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Theologians explore women, violence and religion

The role religion plays in violence towards women was the topic of a ‘summer school’ that Methodist Church of NZ vice president Dr Barbara Peddie and Wesley Wellington presbyter Rev Dr Lynne Frith attended in England in late July.

Theologians from all over the world attended the event, which was organised by the Britain and Ireland School of Feminist Theology and held at the University of Winchester. Lynne says she and Barbara were two of the six Kiwis, Australians and South Africans who were there.

“We called ourselves the Antipodean representatives. Although that was somewhat tongue in cheek, all six of us had collective and individual reflections shaped by our experiences in post colonial societies,” Lynne says.

“Our societies are still dealing with the violence associated with colonialism. Colonial governments suppressed the languages, cultures and traditions of native peoples. Missionary endeavours were part of that as Christianity was held up as a so-called superior religion.

“Women are often the carriers of tradition and custom. Some indigenous women faced overt violence, and the consequences of racism and discrimination have been far reaching and enduring.”

Speakers at the conference included philosophers of religion, feminist theologians, and scholars of religious studies. Lynne says while she was already familiar with some of the topics discussed, overall the event was stimulating and challenging.

“The most challenging to me was the keynote talk by Dr Beverley Clack who discussed violence and the maternal. Christianity has always had an ambivalent attitude toward mothers. While motherhood is romanticised through the depiction of Mary, there is hostility toward women when they fail to act in that way.

“For this reason there is an especially vitriolic response toward women who kill. It is seen as an unwomanly thing to do, something that is not quite human,” Lynne says.

“It made me reflect on my own experience as a woman candidate for ministry in the 1970s. I faced hostility from other women, especially the wives of other students, for stepping outside the traditional role of clergy wife.

“It also makes me wonder about the backlash against women holding political power in New Zealand. It seems there is a subconscious reaction against women holding public power that is visible in such derogatory terms as ‘the nanny state’.”

Among the other speakers at the school was Dr Rosemary Ruether from the University of California, Berkeley. Rosemary is considered a pioneer in the area of feminist theology and is well known to many NZ women because she visited here 30 years ago.

The title of Rosemary’s talk was The Politics of God. She discussed how the language used in religion and theology can reinforce destructive hierarchies of class, race, and gender.

“Rosemary asked if God can ever be truly ecological,” Lynne says. “She argued it is hard to untangle universal monotheism from imperialism. The belief in God seems to lead humans to assume absolute power over others and the environment. If that is ever to be reversed we need to use different God language in order to change our thinking and attitudes.”

Lynne says feminist theology was both more radical and more widespread in the church 30 years ago. That was also a time when questions of race and the structures of power were also more sharply in focus.

“The church used to have training programmes on the Treaty of Waitangi, sexual harassment, and anti racism. With the disbanding of the Conference of Churches of Aotearoa NZ we no longer have the ecumenical bodies to address those topics.

“Many people think questions of race and gender have gone away. But issues of power and control are always with us. We need to courageously and openly address them in the life of the church and in society.”