Feminism Colonialism and Christianity

The encounter between Western colonizing culture and indigenous cultures often involved thorny questions pertaining to women's roles and female sexuality, notably veiling, polygamy, child-marriage, footbinding, and sati. As an integral part of the colonialist agenda, saving colonized women from their oppression, ignorance, and heathenism appealed to the compassion of Westerners (Narayan 1997: 17) and garnered support for Christian missions. To challenge the collusion of Christianity with colonialism and the predominantly Eurocentric interpretations of the missionary movement, feminist political theology from the South uses several methodologies: questioning missionary sexual theology, unmasking the impact of a monotheistic and androcentric theology on religiously pluralistic cultures, and ideological critique of Christian symbolism.

While the missionary movement has been credited with bringing about the emancipation of women by introducing female education, health care, and monogamous marriages, Southern feminist theologians charge that the imposition of a colonial system and patriarchal church structures actually reinforced a sexual theology that prescribed a dualistic and hierarchical ordering of the sexes. Mananzan (1991) observes that the Roman Catholic Church, accompanying the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines, curtailed women's freedom by confining them to the church, kitchen, and children, and the social status of Filipino women became lower after colonialism. The gender ideology of the church exerted pressure in Filipino communities, where the relations between the sexes had hitherto been more inclusive and egalitarian and where matrilineal heritage predominated. During the nineteenth century, Victorian assumptions of sexual prudence and female domesticity influenced missionary sexual theology and ethics. With its deep-seated fear of women's bodies and sexuality, colonial Christianity limited women's leadership in religious and communal activities. Mercy Amba Oduyoye (1992) of Ghana has observed that while Akan women play significant roles in rituals associated with birth, puberty, marriage, and death, their participation in Christian rituals has been marginalized. Marcella Althaus-Reid (2001) from Argentina further charges that colonial sexual theology was not only sexist but also heterosexist, lending its support to the sexual control of women and the policing of sexualities that were considered outside the established norm. The sexual ideologies of the colonizers were forced upon other peoples through violence or the so-called "civilizing mission."

While Western feminist theologians have challenged this androcentric Christian symbolic structure, their counterparts in the South investigated the impact of the introduction of a monotheistic and male-dominated symbolic order into their cultures which had maintained inclusive representations of the divine. Christian mission undermined the myths and practices associated with female divine power. For instance, Musa Dube (2002) points out that among the Ibgo people in Nigeria, women used to enjoy certain economic and social privileges in terms of ownership of property and inheritance, and their gender construction was supported by a spiritual world that recognized female religious imagery and power. Allusion to these powerful goddesses allowed women to carve out their own social space and sphere of influence. But the Christian church and the mission schools systematically condemned goddess religion, and consequently the symbolic structure that bolstered women's self-esteem was shattered. Among the Asian religious traditions, the worship of goddesses and the feminine images of the divine has a long history, dating back to the prehistoric period. Worshipped by women and men, the prevalent goddesses of Ina, Guanyin, Durga, Kali, and Sita, as mothers, consorts, daughters, and protectors, have not been superseded by the male gods as they were in Mesopotamia and prehistoric Europe. Thus, the propagation of a monotheistic Christian God imaged as a male being, modeled after the father, king, and lord, introduced gender asymmetry into the religious symbolic system and reinforced male domination (Kwok 2000: 72-3).

The most sustained demystification of the colonial misuse of Christianity is the ideological critique of Christian symbolisms, focusing particularly on the figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Teresa M. Hinga (1992: 187) from Kenya explains how the imperialistic images of Christ arrived in Africa:

During the period of colonial and imperial expansionism, the prevailing image of Christ was that of the conqueror. Jesus was the warrior King, in whose name and banner (the cross) new territories, both physical and spiritual, would be fought for, annexed, and subjugated. An imperial Christianity thus had an imperial Christ to match. The Christ of the missionaries was a conquering Christ.

With little respect for the cultures and religions of the African people, the missionaries created alienation and confusion in the Africans, for their culture and identity were to be erased and supplanted by a foreign religion that belonged to the colonizers.

But Hinga notes that the Christ of the missionary enterprise also contained emancipatory impulses, which attracted African followers. African women were able to perceive more liberating images of Christ when they went back to the biblical sources and discovered empowering and healing images from the New Testament. They asserted their theological agency when they interpreted the Bible through their experiences in the African churches and their own cultural lenses. Hinga offers three popular images of Christ in the African context. Some see Jesus as a personal friend, savior, or healer who does not demand women's subjugation, but accepts them as they are and accompanies them in their suffering. Among the African independent churches where women are more vocal and less inhibited than those in the established churches, the image of Christ as the embodiment of the Spirit, the power of God, is prominent. Christ becomes the voice of the voiceless and the power of the powerless in this pneumatic Chris-tology. Another popular image of Christ is that of the iconoclastic prophet, who subverts existing power relations and challenges the status quo. Hinga opines that, to be relevant for women's emancipation, Christ must be a concrete figure who brings hope and courage to the oppressed and vindicates the marginalized in society.

A further dimension of Christology that has been used to solidify colonial rule was the glorification of the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus. Mananzan (1993) noted that during Spanish colonization, the suffering of Christ was highlighted during the annual Holy Week procession, complete with the re-enactment of the nailing to the cross. The emphasis on the Passion and submission of Christ was meant to inculcate both loyalty to Spain and a passive acceptance of the destiny of this life. While Good Friday was dramatized, there was not a concomitant celebration of Easter Sunday: the Resurrection and the beginning of new life. The depiction of a beaten, scourged, and defeated Christ and the direction of salvation toward another world functioned to pacify the people under the colonial masters. Furthermore, women were exhorted to model themselves after the sacrifice and obedience of Christ and to internalize passive and resigned endurance of their own pain and suffering.

To counteract Christian imperialism, Mananzan (1993) and other feminist theologians in Asia rediscovered the subversive and revolutionary power of the Christ symbol. While the Spaniards used Jesus' suffering as a tool for oppression, the Filipino people combined the Passion narrative with their own millennial beliefs to construct a language of anticolonialism in the nineteenth century. For subjugated women, salvation and the Good News does not imply a life of passive suffering and endless sacrifice and denial. The suffering of Jesus was not to be used to condone state terror or domestic violence. Filipino feminists reinterpret Jesus as a fully liberated human being, who confronts the wrongs of society and stands up for justice to bring about the reign of God, while other Asian feminists experiment with new images of Christ, using their cultural and religious resources, as discussed below.

The image of the Virgin Mary, the dominant feminine symbol in the Christian tradition, has been subjected to careful scrutiny both for its oppressive impact and for its revolutionary significance. The Roman Catholic Church has largely portrayed Mary as a gentle and docile model for women, whose submissiveness was idealized to serve colonial and patriarchal interests. Tracing the development of Mariology in Latin America, Ivone Gebara and MarĂ­a Clare Bingemer (1989) point out that in the colonial period, Mary was worshipped as the great protector of the conquistadors against the Indians whom they regarded as infidels. The largely male-centered, dualistic, and idealistic interpretations of Mary did not help women to develop their self-esteem and assert their power. But alongside such colonial images of Mary are other stories of the Virgin, who appears to peoples in numerous ways and intermingles with the poor. Most noteworthy is Our Lady of Guadalupe, who first appeared in 1531 to the Indian Juan Diego, and has been widely venerated as the patroness of the continent. In that story the dark-skinned Virgin adopted the natives as her children and pledged to hear their prayers and offer her loving favor and compassion. In the continuous struggle against neocolonialism and other oppressions, Gebara and Bingemer suggest reclaiming Mary as the mother of the poor, who denounces injustice, announces the coming of the kingdom, and reveals a God who does not cease to perform wonders on behalf of the poor.

Asian feminist theologians have also reclaimed more liberating images of Mary. Mary has been acknowledged for her historical consciousness and for her prophetic anger against the injustice of the rich and powerful. Instead of being set on a high pedestal, Mary is brought down to earth to be a fully liberated human being. Her virginity signals her autonomy and independence, not subjection to others; her mothering role points to her role as a giver of life to God and new humanity. As one of the founders of early Christianity, Mary is remembered for modeling the true discipleship of discernment, risk, and resistance for liberation. She is also seen as the co-redeemer with Christ for the salvation of humankind, because of her role as a model of liberation and her mediating role for the redemption of humanity (Chung 1990: 74-84).

In the ideological critique of Christian symbols, these theologians pay attention to the rhetorical and political functions of theology. Christianity has never been proclaimed in a vacuum, but is always situated within cultural and political discourses of power and authority, particularly so in a colonial context where power is so lopsided. The aim is the recovery of more positive and emancipatory symbols to mitigate the devastating effects of colonial Christianity and to create a new culture and consciousness for Christian women.

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