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Feminist Theology

Empowering Women to Claim the Fullness of Their Humanity as Created by God

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty

The year 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Valerie Saiving’s article on “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.” Mark Douglas, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, reminded me of this fact at a recent meeting of theological educators. For Reformed theologians, ethicists and activists, Saiving’s article should be of particular importance because Saiving added a timely perspective to the centuries-long Christian debate about one of our favorite subjects – sin! As you may recall, Saiving argued that theologians too often assumed that a male perspective and experience was normative for all human beings.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s arguments regarding sin served as an example. Sin, Niebuhr held, was the product of human anxieties created by living in the tension between freedom and finitude. “Men” were prone to claim and use power for their own self-promotion, failed to recognize their dependence upon God, and were tempted to believe that they could usurp the place of God. The theological prescription for this ailment was a dose of humility and sacrifice for the sake of others.

Saiving asserted that this was a truth about “men’s” experiences, not a universal truth relevant to women. Women’s identities had been forged and shaped within a culture that assumed their inferiority and emphasized self-sacrifice as a virtue. Women’s freedom had been limited and determined by male norms. Anxiety was created for women by their inability to determine for themselves their own identities. I am not going to rehearse the theological responses to Saiving or to Niebuhr since then, although I think there is tremendous value in those discussions. Honoring the anniversary of Saiving’s article is significant to me for another reason.


I have been contemplating Saiving’s work while reading Half the Sky: Turning Women’s Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf-Random House, 2009). The experiences of women around the globe described in Half the Sky underscore the significance of Saiving’s arguments. Let me offer a quote to pique your interest, “… far more women and girls are shipped into brothels each year in the early 21st century than African slaves were shipped into slave plantations each year in the 18th or 19th centuries – although the overall population was of course smaller then” (Half the Sky, 11). Sex slavery, AIDS, illiteracy, poverty, and lack of access to prenatal care name just a few of the overwhelming problems that need to be addressed to save the lives of many women around the globe.

Kristof and WuDunn also point toward the means to solving these problems: “Empowerment is a cliché in the aid community but it is truly what is needed. The first step toward greater justice is to transform that culture of female docility and subservience, so that women themselves become more assertive and demanding” (Half the Sky, 53).

Like many theologians and religious activists I am growing impatient with the sluggish pace at which the churches often respond to urgent social issues. I am even more impatient with the outright refusal of some Christian communities to deal with the realities women face, particularly those that are victims of human trafficking, abuse, rape, incest, and other forms of violence.

Kristof and WuDunn invite us to join a movement empowering women worldwide to see themselves as fully human. Empowering women will not be a quick fix to the gargantuan problems that we are facing as a global community, but it sets us on the course toward social transformation. We have seen the power of the churches to heal and bring about reconciliation particularly in response to recent natural disasters. We have even done a great deal in the PC(USA) through our mission and advocacy work. But how often are the experiences of women that I have mentioned characterized as true emergencies in need of the immediate attention of our communities of faith?

We can do much to create spaces and places that will empower all women to name and to claim the fullness of their own humanity as created by God. In my own congregation, we are offering a study series on social justice issues, reading ecumenical social creeds, and working collaboratively as a community to compose our own social creed using a web-based document. There are efforts being made across the denomination including a new study on the status of women in our church now being planned by the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns.

Women’s empowerment will be a key theme in any discussion. We, as a community of faith, must consider more carefully and intentionally how assertiveness and self-determination can be incorporated more clearly into Reformed understandings of human nature, God’s sovereignty, redemption, and faithful action. These conversations are likely to challenge us to the core of our Reformed theological being, but they are of tremendous importance.

The theological statements that we make and the priorities that we set for our work are the ways we name and claim God’s continual creativity and responsiveness to women and men living in a wide variety of – sometimes quite desperate – situations.

The author:

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty is an elected member of Advocacy for Women’s Concerns, and is Associate Professor of Theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. She will be one of the main presenters for the Ghost Ranch seminar this summer on “We’re All In This Together: Confronting the Structures of Injustice.” Co-sponsored by Voices for Justice and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, it will take place from July 26-August 1, 2010.

Click here for more information about this important event >>


Some blogs worth visiting


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


Witherspoon’s Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, Witherspoon’s Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


Plan now for our 2010 Ghost Ranch Seminar!


July 26-August 1, 2010



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