Kwok Pui-lan, Introducing Asian Feminist Theology, Pilgrim, 2000, ch.6, pp79-97.
Our christologies are not only interpretations of Jesus, but confessions of our faith in this Jesus who has made a difference in our lives, and not only as a speculative activity, but as active engagement in striving towards the full humanity Jesus came to bring.
Virginia Fabella (Philippines)
'Who do you say that I am?' Each generation must answer this question in their own time. For Christian women in Asia, this question brings into sharp focus the issues of Christian identity, gospel and culture, sin and redemption and the nature of the Christian movement. Asian feminist theologians must assess critically the images of Christ promulgated by missionaries during the colonial era. For example, the myth of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ fuels Christian triumphalism and exclusivity. Living closely among non-Christians in most Asian countries, Asian feminist theologians reformulate their christological understanding taking into consideration interactions with people of other faiths. A critical dialogue is sought between the Christian understanding of Christ and other soteriological motifs found within their cultures and histories.
Since most Asian countries were colonies of Western powers, the influences of colonization on Christology must be subject to close scrutiny. During the colonial period, the Christ figure was invariably interpreted through a Western lens and forced upon the colonized peoples without paying any attention to their social predicament or seeking to enter into a dialogue with their indigenous traditions. The debate on whether Jesus was fully human or divine has little meaning in some cultural and linguistic contexts. The message of salvation, if concerned primarily with redeeming individual souls and life after death, has little relevance in an Asia plagued by issues of survival under foreign domination. Even today, Christianity is still seen as a foreign religion by the majority of Asians, largely because of this 'Western captivity' of Christianity.
Moreover, the images of Christ, proclaimed during colonial times justified the domination of the oppressors. For example, the suffering and death of Jesus was glorified and his silent endurance held up as a model to be followed. Jesus as the suffering servant was used to inculcate submission and obedience among the subjugated. Another image was that of Jesus as Lord, which had political as well as religious overtones. The belief that Jesus is the Lord of the universe justified the domination of other peoples and their lands for Christ's sake. The lordship of a male Christ not only undergirded colonialism, but lent its support to patriarchal dominance in the church and society as well. As Korean theologian Kim Yong Bock has noted, Christ came as the conqueror and crusader of the 'pagans' and 'heathens' during Western expansion, and later as 'promoter of Western capitalism', and as 'transmitter of Western civilization'. Such a Christ has very little to do with the suffering and struggling peoples of Asia (Kim 1990: 14).
In their quest for a new understanding of Christology, Asian feminist theologians have challenged the language, models and frameworks used by Western theologians, especially by the male elites. They have reclaimed their cultural roots and experimented with different images and metaphors for Christ, using idioms and language from their own contexts. They exhibit creativity and freedom in their theological imagination, not limited by the parameters set by Western debates. At the same time, they are not blind to the patriarchal elements in their indigenous cultures, and look especially toward women's popular religion as resources. They attempt to lift up women's vision of hope and aspiration for themselves, their communities and the planet earth.
Asian feminist theologians find that they have to reinterpret sin and redemption anew in the contemporary context. The traditional emphasis on the individual and spiritual dimension of sin proves to be less than helpful for women. Women are not just sinners; they are the sinned against too. Many Asian women suffer as outcasts of their society, not because of any innate human depravity or moral deficiency, but because of the social and institutional violence that dehumanizes and marginalizes them. A new understanding of sin must reflect the socio-political and the religio-cultural realities. Furthermore, as Valerie Saiving and other feminist theologians have pointed out, defining sin as pride, egotism and sexual aggression betrays an androcentric bias, because such characteristics are more likely to be displayed by men in a patriarchal society. The sins of women are more likely to be passivity, the lack of a strong ego, acquiescence, sloth and accepting fate as their lot (Goldstein:1960: 100-12).
Redemption comprises, therefore, not only personal and spiritual reconciliation with God, but also liberation from bondage, the opportunity to develop one's potential, the well-being of one's family and community, the freedom from warfare and other forms of violence, the availibility of a life-sustaining eco-system and a sense of hope and security for the future. As we have seen in previous chapters, Lee Oo Chung uses the biblical term shalom to describe this state of well-being, while Mananzan has called it total liberation, in which women's liberation is an integral part. Gnanadason uses the ecological language of respect for life and a wholistic vision of interdependence to articulate her hope.
How do the death and resurrection of Christ fit into this historical and ecological drama of redemption? Are the different theories of atonement in Western Christianity relevant here? One controversial issue is how to interpret the suffering of Jesus on the cross. African-American theologian Delores Williams suggests that the image of the body of Jesus dripping blood is not helpful for black women because it glorifies unjust suffering. Jesus as the surrogate victim who suffers for humanity evokes painful memories of black women who were often coerced into surrogate roles during slavery and even after emancipation. The cross, used to justify slavery and genocide, must be confronted as a symbol of evil, and what is redemptive is not Jesus1 death, but his life and prophetic ministry (Williams 1991: 1-14).
Still, from within the complex context of Asia, the suffering of Jesus must be seen in a nuanced and multilayered way. Asian feminist theologians do not condone innocent suffering and sacrifice. They are against all forms of religious ideologywhether within Christianity or their indigenous traditionsthat inflicts senseless suffering because of social injustice. On the other hand, they recognize that the language of suffering is powerful and profound in the traditions of Asia, and it must be interpreted with reference to their various cultural milieu. In cultures shaped by Buddhism, for example, suffering is seen as inevitable in human existence. The fact that Jesus suffers shows that he is fully human, a co-sufferer with humanity. Jesus does not belong to the oppressors; he is one of the minjung (the masses). Many Christian women in Asia identify with such a compassionate God who suffers in solidarity with them, listens to their cries and responds to their pleas.
But just as the Buddhist acknowledgment of suffering as inevitable has the danger, when misunderstood, of encouraging passive submission to one's fate, the Christian glorification of Jesus' innocent suffering has the danger of condoning victimization, of finding scapegoats and of accepting sacrifice as salvific. The task for Asian feminist theologians is to find ways to speak of suffering that respect Asian women's religiosity, while pointing out that suffering is not their lot, because suffering can be transformed. Jesus' resurrection transforms death and suffering, and Jesus' life and ministry bear witness to his commitment to justice and the welfare of the marginalized.
Approaches to Christology
Since the religious, cultural and political contexts of the Asian feminist theologians are so diverse, their approaches to Christology vary widely. To illustrate the richness of the feminist theological imagination and to highlight the influences of context on reconstruction of Christology, I shall discuss four representative approaches from the Filipino, Korean, Chinese and Indian contexts. Nevertheless, these four approaches do not exhaust the many possibilities for feminist reflections on Christ in Asia; for within each cultural context, a plurality of voices arise. The following examples have been selected to demonstrate some innovative attempts at dialogue between Christian faith and Asian indigenous traditions and social contexts.
Jesus as a Fully Liberated Human Being
The Philippine islands were colonized by Spain for more than 300 years and by the United States for about 50 years. Since independence, the Filipino people have struggled both against neocolonialism and against the lengthy dictatorial rule of the Marco regime. Filipino feminist theology emerged out of involvement in political movements during the 1970s, especially in the people's power movement, which brought Cory Aquino to power in 1986. With a Christian population of 92 percent, the Philippines shares commonalities politically and culturally with Latin American countries more than with other Asian nations. Not surprisingly, Latin American liberation theology, developing out of the long struggles against colonialism and the misguided development programs dictated by American capitalism, captures the theological imagination of progressive Filipino theologians. Several leading Filipino feminist theolgians speak of Jesus as the liberator, or Jesus as a fully liberated human.
Mary John Mananzan has outlined the emerging methodology developed by EATWOT Women's Commission, which is helpful to understand feminist theology in the Philippines. The starting point is contextualization, which highlights the experience of Asian women and their struggle in a patriarchal world. Women must then engage in religious and cultural critique, exposing the elements that perpetuate women's subordination. This is followed by the recovery of the authentic value of women's experience, especially their religious heritage, while rejecting imposed traditions. As women bring their traditions to bear on the critical issues they face, a reinterpretation and reformulation is necessary to find new language, symbols and religious forms with which to respond to the historical moment. The last step is envisioning new possibilities for the community and devising action to fulfill these possibilities (Mananzan 1992: 93).
Filipino feminist theologians began their christological search by analyzing women's situations and the ways women are influenced by popular religiosity. Mananzan notes that Spanish religiosity and its Mexican adaptation decisively influence the images of Christ in the Philippines. The traditional Spanish Christ is rather docetic with little connection to real life, a Christ that leaps from the infant Christ to the Christ on the cross. During the period of Spanish colonization, the image of the suffering Christ was highlighted, with an annual procession during Holy Week, the reading of the Passion narrative and the re-enactment of the suffering and death of Christ. The festivities were meant to inculcate loyalty to Spain and to the Church, and to preach a passive acceptance of events in this world, looking for reward and salvation in the afterlife. While Good Friday was dramatized, there was no concomitant celebration of Easter, the beginning of new life (Mananzan 1993: 87-88). By emphasizing the mortal suffering of a beaten, scourged and defeated Christ as well as a spiritualized salvation in the other world, the Christian message was used to legitimize the colonial order by pacifying the people.
Reinterpreting Jesus' suffering is crucial for Filipino feminist theology since many Filipino women have internalized the fact that the crucified Jesus understands their suffering, which they passively and resignedly endure (Fabella and Park 1989: 10). One strategy is to reclaim the subversive aspects of the Passion story in the people's revolutionary movements. Mananzan observes that even when the Spanish colonizers used the Passion narrative as a tool of oppression, Filipino people drew from it much of the language of anti-colonialism in the late nineteenth century. The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the day of judgment inspired the millennial beliefs that enabled the peasantry to take action for their liberation. Suffering is neither the end nor salvific by itself, for there is judgment and resurrection as promised by God (Mananzan 1993: 87-88). Another strategy is to distinguish between the 'passive' and 'active' moments of Jesus' suffering. Lydia Lascano, a community organizer, identifies women's oppression under colonialism, militarism and patriarchy with Jesus' passive suffering. But what is more important is Jesus' active suffering, which is his presence in Filipino women's struggle for justice, accompanying and identifying with them in their march to freedom (Lascano 1985: 121-29). The image of the suffering servant, therefore, should not be used to justify the victimization of women and to condone unjust suffering.
Filipino feminist theologians' images of Christ are not static, but change over time, as their political and feminist consciousness deepens. For example, Mananzan notes that her own image of Christ has changed from the gentle Jesus in her novitiate days, to the angry Christ when she first participated in worker's struggles, and to Jesus as the fully liberated and liberating human being when she became more deeply involved in social struggles (Mananzan 1988:12-13). Virginia Fabella, too, is inspired by the liberating Christ:
In the light of Asian women's reality in general, a liberational, hope- filled, love-inspired, and praxis-oriented christology is what holds meaning for me. In the person and praxis of Jesus are found the grounds of our liberation from all oppression and discrimination: whether political or economic, religious or cultural, or based on gender, race or ethnicity. Therefore the image of Jesus as liberator is consistent with my christology (Fabella and Park 1989: 10).
There are several dimensions to Filipino feminist theologians' understanding of Jesus as a fully liberated human being. First, the accent is on Jesus' life and ministry, and not so much on his death and passion. During his life time, Jesus befriended the underdogs of society and challenged both the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman leadership. He displayed a remarkably considerate attitude toward women and treated them with respect. Several times in his life, he transgressed religious and ethnic boundaries, extending his ministry to people such as the Samaritan woman and the Syrophoenician woman. Second, Jesus' central message is the kingdom of God, a reign of peace and justice that is meant for everyone. Women as well as men have a place in God's reign. To enter the kingdom, one must repent and change one's way of living and behaving (Fabella and Park 1989: 5-6). Third, Jesus was imbued with an inner freedom that liberated him from the yoke of material things, from an oppressive bondage to the Law, and from the undue influence of respect for human authorities (Mananzan 1988: 13). Fourth, Jesus' passion must be proclaimed together with the promise of Easter. Jesus is not the eschatological prophet whose mission fails, for his death is not a failure but fulfillment. For Fabella, Jesus' death reveals the deepest meaning of God's profound love for humankind and Jesus' whole life is a disclosure of God. For Mananzan, the experience of resurrection is the experience of the fully liberated Christ, which is itself liberating. The fully liberated Christ empowers people to have the courage to struggle in the face of danger and insecurity (Mananzan 1988: 15; Fabella and Park 1989: 7-8).
Mananzan, Fabella and other Asian feminist theologians are not concerned that Jesus, the fully liberated human being, is a male figure. While some Western feminist theologians have questioned whether a male savior can save women (Ruether 1983: 116-38), Asian feminist theologians are not thus preoccupied. As Fabella has pointed out, the maleness of Jesus is a historical accident rather than an ontological necessity in the liberation process (Fabella and Oduyoye 1988: 113). Jesus liberates both men and women. In fact, Fabella believes that Jesus has shown in his ministry a new possibility for treating women with dignity. 'By being male Jesus could repudiate more effectively the male definition of humanity and show the way to a right and just male-female relationship, challenging both men and women to change their life pattern' (unpublished paper quoted in Mananzan 1988: 14).
While the image of Christ as a fully liberated human being may hold promise in the predominantly Christian context of the Philippines, other cultures hold other role models or patterns for a truly humanized person, such as Confucius or Gandhi. It may be helpful in the future to compare these various patterns and to lift up female role models as well. Furthermore, Latin American liberation theology has undergone a process of self-scrutiny in the light of the transformation of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The commitment to the poor is reaffirmed, but the promise of the socialist analysis and the strategies for liberation need to be updated under current circumstances. Filipino theology in general, and Filipino feminist theology in particular, need to re-examine their own frameworks of analysis. Future christological attempts need to make greater use of women's religious heritage in precolonial times as well as liberating elements in women's popular religiosity to find new symbols and language.
Jesus as a Priest of Han
The Korean context is quite different from that of the Philippines. Korea has never been colonized by a Western power, and Christianity did not arrive on the Korean shore with gunboats and canons. Instead, Korea, culturally and politically dominated by China for centuries, was colonized by Japan in the first half of the twentieth century. Korean feminist theologians have criticized Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity as imported religions maintained by male elites, scholars, monks and priests, who help to sustain the patriarchal order in society. They have turned to shaminism, an ancient indigenous tradition that is still very influential today, for resources in constructing Christology. The majority of those who consult shamans are women, and female shamans exercise leadership and perform important healing roles.
In a recent article on 'Asian Christologies and People's Religions', Chung Hyun Kyung argues that theologians should shift their focus from institutional religions to people's religions, such as shamanism (1996: 214-27). She points out that institutional dogmatic religions are usually male-centered, power greedy and authoritarian, while people's religions are concrete expressions of their living faith and daily struggles. Yet she also cautions that not all elements in people's religions are liberating for women. Women are both agents changing popular religions as well as victims oppressed by these traditions. Thus, one should avoid romanticizing people's religions, while critically discerning their liberating as well as enslaving aspects.
Chung suggests four steps in constructing Christology, taking seriously the context of people's religions. The first step involves listening to people's stories of hunger, impoverishment and need. This means we should commit ourselves to the people's struggles as the beginning point of the process. The second step is a socio-political and religio-cultural analysis of why people are hungry and their lives diminished. In particular, this leads to a criticism of Christianity in terms of its relationship to colonialism and neocolonialism as well as a recognition of the debilitating elements in inherited cultures and religions. The third step involves the search for life-giving fragments and traditions. Inspired by Korean minjung theology developed in the 1970s during the people's movement against dictatorial regimes, Chung suggests the possibility of finding new life affirming meanings through the convergences of the Jesus story and the stories of the people. This means that we pay attention to a 'non-Christian reading of Jesus' in order to expand our theological horizons. But to truly appreciate the people's stories, we must live in solidarity with the poor and participate in grassroots movements. This step requires profound humility and metanoia (conversion) of Christians, who often assume that they alone know all the answers and true wisdom. The final step involves actively building communities of resistance and hope to sustain the struggle over the long haul and interpret Scripture and tradition from the perspective of the disfranchised.
Chung's methodology radically differs from traditional approaches to theology in several ways. She suggests we listen to the people, instead of turning to Scripture and dogma as our primary data and resource. She is not preoccupied with past christological debates when they are not relevant to the poor and suffering people of Asia in their struggle for the fullness of life. She envisages the theological endeavor, not as a lonely business, but as a collective activity, rooted in the integration of theory and praxis. Most importantly, she attempts to break free from the narrow parameters set by institutional constraints, while constantly creating new possibilities and seeking wider horizons.
Chung's four steps provide us with a framework to understand the process through which she and other Korean feminist theologians develop their Christology. Chung emphasizes the narrative nature of theology and women's storytelling: 'The power of storytelling lies in its embodied truth. Women talked about their concrete, historical life experience and not about abstract, metaphysical concepts' (Chung 1990: 104). From these stories of the women and other oppressed people emerges a powerful notion, han, that has become central to Korean minjung theology. Han is a Korean word that expresses the deep feeling that arises out of the experience of injustice. According to Kang Nam Soon, han designates the psychological phenomenon of people's suffering and is a feeling of the hopelessness of the oppressed, a feeling of just indignation, or a feeling of unresolved resentment against unjustifiable suffering' (Kang 1996: 134). She further observes that while the han of rinjung arises out of socio-political and economic oppression, the han of women mainly arises out of rigid sexual discriminations in Korean society.
When they are ridden with han, Korean women seek the help of shamans, the majority of whom are women from the lower-classes. The Korean shaman is a priest of han: through her powerful dances and rituals, she exorcizes han and restores the person's health, strength and hope. The release of han is called han-pu-ri, which usually involves three important steps: allowing the han-ridden person to speak and be heard, naming the sources of oppression and actively changing the unjust situation so that the person can have peace (Chung 1989: 143). While shamans usually deal with personal han and individual relief, those involved in political movements are rediscovering the potentials of shamanism to heal collective han and to channel the recovered energy for liberation.
Shamanism, as a religion dealing with han, has been condemned by missionaries as animistic and superstitious and despised by educated and Westernized Korean elites. But this women-centered religious stratum provides the language, the ritualistic practice and the imagination for some Korean feminists to describe their Christian experiences. In bringing the people's story and the Jesus story together, Chung speaks of han and han-pu-ri, instead of sin and salvation. Whereas sin connotes wrongdoing for which one is responsible, han captures the feeling of being sinned against, the helplessness of those who often cannot even control their own destiny. The dispersal of accumulated han, both personal and collective, restores the health and well-being of the individual and the community. Thus, Chung uses han-pu-ri to interpret Jesus' power to free others from injustice and suffering (Chung 1989: 145).
Among the pluralistic christological images proposed by Korean feminist theologians, Jesus is seen by some as a priest of han, a shaman who consoles the broken-hearted, heals the afflicted and restores wholeness through communication with the spirits. Korean women can relate to many stories in the gospels where Jesus' role resembles that of a shaman, exorcizing demons and healing the sick. Chung observes that: As the Korean shaman has been a healer, comforter, and counselor for Korean women, Jesus Christ healed and comforted women in his ministry' (Chung 1990: 66). Since the majority of their shamans are female, Chung states that Korean women connect more easily with female images of the Christ.
A female Christ is proposed also by Choi Man Ja, although not in a shamanistic context (Choi 1989: 174-80). Choi makes a distinction between the person of the Messiah and the praxis of messiahship. For her, messiah-praxis consists of Jesus' suffering as an outcast and his struggle to overcome oppression. Korean women, likewise, participate in the praxis of messiahship and are true disciples of Jesus. In other words, Korean women who are han-ridden and engage in han-pu-ri are 'the true praxis of messiah-Jesus'. Korean feminist theologians not only propose a female Christ, they have also organized a Women Church in Seoul, with a woman as priest and employing their own liturgies.
Although Jesus as a priest of han has been mentioned in several articles, Korean feminist theologians have not yet fully developed the notion. Future reflection needs to pay attention to the oppressive aspects of shamanism, such as its appropriation of the patriarchal elements of imported religions and its over-emphasis on the personal dimension of han (Lee 1994: 4-5). While han is a powerful term, Korean feminists debate whether women's han is different from men's as well as the appropriate strategies for exorcism. The reinterpretation of Jesus through the lens of shamanism requires a more in-depth biblical and historical exploration. Contemporary scholarship on the historical Jesus can shed much light on Jesus as a healer and a spirit-filled person. A more detailed exposition of the relationship between Jesus' life, ministry, and death and han-pu-ri needs to be spelled out. Moreover, what will be the impact of Jesus as the priest of han and other christological images developed by feminist theologians on the Korean churches, the majority of which are evangelical and conservative?
An Organic Model for Christology
Christianity has been brought into interaction with Chinese culture for many centuries, but the Christian population in China never exceeded one per cent until very recently. Moreover, there have been vehement anti-Christian movements in both the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. As a Chinese feminist theologian, I need to pay attention to the non-Christian perceptions of Christ among the Chinese before I reconstruct Christology. In recent years, I have explored christological images as a response to the growing ecological crises in China and other parts of Asia and as an attempt to dialogue with Chinese religions.
Because their millennia-old civilization has used characters (ideograms) for writing, the Chinese people have a linguistic structure, thought pattern and worldview different from that in the West. The Christ figure, interpreted as the savior of humankind redeeming believers from sin and depravity, is quite foreign to Chinese thinking. Chinese culture has no equivalent concept of sin understood as human depravity in a religious sense, but it does include the concept of shame or guilt in a social sense. Moreover, Confucianism teaches that through studying the Chinese classics, self-cultivation and developing one's moral faculty, human beings can achieve moral perfection and sagehood. Likewise, Mahayana Buddhism, also influential in Chinese culture, emphasizes the capacity of all human beings to attain Buddhahood and the possibility of enlightenment (Kwok 1993: 24-32).
Some of the christological debates that have plagued the Christian West for centuries have little meaning in another cultural and linguistic medium. For example, the Chalcedonian controversy of whether Jesus is fully human or divine would not have taken place in China, which has a different philosophical system. The Chinese language has no verb, 'to be' and has no equivalent word to convey the concept of being or essence. Thus, the debate on homoousia or homoiousia (whether the Son has the same substance with the Father or not) would be quite irrelevant to the Chinese people. Furthermore, the suffering of the Son on the cross to save the world is unintelligible to the average Chinese. In Confucianism, to have a son to continue the family line is a cardinal responsibility. That the Father would demand the death of the Son as a ransom or as a sacrifice would be unthinkable in the Confucian symbolic structure. Jesus as the sacrificial lamb is comprehensible only in the context of Jewish interpretation of sacrifice and atonement. For the Chinese, a gruesome disfigured Jesus on the cross suggests bad karma, disturbing the sensibility of harmony, peace and serenity in Chinese religiosity.
Attempting to bridge the mental gap between the East and the West and to create avenues for dialogue, I have to look beyond traditional anthropocentric images of Christ and atonement theories that depict Jesus as the ransom for humanity, the sacrificial lamb who expiatiates the sins of world, and the Son who satisfies the glory and honor of God. In Chinese cultural and religious thought, there is emphasis on the balance of heaven and earth, yang and ying, sun and moon, and father and. mother. Instead of binary opposites, they are seen as complementary, mutually reinforcing and interplaying with one another. Thus, the predominandy androcentric images of Christ, such as Messiah, Lord, son of Man, son of God and king of Kings need to be challenged. The Chinese religious worldview requires symbolizations of Christ using both feminine and masculine metaphors, images and concepts, such that women and men can find their experiences reflected in the divine.
To develop a feminist ecological model for Christology, we have to break through familiar images of Christ and dare to use non-human metaphors The nexus of sin and redemption must be rethought for sin is more than the disobedience or egotism of human beings, but has a cosmological dimension as well. People who live in traditional cultures as well as indigenous peoples know intimately that their actions have bearings on the natural environment, and not just on human history. An ecological Christology will point to a vision of ecojustice for both humans and nature and welcome the contributions of other religions and traditions.
Moreover, christological understandings that easily lend support to any forms of political and cultural imperialism must be debunked. The militaristic and triumphant character of Christ during the Crusades and Western expansion demonstrates how easily a religious symbol can be coopted for political purposes. During the missionary movement, the christological images missionaries fervently preached about were those that justified Western political domination. Finally, the notion that Jesus is unique, particular, and the only way to God must be demystified. Such an exclusive understanding of Christ elevates Christianity above all other religions, and has been used to justify conquest, colonization and even genocide.
When we examine the plurality of images of Jesus in the New Testament, there are ample sources to reconstruct christologies using an organic model (Kwok 1997: 113-25). Jesus uses the metaphor of the vine and the branches to describe his relationship with the disciples (Jn 15.5). He refers to himself as the bread of life and the living water. He also uses the feminine metaphor of a hen protecting her brood to describe his passion and anguish for Jerusalem (Mt, 23.37). Coming from a peasant background, Jesus frequently employs examples drawn from nature in his parables and teachings. For example, God takes care of the swallows and lilies in the field. The sun shines on both the good and the bad. His nature sayings stress the universal love and provision of God. One important aspect of his ministry is sharing table fellowship with the people around him, even those who are despised, including tax collectors and sinners. The messianic kingdom is referred to as a banquet open to all. Jesus cares whether people have food to eat or not, as his feeding the five thousand and other miracles clearly show. He has a profound understanding of ecojustice and challenges the Syrophoenician woman who belongs to the Greek-speaking urban class for exploiting the rural Galilee hinterland (Mk 7.24-30).
Besides recovering Jesus' organic metaphors to describe himself and the kingdom of God, another approach is to explore the image of Jesus as the wisdom of God. Feminist theologians Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza and Elizabeth A. Johnson have written on Jesus as Sophia-God (Schussler Fiorenza 1994; Johnson 1993: 95-117). By the end of the first century, Jesus was seen not only as a wisdom teacher or as a prophet of Sophia, but as the incarnation of Sophia herself. The wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Bible highlights Wisdom's creative agency, providential power, redeeming capacity, immanence, and the promise of shalom, salvation and justice. Although the wisdom writings have not been accorded the same importance as the historical and prophetic books in the Bible, feminist theologians are recovering the cosmological emphasis in the wisdom tradition to address issues in ecological crises. Johnson, for example, writes: 'The use of wisdom categories to interpret Jesus had profound consequences. It enabled the fledgling Christian communities to attribute cosmic significance to the crucified Jesus, relating time to the creation and governance of the world' (Johnson 1993: 105).
It is important to note that the wisdom tradition has a broad, universal outlook on human history and is not so tied to the history and salvation of Israel alone. Jesus, seen as a wisdom teacher or as the personification of Sophia, creates new possibilities for dialogue with other ancient wisdom traditions in Asia. For example, Jesus' nature sayings in the gospels can be compared to the teachings in Confucianism that use natural symbols, such as the plant and the gardener, the cycle of seasons, and the stream and the water. Among the various images portrayed by contemporary Jesus studies is that of a sage, teaching subversive wisdom through proverbs, parables and aphorisms. The figure of the sage or teacher rings a bell in the Asian mind, much more so than the figures of the Messiah, the priest or the suffering servant. Although most of the Asian sages are male, such as Confucius and Gandhi, in popular Daoist and Buddhist traditions, women as well as men can be teachers passing wisdom from generation to generation. Jesus' teachings on ecojustice and his relations with the earth community around him can be compared to the cosmological teachings of the Asian sages.
Furthermore, an organic model of Christology relativizes the significance of Jesus as the revelation of God in a finite, historically specific, human form. Jesus, as the epiphany of God, is but one manifestation or revelation of the divine. The notion of an epiphanic Christ allows us to entertain the possibility of encountering Christ in many other ways: in other human beings, in nature, and in God's whole universe. This does not minimize the importance of the revelation of God in Jesus, because his life and ministry is paradigmatic for many Christians. But the incarnation of God can be also seen in both male and female salvific figures in other peoples' histories, who display great wisdom and compassion, and in forms of existence other than human, exceeding our shallow anthropocentrism. As I have written elsewhere:
The Buddhist tradition asserts there is not one Buddha, but many Buddhas, and that everyone has the potential to attain Buddhahood. If we get away from the framework defined by a language of substance, we will not be fixated on a one-time incarnation. If we follow a non-dualistic logic, we can embrace the concept that Christ is one and many (Kwok 1997: 123).
To summarize, an organic model of Christology explores the implications of organic and natural metaphors for Christ, rediscovers the potential of wisdom Christology, and proposes to see Jesus as one ephiphany of God. It accents Jesus' teachings about right living, his relation with the natural environment and other human beings, his subversive wisdom on ecojustice, and his promise of God's compassion for all humankind. His death and passion are not singled out, but seen within the larger context of his struggle for justice for allhumans and all of creation. His resurrection can be seen as a rebirth, a regeneration that gives new hope. Sin is not so much human depravity or disobedience, but the breaking down of the interconnectedness of all things, threatening the web of life and the suffocation of mother earth. Sin is the systematic and structural evil that allows a tiny minority of the human race to use up the resources that exist for all. Sin is the power and the principalities that work against the oppressed, the majority of which are women and children, as well as indigenous peoples. Sin is the absence of love and compassion. It occurs when we close our ears and eyes to the cries of the people, the rivers and the trees. Sin is the brokenness that drives people to despair. Salvation, therefore, entails right relationship with one another, caring for the planet, compassion for the weaker links in the chain of life, while constantly remembering that humans beings are part of nature and the natural process.
Christ as the Embodiment of Feminine Principle
India is a land of vibrant spirituality, with temples and shrines at every corner, where people can offer flowers and incense. With a rich tradition of myths and legends, Indian people venerate a plurality of enchanting gods and goddesses. Colonized by the British for more than 150 years, India has been struggling with cultural identity, Hindu-Muslim strife, vast poverty and modernization since independence in 1947. Indian feminists have to fight not only against sexual discrimination but also the caste system, illiteracy and escalating violence against women.
The dowry system requires the bride's family to pay the bridegroom's family a certain sum of money. Women have been beaten, mistreated and even killed when the family fails to pay the dowry. Traditionallywomen have been seen as the property of menand the cruel tradition of sati demanded widows to show their loyalty to their husbands by being burned alive in the husband's funeral pyre. Indian feminist theologians have challenged these dehumanizing customs and expressed concerns over the plight of dalit (the untouchable) women. Indian women, they write, have been socialized to accept violence as their lot and self-sacrifice as virtue. Proverbs, such as 'Women, you should not weep when you are beaten', abound in Indian culture. Silent endurance causes women to suffer alone and to accept the curse of being born a woman. Those who protest and dare voice their criticism bring shame upon their families and are quickly censored and ostracized (Baltazar 1996b:57). Instead of fighting injustice, many women helplessly accept their fate and look for consolation in reincarnation, in the life to come.
Given this cultural matrix, it is not surprising that Indian feminist theologians challenge the assumption that suffering is God-given, either for the perfection of souls or for the atonement of sin. Indian women are urged to suffer innocently for the expiatiation of the sin of others, for the well-being of their families, and for the long life of their husbands. Stella Baltazar, a Roman Catholic religious sister, objects to a patriarchal God who demands the suffering of the innocent to expiate people's sins:
According to the dominant misinterpretation, this God demands the sacrifice of the innocent blood of the Son. God bestows wealth as a sign of favor, and poverty as a sign of curse, and gives rewards and punishments according to deeds. God delights in sacrifices and fasting but does not care about human beings (Baltazar 1996b: 59-60).
Her position echoes that of Rita Nakashima Brock, a Japanese American feminist theologian, who argues that the sacrifice of the Son by the Father is cosmic child abuse (Brock 1988: 56), and that the image of the innocent lamb reinforces the notion that victims ought to be innocent or virtuous or else suffering and pain are deserved.
Rejecting the images of the suffering servant, the silent lamb taken to slaughter, and the perfect sacrifice for the expiation of sin, Indian feminist theologians reclaim their cultural roots for resources to reconstruct Christology. They have attached importance to the Hindu concept of Shakti, the feminine principle which is the life energy of the universe. Aruna Gnanadason explains the meaning of Shakti as:
the dynamic energy, which is the source and substance of all things, pervading everything. The manifestation of this primordial energy is called Prakriti (nature). Nature, both animate and inanimate, is thus an expression of Shakti, the feminine and creative principle of the cosmos; in conjunction with the masculine principle (Purusha), Prakriti creates the world (Gnanadason 1996: 75).
The concept of Shakti, the feminine and creative principle of the universe, is popularized by the writings of Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva. In Staying Alive, Shiva condemns modern science as a male project and development programs as the brain-children of Western patriarchy, leading to the death of the feminine principle. Citing statistics and field research, she argues persuasively that the degradation of women and the degradation of nature are intimately linked. She points to an alternative path for the survival of nature, women and men; and that path is characterized by honoring nature, sustainability and diversity. This is in sharp contrast to exploitation, consumption and surplus in capitalist patriarchy. For her, the feminine principle, or Shakti, is characterized by a harmonious relation between humans and nature, men and women, and the respect for diversity and the sharing of resources. Shiva celebrates the close links of nature and women as producers of life, and credits Third World women with playing an important role in providing sustenance for their families even under dire conditions. In recovering the chances for the survival of all life, she says, they are laying the foundations for the recovery of the feminine principle in nature and society and the recovery of earth as sustainer and provider (Shiva 1989).
In an attempt to reinterpret Christian faith through their religious heritage, Baltazar proposes seeing Jesus as an embodiment of Shakti:
The question for us is not to make Jesus become a woman. Rather, the transcended Christ can be the embodiment of the feminine principle, the Shakti, the energizer and vitalizer. It is a serious limitation to express the resurrected Christ in purely male or patriarchal terms. Only women can liberate him from this gross limitation. With his bodily death the maleness of Christ, too, dies. The risen Christ must be liberated from the violent male language, and this only women can do. Drawing from indigenous and primal religions, we need, to make the resurrection of Christ become actual in our culture. In this way Indian culture, too, will experience a transformation by making alive an Indian cosmology of wholeness and interconnectedness which is truly the liberative potential of the cosmic Christ (Baltazar 1996: 64).
The embodiment of a principle in both female and male form does not seem to create difficulty in the Indian context. Avalokitesvara, the popular bodhisattva of compassion is venerated as a male figure in India, but called the Goddess of Mercy and assumes a female form in East Asia. There is also the half-female and half-male deity, Ardhanarisvara, who symbolizes mutuality and partnership of male and female principles and the union of human and divine. Thus, Baltazar finds it liberating to imagine God as both male and female, father and mother at the same time: The rediscovery of the feminine face of God ought to depict God as compassionate, life-giving, and life-sustaining potential, as the divine mother and father'(Baltazar 1996: 65).
The use of the philosophical and popular understanding of Shakti to interpret Christ has several advantages. It clearly links Christology to the emergent eco-feminist spirituality among Indian feminists. Christ, as the embodiment of Shakti, is the energizing force for harmony and inter-connectedness of the whole cosmos. Instead of using Jewish or Greek male language to describe God, feminist theologians can reclaim their heritage and cultural roots to imagine the divine. It allows fruitful conversation and cross-fertilization among Christians such as Gnanadason and Baltazar and the Hindu Shiva. Furthermore, it recovers the feminine dimension of the divine, who is seen as supporting women in their struggle for freedom and humanity.
But there are cautions to the appropriation of Hindu concepts in Christian feminism. Indian male theologians have long tried to interpret Christian faith through the lens of Hinduism, without paying sufficient attention to the issue of sexual discrimination in the Hindu tradition. Feminist theologians, too, must critically examine the dualistic and hierarchical teachings in Hinduism, especially the rituals and taboos surrounding women. Otherwise, the recovery of the feminine principle will not effectively help women in their current struggle. In addition, the concept of embodiment must be fleshed out more fully. Why is it necessary for the feminine principle to be embodied and how is the embodiment in Jesus different from other possible embodiments? It will be interesting to compare and contrast the notions of Jesus as incarnation of Wisdom and Jesus as embodiment of Shakti..
The above discussion shows that Asian feminist theologians in various contexts have presented some fascinating ideas and approaches in their Christologies. They demonstrate that Asian Christian women can answer Jesus' question 'Who do you say that I am?' from their own experiences and circumstances. Some of them use anthropomorphic images to portray Christ; others opt for natural and cosmological metaphors. The question about the maleness of Christ does not concern them as much as in the West, since their cultures are full of gods and goddesses and do not prescribe that the salvific figure needs to be male. Many of them are aware of the limits of human language and metaphors to describe God and show remarkable capacity to hold duality together in unitymale and female, human and divine, cosmological and historical. Baltazar states that we should not limit God to any particular mode, because for her,
God is multiple in communion.
God is unity in diversity.
God is universally local.
God is transcendentally immanent (Baltazar 1996: 65).
Read also: Recalling Li Tim-Oi in Hong Kong, by Jenny Standage. Outlook, no.28, Summer 2011, p18.
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