‘Jesus was a feminist!’ asserts Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a feminist theologian based at the Holy Trinity Seminary in Accra, Ghana and founder of the ‘Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians’. Simple words perhaps, but in the context of a growing normalisation of religious fundamentalist views, these are brave, doctrine-shattering words. On the second day of the African Feminist Forum, participants are debating the impact and patterns of religious fundamentalism in Africa, and considering feminist responses to it from both within and outside of religious discourse.
In Ghana where Mercy Oduyoye lives, Christianity dominates in terms of the numbers of followers (followed by Islam and Traditional Religions). Although the state is meant to be secular, official events will usually include Christian, Muslim and Traditional invocations. Questioning of doctrine and statements such as ‘the Bible is a historical book’ are not looked upon favourably by many in Ghanaian society. Indeed, Mercy herself reflects that when she has spoken up in some Christian circles she has sometimes felt like, ‘I would be lynched if I didn’t have my friends with me’.
I sat down with Mercy to discuss the Bible, feminism, and her vision.
Q: How does one approach the Bible from a feminist perspective?
Mercy: A feminist believes that women are human beings, and should be treated accordingly. Secondly, when you read any text, you read it from where you stand and from your own experience.
If I take a Bible story, I’m reading with my mind focused on the fact that this is supposed to be a message from a God of Love, Compassion and of Justice who wants human beings to behave like beings created in his own image. And so if I find a passage that doesn’t look like it has compassion, I ask myself, ‘who is writing this and why?’ The Bible is a historical book. Every one of those books within it came from a particular culture, a particular period in time. Also we often don’t read the Bible thoroughly enough- within the Bible itself you have a critique of some of the more conservative teachings that people quote out of context.
Q: Who is a feminist theologian?
Mercy: A feminist is a woman who listens to the kind of God who loves and is compassionate and wants human beings to thrive. You’re a theologian because you want to critically look at your religion and ask yourself, ‘what is my religion doing in the community?’ ‘What is my religion doing to me?’ ‘What are the ethical principles coming out of this religion and are we doing it right?’
Q: There is a growing wave of African Christian clergy who are using the Bible to justify discrimination and hatred, and women's continued inequality. Does the Bible itself justify this, or is this just an abuse of the Bible for political ends?
Mercy: The Bible is not a monolithic scheme. If you read the Bible from a feminist perspective there is no way that you can say ‘God wants women to be oppressed’. The scripture is misquoted and it is used to justify anything. There are sixty six books in the Bible and each one has its own history with links running through. Ancient theologians like Luther say that the thread that goes through the Bible is the love of God, and any person that doesn’t make me feel like you have to honour another human being, deal with them as human beings, talk to them kindly, respect their humanity, that person is not a Christian, they are simply using it for their own ends. Any religion can be used in that manner.
Q: Is there momentum amongst progressive African theologians to respond to the abuse of Bible, and to support an agenda for equality as a Christian ethic?
Mercy: We have a genre of theology that we call Liberation Theology ; there are theologians from the global south whose main aim is to ensure that the Bible is used as a liberatory text from God. Within this we have the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, who specifically target how women read the Bible and work with women. We started in 1989 and now we have written over 300 book, so there are a lot of writings by women theologians and men theologians who are liberation theologists. The people whose aim is to make money from the name of Jesus are in a category quite separate from those who think the name of Jesus should empower us to respect humanity, to respect other persons, to respect the integrity of creation. We are all loved; they said God so loved the world, they didn’t say God so loved human beings, but the world, the whole world is in God’s care and that is what we are trying to say and write all the time.
Q: Which major religion, in your opinion, is more favourable to women and women's rights?
Mercy: None of them is, none of them. I’m a Christian myself and when you talk about women in Africa the response you get from both African men and women is the idea that Christianity has helped to liberate women, because now women have now been able to go to school and so on. And yet it took until 2010 for the Anglican Church in Ghana to ordained the first three women as deacons.
In Genesis 1: 26, the affirmation there that Jews, Christians, Muslims should be telling the whole world is that God created the human being ‘A dam’ in God’s own image, male and female created, simultaneous creation of male and female. In human language Adam comes from the word ‘from the ground or the soil (a-da-ma)’ and what God is saying is, this is the being I took from the ground, from the soil, and then later on it became a proper name for one person. God created human beings equal, men and women both in the divine image and that is what is most important that all believers should know.
Q: Some people argue that feminism is not compatible with Christianity because feminism argues against God's ordained roles for men and women. Do you agree?
Mercy: I think people don’t understand what Christianity is about. They think Christianity is the oppression of women and Christianity is not the oppression of women. If you want to see what Christianity does with women, go back and read your New Testament and see how Jesus treats women. Jesus was a feminist!
Q: Do you think there's a conflict between modern feminism and traditional Christianity?
Mercy: I don’t see what conflict there is, if traditional Christianity is Christ-like then it should be friends with feminists who are also struggling to be Christ-like.
This is the second in a series of articles reflecting on African feminist thought and activism, the impact of religious fundamentalisms, and the role of the African Feminist Forum.
A longer version of this interview will appear in the forthcoming publication on African Women’s Leadership to be published by the African Women's Development Fund.