Horizons: Challenge the sexism present in culture, Church
(POSTED: 12/5/11) Over the years, I have been amazed as I observe women. There are married women; there are single women. Some women are mothers; some are grandmothers. Some are aunts, teachers, and coaches. Some, in addition to all that they do for and with family also have gone on for graduate credentials, or have responsible professions. Some women do challenging work in offices, stores, and many other places. In all that they do, women impress me with their boundless, self sacrificial love. It is rare that women first think about themselves. More often than not, they are being generative for the well-being of others.
In the parishes that I have served in, women have impressed me with their passion and generosity in caring for their spouses, their children and grandchildren. In addition to being cook and domestic engineer in the family home, so many women are also the transportation for children and grandchildren and their multiple academic, social, and athletic activities. I am amazed at how infrequently women say no. I am amazed at how frequently they say yes, when people reach out for love, mercy, and compassion. In making these comments, I do not want to just focus on women in the context of marriage and family life. There are many women living the single life, or living in a religious community, who also are fountains of self sacrificial love for the people in their lives.
A recent reading from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 31 prompted me to reflect on the importance and greatness of women in our lives. The Proverbs passage focuses on “a worthy wife,” but the imagery of the passage speaks of women in general. In describing this ideal wife or woman the author speaks of her fidelity to her family, her hard work for her loved ones, and her dedication to mercy and justice for people in general. The author adds that the self sacrificial lifestyle of this ideal woman flows from the fact that she has anchored her life in God. The model woman “fears the Lord.” This fear of the Lord is really a reverence for God, a realization that she is not God herself. The ideal woman, living out of a life-giving relationship and covenant with God, is in turn in communion with loved ones and her fellow person. This last chapter of the Book of Proverbs is a summary of the entire book. Wisdom, which was idealized in the book earlier, becomes real and concrete in the image and figure of a spiritual, faith filled, loving woman.
Elizabeth Johnson, the author of “Consider Jesus, She Who Is, Quest for the Living God,” and other books, is one of the leading reforming feminist theologians. She reminds us in her writings, that often women have been the victims of patriarchy, anthrocentric thinking, and sexism in our church. She reminds us that the father of the church, Tertullian, saw women as “the temptress,” reminding women that each of them is “an Eve.” She recalls that Augustine said that women do not possess the image of God in themselves, but only when taken together with men, who are superior to women. She retrieves Thomas Aquinas’s opinion that a woman is a misbegotten man. All of us who are Catholic have been taught by recent popes that the ordination of women is not to be talked about in Catholic circles. A friend of mine returned from a recent trip to China. He described how similar attitudes and behaviors are practiced by Communist leaders who will not tolerate any questioning of the government.
But Johnson also reminds us that in the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (The Church in The Modern World), the Council leaders called the church away from all forms of discrimination, including sexism. She reminds her readers of the feminine imagery that some of the prophets used in describing God. She highlights Sophia, the feminine word for wisdom, as one used frequently in our tradition for God. She turns to Jesus’ parables that speak of God and the Reign of God, as a woman kneading bread, and a woman looking for a lost coin, as indicative of how Jesus was comfortable with feminine images of the divine. She reminds us of our tradition’s reference to the Holy Spirit as our mother. She speaks of the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich who spoke of Jesus as our mother; because he gave his life for us. She reminds us that the late John Paul I, though he served for a very short time, in his short pontificate, made it clear that he saw God as both father and mother – exercising the mother role especially when we are in trouble.
Now Elizabeth Johnson finds herself at odds with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C., who is the head of the doctrine committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This committee speaks of Johnson’s book, “Quest for the Living God,” as problematic because of its ambiguous, feminine images of God. Wuerl has not made himself available for a one-on-one meeting with Johnson, though in the ideal order bishops and theologians should be in dialogue.
These are some of Elizabeth Johnson’s beliefs regarding feminist liberation Christology: Jesus intends justice and peace for all, including women; Jesus’ use of the word Abba for God is an indication that he broke with the patriarchal understanding of God – Abba speaks of the closeness, the intimacy we can have with God; Jesus had a partiality for the marginalized; Jesus intentionally called women to be his disciples; women were his chief supporters, emotionally, relationally, and with resources; the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters reveal that women were vigorously involved in the ministries of the early church; Jesus intentionally included women as significant to his Reign of God movement – this inclusion contributed to his crucifixion and death, because it was such a counter-cultural thing to do; the Spirit of the risen Jesus is poured out equally on men and women; Jesus chose a woman, Mary Magdalene, to be the first witness of the resurrection and the apostle to the apostles; Jesus is wisdom (Sophia) for life, for us all.
I find it difficult to understand why Cardinal Wuerl and his committee had difficulty with Elizabeth Johnson’s principles. Perhaps we can find an answer in a recent gospel from Matthew, chapter 25. This is the famous parable about a man going on a journey who gives to his servants five, two, and one talent – based on each man’s ability. A talent was a sum of money; the value was determined by the kind of metal it was made with. The first servant invested and doubled his five talents. Similarly the man with two talents doubled his. But the servant given one talent was a person of fear, so he buried the one talent. He gave it back to his master intact. After congratulating the first two servants, the master critiques the last servant as wicked and lazy.
One level of meaning regarding this parable is that we are all called to wise stewardship as we await the return of Christ to the world. There is also a very subtle, primitive interpretation of this gospel. This primitive interpretation suggests that Jesus was challenging the Sadducees in his midst. The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection or eternal life. They also held a very static, conservative understanding of religious tradition. In verses 14, 20, and 22 of this chapter of Matthew the original verbs used to describe the master giving the talents were “hand over.” Hand over and hand on were words used to describe religious tradition and customs. Thus, one interpretation of this gospel is that the master entrusted to the servants the religious tradition of the community, in the hope that they would expand it, re-imagine it, re-fashion it for the present and the future. The first two servants are examples of good and faithful servants who were faithful in caring for and reinterpreting the tradition handed down to them. The third servant, motivated by fear, buried the responsibility that was given to him. Jesus wants the tradition of the Reign of God re-interpreted and re-imagined for our day. There are some who are still trying to bury the tradition of the Jesus movement.
Let us use this week and our prayer and worship to praise God for the gift of women, in our church and in our world. Women are truly the human face of the unconditional love of God. We need to be prophetically aware of and to challenge any patriarchy, androcentrism, or sexism that is still present in our culture and in our church.
Paul calls us in his first letter to the Thessalonians to be people of the light. However, to the degree our thinking and our structures demean women in any way, whether in society or in the church, we are in darkness.
The Rev. Pat Brennan, a priest for 38 years, has earned doctorates in pastoral ministry and psychology, and teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola and at the College of DuPage. He is the author of 15 books and co-host of the radio program Horizons for 31 years, now on 560 AM at 6:30 a.m. and 1160 AM at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings.