The bishops are all hot and bothered about women in the church again, and, as usual, it is a nun who has driven them to distraction.
People who believe in divine revelation universally agree that revelation is received through language. Language expresses and is shaped by the culture in which it is spoken. Language reflects the cultural biases of the people who speak. Language is continually changing in response to cultural shifts (witness the recent addition of “lol” to official dictionaries of the English language), but language also shapes culture, influences the way that human beings understand their relationships to one another and the world at large. Language–a cultural legacy inherited from our human ancestors–probably shapes us more than we shape it.
The Catholic Bishops currently harassing and censoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, an internationally respected theologian, largely agree with this explanation of language as a culturally conditioned, living mode of communication. They also agree that divine revelation comes through language. Yet they perversely and incoherently insist that masculine imagery of the divine in the Bible has nothing to do with human culture, and is simply the direct expression of the deity. God is male, they insist, and anyone who suggests that we use a gender-neutral language to refer to the deity should be punished. Never mind that academics, scholars of religion and theologians alike, have been addressing the question of gender, and the choice of pronouns for the divine, with little controversy for 50 years.
A committee of backward-thinking American bishops have accused Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches theology at Fordham University, a Catholic institution, of violating church doctrine because she carries on this half-century of scholarship. The Bishops oppose all scholars who ask whether or not God is male.
Sister Johnson irritates the bishops because she supports granting women greater authority in the church and because she speaks to organizations that promote same-sex marriage. She irritates the bishops because she underscores the sexism in the rule that says only persons with a penis can administer the Word and blessings of god. She irritates the bishops because she points out that men have always controlled the Catholic church and used it as a means to perpetuate patriarchal privilege. “All-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relations between women and men, and they function to maintain this relationship,” she writes in her most recent book, Quest for the Living God. This kind of statement really pisses them off, and that is why the bishops want to ban it.
I, for one, am going straight out to get and read her book.
Christian extremists have not quite taken hold of the country, but they pose an emergent, lethal threat to women, men, and children in the United States of America. They do not constitute the majority of Americans, who largely trust women to make their own decisions about their reproductive health. Nevertheless, a vocal and fiercely religious minority have gained ground in state and federal legislatures and in right-wing media conglomerates such as Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which host women-haters and homophobes on a regular basis. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that contraception is good for society, and most think that in most circumstances abortion should be legal. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes contraception, and a variety of evangelical Protestant organizations have helped to elect politicians now in national and state offices. The legislation that these Christian extremists support would severely harm women, girls, children and men by preventing them from receiving vital STD screenings, routine gynecological care, contraception, and information about safe sex. They also present dangerous precedents for legalizing excessive government intrusion into private life. They would allow the State to regulate human bodies as it has never done before and force women to remain pregnant, even if the pregnancy would kill them. Consider the most recent legislation that candidates supported by Christian extremists have proposed or passed in Congress:
The Pence amendment: the continuing resolution on the national budget, which was passed by the House, includes an amendment that would eliminate all funding for Title X family planning, even though none of this money funds abortions. The Congresswomen and men who voted for this resolution officially declared their opposition to programs that currently provide poor women with gynecological care, pap smears, HIV and other STD testing, cancer screenings, contraception and information about safe sexual practices.
H.R. 358, also known as the “Let Women Die Act,” sponsored by right-winger Joe Pitts (R-PA) and 137 other Representatives, encourages emergency rooms to let women die rather than perform abortions that would save their lives, urges providers to refuse to offer training or referrals related to abortion, and, most infamously, redefines rape in such a way that would exclude most sexual attacks.
H.R. 3, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and 209 co-sponsors, would require the IRS to monitor and impose tax burdens on Americans whose PRIVATE insurance covers abortion. As NOW observes: ” In testifying in favor of this bill in committee, a representative from the Catholic bishops proudly supported revoking abortion rights even in cases of rape. You read that right — and isn’t that rich, coming from the very men who have consistently protected sexually abusive priests?”
H.R. 217, sponsored by Christian extremist Mike Pence (R-IN) and 168 other Representatives, is another version of the Pence amendment. It may die in Committee, but it will live and become law the U.S. Catholic Bishops and other Protestant groups have their way.
Recent action promoted by Christian extremists in the State legislatures
South Dakota: Be grateful if you don’t live in South Dakota, where Christian extremists tried to legalize the assassination of abortion providers and have shut down all but one abortion clinic. On Tuesday the House passed a bill (49-19) that would force women who go to this last refuge to endure “counseling” designed to discourage them from having an abortion. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is agonizing enough for most women who must make it, but South Dakota extremists want to make choice even more unpleasant for women by imposing a 72-hour waiting period between the time that they meet with their doctors and have an abortion. If this bill passes, State will incur approximately $1 million in legal costs defending it in court.
Nebraska: The Christian extremists nextdoor have introduced a bill nearly identical to the one that stalled in South Dakota, defining the murder of anyone who supports abortion a “justifiable homicide.” State Senator and devout Protestant Mark Christensen, who opposes abortion in all circumstances, including rape, introduced this legislation, L.B. 232, this week. Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood told the Nebraska State Judiciary Committee that this bill “authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”
Pennsylvania: The State of Pennsylvania unfairly requires teens under the age of 18 to get their parents’ consent before having an abortion. If they are unable or afraid to get their parent’s consent, they can bypass the regulation by going through the courts. The legislation does not grant the judge to force a teen to remain pregnant against her will, but a recently elected Allegheny State Judge thinks it does. Judge Philip Ignelzi recently ruled that a girl just shy of her 18th birthday may not have an abortion, even though abortion is still legal in this country. We must not underestimate the great psychological and physical burden that this judge has just imposed on a young woman in our supposedly free country.
Georgia: Woman-hating State Representative Bobby Franklin (R), who wants all rape victims to be called “accusers,” introduced legislation that would not only label all abortions “fetal murder” but require the police to investigate every miscarriage as a potential homicide. Hospitals would be required to keep records on and investigate every single spontaneous death. A Uterus Police? What’s next? A regulatory apparatus to test the daily flow of women having their periods to insure that they haven’t unwittingly discharged “baby” parts, also known as fertilized eggs or zygotes?
We do not yet force women to veil themselves from head to toe, prohibit them from reading, or exclude them from public office, but if Christian extremists who seek to impose their private, religious views on the rest of us get their way, we could soon find ourselves living in a society not unlike the Republic of Gilead imagined in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Amanda Marcotte, who thinks a lot like I do, already made this rather obvious and somewhat overblown point. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that bad things happen to people who refuse to speak out against injustice. As Offred (Of Fred) recalls in Atwood’s important 1986 novel:
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of then were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives (Anchor, 1998: 56-57).
The debate over abortion has much to do with religion, but it shouldn’t. On one side there are the pro-choice people, who may be Christians or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or atheists, but who do not want to impose their beliefs on other people. They think women have the right to make their own decisions about their reproduction. On the other side are the extremists who are eager–desperate, even–to impose their religious views on everyone else. They do not trust women to make their own ethical choices. Curiously, these very same “forced-birthers” also very often claim to be against the expansion of government and for a fiscal responsibility. Yet they can’t stop themselves from introducing obviously unconstitutional legislation that would grossly broaden the State’s powers and that wastes everyone’s time and taxpayers’ money in the legal system. This legislation is not only irresponsible, as Rep. Jackie Speiers (D-CA) reminded Chris Smith and other Christian extremists who would have put her in jail for having a late-abortion of a fetus that her uterus had already rejected. “What does this have to do with reducing the deficit?” she asked. “Nothing at all.” This legislation is not only sponsored by ignorant, bigoted men and women who have nothing but contempt for the black “babies” they claim to be saving, as Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out during the same floor debate. Moore thundered:
I just want to tell you what it’s like not to have planned parenthood. … You have to give your kids ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry. You have to give them mayonnaise sandwiches. They get very few fruits and vegetables because they’re expensive. It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty.
This legislation imposes the views of a small but increasingly powerful minority of Christian extremists who are only too happy to keep Black women and children down, a small but powerful minority of Christian extremists who believe that God is male and that this deity intended men to have most of the privileges and power in the world because men, more like god than women, are fundamentally superior to women. This legislation is not merely the expression, , but also the weapon, of frighteningly hierarchical ideologues whom we tolerate and ignore at our peril.
Wake up from the “bad dream dreamt by others” and take action against religious extremism in America today:
What is happening in Yemen and why should we care? Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week. She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her. He has no idea where she is. “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”
Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah. She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.
With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,
Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights. She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular. She has also advocated taking off the veil. In a recent interview by WJC, she said:
I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.
Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation. In that same interview, she stated,
I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.
Will we hear from Tawakul again? Probably not, unless the international community speaks out. The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women dissidents.
On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down. They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province. [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:
The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights
These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable. But will they be heard? What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?
What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years. A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations. Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.
I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen. The official name of this political party is “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen, “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: “Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party”, cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].
Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women. Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion. Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa. A similar, tragic transformation took place in Iran.
To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women. Clearly, they are not. My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.
For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government. There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.
I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it. And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion. And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people.
So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy. The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman. Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution. We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government. We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.