Liberation Theology: The Forgotten Allies. Part 1: The Feminists

Mara Darivaki is a third year Politics student interested in the intersection of politics and religion, and how that relationship affects our views on gender and sexuality. She also enjoys exploring the postcolonial aspects of the notions of the feminine and the masculine.

[Featured Image: Women at a Liberation March hold up a sign reading ‘We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, From Adam’s Rib to Women’s Lib’. Source]

In 1968 during the Second Episcopal Conference of Latin American countries, Gustavo Gutierrez -along with the rest of the attending bishops – issued a revolutionary statement (largely espousing the ideas in Gutierrez’s work: Teología de la liberación), stressing the importance in understanding biblical messages through the perspective of the poor. Their goal was to protect believers – who belonged to disenfranchised groups – from institutional violence and discrimination. The Conference concluded that the poor should be empowered socially, economically and educationally in order to be able to understand and “live out” Christian ideals for themselves. Gutierrez’s theology reintroduced the notion of “collective sin” [1] at the expense of the most vulnerable, and presented the idea that the Christian God sympathises with those who have suffered social injustice. This immediately questioned the long history of elitist domination within the church and criticised the manner in which scripture has been weaponised against “powerless” and “misunderstood” believers. Liberation theology was quickly dismissed by the Church as a form of religious Marxism that was threatening to secularise Christian morality. In reality, the Church, and especially the Vatican, were worried that liberation theology would cause irreversible reform, which thankfully it did. Gutierrez ideas sparked a series of theological revisionism that would lead to the emergence of a series of “liberation theologies”, each targeting a different form of religious discrimination. It was thanks to liberation theology that we currently have feminist, queer and postcolonial theologians that fight for the voices of silenced believers. Even though liberation theology emerged within the Christian tradition, it has reached other belief systems including the other two Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Islam) as well as Eastern faiths including Buddhism and Hinduism. Theologians and believers that relate to such theology are important allies in the fight for human rights, but their efforts are often downgraded or forgotten. Perhaps we should take more notice of how liberation theology has paved a way of freedom for women, LGBTQ+ individuals and ethnicities of the Global South.

The Feminists

Phyllis Tribble is considered the pioneer of feminist theology as her work exposed the fault in the method of many theologians of the time, which was dismissing context in their biblical analysis. Phyllis asserts that Christian scriptures were composed within a patriarchal context and consequently that the Bible contained certain sexist and even misogynistic statements. Nevertheless, according to Phyllis, if a researcher remains cautious of the Bible’s societal context, they would be able to spot feminist depictions of the Christian God as well as portrayals of female strength. Tribble’s breakthrough textual analysis of Genesis [2] brought to the surface the feminist ideals buried within the creation story. Phyllis explained that Adam as the first creation represented both male and female identities and thus the female presence came to existence from the very beginning of humanity. Additionally, Tribble noted that the dominated interpretation of Eve’s creation as the second, lesser sex that was created solely to assist Adam was in fact false. Tribble states that in Biblical reasoning “the last is often the first” [3] and therefore, Eve as the second creation symbolises her equal importance and uniqueness. Tribble’s legacy has inspired many feminist theologians including Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether. These scholars employed a variety of textual criticism to expose the patriarchal authorship of the bible which would inevitably lead to women’s oppression if not interpreted correctly. Feminist tradition in religious texts is not explicit to Christianity. 

Fatema Mernissi, the proclaimed founder of Islamic Feminism, not only challenged discriminatory interpretation of Islamic scripture, but she also shuttered the Eurocentric perceptions of feminism. Mernissi argued that Islam does not view women as inferior but extremely powerful and therefore all sexist systems and institutions that have developed in the Muslim world were an attempt to control that power. Mersinni showed how Islamic thinking actively promotes female empowerment. Her legacy is still very much alive in the works of other feminist Islamic thinkers, such as Leila Ahmed’s and Amina Wahud’s. 

Even though liberation theology and thus the disciplines emerging from it (e.g. feminist theology) are rooted in a monotheistic perception of divinity, eastern religions have used feminist tools to interpret their own religious traditions. For example, Buddhist feminist theology has fought for the ordination of women and the dismantlement of discriminatory practices. There is also feminist Hinduism (some Hindu practices are inherently gynocentric) which seek to bring Hinduism’s feminist ideas to life within society.

Why does feminist theology matter?

Female oppression and discrimination affects every aspect of human society. Patriarchy is expressed in every institution: political, economic, social and religious. Religion has been a part of our world since the very beginning. It has framed the way we think about the world and ourselves, and has contributed to the creation of meaning in our lives. Feminist theology does not propose different ways for one to practice their faith or an alternative religion as it is often suggested by more conservative institutions. Their work is much more complex. Feminist theology actively seeks to draw a dichotomy between experiences and testimonies of faith and anti-woman narratives who have managed to infect religious traditions. They examine the context, language and history of religious doctrine to discover the deeper messages faith. One cannot simply list all the occasions of sexism produced by mainstream religion. We can briefly mention certain situations or the general ideology that has dominated the religious world.

Traditional theologies in the Abrahamic faiths have reinforced the idea of a binary world where the male and female should be strictly segregated. There are hierarchies, roles and power dynamics under which the female has fallen out of favour. Because of their fallenness, women’s sin can only be controlled under male leadership. In American Evangelism, “purity” and “modesty” culture put the blame on women in cases of sexual harassment and assault. In certain practices of Judaism, menstruation is an abomination, a constant reminder of death and corruption. In Islam, men are expected to discipline their wives and be the head of their household. 

Eastern religions are not exempted from discriminatory practices either. In Hinduism, only sons can cremate their fathers and some hymns cannot be chanted by women. In Mahayana writings, [4] women are inherently bound by their bodies and they have to be put through a process od “sexual transformation” to remove their femininity and escape the rebirth cycle. These are a few of the beliefs that women have to combat every day in both their religious and secular lives. Therefore, one cannot ignore the necessity of feminist liberation theology. Whether a society is religious or secular, religiously produced ideas will still influence society’s views on women. Feminist theology will have to keep working towards building a safe refuge for women of faith.


[1] The collective transgression of divine law usually in the form of societal oppression, exploitation, or abuse.

[2] First book of the Christian and Jewish Scripture narrating the account of creation and the story of early humanity. Most know narrative of the Genesis book is the narrative of Adam’s and Eve’s fall.

[3] Humankind was the last and the only creation that carried the image of the Christian God. Additionally, in the New Testament, mentions that “The last shall be first and the first last”.

[4] One of the main branches of Buddhism.

Bibliography

D’Haïti, C. (2020). Liberation Theology. In Dubois L., Glover K., Ménard N., Polyné M., & Verna C. (Eds.), The Haiti Reader: History, Culture, Politics (pp. 397-402). Durham; London: Duke University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv1220qc0.104

Fatema Mernissi: The Pride of Islamic Feminism in Modern Times – Obituary. MuslimInstitute. Accessed from: https://musliminstitute.org/freethinking/gender/fatema-mernissi-pride-islamic-feminism-modern-times-obituary

Narayan, Shoba (2013). In Hinduism, Respect the Sacred, Ignore the Sexism. The New York Times. Accessed from: https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/01/08/with-children-when-does-religion-go-too-far/in-hinduism-respect-the-sacred-ignore-the-sexism

Paul, D. (1981). Buddhist Attitudes toward Women’s Bodies. Buddhist-Christian Studies, 1, 63-71. doi:10.2307/1390100

Tribble, Phyllis (1973). Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread. Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread. Accessed from: https://www.law.csuohio.edu/sites/default/files/shared/eve_and_adam-text_analysis-2.pdf

Tribble, Phyllis (1983). THE CREATION OF A FEMINIST THEOLOGY. The New York Times. Accessed from: https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/01/books/the-creation-of-a-feminist-theology.html

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