Is the Prophetic Vision of Social and Ecojustice the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree? By Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ earned her BA from Stanford University and her Ph.D. from Yale University.  She is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement and work has revolutionized the field of feminism and religion.  She has been active in anti-racist, anti-war, feminist, and anti-nuclear causes for many years.  Since 2001 she has been working with Friends of Green Lesbos to save the wetlands of her home island.  She drafted a massive complaint to the European Commission charging failure to protect Natura wetlands in Lesbos.  In 2010 she ran for office in Lesbos and helped to elect the first Green Party representative to the Regional Council of the North Aegean.  She helped to organize Lesbos Go Green, which is working on recycling in Lesbos.

My hope for the new blog on Feminism and Religion is that it can become a place for real discussion with mutual respect of feminist issues in religion and spirituality.

I agree with Rosemary Radford Ruether who argued in a recent blog “The Biblical Vision of Ecojustice” that the prophets viewed the covenant with Israel and Judah as inclusive of nature. Indeed in my senior thesis at Stanford University on “Nature Imagery in Hosea and Second Isaiah,” in which I worked with the Hebrew texts, I argued that too. I also agree that the dualism Rosemary has so accurately diagnosed as one of the main sources of sexism and other forms of domination comes from the Greeks not the Hebrews. I agree that Carolyn Merchant is right that nature was viewed as a living being in Christian thought up until the modern scientific revolution. I agree with Rosemary that it is a good thing for Christians to use sources within tradition to create an ecojustice ethic. I am happy that there are Christians like Rosemary who are working to transform Christianity.  Finally, I am pleased to admit that I have learned a great deal from her.

The reason I cannot embrace Rosemary’s analysis of the Biblical vision of ecojustice has to do with the notion of God as a dominating other modeled on a warrior king that is found in the Bible and in the very texts Rosemary holds up as the sources for a theology of liberation and ecojustice. In Isaiah 24:1 the text reads:”Behold the LORD [Yahweh] will lay waste the earth and make it desolate.” Yes, the text continues to say that the reason for this is that the people of Israel have not lived justly with each other on the land. However, I don’t think the prophet is only saying that “what goes around comes around.” He is saying that God is the one who will lay waste to the land and punish the people for their failure to live justly.

While I too have been inspired by the vision of ecological and social justice the prophets, I cannot endorse a vision that comes with a God who enforces his (in some respects very good) will through violence. This view is also found in Exodus. God liberates the Hebrew slaves, which is a very good thing, but in praise of his act he is invoked as a “man of war” who crushes his enemies (Exodus 15:3).

I was conceived in war, came of age during war, come from a country that is at war today, and know that the US military is increasing indoctrinating troops with the notion that they are fighting not only for country but also for God. Because I know that war is not healthy for women, men, children, and other living things, I cannot endorse a God who is imaged as a warrior or the prophets and writers of Exodus who invoke him.  I have also criticized images of warrior Goddesses that are invoked by Goddess feminists to justify anger and rage at injustice.

In Women and Religion, p. 153, feminist Biblical scholar Majella Franzmann states the following:

At the end of my recent article on Isaiah 47 in the Jewish (sic) scriptures, I offer a postscript in which I judge that the use of the metaphor of warrior for the Hebrew god Yahweh in the Book of Isaiah is inappropriate or morally questionable when it leads to the possibility of presenting Yahweh as warrior-rapist. I make this judgment for the Christian community that reads the text today but also suggest that the metaphor was inappropriate even for the community from whom the text originated.

I made a similar point in my essay “Yahweh as Holy Warrior” in Laughter of Aphrodite.  Maybe I have been watching too many episodes of Law and Order and Boston Legal of late, but it seems to me that the prophetic visions of social and ecojustice are “the fruit of the poisonous tree.”

This poisonous tree, the image of God as a dominating other who enforces his will through violence, is one of the serious moral (and by no means selfish or trivial) reasons that I do not choose to work within the Christian tradition.  For me this is a matter of intellectual, emotional, and moral integrity and also a matter of the harm I believe this image is doing to others, most especially the victims of wars fought in the name of God.

Categories: Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, Feminism, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Scripture, Social Justice

Tags: , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Carol,
    I find myself caught in an in-between space with your post. I have long rejected the image of god as King or worse, warrior-rapist. One only has to look to the minor prophets of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to find images of women raped and mutilated, as the metaphorically whore of Israel counter to an avenging male god. There is a reason why these texts (or Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible) are not included in the liturgical cycles of reading. And yet, is this the entire story? Are there not also moments of god’s tenderness and love? For example, the image of god knitting clothes for Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden?

    This duality of God is a question posed by Renita Weems in text, “Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets” when she asks, “How do we affirm its [scripture] positive side while simultaneously renouncing its negative effects?”

    Carol I hear what you are arguing and I find myself on unstable ground in attempting to negotiate a constructed god of violence and retribution as depicted Biblically. But I know that metaphors lose their meaning and rhetorical relevance with each generation. Not to excuse its violence, but to look at the continuum of experiences and images of god that can also liberate and restore justice.


    • Are there not also moments of god’s tenderness and love? For example, the image of god knitting clothes for Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden?

      With due respect to Cynthie’s position as a fellow questor on the spiritual path, and with the caveat that I am a long-since-lapsed christian and thus distinctly prejudiced on the subject of my natal religion:

      I would find god’s love more visible in his clothing of Eve and Adam, had the deity not just finished cursing them and throwing them out of the only home they’d ever known. There is, in fact, far too much of the abusive father/husband in the christian deity for me, especially when I see dear friends who are female reassuring me that he’s being so kind this time… things will be different from now on, for sure!


  2. collie, you have put your finger on the dynamic i have known from the Bible and in the home. you remind me that Alice Miller says that the most confusing thing is when no one names the abuser as an abuser but rather pretends that he is kind underneath. this makes it impossible for the one who is abused to tell the difference b/w kind and abusive people throughout life.


    • Thank you, Carol, for your kind and encouraging comment — especially since I’ve had friends react with anger to my suggestion that the OT deity too often matches the profile of an abusive father/husband.

      If I am not leaping erroneously to conclusions, you have my deepest sympathies regarding abuse within your home, and I hope you have been able to work through it successfully. In some ways I was very fortunate: while I had a verbally abusive family member during my childhood, I was also able to work extensively with animals. Their reactions helped the young me sort out what was abuse and what was not, despite what I was told. I think they were my unwitting “helping witnesses,” to use Alice Miller’s term.

      Thank you also for alerting the CIIS Women’s Spirituality mailing list to this fascinating blog. I’ve been enjoying reading; namaste!


  3. Are there not also moments of god’s tenderness and love? For example, the image of god knitting clothes for Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden?

    Cynthie I also find myself caught up from time to time in that space you describe. While I know passages in the Bible about god’s loving kindness that I have grown up with and love, there is a broader canvas that I cannot ignore as I read. So when I read this passage about god making clothes for the soon-to-be exiled Adam and Eve, I have to make sense of it in the context of what goes before that moment. What can we say about the psychological profile of a god who forbids a certain thing that he has made inherently difficult/impossible to resist doing? This issue was first raised with me by my partner as she was doing her PhD and noted that the Hebrew word ta’awah that is used to describe the tree (Gen 3:6), and usually translated as “delight”, has other meanings including “intense desire”, “appetite”, and sometimes specifically “lust” (Brown, Driver and Briggs 16b). Thus, the description of the tree rendered in translation as “delight to the eyes”, could as easily be expressed as “lust to the eyes”. The tree is created by the deity, who is responsible for its inherent ability to evoke desire/lust. Are we getting close to psychological abuse here? Of course, this is just one small point, but we also need to read it in conjunction with other character traits of the deity in this narrative, like the possibility that a jealously guarded position of knowledge and immortality is the basic reason for exiling the pair from the garden (Gen 3:22).


  4. I think that we tend to envision God in a way that fits our belief systems and sometimes even wants/needs. With my focus heavily on biblical studies, I can have a difficult time walking away with an image of God informed by the writings in the Biblical Text (and yes it can toy with your spirituality). For me it boils down to the “hermeneutic of suspicion” where I tend to ask many questions of the text. The “take my daughter” scene in Genesis is supposed to be about hospitality; I have a difficult time with that interpretation. The rape and mutilation scene in Judges is something that I cannot find a redeeming quality in. Texts like those cannot possibly be inspired or revelatory of God (at least not my God).

    Carol, I agree with your perspective in that a violent God is intangible to me. I would rather view God as Elizabeth Johnson (in her Book Women, Earth, and the Creator Spirit) has imagined: mother, lover, and friend.

    Thank you for your post. I look forward to reading more from you.


  5. Collie, to set the record straight, I was not sexually or physically abused, but I have been psychologically or emotionally abused. I have heard many many stories of sexual and physical abuse from my students. All of the above are extremely damaging the psyche of a child.

    And it can make it harder to untie the knots if we are also involved with an image of God as of a powerful male figure who punishes and withholds love, yet forgives us and reconciles with us in the end of the day. (Who should be forgiving who here?)


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