OTI Online
Winter 2009

Beyond politics and one god
by Frances Kissling

We asked leading thinkers to describe New Revolutions We Need for a feminist and progressive future. Here's one response.


I once visited a native church in San Juan Chamula, Mexico. Lining the sidewall of the church were dozens of individual altars to various saints. Families prayed and made offerings in front of their favorites, seeking to have their needs meet. As I left the church, in a back corner, there was a pile of saints lying in a jumble. I asked about them and was told, “They didn’t work.” How perfect, I thought. Gods that do not serve the people are discarded.

Coming to New Terms

For 25 years, as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, I was focused on overthrowing the government of the Catholic church, which I distinguished from the message of Jesus. I took the line of many feminist reformers of religion and was careful to distinguish between the institutions of my religion, which were literally man made, thoroughly patriarchal and often corrupt, and what I saw as the humanity of the message of Jesus Christ. In my view, the narrative of Christianity, along with that of other world religions was good; men (and some women) had simply perverted that narrative to serve their own need for power and control over women.

In truth, I vacillated between reconstruction of the institution and a desire to destroy the temple. I asked if it were possible to transform patriarchal religion in ways that treated women (and other despised and feared people) in a just fashion. Or, were the injustices so endemic and pervasive that reform was impossible? How could one care about women’s lives, which have been so compromised by religious teachings, and even be in the “loyal opposition” to institutionalized religion? It could be said that by remaining a Catholic, even one who resisted and dissented from those positions that were unjust, one provided the safety valve that prevented revolution. However, if everyone who were feminist just left the very powerful institution of the church to the yahoos, what then? Ultimately, I concluded resistance from within was honorable and served women well. After all, nothing drove the leaders of the church crazier than the claim that you could be Catholic and pro-choice, pro-sex and pro gay.

A “tipping point” came for me in the wake of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. At that time, progressive Jewish, Christian and a few Muslim religious leaders emerged to challenge the Religious Right. The simple claim that Kerry had lost because Democrats had no respect for religion, combined with exit poll results which asserted that “moral values” (undefined) was the most important "issue" in voter decisions resulted in a frenzy of Democratic Party outreach to religious leaders, including both so-called progressive evangelicals and “catholics in the pews.” Their theo-political views on poverty and war were progressive. Some were also progressive on women’s rights, sexuality and reproduction; others had mixed records, and some simply did not care.

Whatever their positions on matters of import to women’s lives, almost all were willing to table them in favor of other important issues -- ending the war in Iraq and addressing the rights of economically disadvantaged. More than anything else, these folks wanted to end the conservative Republican era and wrest the role of God’s spokesman from the Religious Right. Democratic politicians were right there, seeking to be anointed on their political agenda by religious leaders.

When these progressives met, few women were in attendance, and those who were there did not challenge the male paradigm. The men and women who participated were not active in movements within their denominations to change the status quo. To stand with those who sought to change religion, to reinterpret it, would brand them as too radical to be effective with the average church or synagogue goers. And it was those average church goers whose votes the politicians wanted to win.

It drove me crazy. I wanted neither the God of the left nor the God of the right to determine pubic policy. And neither God as interpreted by male religious leaders served women well. I began to believe that where women were concerned, religion was irredeemable.

Revisiting Our Myths

The instinct of countries, even liberal ones, to accommodate “religion” at the expense of women is substantial.

These are not uniquely American or Christian issues. It can be seen in the role Judaism plays in Israel and the role of Islamic family law in governments where Islam is the dominant religion. Under the banner of “multicultural respect,” Canada considered deferring to Islamic courts on issues related to the family. India has a system of dual family law with Hindu family matters settled according to Hindu tradition, and Muslim families and women subjected to Shari’a.

No one has asked women if this serves them well.

At the same time that women chafe against the role religious institutions play in determining and circumscribing their lives, many women have an affinity for spirituality, a sense of the divine in our lives. What kind of religion might women create if they were free of the strictures imposed by patriarchy and historic traditions? What would be rejected?

A colleague of mine, the late John Mohawk, a Native American theorist, once noted to a group of religious leaders: “All religions have their myths, their way of making sense of the world and our existence. The difference between Native Americans and the rest of you is that we know our myths are myths.”

Revolutionized religion would acknowledge that the narratives of each faith are not historic truths, but stories that made sense in their time or were simply politically expedient creations of men. In the Christian context, the infallibility of the Pope would be recognized as a frantic response to the Protestant reformation. The Virgin birth would be seen as a way of reconciling Jesus as both man and God; the assumption of Mary bodily into Heaven as pure myth born of the desire to honor her, but physically inconsistent with a modern understanding of Heaven as not a physical place with embodied souls eating and drinking.

The narratives would undergo a constant creative updating, never losing their mythic and imaginative symbolism. They would be open to science, history and social commitments to human rights, justice and compassion. Many stories would co-exist and we would love them all as we love good literature.

In that context, the notion of God would be up for grabs. Have we envisioned God in our own likeness (and in most cases as male) or were we created in God’s image? Perhaps it is time to recognize many Gods – gods for women, the household, peace, fertility, medicine, energy, and so on.

Women would fare much better with multiple Gods. Was not the drive to one God also the drive for state power, consolidated and institutionalized? Doesn’t it limit our imagination regarding ways to organize the human community? Wouldn’t a better system replicate the one that I saw in the church in Mexico, where Gods are moved aside when they no longer serve the needs of the people?

In this changed paradigm, new forms of church leadership would emerge. There is much talk of opening the Catholic priesthood to women or to married men -- and much resistance. In fact, we would do away with the priesthood, the bishops, the elders and the Chief Rabbis. Leadership would be open to all – men, women, children, gay, straight, single, married. For the most part, it would be temporary service at the will of the community. Certainly early Christians elected their leaders, and in Buddhism, the idea of temporary monkhood is common.

Shifting the Centers of Power

With such an open and creative model, the role of religion outside of the community of believers would also change dramatically. In giving up the notion of an absolute, single, all-powerful God, no one person could speak for God. We would need to speak for ourselves and for our community. We would need to justify our ideas, positions and values based on the common good, as understood by women and men.

Perhaps a key insight women have to offer is the replacement of the omni potent God with a God (or gods), who, like men, is impotent at times. What different expectations we would have of each other if God’s frailty were acknowledged.


Frances Kissling is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Also see: Revolution Lite by Merle Hoffman from this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Poetry in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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