Thursday, December 14, 2017

Kwok Pui Lan: Feminist Theology from the Global South and the Church’s Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Kwok Pui Lan. Dr. Kwok is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a past president of the American Academy of Religion.

Since the 1980s, feminist theology from the Global South has been developed through various women’s networks. In 1988, the Asian Women’s Centre for Culture and Theology was formed and began publishing the journal In God’s Image. In 1989, the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians was established as a forum for promoting theological works by African women. Latin American feminist theologians also began to include gender into their theological analyses, and the Con-spirando Collective was formed in Santiago, Chile, in 1991 to promote ecofeminist awareness.

The first intercontinental gathering of feminist theologians from the Global South took place in Oxatepec, Mexico, in 1986. The papers presented at that gathering were published in the book With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology (1988). Since then, I edited a sequel entitled Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology (2010).

Feminist theologians from the Global South have spoken against the negative impact of globalization and the neo-liberal market economy on women. In some cases, women are absorbed into the global labor market, but many of them still work in precarious working conditions. In other cases, women’s subsistence economy and livelihood are threatened by transnational companies. In Southeast Asia, women’s sexual labor has been exploited in order to bolster the economy. Feminist theologians have pointed out that the free-market economy is gendered and biased against women. They remind us of the Biblical mandate to care for the poor and the marginalized among us.

Cultural criticism is another concern for these feminist theologians. Some African and Asian male theologians have argued for the indigenization or inculturation of theology in their specific cultural contexts, but African and Asian feminist theologians argue that some of the indigenous cultural elements are deeply patriarchal and harmful. Kenyan theologian Musimbi Kanyoro used the term “cultural hermeneutics” to describe the analysis of cultural ideologies regarding gender roles and power, and of cultural violence against women.

Gendered violence and sexual assault are critical issues facing women in the Global South. The kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria in 2014 was a blatant example. War, violence, and religious and ethnic conflicts often lead to rape, sexual abuse, and gender-specific violence. Feminist theologians in Africa and elsewhere have challenged the Church to speak out against gendered violence and to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which affects many African countries.

But women in the Third World are not just victims. They have provided food for the family, cared for the sick, taught the young, and resisted violence and oppression. Indigenous women have protected the environment and fought against the exploitation of their lands and waters. Indigenous feminist theologians speak of a spirituality of resilience and resistance. Many Christian women in the Global South have looked to women in the Bible for inspiration, and have created songs and liturgies to sustain their work for justice.

If the Church’s mission is to proclaim God’s kingdom and to work for justice and peace, the Church must stand in solidarity with women in the Global South. In the past, Christian mission has been criticized for its assumptions of cultural superiority and participation in colonization. Today, Christian mission must be understood as partnership and accompaniment. Properly understood, mission is a two-way process, and each partner will learn in, and be enriched by, the collaboration. Christian women in the Global South and indigenous women have much to teach the Church about resilience, hospitality, and care for God’s creation.

The mission of the Church must include the denunciation of an unjust economic system that benefits a transnational capitalist class at the expense of the poor—the majority of whom are women and children. Through its global networks, the Church can facilitate the sharing of information and resources and build relationships. By working with grassroots groups, the Church can help train women leaders and provide support in their fight for justice.

As a reaction to the forces of globalization, religious fundamentalism and extremism of all kinds have emerged and intensified. Religious fundamentalisms tend to treat women as subordinate to men, and often prescribe strict female codes of conduct. The Church needs to challenge these fundamentalist claims and to promote interreligious dialogue and learning in order to foster mutual respect and understanding. Religious leaders can—and must—work together to address gendered violence in their communities and protect the vulnerable in society.

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