Question: “How many feminists does it take to change a light-bulb?”
Answer: “One. And it’s not funny.”
“It’s not funny.” It’s not funny to belong to a church in which the good old boys still make sure that most of the Bishops are men. It’s not funny to witness Church councils that still assume it really takes a man to run things. It’s not funny that women only become visible when they behave like men. It’s not funny to hear the word “feminist” spoken with a sneer. It’s not funny.
Is it, then, surprising that women ask the dangerous questions in today’s church? Is it surprising that women are challenging the authority and conventional interpretation of scripture? Are we surprised that women are thinking new and dangerous thoughts? Or that women question the sacredness of tradition shaped and selected mainly by men? Women confront the assumptions of “boy-church” life with subversive faith. Through women, the spirit of skepticism and renewal is blowing through the church.
I sometimes play music on my office computer. Next to my computer I have a pile of CDs. On top is one with the title “11,000 Virgins.” You can imagine some of the ribald comments that evokes from my colleagues! It is a collection of chants written in the Middle Ages by the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. She wrote them for her nuns to celebrate the feast of St. Ursula and her companions. Legend has it that Ursula was martyred along with 11,000 other virgins. I suspect that the actual body count was a lot less. But may be not, if you add in the burnings of heretics and duckings of witches that occurred during the history of the Church.
Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Lucy, Anastasia, Ursula. It is a long list. The so-called “virgin-martyrs” of the Church were not puritanical freaks who hated sex. They were women who had encountered Christ. For them it meant they chose to get a life. Through faith, they became their own people and often decided to dump their powerful and godless spouses. In a more brutal age, that was grounds for torture and execution. Today we are content with ridicule and economic hardship.
By all accounts, Hildegard and her nuns had also encountered Christ. They also got a life. Hildegard was a smart lady. She had a little man who took notes for her. She largely ignored the male theology of her age. Like many modern Christian women, she realized that when the Church said “Man” it often really meant “men”. She snubbed her nose at the Bishop. The Bishop’s response was to order the nuns to say rather than sing their services. Can you imagine a more mean blow to the spirit than to deprive it of song? No doubt the feast of St. Ursula was celebrated in the convent with all the fervor of Christmas! “How can I keep from singing?”
Hildegaard is one woman among many through whom the Spirit challenges the church. Today women of every nation, denomination and social class are leading the charge against oppression in the Church and beyond. At the heart of the challenge is a freer reading of scripture – a recognition that some parts of the bible are simply oppressive and need to be taken with a pinch of salt. This isn’t funny. It’s deadly serious. Women have learned to “see through” scripture.
One of these powerful women, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza reminds us that scripture is not a single, last infallible word. It is a conflict of different voices struggling for truth and meaning. [Searching the Scriptures, Vol 1, p.8]. Tradition must constantly be criticized by experience. She tells the story of a woman slave who could neither read nor write: “…the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul,. ‘Slaves be obedient to them that are your masters as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”
Women are today asking the important and dangerous questions of the male-centered church and culture. It isn’t funny. But it is a source of enormous joy. Hear some of the things that the great cloud of bright women-scholar witnesses are saying to the Church.
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, for example. She asks us to look at scripture with new eyes – the eyes of liberating suspicion. Not just at the texts that have been used to justify the abuse of women, or Jews or homosexuals, but at the very process by which the texts were edited. The process of writing scripture itself involved back-peddling on the raw good news. The very books selected for the New Testament deliberately excluded those that played up the role of women in the early ministry of the gospel.
Dorothee Solle, for example. She asks the question: “Why do human beings adore a God whose main attribute is power, whose interest is subjugation, who is afraid of equal rights? A being who has received from his theologians a certificate of omnipotence?”
Judith Plaskow, for example. She says it may be fine for men to learn from the humility of Christ – they need to – but women have never been given the opportunity to be anything else! You cannot give up power you have never been given. Women’s sin, she says, is not pride. It is self-negation.
Rosemary Radford Ruether, for example – the “mother and mistress” of the so-called “feminist theologians.” She unequivocally called sexism a sin. She reminds us that culture has used the omnipotent God of the Christian tradition to justify abuse of the earth – this “fragile earth, our island home.”
Ivone Gabara, for example, who writes poignantly of the damage done in Latin America by our traditional image of God. “The God on high, in heaven, on a throne, the father of men, the god of blind obedience, the god who
punishes and who saves, is no longer useful to our world to women, to the future of the poor. I am suspicious of this omnipotent god the celestial “double” of powerful me
It is a source of thanksgiving that such women are still part of the Church, that they still struggle to reform the church from inside. It is a mystery and a miracle. Many of these women have to deal not only with the entrenched power of the good old boy network, but also with official and public oppression within the Church.
It is not surprising that some have quit in the name of God. Some, like Mary Daly, have decided that the church is irredeemably male and that there is no way Jesus can speak to women. I have to say she scares me too! But is it that surprising when she grew up in a church that asserts only a man can represent Christ at the altar?
“The times they are a-changing.” The emperor-God has no clothes. It is exciting and dangerous. The Spirit speaks to the church through a new generation of women who won’t put up with the old stuff.
Today, the Old Testament reading from Exodus puts us back at the start of a journey with God. The journey begins with the character of God. We start with a God who calls Godself “I am what I am.” We begin with a God who is free, whose shape changes through the ages. At the end of this pilgrimage, it is our hope that all humanity will ultimately share in the freedom of the children of God. The pilgrim-way leads us past the mountain where the wandering God destroys every attempt to construct God’s
image. It is as if every picture we paint of God is immediately shattered by the experience of God who will be whatever God ultimately chooses to be.
Give thanks that the women of the church are doing this work of reimaging God. And pray that they will succeed before the tree is torn up.