Posted by: Kimber Terese | February 23, 2009

Finding A Voice

Imagine a world where you simply assumed the next president was a female, where all top company supervisors were women, and powerful, positive attributes included “nurturing, compassionate, and mothering”. It took this image to make myself to truly realize the separation of gender in our society. In all honesty, I always felt comfortable being led by men, accepting that there perhaps was a biological reason that they were simply more fit for powerful positions. However, through time and experience, I have realized that men fit comfortably into a world in which men have built. Constructs of society and culture fit patriarchy due to the fact that they have been created under it. The oppression of women will never disappear without seriously undertaking a reconstruction of our entire system.

In chapter five of Elizabeth Johnson’s book, The Quest for the Living God, the theological perspective of women is looked at closely. Johnson describes the experience of women within the context of social, political, and theological realms. By addressing some of the issues here, she discovers a God who reaches out to women and expresses divine maternity through creation. In this chapter as well as the following few, Johnson refers to a specific group of people who experience a form of oppression, and how this has both shaped and reformed their theology. In a sense, they have created a vision of the “living God” who supports and manifests their own personal situation, guiding them along the path. The victimization of women in the world occurs through violence, subordination, inequality, and marginalization, to name a few. Johnson analyzes the impact of women’s position in society on their theological views and explains the benefits of “God acting womanish”.

To begin her chapter Johnson describes the situation of women in the world today. A quote she uses concerns me, however, due to its implications. As she states, “While women make up one-half of the world’s population, they work three-fourths of the world’s working hours, receive one-tenth of the world’s salary, own one one-hundredth of the planet’s land, and constitute two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults,” (91). It seems to me that equality of the sexes here is diminished to equality of power. This description paints a picture of a world concerned only with work, money, and ownership. Not to discount the quote, however, because I do believe statistics such as these are important to consider. What I would like to point out is that we should certainly not reduce feminism to this narrow view. Seeking equality of the sexes includes giving women a voice in the world, allowing them opportunities, avoiding giving power to stereotypes, and reforming our minds outside of androcentrism.

A crucial moment in history for women is marked by Johnson in this chapter. As she describes it, it is precisely when women realized that God loves women. For such an apparently simple realization, this contained generations of significance and layers of understanding. Women came to understand their oppression as an effect of a corrupted society, rather than given by God. The fact is that this thought had not actually crossed the minds of women to this extent in the past. Throughout patriarchal history, women psychological placed themselves below men, accepting their subordination without knowing why. This train of thought took years to turn around, pushing against the norms of society.

Luckily, the events of the past century have brought women into a stage of empowerment. The rise of the feminist ideals has allowed women to begin making their mark in the social and political context. Elizabeth Johnson points out several other movements that signify the extent to which women are fighting for their dignity. African American women in the United States fight their struggle with a “womanish” theology, upholding the idea of a strong and loving image of the female. In the Latina community, mujerista theology seeks peace in the midst of oppression due ethnicity and gender. As Johnson remarks, “All these theologies seek understandings and affirm practices that nourish women’s relationship to God while supporting their struggles for survival, which encompass the communities from which they cannot be separated,” (95). Women have expanded their view of theology to fight against oppressors in their personal community. They refuse to let social oppression affect their view of God.

To move forward with this chapter, we will look deeper at the implications of the situation of women in the context of religion. To begin, it is important to ask the question: Do religious structures oppress women? In light of historical data and the current situation of women, the answer is clear: to a certain degree, yes. But the important question to consider is: Is religion the true cause of this oppression? In his book, Is Religion Dangerous?, Keith Ward has a chapter entitled, “The corruptibility of all things human”, where he explores the dangers within all institutions. He argues that in practice, human structures and institutions are inevitably corrupt. Furthermore, religious structures are not free from this corruption. A particular religion is situated within a historical, social and political framework from which it cannot be separated. Taking this context into account is crucial. In a patriarchal society, religion has been brought up as a patriarchal system.

Continuing with this concept, it is helpful to look at the oppression of women in light of an analysis on structural violence. This particular form of violence is found among human institutions. Oppression occurs in the systematic realm that makes it difficult to find who is guilty. Across the globe, those in poverty are victims of this structure, unable to pull themselves away from it. They seek hope in the face of God. As Johnson states in her previous chapter, our God is a God who works for justice. With divine help, we can find ways to overcome this oppression. Other theologians have explored this form of violence as well. Walter Wink, in his book “The Powers that Be” names this structural violence the “Domination System”. As he explains, it is a network of Powers which extends into all systems globally. It is characterized by unjust relations and the use of violence to maintain them. To Walter Wink, this oppression can only be overcome by taking a nonviolent stance against these powers. Instead of engaging in violence, women are working together with society to claim their dignity and refuse oppression.

In conclusion, in light of Keith Ward and Elizabeth Johnson, we find that religion is not the cause of oppression against women. Rather, it is an effect of the corruption within all human institutions. While this does not justify it, it does not claim a danger that is specific to religion. As we see in Johnson’s chapter, the truth is that women are not sitting silent. They are constantly working to correct these oppressive systems, and find a voice among the men. Little by little, they are showing the world how to achieve equality. We must keep in mind that religious faith is a cultural, developing phenomenon that must fight against the corruption of humanity. Our human faults may contaminate systems, but religion will continue to attempt to seek the good in all institutions.

The oppression of women in religion may be a place where New Atheists point at to expose religious discrimination. However, women across the globe are fighting for their dignity politically, socially, and religiously. They are not sitting back, accepting subordination. This chapter reveals the force in which women are using to stand up for their dignity. Their past oppression is not an effect of religious domination, but rather an effect of human faults across history. To end with Johnson, “This entails that the church be called away from its own deeply ingrained patriarchy to build communities of the discipleship of equals…It also challenges people of faith to collaborate in the struggle to transform society into a place where discrimination, exclusion, and violence against women and girl-children will cease and where women of all races and classes will be mutual partners with men rather than subordinate auxiliaries or marginalized objects,” (110).



  1. I agree that religious institutions are not the only place where violence and oppression occurs, it is rampant throughout society. Living in a historically patriarchal and androcentric culture, these ideas do seep into the framework of institutions and structures within that society. However the scandal of finding these same oppressive ideas and systems at work within the church, is that the Church is supposed to be witnessing to the love of the Divine, the truth of the life lived by Jesus Christ, and actively working to bring about the Kingdom of God. Patriarchy is not part of God’s plan. Anything that denies the full humanity of a person denies the fully glory of God and the Spirit. Thus, the Church has not only the opportunity but the mission to work against norms in society which lead to oppression and violence, and instead promote a community of equals who are respected and given the freedom to develop into whole persons.

  2. Jen, I understand your point and agree that the Church needs to be reminded of their goal to actively work for the Kingdom of God. What is important to realize is how intricately woven religion is with its society and surrounding institutions. As I pointed out, our culture is simply beginning to move away from oppression against women. The patriarchal system continues to be dominant in society, thus it pervades within religion. Which needs to change first? In my opinion, it is society that *must* change, but religion that holds the *duty* to change. As you said, the Church can fight against these norms. However, in order to truly achieve success, a thorough and complete shift must occur in all systems. We have only taken our first couple steps into making this leap.

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