Mary Emily Briehl Duba opens the Short Takes section of this issue by declaring, “We live in a time of crisis” (159). Was there a time when we were not in crisis? A crisis is a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger. Feminists and womanists do not know, nor can they recall, times of peace, safety, justice, or even American “greatness.” Jan Willis, who marched in the 1963 Birmingham Campaign and now witnesses the #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName movements, wonders in this issue, “how many times—in my lifetime—we will be forced to go through these things again” (85). Twenty-four years ago, Willis wrote that “the trauma of slavery haunts African Americans in the deepest recesses of their souls,” and still there are no reparations. You will notice that a number of contributions to this issue include lengthy lists of calamities. There are still more items one could add regarding life in the contemporary United States: rising anti-Semitism, increasing eviction rates and homelessness, and skyrocketing debt among both young and old. These lists compose a dismally steady drumbeat. We might find consolation in Karl Marx’s assertion that petrified conditions could be made to dance by singing their own tune to them, just as the people must be taught to be terrified at themselves in order to give them courage. Nevertheless, we feminists and womanists have devised our own instruments by which to compose our songs and gather our courage.
A number of the contributions to this issue provide an occasion to reflect on the JFSR’s dual allegiance to the academy and to feminist activism. The JFSR recognizes two communities of accountability: the academy, in which it is situated, and the feminist movement, from which it draws nourishment and vision. But what does this activism look like now? How is it sustained? And how does it inform our work in the academy? Our article section starts with Mara Benjamin’s painstaking reconstruction of the development of Jewish feminist theology in North America. In addition to charting Jewish feminists’ challenge to the authority of classical textual sources, repudiation of gender subordination, and renunciation of patriarchal images of the divine, Benjamin’s thorough and admiring analysis illuminates the “outpouring of innovative work in midrash, ritual, liturgy” (11) through which feminist activists transformed modern Jewish life and thought. In her article, “Tracing the Contours of a Half Century of Jewish Feminist Theology,” Benjamin credits Jewish feminist activists for this long-running burst of critique and creativity and expresses concern that there is now a divide between the academy and feminist activism. The critical study of gender is welcome, agitation for social justice, not so much. Benjamin appeals to readers—an appeal we wish to amplify—to risk breaching this troubling divide.
In the last three decades, women’s activism has secured several victories regarding women’s ordination in Theravāda Buddhist communities and coun- tries. In our second article, “Sri Lankan Buddhist Nuns: Complicating the Debate over Ordination,” Susanne Mrozik focuses on the consequences of this revival of women’s ordination in Sri Lanka. Evidencing determination, commitment, and resourcefulness, women in Sri Lanka had already established an alternative women’s renunciant order in the early twentieth century, known today as dasasilmātās, or “ten-precept mothers”—however, these renunciant women are not considered members of the monastic community. Now that women have a choice to join either order, Mrozik was curious as to what factors drive their decision. Interestingly, women do not necessarily choose to seek ordination but often remain as dasasilmātās. Mrozik uncovers the nuances of their decision making, focusing on the women’s desire to maintain relationships with one another and to avoid the drastic shifts in status that choosing to ordain often introduces in their lives. Although this may raise some important questions regarding ordination and hierarchy, Mrozik’s intimate account reveals the complexities of women’s lives that their activism cannot always afford to register.
In our third article, “Can Women in Interreligious Dialogue Speak? Productions of In/visibility at the Intersection of Religion, Gender, and Race,” Judith Gruber interrogates both the exclusion and use of women in interreligious dialogue. Gruber argues that interreligious dialogue perpetuates patriarchal religious traditions insofar as they focus on official malestream doctrines, render religious traditions as ahis- torical monoliths, and exclude women from participating in official dialogues as they are already excluded from leadership positions. Gruber takes an unconventional approach, analyzing short films in order to highlight not only the broader context for these dialogues but also the ways in which women, and specifically women’s bodies, become hypervisible props serving insidious Christian agendas of racialized anti-Islamicism. Gruber’s sobering account is a call for feminists’ and womanists’ continued interrogation of the limits and possibilities of interreligious dialogue.
Gruber’s analysis wonderfully anticipates this issue’s Special Section entitled “Feminist and Womanist Approaches to Buddhist–Christian Dialogue: Spiritual and Social Resistance,” which draws from a 2019 conference at Denison University. Like Gruber, all of the contributors to this section refuse to treat interreligious dialogue as “set apart” from social, political, and economic power structures that are inimical to women’s, and particularly brown, black, and poor women’s, well-being. Moreover, they, too, call out the tendency for interreligious dialogue to focus on doctrinal matters, despite the urgency and transnational character of issues that would be well-served by joint deliberation and action across the world’s religious communities. All of them detail specific issues that ought to mobilize interreligious dialogue and response. In the process, they contribute to this issue’s motif of the state of feminist activism. They insist not only on activism’s need for spiritual and creative reservoirs for renewal and healing but also on the fundamental activism and drive for engagement and agency that spur on regimes of self-care, of meditative silence, of praying, of waking and listening.
Keun-joo Christine Pae’s “Spiritual Activism as Interfaith Dialogue: When Military Prostitution Matters” launches the section with a profoundly unsettling account of the United States’ complicity in the rise of state-sponsored prostitu- tion in Korea and Thailand—for which both Christianity and Buddhism provided moral justification. Pae is unequivocal that prostitution is violence against vulnerable girls and women and that both religious traditions have placed the blame for prostitution on those girls and women by individualizing and gendering notions of sin and karma. Pae envisions a dialogue that not only is embedded in this par- ticular history but also seeks to correct this injustice, eliminate all forms of labor predisposed on the disposability of persons, and bring the power of life to all.
Jan Willis’s contribution, “Spirituality and Resistance: How We Wake Up to Racism,” also situates an exploration of Christian and Buddhist dialogical possibilities in a specific historical constellation, in this case, the atrocious persistence of antiblack racism in the United States. Willis traces the affinities between Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s insistence on a capacious human kinship, on our being “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” and the Buddhist notion of dependent origination. Like Gruber, Willis turns to sources outside the conventional spaces of religious dialogue—in this case, contemporary revisionings of both Buddhist practice and African American freedom songs—to inspire movements to end communal and individual forms of suffering.
Mary Hunt’s “The Power of Silence in the Work of Justice: Feminist Catholicism in Action,” envisions a “different kind of dialogue,” one in which “those on the margins, and not only those in the center of the tradition, come into conversation” (100). In this dialogue, interrogation of the very categories “Christian” and “Buddhist” would not be out of bounds. In addition to insisting on a frontlines interreligious dialogue that takes up the issues of sex trafficking, the humanitarian crisis at the southern border of the United States, reproductive justice, and LGBTIQ rights, Hunt makes a surprising pivot to a contemplative, restorative spirituality that centers on silence. For Hunt, a discipline of silence makes possible the courageous activism and thoughtful dialogue that will truly transform our world. Hunt writes, “Silence is not for the timid. It is not an ally of inaction. . . . Silence is not easy. But it is essential to the process of doing justice insofar as it provides the justice seeker with a trustworthy anchor, some protection in the very choppy waters of daily life” (102). The forces in opposition to justice are mighty. To persist in the face of them, whether by dint of dialogue or protest march, requires the resolve afforded by time spent in silent contemplation.
Like Hunt, Ouyporn Khuankaew looks to the margins for models of resilience and for the power forged from long-running and collectivist struggle. In “Grassroots Women Transforming Patriarchy with Spiritual Activism,” Khuankaew focuses on women on the margins in patriarchal societies—those who have experienced deep-seated traumas ranging from silencing, undereducation, imprisonment, torture, persistent hunger, homelessness, and verbal abuse. This focus prompts our consideration of the vulnerability of the voices and bodies who long to participate in dialogue. What makes it possible for those who have suffered to speak and to bear witness? For Khuankaew personally, and for those with whom she has worked, working through the resultant pain and anger is a deeply spiritual practice even as it occurs in the daily rituals of caring for families. As Khuankaew writes, “Grassroots women’s spirituality therefore rarely, if ever, takes the form of sitting with closed eyes on a cushion or walking meditation” (118). For Khuankaew, women’s political mobilization and leadership is wholly dependent on their having cultivated the requisite spiritual fortitude.
The final contribution to this special section is Melanie Harris’s “Ecowomanism: Buddhist–Christian Dialogue from a Womanist and Ecological Perspective.” Rather than enjoin the traditional “religious” topics for interreligious dialogue, Harris insists that the urgency and drastic impact of climate change merits top- billing for any and all interreligious dialogue. As Harris writes, “it is crucial to find shared language and bridge understanding about how people of various faiths and nonfaith can raise awareness and confront climate change together in the earth community” (124). Harris’s recommendation is not intended to discount or discard the particularities of religious and cultural traditions. Moreover, Harris’s ecowomanist method is deftly attuned to the very different impacts borne by nonwhite populations in politically, economically, and geographically precarious positions.
This issue’s Across Generations features a conversation between the Rev. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw and the Rev. Isabel Carter Heyward. One of the abiding lessons of this section of the JFSR is to serve as a reminder of the risks of daring to subvert the patriarchal protocols of religious institutions, academia, and heteronormativity. As Heyward remarks, “All feminist scholars and activists in religion risk being trivialized and ignored by the malestream academy and orga- nized religion. That was true in the 1970s and, to a lesser degree, it still is” (136). Heyward was “irregularly” ordained a priest in the Episcopal church in 1974 and came out as a bisexual lesbian not long after. As Heyward notes, these outrageous actions closed doors to a long-term career either in academia or in a parish; at the same time, they got her invited to give talks and to write books. Heyward took full advantage of a life on her own terms, composing influential feminist theologies of justice-love and mutuality.
Our Living It Out section entitled “Manthologies,” is composed of a number of different voices weighing in on the perniciousness of conference panels and edited volumes that do not include women’s voices or scholarship or do so only as minoritized tokens. This section builds upon a 2019 Feminist Studies in Religion @TheTable blog series (https://www.fsrinc.org/thetable-manthologies) that focused on how gender bias leads to the exclusion of women from scholarly conversations. Our contributors describe the dimensions of this exclusion and draw out its disturbing consequences, noting, for instance, the paucity of citations of women’s scholarship in even the most recent books and articles. This exclusion is even more glaring when one takes into account feminists and womanists from underrepresented populations who produce scholarship within the academy and amid grassroots struggles. As Toni Bond notes in this collection, it is imperative that we broaden our critique of the insidiousness of this exclusion and give credit to those to whom it is due.
This issue concludes with a Short Takes section on liberative pedagogies amid a world in crisis. In fall 2018, a group of eight early-career theological educators, convened by the Louisville Institute’s Vocation of the Theological Educator program, discovered a shared interest in exploring the role of theological education in this time of duress and division. Many of the authors are particularly inspired by the work of legendary pedagogue Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed has just been re-released in a fiftieth-anniversary edition. Each of the contributors provide pithy reminders of the stakes of teaching in institutions of higher education in this time of crisis. We will either cultivate the capacity for humanization or serve the forces of dehumanization; we will either be complicit with “anti-dialogical tendencies” or draw on our vulnerability to “create the conditions for dialogue.” Here, then, in this issue’s several dialogues are the stirrings of the conditions of liberation. May we continue to find the courage to struggle through to their realization.
Back to: Volume 36, Number 1