Opening of the Forum “Diversity and Respect”

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Respecting Gender diversity: a goal or a utopia for Christian Churches today?

It is a honor and a privilege for me to participate in the 6th ecumenical social week, which brings together Christians from different parts of Ukraine and Europe.

I am an Orthodox theologian, from Greece, a country which is increasingly becoming a multi-cultural and multi-faith, a fact which we endeavor to understand and embrace, but not always without difficulty. The country faces one of the most serious crisis in its history, experiences unemployment amongst the youth, economic instability, poverty, social and gender discriminations, drug abuse, violence and corruption in places of power and authority. This situation is calling the Orthodox Church of Greece and other Christian denominations for witness and social action and opens urgently the theological discussion on themes such as: Church/ State relations, the question of violence, corruption and discrimination (even in within the Church), the role of religious formation and education, the need for historical and theological research in order to re-evaluate the Orthodox/ church diakonia/service, the role and the influence of the Church in the public sphere, the content of its word etc.

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My presentation today is in memory of two women modern theologians, who dedicated their life to the proclamation of liberating Gospel. Despite their different national, social, Christian and theological background, they both envisioned the Church in a similar way: as an inclusive community, as a round table, as a place of love, care, respect and sacrifice. I refer to Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, the well known French orthodox theologian and Letty Russell, the teacher and the famous American scholar. Elizabeth Behr Sigel points: “My desire is that the Church become what it already is in the supreme reality of the mind of God: a community of faith, hope and love, of men and women, of mysterious human persons, unutterably equal yet different, made in the image and reflecting the glory of God, the Three in One. That is the great Orthodox vision of the Church. It remains for it to be translated into concrete historical terms”. And Letty Russel in her article with the title “hot –house ecclesiology” stresses: “I have entitled this article on feminist interpretation of the church “Hot-house ecclesiology” because it seems to me that the vision women have for the Church is that it could be a sanctuary, a place of safety for all who enter, and especially for those who are the most marginal, weak and despised of any community…and the welcome extends to those of all races, ages, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, all creatures and creation itself as the Church becomes a place where there is intent to heal and to live out God’s justice rather than to harm and to promote the privilege of the few” .

Both visions, according to my reading and understanding, are of biblical origins. The early Church developed its ecclesiology and in turn missionary practice, on a radical eschatological teaching of the historical Jesus about the Kingdom of God (which, as modern biblical research has shown, moves dialectically between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’; in other words, it has begun already in the present but will be completed in its final authentic form in the eschaton). From the writings of Paul, John and Luke, in addition to other works, we see this teaching reflected in images of the Church as the body of Christ, as vine, and especially as unity. Paul in particular was absolutely convinced that all through baptism, completing with the Eucharist their incorporation into the one people of God. The fourth Gospel develops this radical eschatological teaching even further in regard to the unity of people of God around Christ and their incorporation into Christ’s body-above all, through the Eucharist. The main contribution primitive Christian theology made to the development of this messianic eschatology was the common belief of almost all theologians of the early church, emphasized and underlined most sharply by St. Luke, that with Christ’s resurrection and especially with Pentecost, the eschaton had already entered history and that the messianic eschatological community becomes a reality each time the Church, the new Israel, the dispersed people of God, gathers epi to auto. This development is undoubtedly the starting point of Christian mission, the springboard of the Church’s witnessing exodus to the world, which in the fact interpreted the imminent expectation of the parousia in a dynamic and radical way.

I. Define diversity and respect

Diversity is understood as "the condition of being different." A mistake usually made is to equate diversity only with "race" and "culture". This understanding is inherently flawed because it reinforces stereotypes and promotes an "us versus them" mentality. Diversity extends far beyond race and culture to include a number of dimensions of differences. Loden and Rosener describe two major dimensions of diversity: primary and secondary. Primary dimensions are things that we cannot change. They include age, race, ethnicity, gender, physical qualities and sexual orientation. Secondary dimensions include topics such as income, education, religious beliefs, military experience, geographic location, parental status and marital status. People are usually less sensitive about the secondary dimensions, because they are elements which we have some power to change. This model vividly demonstrates that we are all similar and different on an infinite number of dimensions. By positioning diversity as something that applies to everyone, it becomes something that everyone can care about and support.

Respecting diversity means an act of giving particular attention, expressions of high or special regard to people and situation that considered as different/strange. There is a great deal of conceptual overlap between ‘social inclusion’ and ‘respect for diversity’. They are symbiotic and mutually reinforcing. But there is nonetheless a difference in emphasis. Social inclusion incorporates notions of citizenship, status and rights. It focuses on tackling structural discrimination including barriers which prevent individuals or groups from full and meaningful participation on the basis of ethnic background, political affiliation or socio-economic status. Respect for diversity is about behaviors and attitudes. It goes beyond legal rights to encompass such issues as a secure sense of belonging and a feeling of being accepted and welcome. Respect is an attitude of recognition -- as a matter of social behavior as much as of legal right -- of the needs of others who are different and unequal, in the street as well as in the court. It is an attitude of acknowledging positively the views of those whose interests lead them to disagree, and of recognizing the pain of another through empathy. Social inclusion can ensure that all people have fair and equal access to resources, services and facilities which are helpful to their development and wellbeing. Many cultures have words which usefully encapsulate the overall essence of social inclusion and respect for diversity. Examples include the Zulu philosophy of ubuntu – defined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as involving “a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished” – and the Spanish concept of convivencia, denoting peaceful and productive co-existence.

Today’s globalised world is marked by societies which are either increasingly heterogenous or in which existing heterogeneity is impacting more on the public consciousness. Although this can provide people with positive opportunities for cultural exploration and exchange, it can also create inequalities and discrimination.
Discriminations and inequalities of any kind become stronger in periods of economic crisis, as the one we face today. To his address to the Finnish Parlament, the UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon remarked that the global financial crisis,

…has shaken the foundations of the global economy-its rules, its credibility, its values. And it has been a sobering lesson in global interdependence. I fear that if we do not act boldly to confront this crisis, it could lead to social unrest and political instability in many parts of the world.

This remark points to the fundamental reality that the global economic crisis is not only financial but has a human dimension. Ongoing debates indicate that the crisis is not an accident, but something that has been eating away inside the system, a manifestation of moral deficiencies that required earlier attention. The market relates to political power, raising also questions of social justice. Those with more political power have more control over the earth’s resources and those who do not are excluded and marginalized. Whatever way the economy is structured, it has various implications for humanity and the creation. For millions around the world, the economy is a matter of life and death, which also affects relationships between human beings and with God. The crisis we face is, at the same time, moral and systemic. Those most affected are women, young people and children, that is, those living in poverty, whose suffering deepens.

Women, in this frame, remain poor in relation to men. This is true almost in every member state of the European Union. The persistence of poverty in Europe is shocking, even before the impact of recession has been considered. In October 2009, Oxfam and the European Women’s Lobby, commissioned research to explore and analyze the hidden impact of the current economic recession on women’s poverty in the EU. This was conducted as part of the Gender Works project on women’s poverty and social inclusion in Europe, funded by the European Commission and led by Oxfam. The report documents evidence of: precarious working conditions; increasing discrimination in the labor market with a subsequent shift to informal work; rising levels of poverty; trafficking; reduced access to services; and rising levels of domestic violence , accompanied by cuts in vital support services. The evidence clearly indicates that the recession is already having a significant negative effect on the lives of women, not only in relation to the labor market, but also, crucially, outside it. However, the impact of the recession on women remains largely invisible and further in-depth analysis is urgently required.

What is the relationship of our Christian faith to the above injustices we see in the world and in our European context? How do we respond to those injustices and disrespect of human diversities in a manner that is rooted in our faith and our relationship to God? Have the Christian Churches cultivated an ethos of inclusivity or they still face diversity with fear and hesitance?

II. Women theologians challenge the Churches.

In modern western culture there has been a tendency to view difference as a problem. Races, genders, sexual preferences, classes, and nature have been viewed dualistically and hierarchically. Women, nature and people of color have been cast low in the hierarchy. In dichotomous dualisms, white color has been understood as morally, ontologically, and aesthetically superior to blackness or color, male to female, heterosexual to homosexual, culture to nature, upper-class to lower-class etc.

Regarding gender diversity we have to accept that the influence of the secular feminist movement, the rise of multidisciplinary women’s studies together with the stimulus of the writings of American feminist theologians, the second Vatican and the work of the World Council of Churches were some of the catalysts for the development of the various feminist theologies all over the world.

As a body of theological perspectives and ways of working on Christian tradition, feminist theologies are as distinctive and diverse (culturally, ethnically, racially, socioeconomically etc) as are the women writing them. However, they all challenge the Churches and different Christian Traditions by raising various questions about: the definition of ‘theology’, the ‘human and women experience’, the imagery of God, the theological language, the hermeneutical methods and tools, the hierarchical structures of the Church etc. Feminism has therefore vigorously criticized all institutions that exploit women, stereotype them, and keep them in inferior positions. In this context, feminist analysis points out not only that Christianity had a major influence in the making of Western culture and sexist ideology, but also that the Christian churches and theologies still perpetuate the ‘feminine mystique’ and women’s inferiority through their institutional inequalities and theological justifications of women’s innate difference from men.

Womanist and feminist theology and ethics argue for positive not hierarchical moral, ontological, and aesthetic valuations of difference among humankind and in all of creation. They emphasize solidarity and mutuality among human beings of diverse races, ethnicities, cultures, genders, classes and sexual preferences. They in particular emphasize a positive valuation of diversity, rejecting notions of supremacy along racial, gender, class and heterosexist and homophobic lines.

As Elizabeth Shüssler Fiorenza stresses in her understanding of Christian ecclesiology: “The gospel is not a matter of the individual soul; it is the communal proclamation of the life-giving power of Spirit-Wisdom. It is God’s vision of an alternative community and world. The experience of the Spirit’s creative power releases us from the life-destroying powers of structural sin and set us free to choose an alternative life for ourselves and for each other. The focal point of the early Christian self-understanding was not a holy book or a cultic rite, not mystic experience and magic invocation, but a set of relationships: the experience of God’s presence among one another and through one another. To embrace the gospel means to enter into a community; the one can’t be obtained without the other. The gospel is calling into being ekklesia as a discipleship of equals that is continually being recreated in the power of the Spirit. Jesus’ ministry, his healings and exorcisms, his promise to the poor and challenge the rich, his breaking of religious law and his table community with outcasts and sinners, made experientially available God’s new world, not as we use to think with in us but among us.”

According to Kwok Pui-Lan: “the mission of God challenges the churches to be contextualized in theological thinking, ways of worship and community life. To equip the whole people of God for mission, male dominated religious structures must be challenged and women must be empowered through leadership training”.

This last remark is also important for the Orthodox. The majority of Orthodox Churches consider themselves as miss ionized, they feel that socially and politically they are among the people that have been oppressed by other religions and creeds and do not belong to the side of oppressors. Even if this is the case, the Orthodox still reserve many hierarchical and oppressive attitudes and stereotypes in their structures. One of them is the women’s role and participation in their mission, local and global (which is part of the broader problem of participation of laity). I can probably remember a huge number of women martyrs, saints, missionaries, who have announced the liberating message of the Gospel and enriched the life of the Church with their charism, by praying, teaching, choosing poverty as a sign of their solidarity with poor, confessing their faith publicly and dying for it. I can start, for example from a New Testament missioner, in fact the first one, the Samaritan woman, St. Fotini in orthodox tradition, continue with Thecla, St. Phoebe, St. Nino the Enlightener of Georgia, St. Macrina, St. Olympia, St. Melania the Roman and conclude with Maria Skobtsova, a Russian intellectual, activist and divorced mother who become a nun. Mother Maria did not live in a cloister but organized a centre of worship in Paris which also included a house where she and her helpers gave refuge to Jews, offered meals to the poor and provided temporary shelter for many who had no place to live or who came to talk late into the night about theology and philosophy. Despite the richness of names and ministries, there are still much to be done and written in order women’s role be worthily evaluated.

Many modern orthodox theologians, women and men, stress the need of the renewal of our theological, liturgical and spiritual ecclesial ethos. I will use the words of two well known orthodox theologians, a man and a woman in order to confirm this necessity. It is difficult to imagine the frustration and turmoil that Thomas Hopko felt when he commended on the witness and service of Orthodox Christian life. A decade later, this words are still bear listening:

“Our patriarchal ecclesiastical structure, glorified for its venerable antiquity, is for the most part nominal and pretentious. It applies in real life to almost nothing that is real and living. Our highly praised liturgical tradition is for the most part unknown and unlived by great numbers of our people, and all often by the official teachers and professors of faith as well. Our claim to universal and catholic churchly being and life, consciousness and mission, are for the most part obscured and denied by the crudest and basest expressions of ethnicism, nationalism (I would add sexism and racism) and simple human pride and vanity, both in the traditional “homelands” of orthodoxy and in the so-called “diaspora”, a notoriously unchristian term…”

Additionaly, in her paper on Kassiane, Eva Katafygiotou-Topping wrote:

“It is time for orthodox women to speak openly, to claim our history through research, writing and publication, to claim our equal rights in the Church. Unlike Kassiane, there is no imperial crown at risk; rather we stand gain full participation and responsibility in the church and her mission”.

Both comments make obvious that: “the mission of everyone is to know Christ, to live in him and witness to him by word and deed. When our Eucharistic assembly experiences this truth, the necessity to share the joy of the resurrection with all people is a natural consequence…the Church’s mission also calls us to the task of peacemaking, reconciling and defending justice for everyone, especially in contexts where the people of God suffer from injustice, violence, oppression and war. When the Eucharist assembly does not engage in such outreaches it fails to realize its missionary responsibility”.

In his comment to the Consultation in Armenia 16-21 September 1975, on the topic “Confessing Christ through the Liturgical life of the Church” Anastasios Giannoulatos, Archbishop of Albania, stressed:

“the Liturgy is not an escape from life, but a continuous transformation of life according to the prototype Jesus Christ, through the power of the Spirit. If it is true that in the Liturgy we not only hear a message but we participate in the great event of liberation of sin and of koinonia (communion) with Christ through the real presence of the Holy Spirit, then this event of our personal incorporation into the body of Christ, this transfiguration of our little being into a member of Christ, must be evident and the proclaimed in actual life. The liturgy has to be continued in personal everyday situations. Each of the faithful is called upon to continue a personal ‘liturgy’ on the secret altar of his own heart, to realize a living proclamation of the good news ‘for the sake of the whole world’ Without this continuation the liturgy remains incomplete. Since the Eucharistic event we are incorporated in Him who came to serve the world and to be sacrificed for it, we have to express in concrete diakonia, in community life, our new being in Christ, the servant of all. The sacrifice of the Eucharist must be extended in personal sacrifices for the people in need, the brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. Since the Liturgy is the participation in the great event of liberation from the demonic powers, then the continuation of liturgy in life means a continuous liberation from the powers of the evil that are working inside us, a continual reorientation and openness to insights and efforts aimed at liberating human persons from all demonic structures of injustice, exploitation, agony, loneliness and at creating real communities of persons in love. This personal everyday attitude becomes liturgical in the sense that (a) it draws power from the participation in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist through which we receive the grace of the liberating and unifying spirit, (b) it constitutes the best preparation for a new, more conscious and existential participation in the Eucharist, and (c) it is a living expression-in terms clear to everybody- of the real transformation of men and women in Christ.”

In order theology to contribute in the creation of communities of love, care and tolerance, we need to be honest, accept and recognize the mistakes and wounds of the past and look for their healing. Healing is a term with multiple meaning. In theological terms, healing is found in the overcoming of duality and dichotomy, which Virginia Ramey Mollenkott in her book Godding identifies as both delusion and sin. The most basic duality is simply ‘us’ and ‘them’ played out in terms of gender, race, social class, denomination, religion etc. Healing is defined in terms of inclusivity and recognition of and respect for pluralism, tolerance and understanding. In other words, we are called to go beyond the limits of our closed communities, to transcend our prejudices, hesitations and fears and to witness to the Risen Christ as we can, to go and meet our contemporaries and the burning problems they have to deal with, that is helping every human being to attain freedom and dignity.