Elaine Neuenfeldt – Pfarrerin, Secretary for Women in Church and Society, Lutherischer Weltbund (LBW), Genf

Elaine Neuenfeldt

LWF WICAS – June 2015

Frauenmahl Kirchentag Stuttgart

Starting the journey /caminhada

The image of a journey is a very common one in Latin America, in Brasil. Caminhada (a walk or a journey) is more than just walking moving steps; it became a political movement, a spiritual journey. For every reason there is a “caminhada” (a walk) organized: small farmers are walking in the streets defending better conditions for their production and use of land, “caminhadas” are organized to raise public awareness regarding work conditions, climate change, agrarian reform, among many other issues. So, here, I am proposing “a caminhada”, starting from my own personal experience.

I would like to start reflecting about my personal journey, in a spiral movement following the methodology of Liberation and Feminist Theology done in Latin America which start with experience or practice, and in my case, is the practice in a Congregation, in the Lutheran Church: I was an active young woman in my local church, in a Southern Brazilian village, very German rooted congregation. It was in a church work, with young people that I realized that what I wanted was to deepening my understanding of being a church; the practice open questions about my faith and church life. 

So, I decided to study theology – and this had the implication of a first movement, a geographical one: from my rural and small village to a big city, but also a political movement: enlarging my own context and consequently the analysis of what was now my reality. This movement opens my eyes to a wider reality than the one I knew well in my local village. 

Fortunately, my church opened to women in the ordained ministry some years before, in the 70’. There have been some foremothers who open that doors and my generation could already decide to study and become an ordained pastor, without that many structural impediments. At this point I want to remark some points that in my case were crucial to make my venture to become reality: I was blessed to have a pastor who mentored me and a congregation who supported my conviction in crossing barriers and to break prejudices in a young woman going for theological studies.[1] 

Learning to dance together –feminist theology and liberation theology

Theology is always a second moment; the first movement is life and practice; reflection comes as a second step.

My theological studies allowed me other encounters: with other people, with other questions, with other thematic that open my circle of analysis and understanding more and more. 

I could meet and dialogue with a critical reading of the Bible, a contextual theological reflection, a feminist approach to theology and biblical traditions. The use of other sciences, remarkable here was the use of popular education methodology, using Paulo Freire’s approach, gave to theological studies another flavor. It was not an abstract reflection, nor it was a dissection of   author coming form a distant North. We read those European and North American author, yes, but through our contextual lenses, using our reality and context as criteria for the theological analysis. 

It was in that methodology that I initiated discussions in feminist theology. Ivone Gebara, was my first encounter, and became a friend and inspiration in my whole life.  My option in feminist theology is a critical reading of the Bible, in dialogue with the life and experiences of women, committed to promote changes in unjust relations and structures. 

Justice is a crucial element to reflect theology. Justice in all dimension of life. An intrinsically connection must be traced between justice in relations among men and women, or gender justice, and structures in society, social, economic and cultural justice. Justice, therefore, is part of the church practice and theological discourse, reflection. There is no divide in church and society in terms of living out just relations and structures. 

Ivone Gebara helps me to say in a more systematic way:[2]

“Today the problem and the challenge is that women while having a continuing public recognition, still are facing a cultural believe system that there is a “feminine nature” inferior to the masculine and the consequences of this kind of belief to the culture, to social life and to the life of the Christian churches. In my view, the struggle against indulgences could be read contemporary, among other things, as an attitude against giving favours to women more than recognizing the same rights in different contextual cultural settings.”

“We don’t want indulgences, but the possibility to affirm our call to freedom in different social situations and religious institutions.  We do not seek favours to comfort us of our condition. Neither have we sought privileges inside the current authoritarian systems. It is the progress of all humanity and the commitment to love our neighbour that moves women’s theological production. It is in thinking life from our quotidian, with the wounds of our bodies, and the embarrassing situations that we are experiencing that makes our theology not first of all a theoretical reflection about God and the World, but the expression of concrete stories and suffering that we live daily. Recognizing feminist struggles and among them feminist theology is recognizing the right of citizenship in a pluralist society; it is also a coherent way of reading The Gospel of Jesus Christ in our times.”

Praxis – another step in the journey/caminhada

Theology in dialogue with daily life is a movement to provoke change and transformation. The journey will start with a critical approach to daily life, with its joy and pain, suffering and pleasures, going to a second moment of reflection and deepening conceptual understanding, and will move towards a third step of coming back to experience and daily life again. But it is not the same life, the same experience; now, the view is different, the questions are enriched with critical analysis. And the approach to life is done with a purpose of change, of transformation. Displacements are aimed at this moment: from injustices to concrete signs of justice, from suffering and pain to happiness and pleasure, from bondages of oppression, to freedom of movement. This is not a magical and one time event. A process is needed and intentional actions are planned. Frameworks are built, in a participatory process to regulate and orient this process.

To make it more concrete, let use one example from my work now at the LWF Communion. Inclusiveness and participation of women, gender balance was for a long time part of the discourse and practice in the life of the communion.  From this long-term experience, a movement of building intentional structures emerged. In the process of discussing in theological terms about inclusiveness and justice for women, a platform for gender justice was created in the life of the communion; concrete elements of this platform and process are the many recommendations done in each Assembly and Council – main decision making bodies of the Communion – regarding gender balance, quota for women’s participation, and strong position regarding women in the ordained ministry of the churches. 

From that processes and platforms, a next step was possible: building a Gender Justice Policy, (GJP) as an intentional frame to orient and guide a common approach on gender in the communion reflections. The GJP is an official document, built in a participatory process, approved by the LWF Council in 2013 and so far in process of being implemented and contextualized in all regions of the Communion.[3]

Feminist theology and gender justice in my understanding and own journey is not a mere and abstract theoretical construction. I walk in this journey with my own body and life being touched, transformed and motivated by this theological option. And I am not walking alone, but with a cloud of sisters and brothers who sustain me when I am tired, who motivate me when I am giving up because of heavy and powerful hierarchical structures that provokes me allergies, with whom I relate, dance, walk and jump in sisterhood, in solidarity. There are no geographical, geopolitical divisions who separate this journey. A Communion is a good place to live this experience. This communion is much more a network of sisters and brothers. This all, with out denying that we still live in a world of exclusion, where churches are reproducing and maintaining heavy hierarchical structures. 

It is in this world, full of contradictions, that a circle of sisterhood is necessary and possible. And because of this utopia, we continue to walk, to make caminhadas, claiming justice and freedom for all.

Thank you

[1]Naming is an exercise of recognizing. Valdim and Annemarie Utech was the couple – the pastor’s family – who motivated me and gave me full support to start my endevor of studying theology.

[2]Ivone Gebara’s thank you message on the occasion she received the Honoris causa doctorate in Faculdades EST, Brasil. August 13, 2014. She is proposing an association of Luther’s 95 theses and the struggle of women in theological thinking, in the church and in society. She is doing this association building on the idea that Luther’s critic against indulgences was because of the humiliation of human condition and responsibility that this practice caused.

[3]The document is available in English, French, Spanish and German at the LWF Website https://www.lutheranworld.org/content/resource-lwf-gender-justice-policy and was translated so far in Portuguese, Polish, Korean, Japanese, Kiswahili, and in process of being published in Tamil, Hindi, Shona among other languages.

Frauenmahl Logo