otherwise). We must look to other areas for guidance in these things.
*Note that I am not, therefore, arguing against gay marriages, or against homosexuality or whatever. I have wrestled long and hard with that topic and I have no desire, in this post, to argue against those things. Rather, I am simply arguing that one should not look for support for those things based upon examples within the animal kingdom. Rather, one should look for supports in the proper places. Stated another way, you could say that my concern, in this post is not to question the ends but to question the means.

When Justice Conquers Holiness: Why I Support Gay Marriage

Walter Brueggemann in Theology of the Old Testament talks about two traditions that exist alongside each other within the Old Testament. These traditions cannot be easily resolved and exist with a certain amount of tension that makes them irresolvable. These are what he calls the justice tradition and the holiness tradition. The first looks toward the neighbour, the second toward the well-being of YHWH. The first is marked by caring for one’s neighbour, the second is marked by ritual purity. Often these traditions overlap but sometimes they do not. Brueggemann argues that it is essential to maintain the tension between these two “interpretive trajectories,” for they reveal a God that is both for us, and a God that is jealous for God’s own self.
Pulling on the work of Fernando Belo (cf. A Materialistic Reading of the Gospel of Mark), Brueggemann then argues that Jesus champions the justice tradition while his opponents are advocates of the holiness tradition. This is not to say that the holiness tradition is to be completely discarded (indeed, a distortion of both occurs when they are taken by themselves) but it does set the tone for Christian action.
It is for this reason that Brueggemann argues that homosexuals should be granted equal rights and privileges in both civil society (i.e. marriage) and the church (i.e. ordination). Those who oppose the granting of such rights have divorced themselves from the justice tradition and are more concerned with issues of purity — cleanness and uncleanness. Brueggemann suspects that “moral arguments” raised against the granting of such rights are actually propelled by a sense of shame and defilement, having little to do with justice.
The holiness tradition is rooted in an urge for order, and — as most of the old reliabilities in or social world are in jeopardy — a large measure of unrelated issues and feelings are heaped upon the issue of homosexuality. While the tension between “the felt threat of disorder” and the “voiced urgings of justice” will continue to be a disputed issue Brueggemann argues that, regarding homosexuality, “the justice trajectory has decisively and irreversibly defeated the purity trajectory… the purity trajectory of the text may help us understand pastorally the anxiety produced by perceived and experienced disorder, but it provides no warrant for exclusionary ethical decisions in the face of the gospel” (these paragraphs completely rely upon Theology of the Old Testament 193-96).
I am in agreement with Brueggemann. I think that Christian need to realise that homosexuals (and all members of the LGBTQ community) have been marginalised, persecuted, and cut-off from fellowship with both society and the Church. When the Church acts in such a way in completely contradicts its vocation to bring freedom to captives, cast out demons, and to heal the sick — for all those actions were accomplished so that people could once again journey intimately together; slavery, demons, and sickness where all things that prevent full and proper fellowship. When the Church contributes to the oppression of homosexuals it acts in a way that completely contradicts the lifestyle of Jesus who was committed to journeying with the oppressed and marginalised of his day, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, and yes, even the sinners.
However, does this notion of justice triumphing over holiness contradict what the bible teaches elsewhere about homosexuality? I think not. When one takes a look at the biblical texts one is struck by how little is said about the topic. Richard Hays does a careful case by case analysis in a chapter called “Homosexuality” in his masterful work, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. Old Testament evidence is primarily found in a law found in the purity codes of Leviticus — that, of course, is neither here nor there for there is much of Leviticus that Christians no longer follow (and much that they do). Where Hays is especially useful is in the application of his knowledge of ancient Greek when he approaches the relevant New Testament texts. The three terms used in 1 Cor. 6, 1 Tim. 1, and Acts 15 are malakoi, arsenokoitai, and porneia. Yet none of these terms refers to homosexuality as we understand it today. Malakoi was the name given to young boys who engaged in sexual activity with adult men; the term porneia is simply an umbrella term for any type of sexual activity; arsenokoitai is definately the most problematic term and scholars have yet to agree on its meaning.
This means that Romans 1-3 is really the pivotal text in the debate (from a New Testament perspective — it is also the only passage in the bible that refers to female homosexual activity). In seeking to remain true to the text I am forced to agree with Hays that Paul understands homosexuality to be a sign of the fallenness of creation. Here it is important to note (as Hays does) that Paul is not teaching a code of sexual ethics but offering a diagnosis of the disordered human condition. Therefore, Hays says, “Homosexuality is not a provocation of the ‘wrath of God’ (Rom. 1:18); rather, it is a consequence of God’s decision to ‘give up’ rebellious creatures.” Of course those rebellious creatures are not homosexuals but all of humanity.
And this is the extent of what the texts say. There is nothing here that overthrows what Brueggemann says. I light of an ongoing oppression, and in light of the vocation of the Church, it seems to me that there is no biblical reason for justice not to trump holiness in this case.
Therefore, I must depart from Hays (who goes as far as to approve the ordination of homosexuals, but disapproves of gay marriage) and attempt to synthesize this brief exegesis with Brueggemann’s argument. Over against Christians who argue that homosexuality is a choice I have no problem affirming the opposite. For many homosexuality (or other orientations that are deemed sexually “deviant” by contemporary culture) is not a choice. Fallenness can impact even genetics. And yet it must be noted that this is true for all of us — not just for members of the LGBTQ community. As much as the Church embodies a new creation it also exists as a community of sinners. We are, all of us, in the process of moving into intimacy — which is itself the very thing that overcomes fallenness. To exclude homosexuals from the most intimate of human relationships seems to be as absurd as excluding myself. After all, I too exhibit signs of sexual fallenness. As a member of contemporary Western culture I find it quite easy to objectify women and treat them as sexual objects — not as people. Yet nobody — certainly no straight man that I know — as ever thought that this meant I was excluded from marriage. No, no, they say, such a sex drive means I’m perfect for marriage. For, as Paul himself says, it is better to marry than to burn with passion. Well, I say the same of homosexuals. It is better to marry than to burn with passion (I realise that I’m engaging in eisegesis to a certain extent by applying this text in this way but I think it is an application that stays true to the broader biblical context). Within the context of two consenting adults who are “naturally” inclined to homosexuality justice conquers holiness.
Really it comes down to how we are defining people. It seems to me that the Church has imposed a false — an anti-Christian — double-standard when it comes to members of the LGBTQ community. Church-members look at themselves and define themselves by their holiness yet they look at others and define them by their fallenness — which is a fallenness that they received, not one that they earned. I say that’s bullshit. That’s like saying a baby born addicted to crack is to blame for her mother’s addiction. What do we do with such a baby? Kick it out of the family? Of course not! We journey in love relationships with that child — even if that means we have to supply it with crack so that it doesn’t die. And at least a part of the reason why we do so is because we recognise something of that child in all of us. Let me take another (and perhaps a better) example to try and express what I mean. All of us are born mortal. We suffer the maladies that come as a consequence of that and all of us will one day die. Yet this mortality is taken as the strongest evidence of fallenness. However, the Church learns to live as a people that emobodies a new type of life within a decaying world. In the same way certain sexual orientations may be rooted in fallenness but it is the very act of marriage that redeems those things.
So I say that the Christian answer to the current debate is to vocally support gay marriage. I can think of no other solution that makes sense within the context of the Christian story.

Ideologies of Gender

The Vatican recently released a statement penned by Cardinal J. Ratzinger on the role of men and women (thank you “Ms.” magazine for bringing this to my attention). Among other things it blames feminism for an “ideology of gender”. From there is degenerates into more traditional Catholic comments on the role of women. However, the accusation of an “ideology of gender” is rather thought-provoking and this is certainly not the first time I’ve encountered it.
David Ford expresses a very honest, empathetic, and sincere struggle with the issue of masculine and/or feminine pronouns being used in relation to God in an epilogue to his book The Shape of Living. Ultimately, he concludes, to refer to God as “she” or “her” is to ascribe gender to God when God is essentially genderless. In the end Ford decides it is best to continue to refer to God as “he” because that is the language used within scripture (and tradition) and people do not use it thinking that means God is male, as an elderly woman in his congregation says to him, “But I never thought of him [God] as male.”
I think Ford’s argument may be a little naive with the rise of feminism and the recognition of the many ways in which women have been oppressed. This has been an oppression that Christians have contributed to (I say “contributed” because Christianity should not be made the root cause or even the greatest evil in relation to this. Other socio-political and ideological forces must be recognised. After all at its very core Christianity is radically egalitarian). In a way feminism has revealed how an ideology of male gender has crept into Christianity. Something has changed and we cannot simply go back to the old way of doing things. Rather we must go forward and find a new way of doing things that does not contribute to oppression and is sensitive to those who have suffered.
Therefore, Ratzinger’s critique does hold some water in this regard. Instead of affirming the perverted forms of Christianity that have built an ideology of male gender around God, certain feminists seek to build an ideology of female gender around God.
I can see only two ways around this dilemma. The first is to move fluidly between calling God “he” and “she”, “him” and “her”. Recognising that God is neither we should be able to call God both as we look for a convenient personal pronoun (damn this English language that has no adequate neuter pronoun to express person-ality). Thus those who are steeped in tradition should be just as comfortable referring to God in female terms and those who have embraced feminism should be just as comfortable referring to God in male terms. As we move fluidly back and forth between these terms (not just referring to God as female when s/he exhibits stereotypical female attributes but also when s/he wields power and authority, and not just referring to God in male terms when s/he exhibits stereotypical male attributes but also when s/he demonstrates creativity and sensitivity) we should, over time, arrive at a conception of God that transcends all ideologies of gender.
The second solution is simply to drop all personal pronouns in relation to God. Therefore, although it may feel less poetic, and at times just plain awkward, God should just be referred to as God or in language that is neither male nor female (the pronoun “it” is not an adequate replacement because it lacks person-ality).