by Monica J. Melanchthon
In Asia, the patriarchal dictums within the church are far stronger than in the society and hence women within the Church experience many of the problems confronting women in the wider arena of society. The church is in fact far behind the State in granting privileges to women and use scriptural arguments to deny women their rightful place. Many churches today ordain women and allow women to be represented within the decision-making bodies of the church and yet the attitude of most men towards women is far from the ideal. There is still a great amount of suspicion and possibly fear that hinders the church from giving women their rightful place in church and society. But the struggle for equality of women and men within the church will not take root unless it is linked with the wider struggle for empowerment in society. Despite the fact, that the impetus to bring about equal participation of women within the church came from the Secular Women’s movement, the involvement of Christian women in the wider women’s movement is minimal. Those Christian women, who are within the secular movement for change, are unfortunately not able to affect the Church in a significant way. The main reason is the role of religion in each of the movements. Religion does play a dominant role in the lives of women in our traditional cultures whether we are aware of it or not, and influences almost all aspects of our daily life. Hence, serious thought needs to be given to religion and women’s religiosity.
The gap between the secular women’s movement and the faith-based women’s organisations is far too wide. The reason for this is mainly the role religion play or does not play in the secular movement. The lack of sufficient focus on religious issues or ideals within the secular women’s movement has contributed to the hesitancy of faith-based women’s organisations to join them. The reasons for this may be as follows:
Churchwomen on the other hand hesitate to participate in the secular women’s movement, precisely because:
Luther’s concept of the two kingdoms has been used to justify violence, injustice, totalitarian regimes etc., because it taught that the church should not interfere in politics. God’s work was seen as opposite to his people’s work. God’s salvation in personal terms was regarded as the only possible work, making void any human effort towards justice, love and peace.
The real challenge for women in the wake of emergent global culture is the fragmentation of women and the increasing individualisation of religion. Religion is seldom the common voice inviting all, but as a system tends to be diminished and relegated to the margins. But considering the role that religion plays in the lives of people, particularly in Asia, it is essential that religious resources also be mobilised to counteract the ill effects of sexism and gender violence. Approaching the problem of gender discrimination and analysing it with the tools of social analysis will help us understand the problem but will offer no grounds for hope or the articulation of goals. Analysis alone does not produce hope. Only a religious experience or religion would give grounds for hope and envisioning the goal of overcoming a system that is oppressive and painful. Only a movement that is rooted in religion or faith will have the required stamina, energy and motivation to keep going despite pitfalls and setbacks in the fight for women. Faith enables and equips the movement to see the goal even before it is realised, it provides hope, a hope that something good will come. In times of peace hope gives way to thanks and expects further good. In times of grief and distress, hope still directed towards God, longs for deliverance. This hope is not a lulling opiate but a radical hope that is a critical and creative power for the transformation of the world in its personal, social and cosmic dimensions. It is hope that is rooted in a faith that will not allow you to die in the wilderness.
Religious reflection is not the exclusive prerogative of the clergy or the seminary faculty. All of us make choices and act in certain ways because of the way we think theologically. In other words, our actions are guided by our understandings of God, Humanity, the community and so on. To think theologically is to appropriate the resources of our faith in reflecting on real-life dilemmas and situations. Realising that some people think their way into new ways of acting, while possibly more act their way into new ways of thinking, it remains essential that theology develop in response to empirical or actual situations and this is possible only through involvement in the wider struggle for women’s emancipation.
Traditionally it is religion, which mediates the link between personal life and wider political concern. Religion spells out a way of life as well as a world-view. It is true that religious affiliation has contributed to the distortion of economic and political issues. The result has therefore been socially and politically reactionary. But where efforts have been made to utilise an enlightened and moderate approach, secular approach, and appeals have been made to overcome caste, communalism, and oppression of women it has not resulted in the transformation of personal life and social relations, since it was devoid of religious reform. What do we mean by religious reform?
I really like Dietrich’s definition of religious reform. She defines religious reform “as such a reform which enables individuals and groups to participate in secular, political processes which are struggling for equality of all citizens and against economic, political and cultural exploitation, without being forced to abandon the faith dimension of their religious identity.” It is the possibility of identifying and emphasising the humanitarian content within the religion, the humanist content, which any individual irrespective of religion can relate and adhere to. This latter dimension is an indispensable part of creating a rich secular culture. Christian involvement for the cause of women calls for engagement for the promotion of religious harmony. This feminist concern and perspective, in its turn, will also add a new dimension to inter-religious understanding and dialogue.
Considering the very important role religion plays in determining the status and roles of women in society, efforts to reform religion are as essential as social reform. In fact, I would place a greater emphasis on the former since the former does have impact on women in the social sphere. Closer cooperation and joint efforts would result in being advantageous to both movements and benefit the wider struggle for emancipation and liberation of women. Hence, among other things, far more needs to be done in forging closer cooperation among women within the church and women in the secular women’s movement.
A Call to women in the Church to be involved in the wider women’s movement
Whether we are liberal or conservative or somewhere in between, asking ourselves some basic questions may reveal how we think or act theologically, for example. Do our thoughts about God hinder or help us in loving other persons? Does the way we read the Bible obscure or open our vision of God’s truth? Do the traditions and teaching of our church freeze us in the past or free us for the future? Does our Christian faith contradict or correspond to what we experience in life? Does our theology limit or liberate us in the way we respond to people and the kind of world in which we live? Do our beliefs create barriers or draw us closer to other children of God? Realising that some people think their way into new ways of acting, while possibly more act their way into new ways of thinking, it remains essential that theology develop in response to empirical or actual situations.
God in fact rules over both the secular and the spiritual world. It is said, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). This means that God is in charge of both human conscience and human action.
The Kingdom of God, contrary to what many Christians think, does not signify something that is purely spiritual or outside this world. It is the totality of this material world, spiritual and human that is now introduced into God’s order.
This of course calls for the recognition of the fact that God’s rule is here transforming the consciences of individuals for the establishment of the reign of God through Word and Sacrament and preparing them for the service of the World to counteract forces of evil and to bring about justice, peace and order. God uses individuals, men and women, as God’s instruments for change in both of the realms. The praxis of those who belong to the Reign of God is the evidence of being saved by Jesus Christ and being in relationship with the liberating Christ and instruments of liberation in the world.
Human beings do not live in isolation from the social, economic and political realities of their time. “It is therefore wrong for them to accept existing conditions as given and unchangeable. While struggling for the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, it must also stand uncompromisingly against every kind of injustice and tyranny.” Christian Women in Asia have for long sought assuage and meaning through works of charity and kindness in response to suffering caused by dehumanising socio-economic and political conditions that are prevalent in the world. But they are expected to proclaim the will of God for all human relationships in the world. In other words, they are to stand against tyranny and injustice. “Saving their souls” or working towards a change in the faith stance of women, educating them and responding to their economic needs through charity, development and welfare programs has never been an issue. But when it comes to the holistic liberation of women, women of the official church and majority of its membership is full of ambiguities. It is time that we overcame our fears and allows our faith in the liberating God who identifies with the weak and the oppressed to strengthen us in order to follow on until the goal of women’s freedom and liberation has been reached.