March 25, 2015 the Rev. Dr. June C. Goudey
Thank you for asking me to participate in this 30 year celebration of the Anna Howard Shaw Center’s ministry to Women. Let me begin by saying how thankful I am that I was offered the opportunity by Margaret Wiborg and Mary Lou Greenwood Boice to be the first Anna Howard Shaw Scholar in 1987. I was privileged to work closely with Margaret for the next six years overseeing many Women and the Word events as well as share my own research on Re-Imaging Communion in 1994. I was also profoundly influenced by the Center’s 1989 Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium. The Christian Century marked the importance of this effort by devoting the cover of their July 11, 1990 issue to my article “Theologians Re-Imaging Redemption”.
In the following issue three letters to the editor decried this symposium as nothing more than a new age phenomenon presenting the patriarchal male as the devil incarnate and bordering on idolatry: all this because the symposium suggested that women were looking for “alternative ways of understanding the power that saves and heals us”.
Because we were living then in an era that sought to “depatriachalize” the Bible, The Christian Century’s cover presented 8 panels representing the fading out of a male angel and the emerging of a female angel: a not so subtle reference to the role that re-imaging was coming to play in feminist and womanist theologies. To be clear, The Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium was not breaking new ground; it was taking seriously the work already being done by thoughtful and articulate women!
In 1973 Phyllis Trible’s “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation” appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. In 1974 Beacon press published Mary Daly’s groundbreaking book Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. In 1978 Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality challenged patriarchal readings that diminished the role of women, particularly Genesis 2-3. At the same time psychologists were redefining women’s experience.
The self-in-relation research of the Stone Center at Wellesley College was empowered by Jean Baker Miller’s 1976 book, Toward a New Psychology of Women. This critical work transformed our understanding of ourselves as separate and independent beings. As women reclaimed their voices from the long-imposed silence of internalized oppression the stage was set for a new wave of research that would transform notions of redemption and atonement and shake the foundations of Christianity far more than Paul Tillich could ever have imagined.
Indeed Carter Heyward’s 1982 publication of her Doctoral dissertation The Redemption of God relied heavily on the power of relation. In Heyward’s words, to worship a messianic figure is to lose touch with our power in relation and ultimately distance ourselves from God.
In 1982 Carole Gilligan’s In a Different Voice revolutionized women’s experience by allowing women’s voices to have their own integrity. Her work was followed in 1987 by Mary Field Belenky’s Women’s Ways of Knowing. This “knowing” by women took seriously the role that Christianity played in the continued domination of women and the undermining of women’s well-being.
I’m sure any one of you could name a number of authors that influenced your own maturation on these issues; but for me the1989 publication of Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and STH’s own Carole Bohn offered a major life-line of clarity for my own concerns regarding the Eucharist. The first essay, “For God so Loved the World” written By Rebecca Parker and Joanne Carlson Brown allowed me to postulate my own feminist critique of atonement imagery that ultimately became my doctoral dissertation. As you can see the context for our Re-imaging Redemption Symposium was well-established and building momentum even as we gathered.
The six presenters at the symposium appealed to art and imagination to “challenge old assumptions about human life, divine power and Jesus Christ as the only true redeemer.” Artist and United Church of Christ pastor Barbara Gerlach was moved by the poet Muriel Rukeyser to demonstrate her own courage by sharing through art the story of her own recovery from childhood abuse. Rukeyser once wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Gerlach encouraged those present to acknowledge and utilize their own painful memories and experiences and then to work out their own salvation “in fear and trembling.” In this symposium and in the years to follow women were indeed empowered to tell the truth about their lives using their own ethnic lenses to challenge all variations of oppression.
Carter Heyward, professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School broadened the concept of divine redemption by suggesting that redemption is in part our mutual responsibility. Through right-relation with one another, she argued, “we can and must lay claim to the christic power inherent in our humanity.” Rita Nakashima Brock, professor at Pacific Lutheran University, used the insights of her 1988 Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power to express her understanding of the Christa community. Brock challenged the “eraser theory” of male theologizing that “rubs women out of the picture,” even when the Gospels herald their perseverance and faithfulness. In her own words, Brock argued: “We cannot rely on one past event to save our future.” Instead it takes each and every one of us to appreciate the “fragile, resilient interconnections” that we share with others to empower us in the face of suffering and pain. New Testament scholar Gail Paterson Corrington documented the ways that the female image has been excluded from the personae of the deity in Christianity and found her images of redemption in pre-Christian figures such as Isis and Sophia.
Womanist Theologians Jacquelyn Grant of The International Theological center in Atlanta and Delores Williams of Drew University Divinity School, challenged their feminist sisters not to allow their own anti-sexist critiques to ignore the injustices borne by women and men of color. Grant took the notion of servanthood to task by saying that black people know all too well that “some are more servants than others.” Redemption, she argues, “happens wherever the struggle for liberation is” present. Delores Williams explored the painful ambiguity of coerced and voluntary surrogacy as a structure of domination in black women’s lives. Williams focused on the role of “mammy” whereby black women stood in the place of the slave owner’s wife and were given considerable authority in domestic matters by their owners. And yet Williams reminded us Mammy remained a captive. To re-image redemption, Williams offered this ruling principle: “To re-image redemption is to re-image creation and to re-image creation is to re-image relation.”
This insight into the power of relation was hardly a new concept. An ancient African Proverb proclaims, “I am because you are.” What was new, though, was women’s ability to give voice to their own experience and to have women scholars in positions of power to make a difference in the collective consciousness of women.
Our Symposium ruffled feathers. But ours was an academic exercise. Ritual, with the exception of a closing spiral dance, was absent. To that extent we were spared the venomous reactions that followed Re-Imagining, the 1993 global interfaith conference that gathered twenty two hundred clergy, laypeople, and feminist theologians in Minneapolis in response to the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988–1998. The repercussions of this event were felt far and wide as conservative groups such as the Confessing Christ movement in the UCC and the Good News people in the Methodist tradition vilified anyone who dared to challenge traditional views of salvation through sacrificial atonement. The suggestion that female metaphors for God allowed women to experience Christianity anew seemed to rally the forces of opposition even as inclusive language became a means of grace for women and men alike.
Some 26 years later, the power unleashed by women who dared to tell the truth of their own story has indeed split open the world. These women, joined by women and men who experienced sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, have moved the church to the margins of spirituality where it resides to this day. It remains to be seen if the institutional church can recover from its self-inflicted wounds or whether the power of relation and the power of re-imaging will be able to transform the nature of ministry handed down to us. There will always be tradionalists who cling to constricted images of the divine and humanity itself; but re-imaging is the genie in the bottle that can never be put back.
Women and the World, its predecessor Women and the Word, and the Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium of 1989 played a key role in the breaking open of numerous oppressive worlds. For this critically important work I heartily acknowledge the courage of Anna Howard Shaw and the women who seek to make her legacy as relevant as ever to people of faith everywhere. For this I say, “Deo Gratias!
Dr. Goudey received her Th.D in Feminist Theology and Worship from BUSTH in 1993. She is the author of The Feast of Our Lives: Re-Imaging Communion published in 2002 by the Pilgrim Press. Recently retired after 35 years as a pastor and teacher in the United Church of Christ, Dr. Goudey lives in Northern California with her wife of thirty years.