Receiving the Gifts of Feminist Theologies

In the gospel of Matthew, a curious meeting occurs between Jesus and a woman from Canaan.

Seeing the famed healer, the woman cries out to him to help her daughter, tormented by a demon. When Jesus does not reply, she continues to cry out, until Jesus’ disciples demand that he send her away, because “she keeps shouting after us!” Jesus does not think that this woman’s problem is worth his attention. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and then, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman, undaunted, replies: “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In the face of her persistence, Jesus changes his mind, commends her faith, and heals her daughter (15:21-28).

This passage is remarkable in part because Jesus is challenged, and changed, by an encounter with a woman from outside of his culture. At first he recognizes the Canaanite woman as “a dog” instead of a child of God. Only after witnessing her courage and faith is Jesus able to see her as worthy of his attention and God’s healing power.

I am often reminded of this story when witnessing how Christian churches respond to the questions and challenges of feminist perspectives. There are a great diversity of ideologies and movements that emerge from the basic idea that women are socially and theologically equal to men. Taken together, they ask the church to consider widening its thinking and its mission. Too often, we respond with irritation: “She keeps shouting after us!”

However, like Jesus, we have much to learn. Our church, which has been built in societies disproportionately influenced by the perspectives of men of privilege, has too often failed to adequately serve those like the Canaanite woman — those with different cultural or gender identities, economic circumstances, or life experiences.

The gift of womanist, mujerista, white feminist, and other theologies is in their encouragement to discern how our faith and our churches might be transformed if we took seriously the experience and wisdom of those who have been marginalized. From a preaching perspective, valuing these voices means re-examining the kinds of stories we tell, our relationship to those who are listening, and the ways we describe the God whom we are worshiping together.

The stories that we share in our preaching, whether from scripture or beyond, are powerful tools for shaping the consciousness of our church communities. Therefore, we must consider seriously the stories we use and the messages they send:

  • What person or group created this story? Is there diversity in the sources and perspectives of the stories I use?
  • Does this story widen the perspective of my congregation, inviting them to experience fellowship with those whom they have experienced as “other”?
  • Does this story do anything to broaden our understanding of what it means to be male, female, white, Latino, homosexual, physically able, human or divine? Does it tell us something new about ourselves, our neighbors, or God?
  • Is this story good news for everyone, including the least powerful person in my congregation and community?
  • Is this a story that may need to be re-told, in order to speak God’s truth today?

Pulpit and Pew
When we begin to preach, it is not only important what stories we bring, but what our attitude is towards those whom we are preaching to.

  • Do we seek always to instruct, or also to empower those who listen? How can the congregation be our partners in the practice of preaching and ministry?
  • How can we learn more about the concerns of the community we preach to? Are we speaking to all who are gathered, or only to some?
  • How can we make room in the pulpit (literally and figuratively) for those who are different from ourselves?
  • How can we recognize, both in celebration and critique, the particularity of our own cultural outlook, rather than asserting it as normative?

Images of God
In our scriptures and throughout Christian history, there is a great diversity of ways to name and understand God. Why is it that this bounty is so seldom explored on Sunday mornings in our churches? We are in great danger of falling into the trap of idolatry by using on a few words or phrases to name the great mystery of the God who says, “I will be who I will be.”

  • What names, adjectives, or metaphors are used for God in our services?
  • Are the most holy or most common names for God always male? Does maleness seem to be the most important attribute of God communicated in our services?
  • Is God’s power recognized as separate from the people, or working within the people? Who does God’s power seem to be “for”?
  • How do our images of God bring hope to those who have experienced abuse, oppression, or doubt?

We are the inheritors of a profound tradition. It is divinely inspired and influenced by both the gifts and limitations of humanity. Feminist theologies ask us to discern which parts of our tradition are truly holy, and which show the marks of our human mistakes. They offer us new opportunities to make the church a more welcoming place, and to proclaim a message which is good news to all.