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Religion, Theology and Self-Improvement Sundays: Women, Religion, Theology and Society Part 8

This week we conclude our look at Bishop Shelby Spong's Born of a Woman as it relates to the tremendous impact that theology and religion have had on the view of women and the role that women are able to achieve in society. You may not agree with his opinions but Bishop Spong makes a very interesting argument worth considering.

He writes:

Marina Warner, in her analysis of the role the virgin has played in history, suggested that in those lands where the virgin was particularly popular the status of women was particularly low. James Freeman drives home this same point when he suggests that "mother-goddess worship stands in inverse relationship to high secular status for women." The mother-goddess is unconscious compensation, he argues, for women's actual role. It is an ineffective form of rebellion against the denigration of women.

The emancipation of women has come primarily in those parts of the world in which the Protestant Reformation kicked over the sexual stereotypes of both virgin Mary and Mother Church. Corazon Aquino was one of the rare women in the twentieth century to achieve political power in a pre-dominantly Roman Catholic country, and she had three things going for her that made her situation unique. She was the widow of the primary political rival to Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Her husband was in fact murdered by Marcos, and therefore she became his political and spiritual heir. She was backed by James Cardinal Sin, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Phillipines. Finally she had the backing of key military generals. Without all three of three of those sources of male power she could not have achieved her position. Indeed, her public demeanor of simple piety, obedience to the church and military, and the absence of personal political ambitions made her a "safe" female candidate, a symbol easily controlled behind the scenes by powerful males. Her hold on political power was always tenuous and rested upon the willingness of the background male figures to continue to offer support. Compare that to the figure of Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" of Protestant England's politics in the 1980s who ruled, won elections, and scuttled her enemies in her own name and with her own power. She even appointed the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London and bent the Church of England to her own political purposes. Corazon Aquino and Margaret Thatcher reveal vastly different definitions of what it means to be a woman. Those definitions, I argue, rise out of the still-alive denigration of women that marked traditional Christianity in the case of Mrs. Aquino and a rebellion against that traditional Christian definition of women that was part of the Reformation, which produced Mrs. Thatcher.

My point is that beginning with the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke and carrying on through the rise of Mary as a figure in Christian theology, we are not dealing with the image of a real woman in Christian history. Mary is a male-created female figure who embodies the kind of woman dominant males think is ideal- docile, obedient, powerless.

Next week we will look at a more contemporary example of how scripture and tradition are used in an attempt to justify a subservient role for women…

Cedric Muhammad

Sunday, December 10, 2000

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