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Jesus from an Ecofeminist Perspective

Jesus from an Ecofeminist Perspective

Ivonne Gebara, from Longing for Running Water, Ecofeminism and Liberation , Chapter 5.

Translated from the Portuguese by David Molineaux , publ. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1999.

There is a history of dogmas and speculations, just as there is a history of States. Very old customs, legal systems and institutions continue in existence long after they have lost their meaning. That which once has been does not want to lose its right to eternity; what was once a good thing wants to be so now and for time immemorial.

Ludwig Feuerbach, L’Essence du christianisme

Ludwig Feuerbach, who was no ecologist or feminist, prompts me to speak of Jesus. He reminds me of the need to avoid eternalizing our religious formulations as if they were requirements of life itself. He invites me to keep alive the flame of the challenges and questions that life offers us now, and to seek to express my relationship with Jesus in the light of the challenges of our time.

How to speak of Jesus in light of the ecofeminist perspective I am developing? How to speak of him not just with methodological coherence, but out of my own relational life experience?

I would like to begin by sharing my own journey with Jesus. It is easier for me to speak in the first person. At certain points in the journey, questions and answers will appear as the moment calls for them. There is nothing extraordinary about my story, but I think that, along the way, some men (and perhaps many women) will identify with my experiences. To speak of one’s own journey is simply to share some segments of the road one has walked, without trying to construct a full-blown system of thought based on texts published with a pretext of “scientific” rigor. My personal journey is an expression of my own quest, of things I have experienced in everyday life and of the questions and the need for answers that are part of any human life. My personal journey is also marked by the questions of many people I encounter. In speaking of their experiences, they share their own relationships with Jesus within a context far removed from that of rigorous dogmatic formulations. I will, then, move along my path of everyday faith life, with all the limitations this kind of description brings with it.

After this discussion, I will reflect on some aspects of Jesus’ life that seem important to me from an ecofeminist perspective. I want to open up the possibility of a more thoughtful dialogue, one that will help us see why it is necessary to speak of Jesus of Nazareth in a new way.

In practice, these two moments - my everyday faith and an ecofeminist perspective on Jesus - are not separate in my life, but I need to distinguish between them methodologically in order to understand them better. I will not attempt to offer you some new Christology. Many works have been and are being published on this subject, some of them within a feminist or an ecofeminist perspective. (1)

My concern in this reflection is merely to show that logical and existential coherence is required of us if we embrace the ecofeminist perspective and identify ourselves of one Sacred Body with the whole universe. This is not just another formulation we add to the body of doctrines we have learned in the past. Rather, it requires a broader understanding of the universe in which we live, a perception that demands of us the task of adjusting our beliefs to the challenges posed by this new moment in the history of life.

As 1 said, I have neither the desire nor the ambition to build a new Christology to be discussed by professional theologians, nor do 1 want to create a new ecofeminist theological treatise on Jesus. I am not seeking to weave still another garment in which to dress Jesus so as to make him more compatible with the contemporary perspective. Rather, I will begin with the experience of people who seek to remain within the “dialogue” among Jesus’ disciples, to share their current experience and to integrate it with the gospel tradition they have inherited. I would especially like to deal with their discomfort in the face of traditional dogmatic formulas, which they do not find helpful in their deep search for the meaning of life or in their commitment to continue within the discipleship of equals proposed by the Jesus movement.

My question for the Christian faith, and especially for the gospel of Jesus, has to do with the growth of our ecological sensibilities and our struggle against society’s patriarchal structures. My question for the gospel has to do with the devastation of the planet, the elimination of so many species, and the destruction of so many human groups, among whom the most directly affected are the poorest of the economically poor. My question for the gospel of Jesus has to do with the manner in which his “way” has been locked within a rigid dogmatic structure that is prepared to exclude those who have doubts or uncertainties and to repress freedom of thought in the name of some monolithic truth. In the final analysis, my questions have to do with the complicity of religious institutions in social injustice and the use of the gospel of Jesus to serve the interests of a privileged elite.

I believe that through simple dialogue, in the perspective of a life of discipleship in which we come to learn from one another, we will recognize one another as sisters and brothers engaged in the same quest. I believe that in becoming aware of what unites us, even if it happens to be the tragic destruction that surrounds us, we will be able to discover once again the meaning of walking Jesus’ path, which is pluralistic and welcomes the presence of a variety of different paths.

It is within this perspective that I share with you the first point in my reflection.

The Road I Have Walked with Jesus

Jesus and his teachings have played a central and decisive role for me during most of my life. The person of Jesus was the most basic reference point for all my actions. The question “What would Jesus have done in this situation?” was with me all the time. It was a question I learned as a child, above all in Catholic school. But I soon learned also that if I wanted to make it my guide, the starting point was not always the Gospel itself. Often it was the church’s moral teachings and its interpretation of Jesus’ life. And sometimes these teachings required me to understand Jesus’ way as an arduous one, a way that went against my will and prompted me to obey authorities even when their orders were questionable.

As you might expect, it was not always easy to get satisfactory answers about my actions and choices. I was not always sure whether what 1 was doing or thinking was in line with Jesus’ teachings. But l gave myself over fully to the task. I wanted to do it well, and I often felt guilty as I learned how difficult it was to follow Jesus’ will.

My entry into religious life at the age of twenty-two, and my commitment to the struggle for a more just society, also found their justification in my decision to follow Jesus’ teachings. Many years later I was able to examine my personal motivations and discern other elements beyond the following of Jesus that could also be regarded as decisive in these choices.

For a long time in my life, when I had to face misunderstanding and persecution (especially political and religious persecution), I explained my suffering in terms of my adherence to Jesus’ teachings. Referring to Jesus gave me the support and legitimation I needed to justify my choices. It was as if I were following in the footsteps of someone who, despite differences of space, time, and sex, had a unique universality and an extraordinary ability to draw millions and millions of lives into his own. Jesus’ life appeared to illuminate the paths of other lives. His life was an example, a paradigm that sustained those who opted to go through the “narrow gate” of justice and of “bearing one another’s burdens.”

During the last twenty-five years, in the light of liberation theology, it became even clearer that, for me, there was no other path than that of Jesus. In the last analysis, his stance in favor of the poor and outcast, his firm resistance to oppressive powers, and his lack of dogmatism appeared as fundamental touchstones, essential beacons on my journey. All the values I regarded as fundamental I found in him - in the reading of the Gospel texts and in the witness of the first Christians. The value of the body, especially the bodies of the poor and their basic needs, began to show me the degree to which the following of Jesus required a “religion” that started from the body: an incarnated religion, one rooted in human flesh and in the flesh of the earth. The body of the poor forced me to leave behind metaphysical reflections on the mystery of the incarnation in order to explore its material dimensions. I realized that, in my words and in my life, I could deal only with physical incarnations, the joy and pain made manifest in concrete and specific bodies. I came to realize the degree to which suffering and oppressed bodies, silenced bodies, and ostracized bodies had to do with my faith in God’s presence, in the relatedness of this unfathomable mystery which is so timidly grasped by human flesh.

When I began to be interested in feminism and to criticize patriarchy, I assumed a stance of systematic suspicion in dealing with traditional theological texts. This sharpened my perceptions, and new questions arose within me. My questions were not specifically about Jesus but about interpretations of his attitudes and behaviors throughout the centuries. I had a problem with intransigent Christologies and dogmas, and with the authoritarian way in which Jesus’ image was presented. I had a problem with disdain for bodies, especially those of women and of the earth. Some bodies were more severely battered than others, and some sexes were more oppressed than others; there were persecuted races and “hearts” that were disdained, belittled, and abused.

The option for the marginalized in no way disappeared in my thinking, but it broadened and took on more precise forms. The antidogmatic attitudes, openness to dialogue, and mercy I learned as a follower of Jesus in no way disappeared. But I was still bothered by the triumphalism and dogmatism in which christological reflections were couched. I was bothered by the excessive centrality of Jesus, a centrality that gave little space for personal initiativesand especially for women’s initiatives. It was an exaggerated centrality that ended up treating other religious expressions as secondary or as less important. This centrality was so idealistic in its liberating language that it virtually ruled out alternative religious expressions or contrasting discourses. However, I repeat, my issue was not with Jesus but what they said about him, and what they said often left me feeling suffocated. It oppressed me with its grandiosity. It didn’t allow me to breathe deeply, it didn’t nourish me, and it didn’t satisfy my hunger for meaning. I could make existential sense neither of what I read nor of what I had learned about so many theories on the historical Jesus and on the Christ of faith; on his divinity, his consubstantiality with God, and other such matters. My relationship with Jesus, my discourse on Jesus, and my writings on Jesus began to change.

Today I find that the figure of Jesus still enjoys a special place, but that it has to share that place with other figures. Jesus’ figure does not lose its existential centrality, because that centrality in my life has to do with my personal history in the Christian community and the way I express my own hope. But Jesus is no longer the absolute reference in a dogmatic sense, that is, in the way it was presented in the metaphysical Christology that characterized our discourse for centuries. It is a different kind of centrality, one that is more participative, more dialogical, and more open.

To use an analogy, I think the way we refer to Jesus today is like the way we recall favorite dishes of our childhood, those prepared by our mothers or grandmothers. People don’t forget those dishes’ flavors, and they can always go back to them in their memories or when they enjoy something similar.

“Jesus food” continues to nourish me, but it is the food I find in the Gospels, free of dogmatic refinements. It is the food of the New Testament parables and the stories used by very many human groups. It is the unexpected good food people are served in their friends’ and neighbors’ homes, or even on benches on busy street corners. It is the food they receive in letters from friends. It is the daily home-cooked meal in which canned goods are rarely used. I seek this food that is free of dogmatic refinements because the christological dogmatics that have come down to us from Nicaea and Chalcedon, along with their later “refinements,” took away the good flavor of the Jesus-words, along with his sometimes irreverent, disconcerting, daring, and tender behavior. (2) Dogma took a conversation by a well, a shared meal, a tender gesture, a protest against injustice, an expression of gratitude, or a caress, and turned it into “ordered reason,” “systematic reason,” and “science.” Dogma made a prison out of an invitation to freedom, out of poetry; then it added insult to injury by posting armed soldiers dressed as priests at the doors of paradise so nobody could get out or think differently. Dogma appointed authorized teachers to tell the truth about Jesus, and in this way it killed the creativity of moments of grace, informal meetings, kitchen conversations, and walks along riverbanks. When its perspective was radicalized, dogma reduced brotherly and sisterly relationships to hierarchical obedience; it limited the many paths to one path and the multiplicity of loving exchanges to a single authorized discourse. It went about creating fear: fear of disobeying, of mistaken thinking, of failing to reproduce exactly the right word, the wellformulated doctrine, or the “authentic” tradition handed down from Jesus.

Today I like to say that Jesus is both central and noncentral in my life. I say that he has an open, inclusive, affectionate, dialogical, and provocative centrality. I cannot close him into an absolute relationship, one that excludes others. At first glance, it would seem that I live by an absurd or totally paradoxical logic, but this is more or less my experience. Jesus is as central to me as my own life, as my own aloneness, or as a good friendship; at the same time there are other centers that, so to speak, revolve around my life, or around which my life revolves. For example, if I take the Gospel text in Luke 7:36-50, Jesus’ meeting with the so-called sinful woman, I always try to put the central role of Jesus “in parentheses” and listen to the woman as well. How much of her own life she has invested in love! This woman, who is called a sinner, shows us the importance of investing in our own liberation and the importance of loving ourselves, especially for women. We women were trained, in the Christian tradition, to serve “others,” to seek to please “others,” to deny ourselves for the sake of “others,” and to obey authority figures - and we ended up forgetting the need to live the two poles of love: love of oneself and love of one’s neighbor. It was not Jesus who ordered the woman to seek him; it was her initiative and her struggle, and the love that was born of her own heart.

This brings to mind that, in Latin America, we are always depending on somebody to do us a favor so that we can live with dignity. We depend on politicians, bosses, priests, and God. A patriarchal reading of the Gospels has always insisted that we center our attention on Jesus: on his actions, his teachings, and the miracles he worked. It said salvation, the most perfect love, and the solutions to our problems come from him. But why not pay attention to this sinful and nameless woman; why not pay attention to the man with the withered hand, to the paralytic, to the woman with an issue of blood, to the children? Why not imagine instead that it was the women themselves who brought along the bread of the “multiplication,” especially since it is they, almost always, who every day carry food for their children?

Why not pay attention to and honor the people’s resistance struggles - their endless struggles for liberation and a life lived in dignity? Why not shine spotlights on the insignificant actors, and appreciate their daily struggle to survive and to maintain their dignity? Why not open up our understanding of “salvation” to a broader process, one that is going on consciously or unconsciously in people’s daily lives, in the midst of the “ordinary” things that make up the fabric of our lives?

If we do this, we introduce a logic that accents the roles of those actors who are regarded as least important so that they can develop their powers, their creative abilities, and their own style of seeking the paths of salvation.

I would like to believe that this was Jesus’ logic, and that it was for this that he was condemned and ostracized by the powerful of his time. He always seemed to insist on the faith, the efforts, and the persistence of ordinary people, and not on favors that the powerful could concede. He seems to have insisted on satisfying the hunger people feel today, on fulfilling the need for wine in today’s wedding celebration, on curing the ills that afflict us at this moment-on those very concrete ills that are not named in any existing code of law or dealt with in purely formal intellectual analyses.

From this perspective, it seems that the centrality of Jesus opens us to the centrality of persons, especially the outcast, and to the need to invest in what we could call our “salvation” in the here and now. Thus we move away from an excessive emphasis on the figure of the savior, the hero, the martyr, the king, the saint - as well as the victorious warrior, the only Son of God. We come to speak of the salvation we offer one another when our hearts open up in tenderness and mercy. We leave more room in our lives especially for those oppressed by various ills, for women seeking their dignity, and for children, in order to encourage them to discover in themselves the roots of their own freedom. This is what I call relationships of open centrality.

History is made in many centers, not only in power centers. In this sense, I no longer want to identify Jesus as just one more power center, even though I recognize that his style of acting was different from that of the established powers. Rather, I would like to speak of him as a center of loving energy among us. I prefer to speak of Jesus as someone whose inclusive actions refused to allow his disciples to engage in exclusionary practices, whether they involved sex, race, or class. All can enter into the “wedding banquet,” as long as they accept the rules of equal sharing, mercy, service, taking the last place, and washing one another’s feet.

If we view the situation from this perspective, not all that was said of Jesus in the past needs to be thrown out. This is our history, our past, our very flesh. At the same time, if we speak of bringing about a new era in our history - a new understanding of the history of the universe and another moment in life of this Sacred Body - then we are required to show a certain consistency.

More and more, we are discovering that imprisoning of Jesus of Nazareth in a specific dogmatic system has done enormous damage in the lives of persons and groups. All the emphasis on the obedience of Jesus to his Father, for example, merely underlined a “culture of obedience” in which women, slaves, and children were always the primary victims. The oppressed were always told they must obey their oppressors, since the latter had received the gift of authority and been entrusted with the exercise of power. This theology of obedience continues to be passed along in our culture, often disguised as freedom and democracy or even as the common good. According to some interpretations, it was this obedience that led Jesus to accept the cross, and it has led women and oppressed peoples to endure a wide variety of holocausts. This obedience generated a complicity with authoritarian regimes, with empires, and with a variety of racist systems. Surely there are many people who would argue that Jesus’ sacrifice was freely accepted and therefore cannot be analyzed with the same categories as the so-called culture of obedience. I believe that the obedience of Jesus is of the precise type that does not allow itself to be controlled by any kind of authority system: It is an obedience to the generative source of life within himself and his fellow human beings. This kind of obedience really requires disobedience to the system, and it is because Jesus disobeyed that he was crucified and died. He was, literally, murdered.

Obedience and disobedience can be elements in the power games of imperialist systems. Therefore it is always necessary to ask ourselves about the meaning of obedience: obedience to whom, and to what end? We need to ask the same things about disobedience. Are there some forms of disobedience that cannot be called obedience to freedom, to love for our neighbors and ourselves? We women are raising among ourselves ever greater suspicion about the dogmas concerning Jesus of Nazareth and their flagrant complicity with the processes of exclusion and destruction we all observe.

This whole situation moves me deeply, and leads me, along with many others, to rethink the faith in terms that are more compatible with the agenda of the impoverished, of feminists, and of the planet.

Ecofeminist Challenges to Our Relationship with Jesus of Nazareth

As we have seen in earlier chapters, the ecofeminist perspective I am developing proposes a different way of knowing: a different understanding of the human person, and a different experience of and discourse concerning God. Thus, too, it opens us up to a different understanding of our experience of Jesus and with Jesus. I often insist on the word “experience” and speak of experience within the confines of our bodies and our histories in order to underline the fundamental importance of the physical moment in which we live. To speak of experience is to speak of concrete realities that have to do with our bodies. It is also to speak of our specific ills and painsand therefore of our need for “salvation,” for remedies, and for healing.

In sharing with readers my personal experience with Jesus, I want to make it clear that I do not share the perspective that some people call postchristian. I am not postchristian; rather, I am postdogmatic and postpatriarchal, even while I am able to understand what traditional dogmatic formulations were trying to say. What those formulations said had its own value and its own historical context, but it cannot be absolutized.

So, in the perspective I am developing, the idea is not to reaffirm traditional dogmas regarding Jesus or to emphasize a salvation beyond history. It is not a matter of rereading the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon in light of the needs of our own times. Nor is it a matter of having another look at all the ancient christological controversies so as to be able once again to reaffirm Jesus’ divinity in patriarchal terms. (3) Rather, I would like to follow the logic of relatedness that we have been proposing throughout this reflection, and to dare to free Jesus from the hierarchical and dogmatic apparel in which the church has clothed him for so long.

Along these lines, I would like to think of Jesus as a man who was extremely sensitive to human suffering, who was inspired by the prophetic and sapiential tradition of the Jewish culture to which he belonged, and who tried in various ways to respond to certain forms of human suffering - especially pain, hunger, and various kinds of marginalization. Jesus always insisted that people believe in themselves, and taught that their belief in themselves was an expression of faith in God’s power. Jesus’ actions were aimed at the recovery of health and dignity, and the recovery of the physical means to health and dignity: food and drink. His actions affirmed that certain physical needs cannot be satisfied by promises or by the future realization of some ideal world. It is this practical wisdom of Jesus that needs to be rediscovered, lived out, and understood in the context of the vital problems we face today. I agree with Sallie McFague that it is precisely the perspective of body that will allow us to introduce the issue of ecological salvation. (4) Our economic exploitation projects have enslaved the earth and the powers of nature and made them into an object to be used for unbridled profiteering. It is our actions that have put the earth in bondage, that have damaged it, polluted it, and impoverished it. For this reason, it is the earth that is both the subject and the object of salvation.

We need to abandon a merely anthropocentric Christianity and open ourselves up to a more biocentric understanding of salvation. To Jesus’ humanistic perspective, we need to add an ecological perspective. This new way of doing things seems to me perfectly justified, because it maintains not only the most fundamental aspects of Jesus’ perspective but also the understanding that we are a living body in constant evolution.

Theology has repeated many times that Jesus did not proclaim himself; using an ecofeminist perspective, we could say that he proclaimed respect for the life of every being and abundant life for all. We could say that Jesus’ attitudes and behaviors always point Christians toward the building of new relationships, and that today they help us to build a positive relationship between human persons and the earth. It is precisely this that we want to insist on ever more strongly, in order to rebuild the web of human relationships in all its dimensions.

It seems that when we speak of Jesus as a human being - as profoundly human - the sometimes forbidding divine halo we have always attributed to him in Christian tradition seems to disappear. But if we no longer speak of the salvific uniqueness of Jesus the Christ, many feel we give up the power and uniqueness of our faith. A Jesus who can no longer be affirmed as a superhuman being seems to lose his power to move us. As Sallie McFague says,

The scandal of uniqueness is absolutized by Christianity into one of its central doctrines, which claims that God is embodied in one place and one place only: in the man Jesus of Nazareth. He and he alone is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The source, power and goal of the universe is known through and only through a first-century Mediterranean carpenter. The creator and redeemer of the fifteen-billion-year history of the universe with its hundred billion galaxies (and their billions of stars and planets) is available only in a thirty-year span of one human being’s life on planet earth. The claim, when put in context of contemporary science, seems skewed, to say the least. When the world consisted of the Roman Empire (with “barbarians” at its frontiers), the limitation of divine presence to Jesus of Nazareth had some plausibility while still being ethnocentric; but for many hundreds of years, well before contemporary cosmology, the claims of other major religious traditions have seriously challenged it. (5)

Along with McFague, I believe that to affirm the incarnation, or the bodiliness, of the divine does not necessarily require that Jesus have some unique metaphysical character. Jesus is also “our Sacred Body.” For this reason, the incarnation, the presence of the greatest of mysteries in our flesh, is more than Jesus of Nazareth. In this sense, we could say that Jesus is for us a metaphor of the divine presence, the unfathomable mystery, the unutterable in the human flesh in which we all are included.

The incarnation refers to our own bodily reality. In other words, we apprehend in our flesh, in our bodily experience, what we call the divine. The place in which we apprehend the mystery that underlies everything is our respective bodies. Therefore, we say we are incarnate, we are beings in the flesh, although we know how complex this affirmation is. In some Christian traditions, the incarnation has often been interpreted in idealistic terms - as if the divine had entered human flesh only at one specific moment, and therefore this moment is made into an absolute.

As we know, we have always been accustomed to thinking of the divine as a being and a power radically different from our own experience. Thus it might appear that “God-with-us,” or “Immanuel,” who “pitched his tent among us” and “came down from heaven,” could be diminished by this new interpretation. However, to speak of Jesus as God’s “intermediary,” or to speak of Jesus as the expression of the wisdom that dwells within us, is not to deny Jesus’ concrete practice as it is set down in the Gospels.

The frame does not change the picture, even if it highlights different elements of it. The picture itself, Jesus’ life as it was lived out, has its own integrity - despite the frames in which it has been placed by his contemporaries, by the early Christian communities, by conflicts in the time of the Roman Empire, by later tradition, and by ourselves today. Jesus’ actions on behalf of the oppressed, the outcast, the sick, and victims of all varieties are undeniable. That is what shows up in the most vivid colors in the painting of Jesus’ life. These actions, then, constitute the picture of Jesus’ mission, and for this reason it is always present and always up to date. And this underlying picture, this special painting, should always be displayed-whatever frame is used. Furthermore, the frame can never be more important than the picture. I think this is precisely what has happened in our theology. We have exaggerated the importance of the frame, which is no more than a context, an accessory; often we have forgotten the picture, the painting, the words of life, the actions of Jesus.

Some people might even ask why we need to return today to the figure of Jesus. Why not let it fade away, as any figure from the past does, and seek new reference points for the present? Doing so could even serve the purposes of some feminist and rationalist intellectual groups who find the figure of Jesus to be a stumbling block.

The issue will not be resolved by elimination. We cannot simply get rid of it if it inconveniences us, because our relationship with Jesus is not merely personal but also cultural. Besides (as I said earlier, speaking out of my own experience), the problem is not with Jesus but with what the power brokers have made of him.

In this sense, there are choices to be made. Although there are different positions on this issue, I think we neither wish to nor are able to separate ourselves in an absolute sense from our history. Thus we do not want to stand apart from history or from Jesus of Nazareth as a reference point, because he is woven into the fabric this history. He is part of our personal and social body. Besides, we still find in Christian experience, despite all its limitations, a way of expressing our own convictions.

A tradition only dies when none are left who place their faith in it, when there are no more disciples to keep it alive. This is not the case with the tradition that goes back to Jesus of Nazareth. In my view, this tradition is of fundamental importance. To lose it would be to lose part of an ancient human wisdom - part of its richness, part of its extraordinary expressiveness and beauty.

The figure of Jesus has something profoundly alluring about it. Since the days of our most ancient tradition, Jesus has been the symbol of our hope, and this symbolism has been expressed in many ways and many different languages. Jesus is the symbol of what we seek, of the behaviors and attitudes we judge to be the most fitting in human beings. I think it is in this sense that we could speak metaphorically of Jesus as Savior. He is the Savior inasmuch as he is the symbol of those values that are best able to change our lives, to lead us to goodness and justice. He is the Savior inasmuch as he is a living example with which we identify, in order to conceive of our own lives as salvific. It is the process of salvation he represents that can be assumed by women and men whose hearts are filled with mercy and solidarity.

It follows that, to paraphrase Saint Paul, in Jesus are men and women, Greeks and Romans (Gal 3:27-28); there are white, black, and Asiatic persons. In other words, differences are embraced and respected, because, in Jesus’ perspective, it is not a matter of defending masculinity or femininity, or any other just demand. The issue is not dogma but the world of values lived by Jesus’and his disciples.

Christian culture has always made Jesus an inclusive symbol who served slaves and free citizens, rulers and beggars, men and women, old and young, prostitutes and public sinners. When we say symbol, we mean a totality that is always open and inclusive, a reality whose immense richness allows it to be continually reinterpreted. Jesus as a symbol is more than a formal signifier with no substance of its own, as some people we meet every day seem to think. They think that to speak of Jesus as a symbol is to diminish him, to fail to recognize his historical character, and to reduce him to something less than real. Many ambiguities in this understanding - or, rather, misunderstanding - need to be clarified.

To say that Jesus is a symbol means that, although he is Jesus of Nazareth, he is really more than Jesus of Nazareth. He becomes the possession of the community of his followers, a collective construct representing a way of life, a path to the meaning of our existence. Jesus as a symbol is in a certain sense greater than Jesus of Nazareth as an individual, because in him millions and millions of persons are encompassed.

When we say Jesus is the symbol who fulfills our dreams, this does not mean that in him everything was worked out or fully accomplished. It is to say we need to entrust our dreams to this man because we need these dreams, and we hope that their fulfillment is possible. We turn over to Jesus, a man, flesh of our flesh, the concrete possibility of a better world and of more just and equal relationships among people. Because of him, we throw in our lot for a world that embodies greater solidaritybut all the while, we know this decision is our own.

We also say that he has achieved what we would like to achieve, although we know that within his concrete historical circumstances he surely could not have accomplished all that has been attributed to him. The word that expresses our dreams and hopes is always colored by our own expectations and by our desire that they be realized.

To use a strained analogy, we could say that when we are very sick we like to know that others who have had the same illness have been cured. When we are “down and out,” we like to know that others in the same condition of struggle and suffering have found a place to stay. When we are struggling against racism, we are happy to know that in some other country the rights of the various ethnic groups have been respected. Here, too, there are historical limitations, and surely many of the things we imagine to have been achieved really have not. But all these persons or groups have a real power for us: they symbolize something we are looking for, something that gives meaning to our lives.

What we say of Jesus could be said of Mary as well, who is part of the whole biblical tradition of strong women who were symbols of resistance and of salvation for their people. In them, the life of their people is included and expressed. The degree to which one or another symbol is used will depend in great part on the history of that symbol in this or that cultural community.

All this shows the mysterious power of the symbols and words we use in describing our hope. In these words, we include ourselves along with our ancestors. Through them we live and give life.

So too, Jesus was a person of his time, conditioned by his culture, able to respond only to certain questions; but he is also a symbolic figure who can have meaning far beyond his historical and temporal limitations. So we say that for us, in the Christian community, Jesus is a symbol: a symbol with which we dialogue and in which we include ourselves. And this is so because, as communities of disciples, we make Jesus a symbol of our lives’ ideals and values.

In this sense, the centrality of Jesus is not absolute or metaphysical. As I have said before - and I am looking only at the Christian world - other figures such as Mary and Mary Magdalene also have symbolic power. These figures are being rediscovered by various feminist movements, especially in recent years.

Meanwhile, as we know, the patriarchal Christian culture in which we live has placed a greater accent on Jesus. Just how helpful is it to remind ourselves, once again, that our theological culture is not only anthropocentric but also androcentric? The centrality of Jesus cannot be invoked to dismiss prominent figures and symbols from other religious traditions. The ways of justice and love are multiple and varied. Our Sacred Body includes many different expressions of love, mercy, and salvation.

I agree with the words of Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya:

The uniqueness of Jesus is in the depth of his personality; in his total selfgiving love that helps fulfill others, and in his message that is uniquely salvific for all who live it. We can think of him as a guru par excellence, who first trod the difficult path up to his death on the cross. He was a humble person who was not concerned about his own greatness but wanted to serve all in truth and in love. (6)

We know that cultural change does not come about in response to decrees, or even as a result of this or that school of thought. It takes time to assimilate not only new values but also new ways of dealing with them. Furthermore, a position that embodies respect for various religious expressions should facilitate the coexistence of different groups that interpret the “Jesus event” in different ways.

At this time, it seems, from an ecofeminist perspective, that what is most important for Christian communities, or communities of followers of Jesus, is neither to try to save christological dogmas out of formal faithfulness to a certain tradition, nor to impose their own interpretations as the only “way” and the only truth about Jesus. These would be attempts to hold on to the same old hierarchical and dualistic perspective in a world that can no longer tolerate dualism or the destruction wrought by the practice of hierarchical exclusion. When we try to hold on to traditional dogma, we also to fail to see the direct or indirect complicity of patriarchal Christologies with the maintenance of an exclusivist system. Many writings have shown the negative effects of imperialist Christologies that present Jesus’ lordship in the image of the great lords of this world - not to mention the sacrificial Christologies that insist on the immolation of Jesus, and that are indirect accomplices of the immolation of many different human groups.

It seems to me that the actions and teachings of Jesus can be rediscovered as clues, or as attempts at a response, to the great challenges of today’s world. My conviction is shared by all those who work within an ecofeminist perspective. In this perspective, we can speak once again of the openness of Jesus to dialogue, of his mercy, his criticism of oppressive powers, his concern for the sharing of bread and wine, and his delight in the flowers of the countryside. I think these values, which are present in some sense in all humanistic traditions, can be revived in a nondogmatic way by the Christian community.

For the Christian community, Jesus is a symbol of members’ dreams, and of their greatest aspirations for humanity and for the earth. But the community of Jesus’ followers has changed these aspirations to some degree, as it has responded to the various situations and contexts of human history. We could say that Jesus is not the savior of all humanity in the traditional, triumphalistic sense that has characterized the discourse of the Christian churches. He is not the powerful Son of God who dies on the cross and becomes the “king” who morally dominates the great variety of human cultures. Rather, he is the symbol of the vulnerability of love, which in order to remain alive ends up being murdered, killed . . . and which then rises again in those who love him, in order to revive the vital cycle of love.

Within this perspective, Jesus does not come to us in the name of a “superior will” that sent him; rather, he comes from here: from this earth, this body, this flesh, from the evolutionary process that is present both yesterday and today in this Sacred Body within which love resides. It continues in him beyond that, and it is turned into passion for life, into mercy and justice. In this sense, I am saying that Jesus as an individual person is not superior to any other human being. This is because he is made of the same earth, the same bodily reality that constitutes us all. Meanwhile, on account of his moral qualities, his openness, and his sensitivity, he has come to represent, in a certain sense, the perfection of our dreams and the ideal realization of our desires. And it is precisely this quality that makes the difference. To put it in another way: The difference is not metaphysical or ontological (related to the nature of being) but ethical and aesthetic, because the difference is manifest in his humanity, in the great beauty of the attitudes he expressed and evoked in others. Once again, we can say that Jesus is the symbol of all that we most love. Within this perspective, Jesus can no longer be regarded as the justification for hierarchical power; rather, he is a model of the fraternal and sororal power of communion with all those who claim to belong to his tradition.

Some people will probably argue that you cannot change a hierarchical and patriarchal symbol this way, making it into something democratic, inclusive, and nonsexist. They will say that such an endeavor would be pretentious, because it would offer an image of Jesus that falls outside the patterns to which we have become accustomed over the centuries. But we know very well that all traditions have had their beginnings, even if these beginnings were confused and sometimes unclear. And if they had a beginning, then they also evolved: they are subject to constant transformations. They also appropriate, in their own ways, the life experience of Jesus of Nazareth. They have transformed it, conceptualized it, and turned it into a science and a doctrine. I cannot, therefore, accept positions that refuse to welcome the changes inherent in every tradition, above all when we face, every day, in contact with persons and in the complexities of cultures, the many sufferings and the multiple transformations inherent in life. I cannot accept the idea that we have no authority to speak in our own way of our relationships with Jesus without cutting ourselves off from history. I do not understand why the antiquity of certain dogmatic and conciliar statements or their proximity to Jesus’ historical times need to be regarded as the only criteria for the truth of statements about Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t want to go into the classical arguments over the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. My only purpose is to show the possibility of reinterpreting the gospel tradition in the light of the vital issues we are raising today.

Within the ecofeminist perspective I am developing, the criteria of “giving life” and of fostering the “flowering” of life in dignity, diversity, and respect are quite enough to give us the collective authority to speak in different way of our experience as partners of Jesus.

The purist spirit of academia, the universities, and dogma is not a part of concrete, everyday life. The logical coherence of doctrines is constantly undermined by the need to survive, or simply to live. Radical breaks in our basic ways of knowing are only possible in the world of theory. The real world in which we live and share life is always mixed, imprecise, impure, and unexpected. And it is precisely its “mixed” character that allows for the creativity and unpredictability that are able to generate life where there appears to be no more hope.

I want to recall that liberation theology in Latin America insisted for a very long time that the most important thing is not “orthodoxy” but “orthopraxis”: acting correctly, with justice and mercy. And it is this acting, feeling, and thinking on the basis of our own experience that has the power and authority to change some aspects of our ancient tradition.

For this reason, the symbol of Jesus can be transformed and is gradually being transformed in Latin American Christian communities, especially among groups of women and among those who are working in ecumenism and ecology. If religious powers impede this vital transformation in our understanding, they surely will be showing little faithfulness to the figure who taught his disciples to take notice of the many occurrences in daily life, of the suffering of marginalized bodies, of the communion among all beings, and of the mystery of life itself.

Jesus is a symbol and an inspiration for the community of his followers, a symbol that is capable of widening its meaning to respond to the needs of our historical moment. It is these not-always-clear paths that ecofeminist insights about Jesus of Nazareth find themselves treading. And it is through them, in the light and darkness of life, that people are learning to understand, within the limitations of our own time, the greatness and simplicity of the life and ethical code of Jesus of Nazareth.


1. Ivone Gebara, “Cristologia Fundamental,” Revista Eclesiasrica Brasileira 48 (1988): 259-72.

2. The Council of Nicaea, held in 325 during the pontificate of Pope Silvester I, proclaimed the Nicene Creed in opposition to the teachings of the heretic Arius. It affirmed the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. The Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 during the pontificate of Celestine I, proclaimed that Christ had two natures, one divine and one human, in a single person. See Hubert Jedin, Brève histoire des conciles (Tournai, Belgium: Desclée, 1960).

3. Louis Bouyer, Le fils éternel: Théologie de la parole de Dieu et christologie (Paris: Cerf, 1974); Joseph Moingt, L’Homme qui venait de Dieu (Paris: Cerf, 1994); Jon Sobrino, Cristologia desde América Latina (Mexico City: Centro de Reflexión Teológica, 1977) .

4. Sallie McFague, The Body of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

5. Ibid., 159.

6. Tissa Balasuriya, “Right Relationships: The De-routing and Re-routing of Christian Theology,” Logos 30 (September-December 1991): 204. (published by the Center for Society and Religion, Colombo, Sri Lanka).

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