Leuven Traffic and Marcella Althaus-Reid

Tiensestraat, Leuven, Belgium

In my classes on theology, we are reading books and articles by Marcella Althaus-Reid, a very challenging and critical theologian, who died recently, but whose thought remains a strong stimulus to improve move beyond liberation and feminist theologies. One of the books we are discussing, “From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology”, criticizes liberation and feminist theologies for ultimately not leaving behind the so-called heterosexual matrix of thought. Liberations theologians have often not paid attention to the blind spots in their own approaches: although they emphasized the struggle against oppression, they did not always take account of how women are excluded or marginalized. But Marcella’s criticism is more profound than mere forgetfulness: it concerns the fact that even in our thought about liberation, we remain indebted to frames and patterns of thought that may well pervert the very idea we have of liberation.

I must admit that I do not always grasp the full dimensions of what Marcella is saying. In my efforts to understand, this morning I walked through the Tiensestraat in Leuven. This is the street where I live. This street is very typical: in an effort to protect the pedestrians, the street is subdivided: a section for the cars, a section for the pedestrians (the footpath). We could say: this is done out of respect for the pedestrians, who are the weak users of the street (when a car and a pedestrian clash, the most likely victim, and by far, is the pedestrian): it is an attempt to “liberate” the pedestrians out of a situation in which they are oppressed. One could, therefore, look at these attempts as “liberative”.

But a closer look at the street, shows that in fact, we maintain the superiority of the car over the pedestrian: liberation is not liberation, it is oppression under the guise of liberation. Look at the yellow panel on the footpath: it is an indication FOR CARS set on the footpath and making the accessibility of the footpath more difficult (particularly, for example, for mothers with young children, or for buggies). The matrix “car = king of the street” has been maintained, even if we would claim that the street is built for pedestrians. This was confirmed to me, a couple of months ago, when we were told that the Tiensestraat would be renovated. I expected that the footpaths (that are in a terrible state) would at least share in the renovation efforts … but that was not true: only the part for the cars was renovated. We seem to live in a society, in which, even when we claim that the pedestrians are important, the cars are nevertheless the absolute rulers.

Maybe, Marcella’s criticism of liberation theologies goes in the same direction. Although we speak about liberation, although we seem to act in favour of the weak, we, nevertheless, continue to think in the same setup of mind, in which the weak are still the weak, although we claim that they have been liberated.


One response to “Leuven Traffic and Marcella Althaus-Reid

  1. What seems to be weak and strong depends highly on the context. Yes, cars are built from metals and there’s big chance that they will be the one with the least damage in a clash between human. But only that…
    Do the same walk at 5pm, you will see who’s weak and who’s not, as you pass by a mighty car which can make 250kph stuck in the traffic… And even at a crash, a dunk in the car will stay there forever, but so called weak human has developed a mechanism to repair itself from an injury. It is not up to us to liberate one or the other, as what might seem us as weakness with our subjective eye could actually be a strength which we try to mingle with. Whatever you artificially impose is subject to disappear and things are bound to return their natural course, the way they are destined to be. The same goes for our idea of liberty and democracy which we try to impose on other cultures; we never think there’s a reason for them to be that way an evolution which is created by the necessities of that particular society.

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