Religions and the Abuse of Women and Girls by Carol P. Christ


At the 2009 meeting of the Parliament of World Religions, former US President Jimmy Carter called the worldwide abuse of girls and women the greatest unaddressed human rights crisis of our time. He stated that this problem is “largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence and warfare.” Carter discussed these issues in A Call to Action.

In my address to the Parliament of World Religions on November 5, I will agree with Carter that religions play a major role in the abuse of women and girls, but I will question his view that religion’s contribution to the abuse of women and girls stems from the misinterpretation of a few selected texts. Rather I will argue that patriarchal ideas permeate most of the so-called great religions.

Patriarchal religions sanctify patriarchy. When they name divinity as Lord and King, this is not an aberration. When they justify male domination, this is not an aberration. When they justify war, this is not an aberration. When they justify the violence of the state, this is not an aberration. When they justify violence within the family, this is not an aberration. When they justify the control of female sexuality, this is not an aberration. When they justify private property and inheritance through the male line, this is not an aberration. When they justify rape culture, this is not an aberration. When they justify slavery, this is not an aberration. All of these things are at the root of the patriarchal system.

You might be thinking that I have gone too far. Religions have a lot of good in them. The prophetic tradition of the Bible teaches us to care for the poor and vulnerable. Jesus taught us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Muslims refer to God as All-Merciful. I am not denying that there are many good teachings in religious scriptures and traditions, including in scriptures and traditions fundamentally shaped by patriarchy. But the good is so thoroughly mixed together with the bad that we cannot easily separate the liberating core from the patriarchal flesh of the apple that surrounds it.

Yes, the prophets counsel care for the widow and the orphan. But they also tell us that children will be dashed into pieces and pregnant women will have their bellies ripped open because the people rebelled against their God. (Isaiah 13: 16) This vision of divine justice is re-sanctified for Christians in Handel’s Messiah. Jesus may or may not have taught a different view, but if so, why do Christians continue to perform the Messiah? I suggest that those who, for a variety of reasons including community and history, choose to remain within religions that have justified and continue to justify patriarchy must give up the naive view that this is due to misinterpretations that can easily be corrected. They must instead acknowledge their traditions have at least in part been created, shaped, and consistently interpreted to support patriarchy.

The Minangkabau of West Sumatra are an egalitarian matriarchal culture whose central value is the protection of the weak and the vulnerable. They say that they derive this principle from nature. They immediately add, “we take the good and throw away the bad.” What they mean by this is that from observing nature they see that the survival of children and plants depends upon nurturing the weak—babies and seedlings. This is the “good” on which they build their cultural values. The Minangkabau are not stupid. They recognize that violence and killing are found in nature. This is why they say that they take the good and throw away the “bad.” This is their hermeneutical principle. We might add that the Minangkabau people are the ones who decided what is good and what is bad in nature.

This is exactly how feminist theologian Judith Plaskow approaches the Jewish tradition. Recognizing that there is both good and bad in her tradition, she urges Jews to choose the good. She is fond of quoting Deuteronomy which put these words in the mouth of God, “I have set before you, life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” (30:19) Although she finds this passage deeply meaningful, Plaskow would not argue that it can easily be seen to represent the liberating “core” of her tradition. She is well aware that there are many parts of the Bible she finds quite reprehensible.

She argues that rather than insisting that rightly understood, the Bible does not promote the abuse of women and girls, Jews must acknowledge that there is good and bad in their tradition. She would say that the same is true for Christians and others whose traditions have supported patriarchy. Plaskow chooses to stay within Judaism not to reform it or bring it back to its original meaning, but to transform it, to make it something it has not been before. Judaism may not always have been a tradition that treated women and girls fairly, but it can become one, if Jews choose to make it so.

I suggest that in fact all of us are in the same boat, with the exception of those who have inherited intact indigenous traditions based on the principles of egalitarian matriarchy. The rest of us must choose what is good and what is bad in traditions that have been shaped and influenced by patriarchy. Is there anything that can guide our choices? Perhaps we should look to egalitarian matriarchal traditions for guidance.

The Minangkabau say that the protection of the weak and the vulnerable is the highest value. For them, this means creating communities that support women and children and caring for the land so that the agricultural cycles of planting and harvesting continue. By this criterion, the prophets’ concern for the widow and the orphan and the poor at the gate is part of the “good” in Biblical traditions. Well-established practices of gift-giving ensure relative equality in egalitarian matriarchal societies. Jesus’s admonition to sell what you have and give to the poor should is “good.”

Egalitarian matriarchies are not male dominant, hierarchal, or governed by a single individual. Rather they have well-developed systems of participatory democracy with councils of female and male elders making the final decisions. Quakers worship without leaders, encouraging equality and discouraging egotism by valuing silence. The Havurah movement within Judaism and the Woman Church movement within Christianity encourage equality and sharing. Many Goddess and women’s spirituality groups share leadership. All of these attempts to create alternatives to hierarchical male domination are “good.”

Egalitarian matriarchies tend to view the earth as a great and giving mother: their ritual practices honor the interdependence of life, value all living things, and the give thanks for what has been given by the earth. Respect for the earth and all beings is found in Native American traditions, as well as in many neo-pagan groups, and this too is “good.”

This is an excerpt of my speech to the Parliament of World Religions which will be delivered on November 5, 2018 in Toronto.

 

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Greece. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger. Carol will be speaking at the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Re-Imagining Conference at Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota on November 1 and 3; on at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto, Canada on November 5; and at Memorial University of Newfoundland on November 7-10.

 

 

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology

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19 replies

  1. No, you have NOT “gone too far.” You are speaking Truth and I am cheering you on. Wish I could be there to do so in person. Yes! Yes! YES!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, this excerpt from your speech (forthcoming) is just plain excellent. Thank you.

    Like

  3. Thanks for this important post, Carol, I was shocked where you said: “US President Jimmy Carter called the worldwide abuse of girls and women the greatest unaddressed human rights crisis of our time.”

    Also regards the patriarchal system, it has always bothered me that we are supposed to be living in the USA in a democracy, and yet how can it be a democracy if men and only men are chosen to be elected President. They could but as long as women don’t run for the Presidency, the USA is not a democracy, it’s an exclusive patriarchy.

    However, some good news, according to headlines online in the New York Times and the Washington Post recently, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has announced that she is considering a run for President of the United States in 2020. When I read that I clapped for joy. Born in 1949, Warren certainly has the intellect, the heart, the ethics, and the experience as a successful senator to run and win the Presidency.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brava! Your post makes me think of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” He’s not a loving or merciful god (though there are good teachings in the various holy books), and the long line of men who have made up the patriarchy display only their male privilege. Thank you for writing truly.

    All I can add is the same thing I said yesterday.

    Here’s a quote from a novel I’m reading. It’s set in the 17th century, but I think it fits what were seeing in 2017-18, i.e., since the last election. “He cleaved to the conviction of many priests [we can read Republican white men]–that women were the source of all evil. It was true, she thought…if you considered that women were the source of all men.” (From City of Silver by Annamaria Alfieri)

    How about we get printed on signs and embroidered into samplers??

    Liked by 2 people

  5. As always you have cut to the meat of the argument and challenge us to shed the bondage of patriarchal religions and find or create ones that truly do support life…the ones based on worship of the Great Mother. I urge my sisters and brothers to leave the oppressors behind and seek the light.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a tough issue that I continue to struggle with because I don’t want to do the ‘either or thing’ with organized religions even though I don’t adhere to any of them. ( I practice earth based ritual based on my direct relationship with Nature). Throwing them out worries me because as destructive as these patriarchal religions are to women there are still some underlying ethics… although I see ethical standards crumbling more with each passing day … I still fear the void where religion isn’t unless some Eqalitarian Matriarchal perspective is adopted.

    I do think that you are on the right track when you “suggest that those who, for a variety of reasons including community and history, choose to remain within religions that have justified and continue to justify patriarchy must give up the naive view that this is due to misinterpretations that can easily be corrected. They must instead acknowledge their traditions have at least in part been created, shaped, and consistently interpreted to support patriarchy.”

    I would argue exactly the same thing and I am so happy to be reading part of your speech.

    One thing is clear all organized religions support Patriarchy, and Patriarchy has to go if we are going to survive as a people and a planet.

    Lately, with Dr. Ford’s horrific experience front and center I have been feeling really hopeless about EVER escaping this system.

    Like

  7. Carol, thank you thank you. So magnificently articulated. So true.

    We have a tradition in my community that on Thanksgiving morning several hundred people gather and hear songs, stories and tales from religions, major and minor. The last time I went, I was distressed beyond reason. Every single speaker extolled the wonders of “peace”, yet the writings of almost every single speaker spoke of war and male dominance. I wrote a brief epistle to the local newspaper. I suggested that if these religions truly believe in peace, they should edit their writings to reflect that view. The paper did print it, but where I had written “god” and “Goddess”, they printed “God” and “goddess”. [sigh] It was only 6 lines at the bottom of the Editorial page, and got not response at all.

    Would that more people could read your writings, Carol.

    Like

  8. A comment from the Eastern spiritual
    path called Taoism: it says:

    “The world has a beginning.
    The beginning is like the mother of all things.

    When you know the one as the mother
    You will come to know her children.
    in the myriad of all things.

    Knowing her children,
    Go back to holding fast to the mother
    And to the end of your days,
    You will live without danger.
    Close the mouth and eyes;
    shut the doors of desire.
    And all that you need will never run dry.”
    ____ ___ ___

    (The text quoted above from

    TAO TE CHING,
    the Poetry of Nature
    Chapter 52
    (translated by Kari Hohne —
    pub. 2009, see Amazon.com)

    Like

  9. Triple like for your post. Your voice is strong and carries the truth, it needs to be heard. Thank you for posting your honesty.

    Like

  10. Early on in my taking leave of Christianity, a significant moment in that journey was when I had enough of what I called at the time (early 1980’s) “scriptural gymnastics” – creating new interpretations for problematic texts. Your statement that thinking one can easily ‘correct’ these patriarchal understandings is exactly what I was instinctively feeling at that time.

    I love too your list of egalitarian matriarchies that have participatory democracies, and I suggest adding to that list the Haudenosaunee – commonly referred to as the Iroquois or the Six Nations. Their Great Law of Peace is a remarkable tradition, as is their whole system of democracy.

    Thank you Carol for this post and I look forward to hearing your full address on Nov. 5 at the Parliament of World Religions. I will be there for the full week, giving a workshop on Nov. 4 entitled “Sounding Her Wisdom.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You have definitely not gone too far. I eagerly anticipate the rest of your address at the Parliament. I will be part of an interfaith panel on dismantling the religious foundations of patriarchy.

    Like

  12. Another fantastic post that gets right to the core of the issues. I think this is a wonderful complement to your series of posts on the touchstones. I’ve come to believe that all I can do is clarify my own values, which adhere closely to your touchstones, and make those the core of my spiritual practice rather than trying to sort out the good and bad of various religions. Your speech is going to be incredible!

    Like

  13. It is so important that we all speak to the deep abusive, controlling, and violent dynamics that form the basic structure and foundations of patriarchy and organized patriarchy based religions. However, from a systems point of view, it is not possible to “transform” these systems. Patriarchy (i.e. abuse, violence, and control of all except the privileged white male, etc) runs through every meme, thought, act, concept, value, and the DNA of every word that forms the patriarchal system foundation.

    No matter how “good” it might sound drawing these words, values, and concepts from patriarchial based systems forever taints the new forms transformed from the old. Instead, let’s begin fresh, reclaiming our integrity and inherent wholeness and from this fresh foundation generate words that may sound the same but are grounded in different values, thinking, actions, and ways of being. Let’s heed these words:

    You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. —R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER

    We can do that!

    P.S. see that this says that my husband “dkcopson” is commenting through our WordPress account – but alas not so. Rather is it me – his wife- MaryAnn Copson. Isn’t it that a hoot.

    Like

    • I definitely am on your team, but even as we attempt to create something new, we are building on the good in the religions and culture we have inherited. And we do not create out of nothing, but rather we build on the good that we have been taught and the good we learn about. For example, though I do not identify as Christian, I learned that God is love from my childhood church. And I learned to love nature from grandmothers who were Catholic and Christian Science. I learned that the Blessed Mother is always with us from my Catholic grandmother. These strands are woven into my Goddess thealogy.

      Like

  14. Yes, Yes, Yes! Religion has nearly universally been hierarchical and patriarchal. We need, going forward a humble humanism that includes the insights of science AND the arts (poetry among them) AS WELL AS religion (in particular the insights of mystics across the religious spectrum). Such a humble humanism is neither dualistic nor hierarchical. We can learn a lot from those indigenous groups that are matriarchal and from those other species that are inclusive and egalitarian. In Horizontal Transcendence Robert Charles Howard writes “for Dr. Ursula Goodenough”:
    “With global death within the grasp of our reckless finger tips,
    and bullet fever infesting our earthly villages,
    are we ready yet to yield a measure of our trust
    to the healing power of horizontal transcendence?

    Like

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