What’s Coming?

I have come to learn that I am one of those people who loves to travel. One of the most memorable trips I ever took was a cross-country train trip: west to east and then south to north, when I was seventeen and all by myself, even with a broken foot. One of the things that struck me during that trip was the great cross-section I saw of America—the well-to-do; the black, browns, and whites; the poor; the drunk; the unruly. There is a great diversity that we live in, a diversity that becomes pronounced in some ways and blurred in others over the holiday season. This blurring of the diversity of this season is similar to what I saw on that great monthlong train trip, and Advent is about that long as well. But on that trip, I also learned that despite all our diversities we have much in common. We are all travelers. Despite our station in life we all have to show our tickets when asked, and if we get too unruly we may get put off the car at the next stop.

I think there is a part of the Christmas narrative that gets rushed over. It’s the journey to Bethlehem. All the people, no matter their station, had to return to the land of their fathers to be counted. This Christmas account is an odd and troubling requirement really since it deviates from the Levitical code that required a similar return to homeland, albeit for a very different reason. On the one hand, all the people had to return to the home land of their forefathers—the family land—which was a periodic requirement of the Levitical codes. However, unlike the required Levitical return in which the land and debts would be resettled at this return to the family land so as to reestablish national life in accordance with the provision and justice of God, the Christmas narrative relates that the people are merely counted for Caesar. This is not settling of debts and return of land but an ancient form colonization and subjugation of the people of ancient Israel to the largest empire of the time, Rome.

The reason and consequences of the journey to Rome are not the only thing that gets glossed over in the pageantry telling. There is also a poor and young Mary who is very, very, very pregnant making the journey of several days to the temple city. They were traveling many, many, many miles on foot—if they were lucky they had a pack animal Mary might have ridden. One can imagine this journey would have been very uncomfortable for the mother-to-be. It was no baby shower for sure! What an exhausting physical trip before giving birth! (I consider the experience of Mary’s physical journey fresh and anew this year as I await the news of a friend who is expecting a child, a boy, this very week!) But Mary’s experience was not only a physical one. It was a spiritual and emotional one as well. Mary was a young woman at a precipice: a young woman about to give birth for the first time. A young woman about to give birth as her people enter into a new form of subjugation under a new emperor. A young woman about to give birth to a son come to pronounce a new way of relating, a new way of justice and peace at the end of an empire. And I wonder what it was like for Mary to give birth in such times. Mary, having been told this was the Child of God. Mary, wondering if this was the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. Was she ready to give birth? Was she ready for what was to come?

Let us dedicate this day in prayer to the women waiting to give birth, to pray for their preparation and safety in this transition of life to life.

And let us wonder, if we are ready.

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Hope for Justice to Come

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
—Jeremiah 33: 14-16

Does it ever seem to you that the world is just not right? It does to me. Does it seem that injustices abound and individuals can not always do too much to get  ‘ahead’ in the world? Maybe it’s not just the individual, maybe there is a more systematic force preventing justice.

If this is true, it is not the first time in human history it has been experienced. The Bible is full of examples of when the world was unjust and details some of the lives of the greatest freedom fighters in the cause of justice to ever walk the planet. It’s one reason to open the Bible and the find the juicy stuff.

The devotional passage of this first day of Advent speaks to one of the times in history of great injustice, but it is also one that looks back at a plan for living in justice and a future in which people will live with the hope of justice restored. Jeremiah may have been a strange character walking through the town streets with a yoke and eating items we would consider unsuitable for consumption—read your Bible, the disgusting extremes of injustice are detailed there alongside the juicy audacious doings of the prophets. In today’s passage, Jeremiah has gone to purchase the future crops of a field belonging to his family which had been sold to pay the debts of his family members. Yet Jeremiah is prevented from doing this, and that is the problem. That Jeremiah is prevented or delayed in reclaiming the land of his ancestors, is in some sense the straw that breaks the whole world apart and not only sets the prophet into motion but sets God to speaking through the prophet. To understand the significance of this we need to understand that Jeremiah is attempting to act in accordance with the laws laid out in the book of Leviticus (Marvin Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature, 112). These laws require him to redeem his family’s land in an effort to maintain the balance of power within the community that God ordained as a part of creation. The very balance of power that allows for justice. If Jeremiah cannot do this then the whole of creation, particularly human society within creation, is at risk of falling back into chaos. Thus God must intervene to reestablish justice.

And thus this passage looks to the future, a future of justice. Traditional Christianity, and scripture, has held that the coming Christ child is the shoot of David. I tend to think it is near irresponsible to impose elements of the New Testament on the Hebrew Bible to get such a reading. The beauty is, however, that we do not have to do so. The ministry of Jesus is one that challenges the Levitical codes pertaining to individuals so individuals may be embraced by community (experience justice), and a calling the community to the responsibilities of  humane society (to be just) as called for in the Levitical codes. In some sense, both Jeremiah and Jesus call our attention to the role of the Levitical code in ordering human relationships within society and human society as whole as a guest within God’s creation. Jeremiah and Jesus remind that we are guests welcomed to experience God’s justice but also, as members of human society, quite a way from the Justice of God’s Kindom.

It’s the same old struggle that humanity must face only in a new age. As we enter into this season of Advent, particularly this week of Hope, Let us reflect on how we can be instruments of God’s justice allowing others to feel that the are welcomed alongside us in God’s Kindom. Let us pray that God would empower us each to move into a future of liberation, a future in which all peoples and all creation can live together in justice. It is the after all part of our most famous prayer, Your kindom come, Your will be done.

A Feminist Eschatology

The following article was prepared for a seminary class in 2007.

Eschatology is the study of human thoughts concerning what is “last”; translated from the Greek, eschatology means study of the last (1). The question this raises for me is: the last what? Theologically speaking, eschatology is commonly thought to refer to culmination of history or the end of time. In Christianity, eschatology is often associated with the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, and the return of Christ. For religions that place emphasis on the historical patterns of time, such as the Abrahamic religions, eschatology can serve as a “hope [that] locates the ultimate achievement of the ideal in a final era of human history” (2). Ultimately, eschatology leads us to reflect upon what it is that we consider to be ideal, and perhaps essential to the human experience in relation to both the world in which we reside, and the divinity in which we live and have our being. The exploration I will seek to engage in this brief essay is how some feminist theologians approach this notion of eschatology. What are the last things that feminist theologians hope for? What, ultimately, do feminist theologies hope for?

Traditionally, eschatology has brought to mind the Battle of Armageddon, and the notion of some who are cosmically crowned by a heavenly king, while others are sentenced to eternal torture. These images themselves smack of patriarchy with all its war, hierarchy, and threats to non-conformers. Feminist theologians, starting from the ground of their own experience and carrying with them a commitment to non-hierarchical structures, have tended to view eschatology in a different light, and use a different vocabulary in reference to it. Justice is one word that seems common in feminist discussions and visions of the eschaton.

Building on a tradition that emphasizes history in its concept of world completion, Rosemary Radford Ruether draws an eschatological vision based on the jubilee notion found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. She writes that “[i]n the Jubilee tradition this is thought of not as one ‘great cycle’ defining history from a beginning to an end but as a series of revolutionary transformations that continually return to certain starting points” (3). The idea of jubilee is that each family has possession of the land they need to provide for their means, and that individuals are free to benefit from the land. It is an idea that all have what they need to survive; this is the starting point to which justice returns in the world. An eschatological vision based on this would have to assume an ongoing process of justice in which injustices are righted and the necessary means of life restored to all persons on a regular basis. Ruether sees this “concept of social change as a conversion to the center, conversion to the earth and each other, rather than flight into an unrealizable future.” (4). It is ultimately justice among persons in community, and all the responsibility that entails, that Ruether advocates as an eschatological hope. It is a hope in which the ultimate meaning of humanity comes in the form of personal responsibility and a communal justice that encompasses all the earth. This is justice.

Justice—and the struggle for it—is also a primary (if not ultimate) goal for other feminist theologians. Judith Plaskow, as a Jewish feminist theologian, is even bolder in this pursuit writing of “the relationship between spirituality and politics as a theological issue” (5). The politics of which Plaskow speaks is social justice. The connection of politics and spirituality is paramount to Plaskow because drawing upon her Jewish tradition she reminds us “the prophets affirm that the forms of worship are meaningless in the absence of social justice” (6). Thus the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition that stands upon it, demands the not just the uplifting of but the reality of social justice as a prerequisite for worship. It is only through social justice that humanity can reach toward “new understandings of divinity” (7). Eschatology for Plaskow seems to be a reaching out for and bringing in those persons society marginalizes and considers to be “last.” This requires a political understanding and interaction with the world, because, “[w]hen spirituality is understood from a feminist perspective—not in otherworld terms, but as the fullness of our relationships with ourselves, others and God—it can not possibly be detached from the conditions of our existence.” (8).

Experience as the basis for the formation of theological and spiritual reflection is at the heart of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s Mujerista Theology. Isasi-Diaz’s eschatology is one in which, like Plaskow’s, there is an expectation that the establishment of justice will also bring with it the establishment of the kin-dom (sic). She writes that “[t]he main obstacle to the unfolding of the kin-dom is the alienation from each other experienced by all in and through the oppressive societal categories and structures that cause and sustain oppression.” (9). Thus, the kin-dom exists when oppression is banished and liberation established. The eschatology here is, again, a function of human interactions. As a Latina, Iassi-Diaz not only writes her theology from a feminist perspective, but also from a perspective that seeks liberation, culturally from within and racially from without. In this effort to organize for the liberation of the poor, of women, and of Latinas/os, Isasi-Diaz’s theology puts emphasis on the practical steps of how to build a community that will bring about the kin-dom. Such practicality is based on her emphasis that change will only begin when the oppressed achieve “conscientization” (10) of their situation and the oppressors are able to find their way to being in dialogical solidarity (11) and mutuality in which the oppressors come to understand the oppressed (12). From the perspective of Isasi-Diaz’s theology, it is justice between the people, with power and those without, that becomes the determining factor of when the ultimate hopes of humanity are achieved . Yet, this justice is “ever changing” based on the lived realities of people’s real experiences (13).

There are many ways in which eschatology has been and can be viewed. Often when we look to eschatology there seems to be little agreement about what the last things or times are. However, when we look at the question of what eschatology is from the feminist perspective there seems to be agreement, even across interfaith lines. Feminist theologies seem to agree that the eschaton, the ultimate hope for humanity, will be found only in the seeking and establishing of justice (Plaskow and Isasi-Diaz), or in the establishment of new ways of living in which seeks right relationships and justice among all inhabitants of the earth, human or not (Ruether). In terms of feminist theology, the eschaton is the realization of justice for and inclusion of those persons, and beings, whom are thought of last in the traditional hierarchies of power and control. There is also the implicit expectation of feminist theologians that this feminist eschatology includes roles and respect for women in the ecclesiastical / religious power structures.

***Endnotes

  1. Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology&oldid=175010037 (accessed December 4, 2007).
  2. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 243.
  3. Ibid, 254.
  4. Ibid, 255-256.
  5. Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, (San Francsico: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 212.
  6. Ibid, 214.
  7. Ibid, 238.
  8. Ibid, 213.
  9. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology, (New York: Orbis, 1996) 90.
  10. Ibid, 94.
  11. Ibid, 97.
  12. Ibid, 89.
  13. Ibid, 116

Bibliography

  • Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria. Mujerista Theology. New York: Orbis, 1996.
  • Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.
  • Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
  • Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, [on-line] available from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology&oldid=175010037, accessed December 4, 2007.