POLITICISING THE BODY: A FEMINIST CHRISTOLOGY
Even as I sit down to write this paper, my mind is still on the phone call from my friends in Vimochana to join in a protest against police brutality on a couple. Poornima, a domestic maid in the house of Sharada was accused of stealing a pair of diamond earrings on September 28, 2003. After several rounds of abuse and questioning, the police who were informed over the telephone (no written complaint) who called the couple to the station and brutally assaulted them both. The woman was stripped and the missing diamond was searched even in her private parts and within the knot of her hair. The husband has a couple of fractures after the “aeroplane treatment”. The violence stopped after a phone call from Sharada to say that they found that the earrings were taken by their daughter in Malaysia. The police stopped the violence and gave two hundred rupees and asked them to go home and cook biriyani and eat, and then forget about the violence. Sharada gave a tube of ointment, Rs. 20 and offered employment to Rajan, Poornima’s husband. The couple would have committed suicide had it not been for the intervention of women’s organisations who immediately stepped in on hearing about the police brutality. A protest was organised on October 2nd within the premises of the police station by women’s organisation collective. They were shocked to hear the response of the police who denied that such a thing ever happened in their station! Those who are required to render justice to people become the violators of the law.
The world has witnessed the destructive potentiality of violence in extreme forms over the last few years: violence in name of religion, faith, theology, culture, ideology (even in the name of peace!) On the one hand, we have hegemonic powers that sharpen their tools, intelligence (?), ammunition and technology against the “enemies” who are used essentially as guinea pigs. That it is for gaining the identity as 'Global police', extending the presence of ‘Global Empire’, was proved beyond doubt when the decision to attack Iraq came despite the loudest forms of protest from all parts of the globe. A 'War against Terrorism' was waged in a most terrorising way and a threat of similar wars was unleashed against those countries that dared to challenge the power of the global empire. On the other hand, we have also seen an unprecedented consolidation of people and movements for peace who had the courage and faith to believe in the possibility of Peace. Violence against women, against creation and the marginalized of the earth continue in the name of development and globalisation. It is against this backdrop of violence that I would like to raise the following questions: How can Christology challenge our faith in a violence-ridden context? What will be the nature, method, source and content of such a Christology? What are the implications for the church in terms of envisioning its task, identity, mission and renewal in the light of such a Christology?
Method of Approach
Experiences of women are the crucible for feminist theologising. In order to arrive at a relevant and credible Christology in context, once again, I have chosen to reflect critically on the experiences of two women who 'represent' several ideological constructs. The first is a testimony shared by Kausar Bano's husband, narrating the violence inflicted on his wife, who was a victim of communal violence in Gujarat, in February 2002. The second narrative is that of a “Black” “woman” whose trajectory in “life-history of the slaves” has seen most bitter moments of pain and suffering. Besides the experiences of these two women, I have also chosen a third narrative which is the experience of Jesus on his way to the Cross to experience a brutal form of violence and capital punishment at the hands of the 'powers'. These three narratives are then analysed separately against the respective socio-political backdrop and critically reflected upon before embarking upon a new basis for a Feminist Christology.
Kausar Bano Black Woman Jesus
“On February 28th 2002, a mob of 3000 men surrounded our chali.They were shouting slogans ‘Jai Shri Ram’. They were carrying…cans of what looked like petrol…. People started running for their lives. My wife was pregnant. She could not run so I carried her in my arms…Behind me, the mob was setting houses on fire, killing people setting them ablaze. Near the Teesra Kuwa, I put my wife down and we were both running when about 20 – 25 persons caught up with us. They pulled my wife out of my arms, slit her stomach with a sword and paraded the baby on the tip of a sword. I think I heard my child cry. Then they poured petrol on both of them and lit them. I hid behind a five feet wall and witnessed what happened to my wife and child. Then I ran for the fear of my life.” “They bound her ankles together and by them hanged her to a tree. Gasoline and motor oil were thrown upon her dangling clothes; a match wrapped her in sudden flames. Mocking ribald laughter from her tormentors answered the helpless woman’s screams of pain and terror. The clothes burned crisply, toasted body, in which unfortunately life lingered; a man stepped toward the woman and with his knife, ripped open the abdomen in a crude caesarean operation. Out tumbled the prematurely born child. Two feeble cries it gave and received for answer, the heel of a stalwart man, as life was ground out of the tiny form.” “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him saying. “Hail King of the Jews! They spat on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon, they compelled this man to carry his Cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha, they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots, then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head, they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”
ANALYSIS OF THE THREE NARRATIVES
KAUSAR BANO: CONSTRUCTION OF A 'MUSLIM', 'MINORITY', 'WOMAN' - "OTHER"
It is beyond the scope of this paper to map the trajectory of Hindu-Muslim relationship in Indian context. However, a critical analysis of the experience of Kausar Bano necessitates a brief overview of such a mapping. Instead of elaborating on the history of a sensitive relationship, I have chosen to point to a few historical junctures when the two religious communities experiences strained relationships. While some scholars believe that concretising of Hindutva ideology and emergence of religious and cultural nationalism led to the souring of Hindu Muslim relationship (likening Hindutva to be similar to Fascism ), there are opinions expressed to say that the Shah Bano case damaged the relationship between the two communities. After the Supreme Court judgement on Shah Bano, the Muslim community was up in arms and interpreted the same as nothing but an infringement on the rights and identity of a Muslim. The Supreme Court judgement was reversed by an act of the parliament after the Government decided to appease the communal section of Muslim leadership. This was followed by events like opening of the locks of Babri Masjid, rath yatra, demolition of the Babri Masjid and the consequent anti-Muslim pogroms in Mumbai, Surat, Bhopal and many other places.
The criminal carnage and genocide that followed the Godhra incident on February 27, 2002 can never be erased from the collective memory of the people India. Harsh Mander recalls his experience of visiting the Muslims in relief camps that were set up following the massacre of the innocents, with the connivance of the State. He says:
Numbed with disgust and horror, I returned from Gujarat ten days after the terror and massacre that convulsed the state…As you walk through the camps of riot survivors in Ahmedabad, in which an estimated 53,000 women, men and children are huddled in 29 temporary settlements… you sit anywhere in these camps, people begin to speak and their words are like masses of pus released by slitting large festering wounds. The horrors that they speak of are so macabre, that my pen falters in the writing. The pitiless brutality against women and small children by organised bands of armed young men is more savage than anything witnessed in the riots that have shamed this nation…What can you say about a woman eight months pregnant who begged to be spared. Her assailants instead slit open her stomach, pulled out her foetus and slaughtered it before her eyes…The only passing moments of pride and hope that I experienced in Gujarat, were when I saw men like Mujid Ahmed and women like Roshan Bahen who served in these camps, with tireless, dogged humanism amidst the ruins around them.
Rajdeep Sardesai, a noted journalist comments:
the mob fury that we have witnessed in Gujarat post-Godhra is not just about avenging the killing of kar sevaks. It is primarily about a mindset that has complete disregard for law, rules of civilised behaviour and for human life. Worse, it stems from a belief that the state will not do anything to stop those who go around wantonly destroying life and property. This is where Gujarat has shown just how the government machinery can become completely paralysed, deliberate or otherwise, in the face of a communal riot.
Why target women's bodies? Violence against a woman's body, and Kausar Bano in this case, is linked to the construct of the identity of a Muslim, which is deep-rooted in patriarchal power and manifested in disciplining and controlling the body and sexuality of a Muslim woman. Puniyani highlights Savarkar's fascist position thus:
[W]omen of the ‘other’ community are to be subjected to sexual humiliation as a measure to defend the honour of ‘our’ women. Savarkar is indulging in a double exercise. On the one hand, he is projecting the patriarchal norm of building the community identity on the bodies of women and thereby is justifying rape of women of minority community, while on the other, he is laying the foundation of a baseless stereotype that those belonging to minority community are inherently immoral. This so called militant approach towards rape is in line with that of fascist world view which proposes the humiliation of the women of the ‘other’ community as retribution or pre-emptive measure to defend the honour of ‘our’ women.
The public brutal violence on the body of Kausar Bano has to be seen as a war against the whole Muslim community using the body of the woman as a battlefield. That rape in any war or communal conflict is an organised crime and a weapon of war has been proved time and again in history; very often it is not named as a crime because it was considered as a normal pattern and course of war. Rape is understood, "not as an unfortunate, spur of the moment act but a planned, meditated act with a motive. It is planned ‘male aggression of the “Other community” asserting territoriality by using a woman’s body and asserting its status of a community." The experiences of the thousands of 'comfort women' in Korea who were sexually exploited by the military during the two World Wars, women who were raped during the Bosnian war, the rape of tribal women in the north east India by the "Peacekeeping force!" are painful memories of sexual terrorism! If the honour, shame and identity of the Muslim community was constructed on the body of the woman, if the purdah system was distinct to Muslim women, then a public display of her body and brutal violence is nothing but plunging of the triumphant trishul by the majoritarian/ domineering Hindutva forces into the very heart of the Muslim, "hated other" community. It is said that 'all cultures aim at building a sense of identity and identity has a lot to do with how we perceive our own and other people’s bodies…There is nothing sacred about the body’s boundaries and that even when these boundaries are destroyed in especially violent ways, the destruction can be made to appear a carefully staged cultural act'
EXPERIENCES OF THE ‘NAMELESS’, ‘BLACK’, ‘WOMAN’ - "OTHER"
It is not easy to read the history of suffering of the Blacks without being overcome by emotion and pain. To be ground to the dust as no humans, no LIFE brings a mountain of shame on the guilty racist culture and people. "The feminist consciousness of Afro-American women cannot be understood and explained adequately apart from the historical context in which Black women have found themselves as moral agents…Throughout the history of the United States, the interrelationship of white supremacy and male superiority has characterised the Black woman's reality as a situation of struggle - a struggle to survive in two contradictory worlds simultaneously, one white, privileged, and oppressive, the other black exploited and oppressed."
It is important to recall a few gruesome historical details to remind as well as to correct the structures of racism. The way a 'Black Slave Woman' was constructed in the minds of the White - male and female - was to see her as a worker for her owner, a breeder (not as a “mother" or a woman). The pathos filled history reveals that the slaves' infant children "could be sold away from them like calves from cows. A ruling from the South Carolina court about the female slaves stated that the slave women had no legal claims whatsoever on their children. Consequently, the children could be sold away from their mothers at any age because “the young of slaves…stand on the same footing as other animals.” In Karl Marx's Capital, the plight of a black female slave is described thus:
In England women are still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling canal boats, because the labour required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population is below all calculation.
Apart from looking upon the Black slave as a breeder, it was not considered necessary for the pregnant women to either rest or have her rights over her body. She was compelled to do normal agricultural work, and received the same flogging that workers received if she did not finish the task assigned for them for the day. Very often the black women were not allowed to suckle her children during work time. Moses Grandy narrates the miserable predicament of the slave mothers thus:
On the estate I am speaking of, those women who had sucking children suffered much from their breasts becoming full of milk, the infants being left at home. They therefore could not keep up with the other hands: I have seen the overseer beat them with raw hide so that the blood and milk flew mingled from their breasts.
According to Angela Davis, sexism was invisibilised in racism as the black men were discouraged from male supremacy. The Black men were treated in the same cruel manner by the slave master as the slave woman. The myth of the black rapist of white women was created to justify lynching of the Black men. The Black women had no rights of abortion but many of them were forcibly sterilised. Guy Irving Birth, director of the American Eugenics Society advocated birth control as a weapon to prevent the American people from being replaced by alien or Negro stock, whether it be by immigration or by overly high birth rates among others in this country.
It is against such a backdrop of history of suffering that we need to re-read the experience of the unnamed Black woman who was burnt by the racist mob. Her namelessness is no accident and only coincides with a Biblical reality where more than half the women in the Bible are not named! Name is identity, name is subject hood. To be named is to belong to someone/ somewhere. Denying a person his / her name is to deny a place on this earth.
What did the tormentors want to convey? That a Black woman is No Body? A nobody? A Nothing? That racism can blind one preventing them from seeing a fellow human as a person, as a living body, is appalling. The Black woman experiences namelessness is reduced to less than an object and roasted on the fire as a sacrificial lamb. The Black woman experiences the combined weight of classism, sexism, racism from womb to tomb - i.e. the place from where new life is born (womb) as well the place where life pauses (tomb).to be planted as the seed (dead body) with hope of resurrection and eternal life
EXPERIENCES OF JESUS THE CHRIST: MALE, JEW, RABBI, LEADER…
Of course we have a different "text" in our hands compared to the last two narratives / experiences. While the previous narration of experiences are not called scripture, nor ascribed with 'authority', the passage from Mathew is. Does this mean that we cannot place the text of Jesus' crucifixion in juxtaposition with other "texts"? While there may be varied opinions about the use of the text alongside the experiences of women, one cannot deny that the suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus have played a crucial role in keeping the women as silent sufferers and subordinate in the church, as those who are required to tolerate suffering patiently. This is summarised well by Chung Hyun Kyung who says that the "most prevailing image of Jesus among Asian women’s theological expression is the image of the suffering servant. Asian Christian women seem to feel most comfortable with this image of Jesus whether they are theologically conservative or progressive."
We cannot deny the fact that the Cross event is a public event that was preceded by beating, scourging, pressing a crown of thorns on his head, spitting and ridiculing. It is violence upon his body just as much on his mind and his spirit. Why Jesus did not conform to the traditional expectations, worth, power and identity that was already conferred on him because of his social location according to the cultures of his time? Why did Jesus not grab the power that was claimed by every macho male of his time? Why did Jesus not bask in the glory of being a revered religious teacher and a leader who could have commanded a lot of respect and fame in his own time? Was Jesus humiliated, tortured and crucified because he did not abide by the social expectations and social values of his time? In a patriarchal context where the body of the woman is regarded as the inscribed body with the "negative other" and whereas his body should have ideally been considered as the "Positive Self", Jesus challenges these patriarchal/ racist inscriptions on his body just as much as on any other body. Rather he allows his body to teach counter lessons to those who wanted to use his displayed body as a lesson for blasphemers, political traitors, and prisoners. Kwok Pui-Lan summarises the reason for the Cross thus:
Jesus’ iconoclastic understanding of the Temple, the Law, and God’s salvation brought him into direct confrontation with the existing authorities. When he decided to go to Jerusalem, his followers knew that something important and dramatic was about to happen. Jesus predicted that there would be war, violence, and instability, realities that many Asian people know firsthand.
How can we revisit Christology? Elisabeth Schusller Fiorenza gives a vital clue to the method of re-articulating feminist Christology saying:
A feminist historical reconstruction of Jesus ought not to adopt the liberal re-constructive framework of Jesus, as heroic individual, a reconstruction that isolates him from his people or his followers. Nor should it subscribe to the neo-orthodox apologetic politics of canonical normativity. Instead, a feminist re-construction adopts as its reconstructive model of interpretation both a socio-political frame of struggle and a theologically inclusive frame of radical equality and well-being…Memory as a reconstructive frame of meaning, does not require one to construe a sharp contrast and dualistic interestedness, between Jesus and Jewish ness, between the exceptional individual and the one who was shaped by his community, between the pre Easter and the post-Easter Jesus, between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ. If the memory of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection, understood as a instance of unjust human suffering and survival is at the heart and centre of Christian memory then the critical line lies between injustice and justice, between the world of domination and a world of freedom and well-being.”
This attempt to rearticulate Christology also refrains from hoisting Jesus up the pedestal as a superman but sees in and through his whole life and ministry, a deliberate shift away from the dominant, domineering paradigms. Having analysed the three experiences in depth, it would be appropriate to briefly reflect upon the common experiences of suffering in all the three.
VIOLENCE IS PUBLIC
Violence is public – in the vicinity of all. It shows the locus of manifestation of POWER rooted in the privileged class, ethnic priority, dominant religion, preferred colour, ideology and sex.
The assaulting crowd is predominantly male. Perhaps not all those present at the scene approved of such violence, but it is clear that resistant voices, if present, were drowned in the voice of a majority. The mob mentality of the crowd /assailants is not very difficult to understand. In the process of construction of religious or political identities, two important questions are asked: ""Who am I" and "What should I do"? Belonging to a community can help to provide an answer to these questions and motivate people as agents in shaping their life. A sense of belonging and the feeling of honour and shame connected to it are felt bodily as natural emotions but they depend on webs of social significations. The construction of a person, with specific feelings of anger desire, lover and shame, depends on discourse in public space." .
“BODY”- THE SITE OF VIOLENCE
A striking commonality between the narration of incidents of violence against the women and Jesus the Christ is the targeting of the body. In the first case, it is a Burnt Body. In the case of the second story also, it is a Burnt body. Jesus hung on the Cross as a crucified body. In all the three experiences, the violence inflicted is on the body. Their bodies were displayed bodies. There is a message conveyed in displaying the bodies. The idea perhaps is to show the collective hatred towards a particular community/ religion / race or even to teach a lesson for the onlookers. When Indira Gandhi was murdered, her displayed body invoked emotion of revenge on the Sikhs. Political funerals are always sensitive issues specially when the slain body is displayed.
Perhaps it sounds blasphemous that I have juxtaposed two women’s experiences beside the experience of Jesus the Christ. One can see the similarities of experiences of the two “Christas” and (Jesus) the Christ. It is to show how the powers and principalities of this world used these “innocent ones” to project their ideology, power of caste, race, class, sex, religion and culture.
Jon Sobrino writes thus about the four North American church women who were slain and also refers to the six Jesuits in the university who were slain along with two other women by the military junta in El Salvador. Speaking of the four women, he writes:
I have stood by the bodies of Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan...The murdered Christ is here in the person of four women...Christ lies dead here among us. He is Maura, Ita, Dorothy and Jean. But he is risen too, in these same four women and he keeps the hope of liberation alive...Salvation comes to us through all women and men who love truth more than lies, who are more eager to give than to receive and whose love is that supreme love that gives life rather than keeping for oneself. Yes, their dead bodies fill us with sorrow and indignation. And yet, our last word must be: Thank you. In Maura, Ita, Dorothy and Jean, God has visited El Salvador.
It is interesting to note that oil and gasoline, which is used as fuel and the strike of a match that is used on the bodies of the two women, is not for life enabling activity (cooking, transport, to keep the hearth warm) but is used as fuel to burn the women as “sacrifices” at the altar of patriarchy, racism, communalism, sexism and classism. Women’s bodies are thus “anointed” with this oil and gasoline. Perhaps this would have graciously quickened the process of dying but cannot hide the fact that they were never considered as human beings with subject hood.
CRYING OUT BODIES
Woman hanging upside down, as if to be roasted for the next meal. Kausar Bano captured to satiate the “hunger” of violence. They scream out like Jesus did: ‘My God, My God, why did you forsake me’? I can only imagine the “seven words” that would have been uttered by the violated women to God and to the tormentors, thus:
“God, I don’t want to sin by forgiving them: Lead them to confession, repentance, retribution and forgiveness.”
“God, I yearn for the day when will you change this world into a paradise”
“Behold your fellow-being: as father, mother, brother, sister – Regardless”
“My God My God, don’t forsake your children who need courage/strength from you”.
“I thirst for Justice and Equality. My thirst will be quenched”.
“It is the beginning of a new struggle; God give us your strength”.
“My God, my burnt body and fighting spirit, I submit to you. May my sisters and brothers continue with the struggles against injustice.”
The “powers” were not satisfied in burning the women in order to show their domineering power of communalism, hatred, casteism, sexism and racism. In the case of Jesus, the hegemonic ideologies and powers were not satisfied in crucifying Jesus. In the case of women, their bellies were ripped open to symbolically snuff out the lingering life of future generations. In the case of Jesus, his side is pierced by the centurion, to find out if life still lingered. The “Body and Blood” that flowed out from the wombs of the women and the side of Jesus is symbolic of “New Life,” “New Being” that was a threat to the powers and principalities. The Dissected bodies need not be seen as martyred bodies or victim bodies but as those that screamed out for LIFE, even in death.
POWER OF THE ‘VULNERABLE’ BODIES
It is also interesting to see how the body within a body - a foetus in the womb - gets personified as the enemy, and killing the child in the womb is considered as short-circuiting an entire generation, dissolution of identity of a tribe/ race. Kausar Bano’s husband looks helplessly as his wife and child are burnt to ashes before his very eyes. The woman’s body becomes a tool on which one has constructed hatred, based on religion, caste, race or ethnicity. The ‘genre’ of the language of violence that is spoken by the powerful against the powerless is the same, if not similar, at the root – whether it is a Black woman in America or Muslim woman- Kausar Bano in India, or all those women whose wombs were ripped open by the Indonesian soldiers during the war in East Timor or the Balkan war.
What are wombs? Is it not an organ that defines the unique life-giving ability of the woman? The wrath shown towards the womb is so unnatural that one may only wonder if it is a case of “womb envy” or “womb wrath” that shows that a male, right from the beginning, has to live on faith to underscore the fatherhood whereas a female has no need to prove her motherhood? When some mothers are forced to abide by the patriarchal expectations and take the initiative to do selective abortion, (giving preference to a son), it is turning the mother against the child. In other words, reversing the normal and natural. Female foeticide and infanticide thus become extreme forms of reversing a loving human relationship into a contract existence, converting even a mother into a murderer, without making her feel guilty. Thus the body of the woman stands at the centre of all forms of violence unleashed against the woman. She also makes a point to summarise the above arguments succinctly thus:
Woman’s body is therefore central to understanding unequal gender relations; it is the site of violence, exclusion, and abuse; it also has as its celebratory aspects which are revealed in imagery through artistic or aesthetic modes, or in the consciousness of women; it is the site also for agency which allows for the possibilities of negotiation, intervention, contestation and transformation.
CONTESTING AND NEGOTIATING BODIES
The two women’s bodies stand out as the Inscribed body, lived Body, despised body, desecrated body, denounced body, discounted body, devalued body, discriminated body, shamed body, displayed body, divided body, dismissed body, dispossessed body, defined body and deconstructed body.
EXPERIENCES OF RESISTANCE
The women need not be defined by social critique or construction of “pigeonholes” and “identities” marked for women using different criteria. The construction of ‘shame concept’ for example, in a case of rape, is loaded on the body of the woman so that she, as well the society, looks upon the rape victim as the shamed woman while the rapist goes scot-free. Kalpana Vishwanath explains the construct of shame vividly thus:
Anthropological studies have shown that shame is linked to notions of the body, of sexuality and of the good and the bad woman, through mainly from the male point of view. Feminist discourse on the other hand locates shame as a form of patriarchal power that seeks to control women’s sexuality and their freedom. Therefore it is seen as power that need to be and can be resisted.
Resistance becomes visible in and among those who challenge such structures of oppression and dare to hope in a violence-free world. The Cross of Jesus is an excellent symbol of resistance as it defies the powers of destruction to end the possibility of life. The Cross bounces back to life with the promise of resurrection and return of Jesus.
Revising Christologies …
Before we proceed with search for new ways of reformulating Christology, it is necessary to briefly run through some of the traditional ideas connected with Christology. Such an overview could be done in the light of a helpful suggestion made by Jacquelyn Grant. She says:
Feminist Christology has two tasks. First, feminist Christology must show how traditional male articulated Christologies have been used “to keep women in their place” rather than to save women. And second, feminist Christology must provide images for the liberation of women by way of the liberation of Jesus from oppressive and distorted interpretations. In executing these tasks, I would suggest that Christology and Soteriology must be held in dialectical tension; one cannot be conceived without the other. To talk about salvation or deliverance of human beings, apart from God’s action in Jesus leads to total secularisation.
When traditional Christologies are appraised in the light of the above, some of the images and symbols that have been upheld as “sacrosanct” for ages may be required to go, while some may need to be reinterpreted within different frameworks with relevant symbols. For example, the traditional theories of Atonement shows that all of them were 'contextual' articulations of faith of that time using contemporary symbols, images and language. For example, the Ransom theory of Atonement was formulated in a context ‘where beliefs in devils and spirits were affirmed. The work of Jesus Christ on the Cross had to be conveyed in relevant language and symbols. This theory that ‘God paid Jesus’ life as a ransom to the devil to redeem us’ proved to be the orthodox position for more than thousand years before it was replaced by a more relevant metaphor. Anselm spoke of the work of Christ as satisfaction Theory from a socio-political perspective. It was a context where the medieval peasants showed their dishonour to the landlord in a distinct way.’ So also in the case of Peter Abelard who formulated the Moral Influence theory to explain the work of Christ accomplished on the Cross, the church laid great emphasis on penitential life of believers. This stressed on God’s love in the work of atonement and claimed that when humans look upon the death of Jesus, they see God’s love manifested.
In my church, if any adult wishes to come into the Christian faith and become a member of the Church, the Lutheran pastor gives tough lessons on the doctrines of the church, Luther's small and large catechism, six chief parts, etc. etc. On the day of Baptism, the newly baptised believer has to confess his /her faith aloud through the words of the Apostle’s Creed. The essence of the creeds tell us that it is a confession to who and what the triune God is and does but does not elaborate on the affirming the values of the reign of God that Jesus lived and died for. The predominant teaching about Jesus is often reduced to a "three-day Christology." Consciously or unconsciously, women have internalised the ideology of suffering as Christian. Womanist theologian Delores Williams raises fundamental questions which are helpful for re-articulation of Christology. She asks whether we need to begin with the assumption that Jesus Christ came to suffer. Was it necessary for Jesus to suffer on the Cross, or do we see in his crucifixion, the price that he paid for justice? The death of Jesus cannot be seen as a mere vicarious death but that which shows the possible ways in which acts of justice and struggle are resisted and punished. To quote her:
The image of Jesus on the Cross is the image of human sin in its most desecrated form. This execution destroyed the body, but not before it mocked and defiled the Jewish man Jesus by publicly exposing his nakedness and private parts, by mocking the ministerial vision as they labelled him king of the Jews and the integrity of his divine mission. The Cross thus becomes an image of defilement, a gross manifestation of collective human sin. Jesus then does not conquer sin through death on the Cross. Rather Jesus conquers the sin of temptation in the wilderness...Jesus conquered sin in life, not in death. In the wilderness, he refused to allow evil forces to defile the balanced relation between the material and the spiritual, between life and death, between power and the exertion of it.
The process of deconstruction of Christology in the light of women’s experiences points out to the need to affirm the life and ministry of Jesus, during which time, he taught new values of the reign of God. In his death on the Cross, we see the price Jesus paid for resisting those structures of power. Jesus “demythologised” the power of the powerful and made them seem so ordinary. Jesus challenged the ethical-social-cultural barriers of his time. It was this resistance and challenge that led him to the Cross. Here the theological implication is that women need to reject the idea of suffering as necessary and redemptive. There is no place for vicarious suffering or passive suffering as the will of God for humanity. Suffering due to injustices is evil and it ought to be condemned. However, when the poor suffer, God suffers with them.
Jesus affirms life, dissociates sin from body, when he rejects hierarchical values and norms and redefines life. The idea of suffering which is connected with the death of Jesus on the Cross, has to be radically reinterpreted in present context. Suffering cannot be romanticised or spiritualised because God is against the suffering of any life. The ‘cry’ does not escape God’s ears. Christology can be re-articulated as God’s continuous work in history, to bring back to life, (resurrect) all that has been crushed and marginalized as lifeless and useless in society. This includes broken relationships, broken people and broken lives. The work of Jesus Christ performed throughout his life (not just a three-day Christology!) is important, to provide the faith basis in life, love and justice. His purpose was to give abundant life to everyone of God’s creation.
The first disciples of Jesus were in fact women and they were undeniably those who remained with him till the end. Jesus allowed himself to be challenged in his faith by the Syro-Phoenician woman. Though Jesus himself stood for ministry and discipleship of equals, patriarchy succeeded in pushing women to the periphery of the church/ society. Some references from extra-biblical literature point out to the difficulty that male disciples had in accepting Jesus’ attitude of radical challenge of patriarchy. I quote below from The Gospel of Mary which is supposedly authored by Mary Magdalene, the conversation between Peter and a fellow disciple regarding the discipleship of Mary Magdalene. It says:
When Mary Magdala narrates the vision that she had of the Lord to the disciples who were gathered, Andrew challenged the credibility of Mary’s words. Andrew turned to the other disciples and said, “Say what you think concerning what she said. For I do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas.” Peter also opposed Mary saying “Did he (the Lord Jesus) then speak secretly with a woman (cf. Jn.4:27) in preference to us and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Then Mary grieved and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart or that I am lying concerning the saviour?” Levi answered and said to Peter, “Peter you are always irate. Now I see that you are contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Saviour knew her very well (cf. Lk.10:38 - 42). For this reason he loved her more than us (Cf. Jn. 11:5)
The church has to radically transform itself, for the sake of faith in the One who called the church into existence. If it does not abide by the model of community of equals and discipleship of equals, but robs women of their “self” identity and power, the church can no longer call itself a church. The identity of the Church, its meaning and relevance is questioned and challenged in the light of women’s experiences. If that which we call as “the Church” is deep-rooted in the sin of patriarchy, it loses its moral right to preach the gospel. It could only be identified as an institution that propagates “an ideology” best suited for its own existence and survival in society. If the Church has replaced God’s Word (that is, with reference to understanding that the male and female are created in the image of God) with patriarchal culture (that discriminates women as impure, inferior and unworthy…), then it amounts to replacing God with patriarchal culture and thereby becoming an idolatrous body!. If those structures, which women trusted and depended upon to provide them with norms and values, have betrayed that trust and prescribed instead, oppressive values, then women have every reason to name the Church as a perpetrator of violence and injustice!!
I was fascinated to read the letter that the Andean Indians wrote to Pope John Paul II in 1985. while summarising this, R.S.Sugirtharajah quotes thus:
We, the Indians of the Andes and America have decided to give you back your Bible, since for the past five hundred centuries it has bought us neither love, peace nor justice. We beg you to take your bible back and give it back to our oppressor, whose hearts and minds are in greater need of its moral teachings. As part of the colonial exchange, we received the Bible, which is an ideological weapon of attack. The Spanish sword used in the daytime to attack and kill the Indians, turned at night into a Cross which attacked the Indian soul.
REVIEWING THE LANGUAGE OF VIOLENCE AND LANGUAGE OF SALVATION
Isn’t it strange that the Cross, which is actually a symbol that is rooted in violence, absorbs all the violence and hangs before us as a symbol of peace, hope and challenge? What is it that transforms the Cross from being a symbol of hopelessness and despair to a symbol of victory? Isn’t it the event of Resurrection of Jesus from the dead? It is only when we view the Cross in the light of resurrection that the violence gets absorbed, death gets silenced, crushed and Life stands out as a dominant principle.
The Resurrection event is not about the missing body of Jesus or the empty tomb. It is the power, grace and Spirit of God that nourishes the body of Jesus back to life. Resurrection event is the most powerful statement and reality to counter Death and deadly forces. How do we connect the resurrection event in the life of Jesus with the lives of the two women? Women who are crucified by powers of racism, casteism, sexism, patriarchy, communalism and so on?
Resurrection of the body of the women takes place when people’s movements, prophetic voices of critique are born and strengthened. Resurrection of the body of women takes place when the new voices of hope register the power of their hope and resistance by not succumbing to structures of violence and oppression but believing in Life and affirmation of life-giving forces. In the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of women, we cannot miss that big stone that was placed by the highest principalities and powers on earth, that aim to silence life.
THEOLOGY OF THE WOMB AND THE TOMB
The tomb of Jesus may have seemed to stand for the invisible place, the hidden space and the silenced space. But the resurrection of Jesus proved that the tomb of Jesus is not a “dead” space. It is a space where the “dead” body is nourished back to life. It is nothing but Faith in Life. So also, the womb of a woman, life giving, nourishing activity may be invisible to the naked eye; nevertheless, it is the space where Life is affirmed, and New life, symbol of new world, a new hope is born with the birth of each child. The power of the womb in giving birth to Life is perceived as a threat to the Death-dealing forces. The language of the womb is language of Life.
EUCHARISTIC SYMBOL OF THE BODY AND BLOOD
Jesus gives himself away as the nourishing food for the task of justice. It is not just food for the hungry but an invitation to the table fellowship. In a context where table fellowship is forbidden among different sections of caste in our society, Jesus invites us all, especially the poor to come to the table first. Unless and until the Church becomes such a self-giving Body of Christ, it would cease to be truly a Church. The Church cannot participate in the mob activity of violence, either through its silence or through concurrence with the hegemonic powers in society. Three sins which most churches are guilty of are: Silence to injustice, compromise with truth and uncritical accommodation of dominant / domineering ideologies
TOWARDS A FEMINIST CHRISTOLOGY WITHIN 'BODY' FRAMEWORK
What do we think about the body? How do we speak about the body?
The body is produced by the meeting of physical drives and a society's supervision of those drives. A culture's body ideals speak volumes about how that culture perceives itself, or wishes to be perceived. They also help us understand how conventions can be perpetuated or else challenged and reframed…The body is primarily a product of language, a representation. It is only through language that the body gains meaning. Language organises the body according to the beliefs of a particular culture. This means that the human body is not a universal concept but rather a flexible idea, which can be interpreted in diverse ways, depending on time place and context. If images can be made, they can also be unmade. There are many ideal images of the body, which are encouraged to take for granted, as if they were god-given. But once we realise that these images are constructed, it becomes possible to question them, to see them as myths rather than truths.
It is necessary therefore to look into the possibility of deconstructing the body, the meanings and cultures associated with the body. To expose the "myths" about the body that are held as truths is a theological task that I shall engage in, at this time. We shall therefore turn to the preliminary aspects of the body in terms of the physical features to drive home the point of our utter common humanness.
POLITICISING THE BODY
Body - with a given biological identity as a male, a female or a third sex.
Body - with distinct colours of skin like black, a white, a yellow or a brown
Body - with different yet distinct physical features such as Curly hair, Straight hair, blonde, Black, grey, white, red, worn short or long,
Body - eyes of different colours - green, blue, black, grey, brown…
Body - Lips of different shape, size…
Body - of distinct stature - Tall or short or medium or dwarf
Body - different in terms of sexual orientation - homosexual or heterosexual
Body - with blood of different groups but the same colour and nature.
The Body has its biological functions defined, not on the basis of what colour, shape, size or sexual orientation. There is an element of common humanness that binds us as one humanity. When any disease or calamity or death strikes, it does not matter if you are a green or a blue, or a brown or a white or a yellow or a black in terms of skin or with any physical feature. The result is the same.
However, it is not so simple as that to say that we are all only physical bodies. We are constructed bodies in a particular culture with a sense of identity. The culture defines what is a proper body, an improper body, what people can do in public, or in private, what is appropriate to desire and what not. In other words, we are more than just a bunch of organs held within the container of bones and flesh covered by the skin and a flow of blood in the regular veins and vessels. What is important for us now is to look into the some of the aspects of the body that are essentially chosen for ascribing some myth and later interpret it to be truth and thereby pave way for the perpetuation of barriers in our society. The three narratives also help us to identify those select aspects in order to study them against the experiences and the analytical reflections.
POLITICISING THE SKIN : UNPACKING RACISM
When the biological givens are valorised differently using different criteria and hierarchy of value is introduced, then there is a craving for a black or a brown to bleach in order to achieve a higher (?) status. For example, when Michael Jackson underwent cosmetic surgery to change the shape of his nose, there was a political message conveyed. When 'fairever', 'fair and lovely' beauty creams hit the Indian market, the message is a preference for a "fair" skin. When hierarchy is introduced to the colour of the skin and blackness is denounced in favour of the white, it is not just a matter of choice. It becomes a political issue. It has material implications in terms of more access to resources, employment and other opportunities. The history of untold suffering and misery that the Blacks faced when they were taken away as slaves, and the apartheid system in South Africa have not entirely vanished in reality. In fact we have such a preference for fair skins with "wheatish" complexions in India too and this becomes obvious when one takes a look into the matrimonial columns of the News papers to see therein, the required criterion in the bride or the groom to be. All these and more can be connected with the politics of the Skin.
The Dalits are generally dark skinned. Is this because of over exposure to the sun which means also that they are the hardworking labouring class of people. If the politics of the skin is connected to the ideology of racism, then we need to depoliticise the skin. Jesus had as his disciples, Galileans who were looked down upon as people, as a community. Jesus affirmed the faith and action of Samaritans who were of different race than the Jews who considered themselves as the elite race. The diseased bodies, the untouchable bodies, the dead bodies were not polluting for Jesus. He touched them, healed them and raised them from the dead. Depoliticising the skin means demythologising the "distorted truths" that have been concocted by the powerful in history. Racist ideologies are fundamental theological distortions that must come to a grinding halt in history.
POLITICISING THE BLOOD: UNPACKING CASTEISM / SEXISM…
It is only those who are in dire need of blood transfusion who will understand the truth better that there is no difference in the function and nature of the blood based on religion, caste, class, or sex. This commonness was / is never recognised by those who are engaged in communal clashes. The ideology of purity and pollution is created by the male, in the religions and cultures for the benefit of disciplining and controlling the body of the woman. Some churches /individuals quote the Bible and other scriptures and traditions to perpetuate the ideology of purity and pollution. Many Dalits experience the alienation in community as those of impure blood and treated inhuman. Even if the animals are allowed to drink water from the wells of the dominant caste, the Dalits are forbidden because of their "perpetual" physical impurity. The women and the Dalits share a common experience of suffering under the ideology of purity and pollution (the blood that flows within the body as well as that which flows out) and this has to be depoliticised in order to recover the life giving aspect of blood.
Jesus affirms blood as life. When the woman who was bleeding for twelve long years (Mark 5) came to Jesus with faith, Jesus heals her, but not before he teaches a lesson to the audience, especially the disciples. The hue and cry he makes by asking "who touched me?" Jesus drew the attention of all to the fact that he was just touched by a haemorrhaging woman but that he was not polluted (according to the Leviticus laws). Neither does he tell the woman, now go and offer the sacrifices that are required for cleansing. Jesus instead admires her faith and gives her the identity of a daughter. Jesus never allowed the social ideologies of caste / race/ sex to construct his identity. Instead, he constantly critiqued and rejected the system and structures that denied people of their human worth and identity.
POLITICISING BODY SECRETIONS: UNPACKING MORE "ISMS"
All taboos are connected with the body. We cringe as "decent people" when we hear swear words and 'vulgar' words in any language because they are associated with uncultured people. For example, for the poor woman in the slums, use of vulgar language is their weapon in oral fights for space, voicing their rights and protecting their property. These swear words are counted taboo because they have to do with basic bodily functions of sex and excretion. We shall choose some of these body secretions to analyse how they are politicised to construct several barriers and 'isms' in society.
Theophilus Appavoo, a well known Indian Dalit theologian, better known as Parattai (which actually means unkempt) in one of his theological articulations chooses to reflect on the aspect of shit. He goes on to challenge the dominant caste whether there is any difference in the way the faeces smell, (does yours smell of foreign scent?!) depending on Brahmin or a dalit? Does it get a different name and a different value if it comes out of a dalit or an upper caste? It has but one name and that is shit. Thus he demystifies the caste ideology using 'crude' language but bringing out the truth that we are all the same in the sight of God.
The birth of the son (male preference) is celebrated with sweets whereas the birth of a daughter is looked upon as a liability. The declining female sex ratio is shocking as it indicates a drastic fall. It was found that in 1901, it was around 972 females for every 1000 males, which came down to 945/1000 in 1991 and to 927/1000 in 2001. This means that about 30 million female children have disappeared from the earth, in a period of 100 years without our notice! They have been invisibilised from our existence without a trace, without a question. What is the connection between the increasing female foeticides and infanticides in places where there is higher agricultural growth? Even though it is the male XY chromosomes that decide the sex of the child, a woman is blamed, deserted and ill treated for not giving birth to a male. The Body semen and construction of sexism is connected because the woman is looked upon as "vulnerable" if she is not in the company of a man. The plight of a single woman, widowed, divorcee woman as "vulnerable" is nothing but a subtle threat hanging in the air about how it is possible for a woman to be "approached" / raped or assaulted. The threat of use of semen in the form of rape or sexual harassment is located in the ideology of power. To depoliticise body semen is to demystify the assumed and imagined hierarchy of the semen. Rape in war or during communal clashes are examples for how the body semen is valorised by the male at the cost of the dignity of the female in a patriarchal society.
The salaiva or the spittle is a highly politicised body secretion that controls and maintains caste hierarchy. While even animals are allowed to drink water from the village pond that belongs to the dominant caste, the dalits are punished with electrocution, beating the sight out of a dalit, or even killed. The two tumbler system is still practice in some remote villages where the Dalits are served tea in a different cup in the village tea stall and the dominant caste in another. Table fellowship is seldom heard of between Brahmins and Dalits in rural areas. In some of the churches, there is the cultural adaptation of individual cups for use in serving the wine.
Spittle is also politicised in the way dominant religion tries to control the eating habits of a minority religion and the poorer sections of society. The controversy on banning cow slaughter is an attempt to undercut the economic and religious freedom of the Muslims / Christians but also deprives the poor of their right to low cost protein intake.
The Jesus that we see in the gospels is the one who keeps company with the so called sinners and he had table fellowship with the undesirables in the society. This shows that Jesus did not approve of such an elitism. Jesus redefined what is pure, what is impure with reasons that went beyond traditions. In Mark 7, we read of Jesus using his spittle to cure the deaf and mute man. Depoliticising of the spittle means affirming human relationships as well as participation and solidarity in the life of the other.
One of the reasons for male preference is rooted in the religious idea of a putra being able to save the parents from the put (hell) by lighting the funeral pyre. Marriage and motherhood are considered important organising principles for constructing the identity of a woman. Barrenness is a term imposed on a woman without children for it defines her as an infertile woman. There is no scope for questions such as "is it her / their choice? The fact that an unwed mother is condemned in society and forced to give up her child even without the first feed is quite common. The Transnational companies also capitalise on the Breast milk and sell tonnes of tinned milk with the caption mother's milk is the best for the baby. The media promotes such products showing healthy and glowing children who feed on the substitute of mother's milk. How a woman's identity gets constructed as a complete or incomplete woman, or the way economic structures and powers (globalisation) come together on this issue gets exposed when we politicise breast milk.
Jesus affirms relationship of family and kinship based not on marriage or blood ties but as those who receive the word of God and live by it. It is not a denial or rejection of marriage. Jesus reinterprets the laws in the Sermon on the Mount with the perspective of justice. Marriage is good when the couple choose to spend their lives together affirming mutual love and harmony. Marriage is a call for bonding and not into bondage.
The strongest biblical-theological basis for Body Christology lies in the affirmation of the Body, which has many members, but they are all of the same value. Jesus Christ is the Head of the church and the Church is the Body of Christ and this stands in direct opposition to the casteist ideology of differentiation and discrimination rooted in Brahman. Because casteism is the worst form of evil on earth, and because it is obviously a mythical powerful ideology for the elite, male, caste system flourishes in India. Isn’t it strange that only Indians (may be few others adopt it too?!!) are divided on the basis of caste? How can this ideology be reversed in the minds of caste minded church and society?
When the body is depoliticised, the experiences of exploitation and oppression come to the fore. The Body of Jesus affirms and leads the way in de-politicising the body in the framework of justice. The Church which is the Body of Christ cannot but follow the principles of the gospel. Otherwise a time may arise when the Bible will be returned to the church by the marginalized collective to say "Read the Bible again, you need it more than us”. This has implications for the role, identity, mission and ministry of the church.
Feminist Christology can thus be formulated within Body framework as a liberating Christology for all. The whole life and ministry of Jesus Christ is the fundamental resource for depoliticising the body. The single most important hermeneutical principle is Life in Abundance for all (John 10:10)
Paper presented at the Faculty Research Seminar on October 8, 2003, at the United Theological College, 63 Miller’s Road, Benson Town, Bangalore – 560 046
Published in Asia Journal of Theology, April 2004
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