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‘Ecumenical deals’ that leave women out


Ecumenical relationships between different religions are an advance toward greater understanding between cultures, overcoming past attitudes of intolerance and hostility. But like all good things they can be misused for questionable purposes. Marc Ellis, a Jewish liberation theologian, has denounced what he has called “the ecumenical deal” between Western Christians and Jews that sells out the human and civil rights of the Palestinian people.

For over 50 years, Western Christians, in the name of repentance for the Holocaust and respect for the sensitivities of Jews, have refrained from questioning Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians. This “ecumenical deal” has been backed up by fear that they would be attacked as anti-Semitic if they raised questions about injustice to Palestinians. For Ellis, it is time for Jews themselves to end this fallacious “deal” and recognize that Jews can recover their own ethical traditions only by defending the rights of Palestinians.

I would like to explore some other “ecumenical deals” that typically result in the betrayal of women. One such ecumenical deal has gone on for many years in the name of ecumenical relations of Christians with each other. In 1939 the merger of the Methodist Protestant and the Methodist Episcopal churches was negotiated through a vote that sold out the ordination of women. The Methodist Protestants had ordained women from the 19th century, but those who defended women’s ordination were outvoted in an agreement not to ordain women in the new denomination. Although this decision was turned around in 1956 when the whole denomination voted to ordain women, it is illustrative of a pattern that has happened again and again. When men negotiate ecumenical relations between churches, it is often assumed that women should be willing to pay the price, rather than be an “impediment” to the merger.

This kind of ecumenical deal was in evidence last summer when the Vatican was determined to block the international women’s ordination conference in Dublin. Not only did the Vatican threaten Joan Chittister with expulsion from her order if she spoke there, but Vatican representatives also put pressure on the World Council of Churches to prevent the head of the Women’s desk, Aruna Gnanadason, from speaking. The Vatican threatened to withdraw from joint Catholic-World Council of Churches committees if she spoke. Under tremendous pressure from leaders of the World Council, Aruna Gnanadason withdrew, although she sent her speech to be read at the meeting. Thus the Christian world was treated to the strange sight of Catholic women successfully resisting Vatican orders while Protestants capitulated to them. Again male church leaders assumed they should defer to the churchmen who reject women’s ordination, rather that “offending” them. Offending and betraying women of one’s own church apparently is not a matter of concern.

Another arena for ecumenical deals and the betrayal of women takes place in the discourse between First- and Third-World men over questions of “culture” and religious tradition. Westerners are sensitive to their long and evil history of colonialism toward peoples of the non-Christian world. The second half of the 20th century saw a long struggle of formerly colonized regions to reclaim their independence. Often this struggle for freedom has been defined in terms of recovery of the integrity of “our culture.” Again and again practices that subordinate women are defended in the name of culture. Feminism is demonized as a Western ideology that is foreign to “our culture.” Third-World men presume to speak for the integrity of the culture, without consulting women. First-World men regard themselves as paragons of ecumenical toleration by claiming to “understand” these cultural “differences,” regardless of their negative effects on women.

I encountered such an appeal to culture against feminism 12 years ago when I was speaking at a university in South Africa. An African Anglican priest rose to denounce feminism as contrary to African culture. “And you can’t challenge culture,” he concluded triumphantly. I had already been warned by African women against this argument and replied, “I suppose white racism is a part of white culture. Does that mean you can’t challenge white racism?”

In the recent crusade of the West against “terrorism,” fed by certain types of Muslim fundamentalism, there have been statements about the need to understand Islamic and Arab culture. This generally seems to me a good thing. But one should examine such ecumenical rhetoric carefully when it suggests that the mistreatment of women by fundamentalists should be similarly “understood,” and not questioned. There is no doubt that women have been prime victims of the Taliban version of Islamic purity. They have been denied work and education, sequestered under heavy burkas and confined to their homes. Yet, in the plans to put together a new Afghanistan government that would represent all sectors of the society, women are being ignored.

Recognizing the imminent danger that they will be sold out in the impending negotiations, more than 50 Afghan women from different organizations met Nov. 7 in Peshawar, Pakistan, and issued an appeal to the international community. They called for an immediate end of the military action in their country. They condemned the waging of an anti-terrorism campaign at the expense of the human rights of Afghans. Such a campaign should be carried out through international law and tribunals, they said. They demanded that any new nation-building effort respect all ethnic and religious groups, women and children. Finally, they demanded that “Afghan women’s participation in the peace process must be assured.”

To support this important petition, e-mail the Muslim women’s organization, “Women Living Under Muslim Laws,” wluml@wluml.org

Rosemary Radford Ruether teaches theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001