Cultural Politics and Theology

As gender became a contested site in the colonial encounter, male national elites responded by upholding male superiority as a longstanding and sacred tradition. In many parts of the South, feminist struggle has been enmeshed in the uneasy intersection of colonialism, nationalism, and Westernization. In some cases, these elite males hark back to a pristine period before colonization when their cultures were unpolluted, and staunchly resist social changes required by "modernization." The revival of fundamentalism and the concomitant restriction of women's social participation are familiar examples. And even when "modernization" is deemed necessary, some national elites hope only to imitate Western scientific and technological development, while keeping intact the spiritual and familial spheres, where they can still find a sense of belonging.

Feminist theology in the South entered the scene when these vigorous debates on cultural identity took place both in the secular sphere and in theological circles. For when male theologians tried to indigenize or contextualize Christianity into their native soils, many of them subscribed to an anthropological understanding of culture as unitary, holistic, governing the value and behavior of the whole people (Tanner 1997: 25-3 7). The myths of homogeneous national or cultural identity often benefit those who hold power and exclude women, minorities, and other diasporic communities, as Oduyoye (1995: 35) acidly observes: "Each time I hear 'in our culture' or 'the elders say' I cannot help asking, for whose benefit? Some person or group or structure must be reaping ease and plenty from whatever follows." Southern feminist theologians, on the one hand, have to counteract their male colleagues' assumption that feminism is a Western idea and not important to the theological agenda. On the other hand, they want to differentiate themselves from a Western, middle-class feminism, which tends to essentialize women's experience, as if women everywhere were the same, and focus primarily on the sex/gender system of particular societies.

Theologically, this means paying attention to multiple layers of women's oppression and employing this insight as a critical lens to look at the Bible and tradition. A notable example is Elsa Tamez's (1986) rereading of the figure of Hagar, a woman she says complicates the history of salvation. As a slave, Hagar is probably sold to Sarah as her servant out of extreme poverty. As an Egyptian, she is a member of a minority living among the Hebrews, whose customs and cultures are foreign and discriminate against her as a stranger. As a woman, her reproductive function is used to produce a male heir and her mistress is jealous of her and oppresses her. Yet, God with mercy and compassion appears to her in the wilderness and she not only experiences a theophany but also gives a name for God - the God who sees. Tamez's reading challenges a homogenization of the poor in Latin American theology, because she shows that the poor are always gender differentiated and culturally located. Rather than following a Marxist understanding of the poor in an economic sense, her work demonstrates that sexism must be included in the liberation of the poor from the cycles of oppression.

Another methodological concern is to integrate analyses of race and gender. For some time, Latin American theologians have been accused by other third world colleagues of leaving out racial oppression in their class analysis. Tamez (1996) addresses the issue by focusing on cultural violence among the three different levels of Latin American culture - indigenous, black, and mestizo-white. These different levels are interlocked in a complex web, for while the mestizo-white culture is influenced and dominated by that of the rich nations, it in turn marginalizes the black and indigenous women. Tamez advocates greater intercultural dialogue and solidarity among the racial groups.

Feminist theologians in other continents also urge the adoption of a more multilayered, fluid, and contestable notion of culture in theologizing. Musimbi

Kanyoro (2001) implores African feminists to engage in a "cultural hermeneutics" that utilizes insights from cultural analysis in evaluating which traditions should be kept and which should be abandoned. Oduyoye (1995: 19-76) demonstrates how this cultural hermeneutics works by providing a few principles in her critical evaluation of myths, folktales, and proverbs of Africa. She begins by asking how the corpus of "folktalk" reflects women's lives and what their rhetorical functions are in shaping women's attitudes and behavior. She then asks for whose benefit and interests these proverbs and myths are being told and perpetuated. She says women must be courageous enough to discard some of these myths if they are harmful to women, and begin to weave new patterns of meaning that sustain the mutual dependence and reciprocity of the human community.

Oduyoye's cultural hermeneutics is significant because of the primacy of oral resources in doing theology by African women: songs, storytelling, impromptu lyrics sung to interpret the Bible events and proclaim a call to worship. African male theologians have overlooked this rich layer of cultural resources because they devote more time to the written elitist culture. In a recent collection of essays on African women and the Bible, the contributors propose the methodologies of storytelling, the use of divination as social analysis, interpreting with nonacademic women, and challenging patriarchal and colonizing translations (Dube 2001). Since the majority of African Christian women are oral hearers and readers, the storytelling method is of particular importance. Stories are told and retold to interpret social reality, transmit values, and to pass on wisdom from generation to generation. Musa Dube (1998: 53) has called for a new mode of interpretation, using an oral-spiritual framework: "In the feminist oral-Spiritual space, responsible creativity that involves attentive listening to many oppressed voices and empathy; active prophecy that speaks against oppression and seeks liberation; and intent praying that seeks partnership with the divine, can begin to hear, speak and write new words of life and justice."

African feminist theologians are also concerned about cultural practices around rites of passage for women, and issues such as fertility, dowry, widowhood, sexuality, polygamy, and female circumcision. Western feminists have vehemently condemned the practices of polygamy and female circumcision from the perspective of sexual freedom and control of women, but Oduyoye (1992: 22-23) and Kanyoro (2001: 109-11) caution that these practices must be placed in the wider contexts of religious beliefs in Africa, the socioeconomic structure, and assumptions about human sexuality. While Western feminists advocate women's rights to control their bodies, freedom to seek pleasure, and monogamous companionship between two individuals, African cultures may have different understandings of human sexuality grounded in their own beliefs. Polygamy sometimes arises out of dire economic conditions and cannot be condemned outright without considering the situation. While some African feminist theologians call for an end to female circumcision, they are also mindful that some African women regard the practice as a part of their cultural heritage.

The relation between culture and religion also preoccupies Asian feminist theologians: they, too, need to address the issues of dowry, sati, widowhood, arranged marriage, and taboos against women in their continent. Indian theologian Aruna Gnanadason (1989), in particular, has written on how these practices limit women and the long history of Indian women's quest for emancipation. But Asian feminist theologians are also concerned about how Asian cultural elements, symbols, and images can be used in theologizing. The controversial presentation of Korean theologian Chung Hyun Kyung (1991) at the seventh assembly of World Council of Churches, in which she used East Asian philosophy, Buddhism, and Korean shamanism as resources for interpreting the Spirit, brought the issues of diversity and syncretism to the fore of the ecumenical debate.

In the ensuing discussion, in which Western Christians raised the limits of diversity and the boundaries of Christian identity, Asian feminist theologians (Kwok 1991; Chung 1996) have made several points. First, they have insisted that Christianity has never been pure and has continuously from its beginning adopted elements from different cultures. It is only when non-Western churches are doing so that more established churches and theologians label such practices as "syncretism" in a derogatory sense to exercise control and power. In fact, the relation between Gospel and culture has never been simply wholesale borrowing or outright rejection, but full of negotiation and contestation, as well as accommodation. If Asian theology is not to be simply the mimicry of Western theology, Asian theologians must be bold enough to experiment with many different forms of cultural dialogues and negotiations (Kwok 2000: 33-36). Second, Asian religious traditions are not driven by belief systems, nor are they primarily shaped by claims to truth and falsity, and as a result doctrinal purity has never been the concern of the common people, especially women. In religiously pluralistic Asia, where religious identities are less clearly defined and tightly bound than in the West, there has been much fluid adaptation and interplay among the traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Shinto. A Chinese person, for example, can adopt Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist practices at different moments, depending on particular circumstances and religious need. Asian feminist theologians often find themselves embodying several religious traditions at once as they claim multiple spiritual roots. Such religious experience allows room for cultural hybridity and cross-fertilization between religions in theology. Third, while the church has found shamanistic practices troubling, these practices form part of the culture of women in Korea, especially among the lower class. Feminist theology needs to re-examine the liberating potential of marginalized women's cultures. Fourth, the critical norm by which Christian claims are to be judged is defined not by whether they conform to the theological system dictated by the West, but by the concrete Christian praxis of solidarity and liberation according to the demand of the Gospel. Noting that poor women do not care much about orthodoxy and have approached many religious resources for sustenance and empowerment, Chung (1990: 113) has challenged Asian feminist theology to move beyond doctrinal purity to risk survival- and liberation-centered syncretism. Some may not go as far as Chung, but her theological position challenges Asian Christians to go beyond their comfort zone to listen to the cries of people in Asia, the majority of whom (97 percent) are not Christian.

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