Feminist Theology in the 21st Century

The lobby floor is polished porphyry gleaming a rust red hue. The walls are brushed chrome cut into blocks by slivers of light. The grand chandelier descends in tiers of red glass crystals casting a rosy glow. The ballroom, now a conference hall, is filled with religion scholars, each of whom already has 22 years of education and most have spent decades in libraries and classrooms. Here is a contemporary version of the ivory tower.

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature are holding their Annual meeting in San Francisco at the Convention Center. One mile away is Hermann Plaza and the Occupy San Francisco encampment protesting the lack of democracy and concern for the common welfare in our financial institutions and the rising levels of poverty in the US.

The session today is on the new Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology. The field of Feminist Theology is so well established that Oxford is ready to publish a definitive volume on the field. Christian feminists, having had access to graduate degrees for nearly 50 years, have produced their own reflections on God, Christ, Salvation and Sin and their own creative liturgical forms. Jewish feminists have reflected on Torah, Covenant and People and done their own Midrash and interpretations of law and written their own prayers. Although the Handbook includes some of this material, that is not what it about. After a quick sketch of the history of the American feminist movement the editors place the topic of feminist theology squarely at the center of globalization and its impact on women.

Now the challenge for feminist theologians is how to take it to the streets -- these streets, here in San Francisco and the streets of Johannesberg, Cairo and Nairobi. Feminist theology has activist roots in the struggles of women to gain a voice, a role, a say in their patriarchal religious communities. So Feminist theology has much to say to churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. But does it have anything to say on the streets?

It is feminists of the global south who have taken it to the streets. The western feminist critique of patriarchal structures while still present has morphed into a critique of globalization as a successor to colonialism. The analysis of cultural systems of domination has become more complex and includes the economic, political and legal systems as well as religious and cultural systems. Maricel Mena Lopez's work maps the connections between globalization and gender inequality as a starting point for feminist theology and Elina Vuola works at the intersection of feminist theology and the ethics of poverty and reproduction in Latin America. Azza Karam studies the public activism of Muslim women in the Middle East in the context of globalization. Denise Ackermann tracks the convergence of globalization, neocolonialism and the legacy of apartheid as the South African context for feminist theology.

Musa Dube, New Testament scholar from Botswana, remembers the paradigm shift from feminist Biblical scholarship to feminist activism:

As I went about with business as usual, teaching the Synoptic Gospels from a feminist, narrative, historical or redactional criticism ... I began to ask myself a question, which every student also had in mind; namely, if Jesus can heal this much, why can't Jesus heal us of HIV/AIDS in our nation and the world? With the HIV/AIDS death scare, stigma, suffering and fear of dying or contacting a disease, how do you read the synoptic gospels? The social setting of illness, fear and discrimination against the sick and orphans demanded a re-reading" (Dube 2002a:64-65).

The stigma associated with HIV infection is that the afflicted person has been living in sin, against the will of God, and hence is abandoned by God, therefore abandoned by church and society. The stigma is equally powerful within traditional cultural values, especially for the woman, from whom sexual fidelity is demanded. In fact, HIV/AIDS in Africa carries a woman's face. Women are nearly twice as susceptible to HIV infection as men. Why?

At this point Dube's feminist theological analysis expands to include first a social analysis of how gendered values intensify vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, then a political analysis of power differentials and finally the vulnerability of women in their ecomomic dependency on men.

"The serious discrepancy in the distribution of power is our unmaking in the HIV/AIDs era. It is the fertile soil upon which the virus thrives. Women who have been constructed as powerless cannot insist on safer sex. They can hardly abstain, nor does faithfulness to their partners help. Men, who have been constructed to be fearless, brave and sometimes reckless, think it is manly when they refuse to admit that unprotected sex can lead to HIV/Aids infection. Working within some cultures' allowance of extramarital affairs, many men continue to be unfaithful. In the end, no one wins. We all die: those with power and those without power" (Dube 2003b:88 in Chitando, 89).

In Musa Dube's analysis the vulnerability to HIV/AIDS has a deeper root than a virus, the causes for the spread of HIV/AIDS lie in the gender system, the unequal distribution of power -- decision-making, social authority and economic power.

Her feminist analysis lays the foundation for her activism. Musa Dube then turns the searchlight of her penetrating social analysis on one of the most powerful custodians of African culture -- the Christian churches. To develop the tools of social transformation she convened an activist community of pastors, preachers, biblical exegetes, theologians and theology students, laymen and laywomen to develop tools to guide the Christian churches in an engagement with the pandemic. Africa Praying contains sermons, liturgies and songs, a Biblical commentary focused on HIV Aids can be used in study groups and African theologians have produced an anthology of theological reflections on dealing with HIV/AIDS.

A new model for feminist theology is emerging from the global south, one where gender analysis is grounded in religious communities but moves outward to include the social, political and economic structures that impact women's lives, a model where feminist theology is the beginning and social activism is the goal. Feminists of the global south have much to teach the global north.