The Ambiguities of White Feminist Theologies

I finished reading the conclusions of “Hopeloos wit? Een feministische zoektocht naar de bevrijding van God op het kruispunt van racisme and seksisme” (Desperately White? A Feminist Quest for the Liberation of God at the Crossroads of Racism and Sexism), the doctoral thesis of one of our promising woman theologians at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies in Leuven, Anneleen Decoene. Her concern is that “white” feminist theologies are also at risk – and in fact succumb – to being oblivious and oppressive towards the situation and the thinking of non-white theologians … she confronts herself, as a white theologian, belonging to the self-evidently dominant tradition, with other theological movements, such as womanism or Jewish and Muslim feminism. Here is a white, West-European woman, becoming aware of her own prejudices and privileges, and attempting to overcome them. Is this a desperate move? Can one really overcome one’s own prejudice? Can one be fully aware of it?

It’s a question I often ask myself as a theologian – how much are we involved in power games? are we capable of unmasking them by ‘listening’ to our victims – as this victimhood often remains defined by ourselves: is the way we speak about victims not again a power game and a show of our (veiled) superiority? The question is important not only for white feminist theologians who become aware of their own racist or sexist bias, but for theologians in general, particularly in a global world marked by so much contradiction and injustice? What is it that will move “superior theologians” – and I count myself between these materially privileged people – to think and act differently? How would we, as Pharaohs, react to Moses’ plea for his people? How would we, as Pharisees, react to Jesus’ unyielding criticism? Can we do theology while standing in the position of the accused or of the powerful who abuses his or her power, wealth or prestige?

In a sense, this is the ever-recurring core experience of liberation theologies. It is also the experience at the core of the vows in religious life – poverty, obedience, chastity. How do we stand at the foot of the Lord’s cross, as those who continue to crucify him in our selfish power games? How can we not let the fact that we are whiskey priests (Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”) overrun our commitments to the suffering and excluded people whom our loving God serves?

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3 responses to “The Ambiguities of White Feminist Theologies

  1. Your reflection ties in with some of my current thinking about polarization in the church. I have been following the writing of a young American theologian Charles Camosy from Fordham. He has a five point reflection:

    • Humility. We are finite, flawed beings and are prone to making serious mistakes. We need to enter into discussions and arguments with this at the very front of our minds — not only in being comfortable with someone challenging our point of view, but also reserving the right to change our mind when our argument is shown to be problematic.

    • Solidarity with our conversation partner. This involves active listening, presuming that one has something to learn, and (if possible) getting to know them personally beyond an abstraction. Never reduce another’s ideas because of their gender, race, level of privilege, sexual orientation, or social location. Similarly, never reduce them to what you suspect are their “secret personal motivations.” Instead, give your partner the courtesy of carefully responding to the actual idea or argument that she is offering for your consideration.

    • Avoiding binary thinking. The issues that are seriously debated in our public sphere are almost always too complex to fit into simplistic categories like liberal/conservative, religious/secular, open/close-minded, pro-life/pro-choice, etc. Furthermore, it sets up framework in which taking one side automatically defines one against “the other side” — thus further limiting serious and open engagement.

    • Avoiding fence-building and dismissive words and phrases. It might feel good to score these rhetorical points, but doing so is one of the major contributors to our polarized discourse. Let us simply stop using words and phrases like: radical feminist, war on women, neocon, limousine liberal, prude, heretic, tree-hugger, anti-science, anti-life, and so on. Instead, use language that engages and draws the other into a fruitful engage of ideas.

    • Leading with what you are for. Not only is this the best way to make a convincing case for the view you currently hold, but this practice often reveals that we are actually after very similar things and simply need to be able to talk in an open and coherent way about the best plan for getting there.

  2. These remarks do not discredit the validity of the theology being done by Cone in a particular context. His theology is an effective and appropriate instrument for its primary task. I would call this “black caucus theology.” By this I mean that it is shaped to function in a confrontational fashion within a white power base. It places demands of conscience on white power and seeks to appropriate its advantages for the training of black leadership. But contrary to what Cone himself often declares, I think his kind of theology primarily addresses white people. Its content originally was little penetrated by the spirit of the black experience as an alternate source of theological themes. Its substance was taken from German dialectical theology, something Cone has continually defended as appropriate. He has essentially turned white theology upside down in order to reveal its hidden racist ideology.

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