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.