The Symbol of Jesus
Jesus Christ is the central figure in the Christian tradition representing God's human manifestation, the son of God, a savior, a prophet, a teacher, and a healer. There are many facets to the identity of Christ yet there are few modern visual representations that stray from the above picture, Christ as a dark haired man with European features. The images of Christ are based on the personal assumptions of people in the past who created the images yet nobody knows exactly what Jesus looked like. However, the dominance of one representation of Christ shows that the image is based mainly images of a select group. If people are to identify with the central figure of their tradition, many believe that the symbol itself should encompass the group as a whole. Some feminists believe that the symbol of Christ is patriarchal and should be liberated. Rosemary Radford Ruether, feminist author and theologian, addresses the question Can Christology Be Liberated from Patriarchy? One of the ways in which women are excluded from the tradition through the symbol of Christ is the argument by the Catholic hierarchy that women cannot be priests. They conclude that priests are representatives of Christ and Christ was male. According to Ruether this is one of the ways women are oppressed within their own tradition through exclusion based on a closed image of Christology.
Ruether's Liberation of Christology
Ruether discusses the Christ symbol with regard to women:
"Christianity has never said that God was literally male, but it has assumed that God represents preeminently the qualities of rationality and sovereign power. Since men were assumed to be rational, and women less so or not at all, and men exercised the public power normally denied to women, the male metaphor was seen as appropriate for God, while female metaphors for God came to be regarded as inappropriate and "pagan". The Logos who reveals the "Father", therefore, was presumed to be properly represented even though the Jewish Wisdom tradition had used the female metaphor, Sophia (link to gender Sophia page?), for this same idea. The maleness of the historical Jesus undoubtedly reinforced this preference for the male-identified metaphors, such as Logos and "Son of God", over the female metaphor of Sophia" (Ruether, 9).
Although Ruether views the Christ symbol as bounded in a sexist and male dominated symbolism, the question is still posed as to whether this Christ can be liberated from patriarchy. Ruether believes that in order to
"reaffirm the basic Christian belief that women are included in redemption, 'in Christ', all the symbolic underpinnings of Christology must be reinterpreted" (Ruether, 13).
However, is it possible to change the symbolism of the central figure of the Christian tradition when it is already so imbedded in the doctrine and rituals? For women like Ruether, a theologian and follower of the Catholic tradition, they are placed in a position of marginality because of the Christ symbol. However, if one is devout in a tradition she faces the decision whether to abandon the institution and start all over with new symbols and ideas or try to change the institution from within. Ruether believes that the Christ symbol can be re-interpreted through different means such as a new use of language (i.e. abandoning the Father-Son analogy), re-interpretation of Jesus' identity, and concentrating on Jesus as a "lived message and practice" rather than simply a biological male (Ruether, 23). Ruether also points out that while the Christian tradition focuses on Jesus' maleness, they tend to forget his other human facets such as his position as a first century Galilean Jew. Through this new re-interpretation of Jesus' role and symbol, women will have more access to power. When Christology changes to incorporate women and put them on an equal plane, this equality transcends practice and rituals. Women will have become more powerful when the power symbol of the tradition, Jesus Christ, is more accessible and identifiable to them. Thus Christology and women would both be liberated from patriarchy.
Jesus as the Passive Lamb
In a world of sexual, physical, and mental abuse, it is important that women are reminded of the power they have over their own bodies and minds. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is supposed to represent a model for a Christian's actions and behavior. Although he is viewed as wise and strong by followers, some believe that his model of a passive sufferer, the sacrificial lamb, is a negative symbol for women because it gives the message that in order to be a good Christian, one must suffer silently without struggle. Rita Nakashima Brock states,
"Theologically, we are told that the Father God, who can do no wrong, sent his own Son to be killed and the good, obedient Son went willingly, without complaint. If cosmic child abuse, to save humanity, is acceptable, and human parents are to obey the example set by the Father God, then the violation of children can be justified on the same grounds. Protection from such abuse-- a false protection-- comes from being obedient and innocent" (Brock, 38).
This message of obedience and suffering for God carries over into other areas such as child abuse and adult sexual abuse. One example of passive abuse is Maria Goretti, who was hacked to death rather than be "spoiled sexually". Goretti is used by Catholics as a model of good Christian morals. Therefore if a woman is being abused by her husband, she might think of Jesus as a model for suffering silently, and feel that as a good Christian she must do the same. Many feminist theologians believe this this message is dangerous for women and children who already struggle silently enough and do not have great access to a large group consciousness of oppression. In order to shed this image of Jesus as a passive sufferer, or the sacrificial lamb, Brock believes that we should be aware of the dichotomies in our lives, or as she states "be willing to stay in the messy middle" (Brock, 47). In this "messy middle", we must recognize ourselves as oppressors and the oppressed. Brock ends:
All such death, including the crucifixion of Jesus, is tragic and should be mourned as tragic. As long as we continue to say that his death was necessary to save us, we are saying that those who hated, feared and killed him were right ant that those who loved him and wanted him to live were wrong. Hate is not right and love wrong. Jesus did not die to save us. He died because the political, patriarchal powers of his day saw the danger of his life and his movement to their system of oppression (Brock, 49).
Jesus as a European
Jacquelyn Grant states,
The constant battle between light and dark, good and evil (God and devil), white and black, is played out daily in racial politics of the dominant Euro-American culture, and at the same time, theologically legitimated and institutionalized in the racial imageries of the divine. the racism is reflected in the fact that white imagery is presented as normative to the exclusion of any other possible imagery of Jesus or God (Grant, 60).
Jesus Christ is dominantly represented as a white, European male. Grant says non-European women, such as African American women are "twice removed from the image of God" (Grant, 63). In the history of feminist theology and Christology, intellectuals have tended to focus on the oppression of women and mostly of white women, forgetting the other exclusionary traits of the symbol such as class and race. This exclusion of race and class issues have turned many women off to feminist theology just as it occurred with feminist movements in general. However, it is important to recognize this failure and begin to incorporate the multiple restrictions of the Christ symbol. By simply focusing on the patriarchal issues of Christology it is the same act when the oppressors simply label Jesus by his maleness and thus exclude women from the priesthood.
The Power of Re-Interpretation
As with any symbol in a tradition, re-interpretation allows for new creations of power. Women are limited in the male-dominated symbols of Christianity so they must either create new symbols or re-interpret the existing ones to establish a position and connection for themselves. Although one the ability to re-interpret symbols , it may not necessarily carry over for people of the tradition in general. Thus women are left with the decision to change within the institution or outside. It is a difficult choice to make when one already has a connection, however patriarchal it is, within the tradition. The Jesus symbol is especially important to examine because not only is it a central figure but also manifests a representation of God. Thus, a re-interpretation of women's connection with Jesus is re-imagining a connection with God.
Some Links to Feminist Christology
Stevens, Maryanne. Reconstructing the Christ Symbol. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.