Engage the powers of destruction, churches urged by international feminist theologians

Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth, WARC: ''Resistance to empire is growing and women are very much in the forefront.''

An international group of feminist theologians has issued a dramatic call to churches to engage the worldÔÇÖs destructive powers, stating it is crucial to hear feminist thinking in the debate on theological issues raised by empire.

The “Feminist Discourse on Economy, Ecology and Empire” was organized by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in collaboration with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and hosted by the United Theological College from 12 to 17 August at Bangalore, India.

“We envision the transformation of economic and political structures in ways that enable the ‘fullness of life for all,’” the theologians said in a statement, titled, “Exploring the Reality and Theological Challenges of Ecology, Economy and Empire from Feminist Perspectives.”

“We call upon churches to live in the world in ways that engage the powers, systems and structures that deny human dignity and scorch the earth, denying justice to God’s people and the created order. The human community has the capacity to transform the structures and systems of economic and political institutions in ways that promote sustainable life for all God’s creation.

“We call upon churches to promote and practise sustainable ways of living that reject greed and over-consumption,” the theologians said.

The meeting was held to convene an ecumenical dialogue on economy, ecology and empire; seek a common voice on threats to life; and help create a global ecumenical feminist movement for justice in the economy and the earth.

“There is an urgent need to bring together differing analyses and perspectives on the systemic roots of the life-threatening socio-economic and ecological crises and to explore possibilities of articulating a clear faith stance and envisioning a future beyond empire,” the statement said.

“In particular, it is crucial to include feminist/womanist thinking in the current debates in order to fully identify the theological and ethical challenges posed by empire.”

For their part, the theologians committed themselves to creating “life-oriented” institutions, structures and programmes that draw on women’s wisdom; to continue creating theologies that challenge churches to be agents of transformation; to dialogue with different faiths; and to both short-term strategies of compassion and long-term strategies for justice.

They recommend the establishment of a variety of forums for feminists working on economic, ecological or empire issues as well as the development of popular and liturgical resources for local use.

Bangalore provided an important context for the meeting. The garment industry there employs many women who receive low wages and work in harsh conditions. The city’s call centres pay better wages but offer a “highly controlled, policed environment,” the statement said.

Said Aruna Gnanadason of WCC, “Meeting in India, which embodies many of the contradictions we addressed at the meeting, was important as the struggles of Indian women informed the discussion.

“Women have their own alternative resources to offer to counter the power of empire and globalization. It was important therefore that this consultation gave the possibility for women to voice, not just their critique, but the hope they have to offer as women working together for a caring and just economy that live gently with the earth.”

Added Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth, executive secretary of WARC’s Office for Church Renewal, Justice and Partnership: “Resistance to empire is growing and women are very much in the forefront.

“I believe this discourse can open new paths in building solidarity in our common struggle for justice and peace.”

Statement from the Feminist Discourse on Economy, Ecology and Empire
Bangalore, India, 12 – 17 August 2008

Preamble and context
We are meeting in Bangalore, India, a city with people of diverse cultures, languages and religious traditions. It is the capital of information technology and one of the major centres of garment industries in India. Bangalore has thriving financial services and shining buildings of a modern international city. Side by side with these signs of prosperity is rampant of poverty, including homelessness and slums. Bangalore, a key economic force in South India, has a market driven economy and culture, and is an integral part of the globalized neoliberal free market.

The city of Bangalore is enmeshed in empire. By empire we mean the convergence of economic, political, religious, cultural, geographic and military imperial interests, systems, and networks for the purpose of amassing political power and control over resources. Empire crosses all boundaries, disregards international law, subordinates nation-states, strips and reconstructs identities, subverts cultures, and marginalizes or co-opt religious communities. It forces the flow of wealth and power from vulnerable countries and communities to the powerful.

We have gathered in Bangalore as an international group of feminist theologians for a Discourse on Economy, Ecology and Empire, organised by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in collaboration with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and hosted by the United Theological College, Women’s Studies Department. The main purposes of the gathering are: 1) to engage in a North/South and ecumenical dialogue on economy, ecology and empire; 2) to explore possibilities for a common voice and vision regarding the threats to life; and 3) to contribute towards building a global ecumenical feminist movement for justice in the economy and the earth. Our work is grounded in the understanding that feminist perspectives must be integral to analyses and reflection in order to identify the theological and ethical challenges posed by the empire.

What we learned: local realities
In the last four decades India has experienced a shift from an agricultural and textile-based society and economy, which provided livelihoods for people, to a monoculture-production and export-oriented consumer-driven economy and society. This has resulted in a shift from livelihood to employment, from a rhythm of life, which provides sustenance, identity in relationships and community, to one dominated by an individualized, job-defined, western, mechanized mode of being, has caused great trauma. It has resulted in increased poverty and loss of community especially for rural people. We learned that:

1. The garment industry in Bangalore employs a large percentage of women, pays low wages and offers harsh and unfair working conditions. Specializing in export-markets, the industry dumps/sells its rejects on the local market. Bangalore has become a very attractive location for outsourcing companies of the West.
2. The call centre industry is one of the largest employers of young people. Marketed as the “happening place to work”, it requires the speaking of English with an American accent and it reinforces gender hierarchy by its allocation of tasks - ‘sweet, sexy talks” to women and technology-oriented tasks to men. Not only is the work environment a site where unjust work practices take place, but also a prime location where culture becomes a tool for submission and consent to empire.
3. In rural areas, shifts in agriculture from subsistence production to cash crop commercial farming have led to increased tensions in households and communities. Tensions and changes rising from the dismantling of livelihoods have resulted in polarisation - in the division of labour along gender lines within households.
4. The commodification of persons and the shift to a consumer culture have had severe consequences for women. Violence against women has significantly increased both in numbers and in brutality. These incidences are primarily linked to the institution of marriage and issues of dowry. Dowry deaths occur across caste, class and religions, including Christianity. In Bangalore three women die each day from dowry violence at the Burns Ward of Victoria Hospital.
5. India’s Green Revolution has adversely affected the lives of people who are poor, especially women. While it promised profit, the reality is further impoverishment, crop failures, the inability of farmers to repay government loans, which often results in suicides. The Green Revolution devalues women’s wisdom and discounts their sustainable ways of farming and agriculture.

What we learned: Women’s Resistance
Women have always said “no” to structures of violence, but they are often ignored or silenced. Yet they persevere with resilience and hope, developing new strategies for resistance and change. The United Theological College, contributes to building awareness and networking around justice issues for women as well as ecological issues, through its Women’s Studies programme and its wider theological education. Their pedagogy includes participation in women’s movements such as Vimochana . Women organize workers in unions such as UNITE, Clean Clothes and Fair Wear and work together to develop strategic resistant responses to the crippling effects of globalization and empire. They develop training programmes that are aimed at bringing about changes in the lives of young people through education in areas of gender, sexuality and awareness of the effects of globalization on social relations. They organize the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council, Courts of Women, grassroots support for victims of domestic violence, and the Women in Black movement. The latter is a peace movement that campaigns against wars and all forms of violence against women.

Feminist Discourse Consultation: Challenges and Contested definitions
We are aware of the diversity and differences of the contexts out of which we speak. We recognize that terms used in this statement, such as “feminist” and “empire” are highly contested. In some contexts they evoke suspicion and anger.

We affirm our understanding of “feminist” as a term that connotes awareness of and sensitivity to contextual realities where women, their perspectives, their labour, and their bodies are often devalued and exploited by the patriarchal ideology of domination and control. Women are the primary victims of poverty, war and environmental degradation.

We adopt an understanding of “empire” that is consistent with the understanding that emerged from the WARC Accra general Council (2004). “We perceive that the world today lives under the shadow of an oppressive empire. By this we mean the gathered power of pervasive economic and political forces throughout the globe that reinforce the division between the rich and the poor.” The Accra Confession, which was a major outcome of the council, refers to empire as a framework to describe systems of economic and political domination. Empire has its foundational basis in patriarchy and is a fundamental expression of patriarchy.

“We are aware that patriarchy and empire thrive upon and are sustained by systems of hierarchy, domination and control. Both are intrinsic to sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, casteism and other forms of intolerance. Patriarchal structures and norms ascribe women subordinate status in society. These structures and norms are pivotal to the workings of globalisation and empire.” The (WARC) Ecumenical Faith Stance Against Global Empire For A Liberated Earth Community, (Manila 2006) states that ‘Patriarchy and empire are inextricability interwoven…. The gender ideology of patriarchy is pivotal in all domination hierarchies in human society and in the communities of all living beings. These hierarchies are driven by, and express and reinforce the gender ideology, as well as the racist ideology of global white power and the class ideology of transnational corporate elite. Manifested in all spheres of life, these ideologies converge and become especially visible in the global market and the geopolitics of the global empire.’

We recognize that the discussions on globalisation and empire, within the Covenanting for Justice and AGAPE processes, continue to signal tensions and divisiveness between churches across regions within the ecumenical community. In light of this, there is an urgent need to bring together differing analyses and perspectives, clarifying the systemic roots of the life-threatening socio-economic and ecological crises that face us and to explore together, possibilities for articulating a clear faith stance that honours a covenant for life and all of creation. To this end it is critical to engage a feminist/womanist thinking in the current discussions in order to help us to: (1) better understand the intersections of patriarchy, empire, ecology and globalization; (2) better articulate the theological and ethical challenges posed by these and (3) to strategise together for resistance against empire and supporting life-giving alternatives.

There is an urgent need to bring together differing analyses and perspectives on the systemic roots of the life-threatening socio-economic and ecological crises and to explore possibilities of articulating a clear faith stance. In particular, it is crucial to include feminist/womanist thinking in the current debates in order to identify the theological and ethical challenges posed by empire.

Empire and Globalization: A Moral/Spiritual/Theological Crisis
From a theological perspective, anything that denies people life in its fullness is a moral and spiritual problem. The intersections between neoliberal economic globalization, ecological destruction, and neo-imperial power have caused a series of circumstances that together create a moral, spiritual and theological crisis to which we must respond. The biblical witness is clear on God’s expectation regarding the justice for all people and the just care for all of creation.

War, economic immigration, ecological devastation, the destruction of water resources and other effects of this intersection are continuously causing homelessness for many people. In addition, loss of livelihood and/or employment, the disintegration of cultural norms and practices, the imposition of economic models based on profit maximization and other pressures cause both physical and psychological destruction of a sense of home. These realities deny people the biblical promise of life in its fullness and contradict the biblical and theological assertion that persons have a right to a “home,” to live in peace, prosperity and dignity under their own “vines and fig-trees” (John 10:10; Micah 4:4).

Economic, ecological and imperial policies have caused an increase in poverty and a significant widening of the gap between the richest and poorest people in the world. The unjust distribution of natural and economic resources has caused a scarcity of food and water, famine and disease among people who are poor. The resulting lack of access to basic needs often causes social disruptions and acts of violence. We are reminded of the prophetic warning against “crushing” God’s people, against “grinding the face of the poor” (Isaiah 3:15). Such disparities call us again to proclaim God’s option for the poor.

The intersection of these policies has also led to a rise in consumerist, individualist lifestyles in many areas around the globe. These lifestyles function to replace human dignity and integrity with consumer goods, to destroy families and cultures, and in the end, are unsustainable for the planet. They caricature the biblical promise of “abundant life,” and replace the worship of the Creator with the worship of created things (John 10: 10, Romans 1: 25).

When confronted with these policies, we Christians are often silent, either out of ignorance of the nature of the crisis, or out of paralysis in the face of the overwhelming nature of the work to be done. We fail to heed the prophetic call to justice and righteousness. We turn away from our responsibilities as citizens of the world and of the reign of God. We turn away from our call to be our sisters’ keepers (Amos 5:24; Philippians 3:20; Genesis 4:9).

We need to nurture spirituality of justice and righteousness that connects us to the heart of God, with all people (of various faiths) and with all of creation. The biblical witness is clear that God abhors economic injustice, ecological distortion, and imperialistic domination, globally, in any society, at all times and by whomever. What God requires is that justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Moved by the justice-filled Spirit of God, we are urged to discern the signs of the times, and to name institutions and systems of injustice that obstruct God’s promise of life for all. We must act in solidarity in political, ecclesiastical, collective and individual ways. Failure to do so is to act in collaboration with the violence of the current order, standing against Isaiah’s vision of the peaceful coexistence of the lion and the lamb and Jesus’ vision of abundant life (Isaiah 65:25, John 10:10).

Interrogating the Links between Economy, Ecology and Empire
In connecting and analysing the links between economy, ecology and empire, a feminist/womanist perspective begins with an alternative biblical vision of just, sustainable and caring economic systems that:
Move away from objectives of mindless accumulation and profit maximization to provisioning for life, redistribution and reparation;
Generate livelihoods and ensure the provision of basic needs for all, children, women and men;
Recognise, affirm and value the contribution of social reproduction or care work, which ought to be (re) produced by and (re) distributed equitably among both women and men;
Nurture the Earth; and
Promote peace.

In stark contrast to this vision, the prevailing neoliberal economic paradigm has produced massive economic, ecological and social crises in our world. Neoliberal ideology is increasingly intruding in many dimensions of life, propagating market-oriented values of consumerism, materialism, commodification and greed. Such values promote the view that human beings are valued by what they possess and have ownership over. This provides the ideological justification for fuelling patterns of over-production and over-consumption in the North and among the rich in the South. By “efficiently” creating wealth for a few, neoliberal economic systems, colluding with military power and patriarchy, have systematically shifted the cost burden to the ecological and social reproductive spheres, where women are in the majority.

Empire, economy and ecology are intimately interconnected. The “empire of a carbon-consuming [economic] system” is the driving force behind climate change. Whereas countries in the North are mainly responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, countries like India and people in poverty everywhere are most vulnerable to the disastrous effects of global warming. These include recurrent droughts and floods, and greater frequency and intensity of tropical storms.

The concept of ecological debt refers to the ecological damage sustained through the productive and consumption patterns that are inherent in neoliberal approaches to economic development. These approaches have promoted capital-intensive, export-oriented and monoculture methods of production that have not only destroyed rural livelihoods, but have created consumption patterns that have caused depletion, pollution and degradation of ecosystems. They have polluted soil and water, which are essential to food production; eroded biodiversity; and ultimately imperilled food security and sovereignty. These approaches have shifted the control of seeds, agricultural knowledge and inputs from women’s hands, to multinational corporations. The ongoing famine in Mizoram/Maraland in Northeast India and Myanmar resulting from the cyclical death of bamboo forests is illustrative of how neoliberal approaches to production have contributed to significant ecological debt.

Social reproduction, which is closely related to ecology, refers to activities such as taking care of children, looking after the sick and elderly, gathering firewood for fuel, and collecting water. The deterioration of the environment creates intensification in many of the social reproductive tasks assigned to women. The implications are terrifying when we consider that women play a pivotal – though largely ignored – role in protecting and managing natural resources for current and future generations.

Economy and social reproduction
The neoliberal economic paradigm does not value social reproduction, yet market-based production requires social reproduction. The connections between the global economy and social reproduction are best exemplified by the global care chain. In Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe, women have been increasingly drawn into largely one-sided migratory flows from South to North. The feminisation of migration is closely related to processes of neoliberal economic globalisation. In the North, welfare systems have been “hollowed out”, with drastic cuts in health, education, childcare and other social services. Combined with patriarchal norms that continue to place the burden of household work on women, these changes have translated into a growing demand for “basic care providers”. Pushed by economic desperation, millions of women in the South migrate or are trafficked to the North to take on low-skill, low-status and low-paid jobs as domestic helpers, care providers and sex workers, reflecting an intensification and extension of women’s perceived care-giving role.

The convergence between military expansion and the globalisation of economies have become apparent in the last decade. Nations and people are increasingly enmeshed by military relationships structured by the empire for its own interests. Militarization is a means to maintain economic control. U.S. and European military powers now openly declare that they will protect their access to strategic natural resources around the world in support of international industrial and financial interests. These powerful nations are applying military Keynesianism to boost economic growth through the expansion of the arms and other defense-related industries. The U.S. allocates 48 percent of its budget to military expenditure. For an increasing number of working poor men and women in the U.S., military service is the only option for employment, education, housing, medical care and citizenship. Yet government spending on defense eats up resources that could have been invested in life-giving areas such as health, education, and social welfare.

U.S. bases in nearly 132 of 190 UN nations are located in every continent except Antarctica. Military bases corrupt the local economy and their toxic wastes pollute the land, air and water. Women and girls in communities around military base face increased likelihood of rape and physical abuse and often find prostitution, with its attendant risk of HIV and AIDS, as the only option for supporting their families.

Call to action: Feminist Theological Response
As feminist theologians, we draw on multiple sources as we develop our theological response to the moral, spiritual, and social crisis we have identified in our discourse on the economy, ecology, and empire. Our feminist hermeneutical approach begins by engaging the ways in which current structures, systems and values of empire and globalization collude to deny people of God’s vision for fullness of life for them. It privileges the diversity of social locations and ways of knowing in order to understand how empire and neoliberal globalization collude in different settings to negatively affect the lives of people.

Our theological perspectives are based on the biblical principles of (1) God’s option for the poor (Luke 1: 46-55), (2) God’s vision of just relations for all (Amos 8: 4-6), (3) equal sharing and just distribution of the earth’s resources (Isaiah 5:11-10; Amos 5:11-12), and (4) maintenance of sustainable lives for all of the created order (Isaiah 65:17-25). These principles are echoed in the prophetic witness that reiterates accountability to God for responsible care for life and creation.

Central to a feminist theology that privileges concern about economy, ecology and empire are (1) understandings of the nature of empires and how they work, (2) critical reading of scriptures that uphold God’s promise of justice for all of creation; (3) critical readings of scriptures that question the ways in which scriptures re-inscribe empire values, the marginalization of vulnerable members of society (especially women) and justify the exploitation of the web of life; (3) privileging of voices from the peripheries; (4) acknowledgement of different theological approaches and different ways of knowing, and (5) critical analyses of the interconnected nature of identities such as race, class, caste, (dis) ability and sexual identity and how these function vis a vis empire and globalization and (6) ongoing self-critical awareness and a willingness to learn from risks and conflicts.

We reject
We reject the polarizations, reductionism, and hierarchical dualisms that have characterized traditional theologies. They have served to legitimise the dichotomies of public/private, spirit/matter, us/them that underlie the relations of domination and subordination enacted in the interlocking structures of empire.
We reject the neo-liberal economic system and its values, which have created conditions of dislocation and economic distress in the lives of people in the global South and people who live on the periphery in the global North. We envision the transformation of economic and political structures in ways that enable the “fullness of life for all” John 10.10.
We call upon churches to live in the world in ways that engage the powers, systems and structures that rob people of human dignity and scorch the earth, thereby denying justice to God’s people and the creation.
We believe in the hope that the human community has the capacity to transform the structures and systems of economic and political institutions in ways that promote sustainable life for all of God’s creation. We call upon churches and individuals to promote and practice sustainable ways of living that reject greed and overconsumption.

We commit:
1. We commit to continue creating theologies that articulate the nexus of economy, ecology and empire and challenge churches and individuals to be active agents of change and catalysts for the transformation of the neoliberal economic system.
2. We commit to dialogue with people of different faiths for justice and care of the earth
3. We commit to networking, partnership and participation in people’s movements for justice and care of the earth.
4. We commit to feminisms concerned with the care and empowerment of women, men, children and the care of the earth.
5. We commit to creating life-oriented institutions, structures, and programmes that draw on women’s wisdoms and knowledges for transformative living in the face of empire.
6. We commit to short-term strategies of care that provide for the immediate needs of people and the earth and long-term strategies of social and ecological justice that transform individuals, structures and institutions of power, both locally and globally.
7. We commit to adopt feminist perspectives to challenge the structures of the global economy (such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organisation) whose neoliberal policies work against democratic processes and undermine state sovereignty.
8. We commit to support the development of alternative sustainable economic models (e.g. collectivism, barter, subsistence, gifting).

We recommend:
1. The development of popular resources on economics, ecology and empire, including liturgies, case studies, Bible studies, sermon notes and prayers to help people engage these issues in their local contexts
2. The establishment of an exchange programme for a diverse group of feminist theologians to be involved as short-term or long-term resource persons for seminaries and other educational institutions in promoting a feminist theological dialogue and discourse on economics, ecology and empire.
3. The development of a feminist/womanist Covenanting for Justice Network through social networking facilities such as Facebook, to continue the discourse, and invite the participation of the wider WARC and other ecumenical networks. This space would be used to: further the conversations on economy, ecology and empire; share important news and events, and to post resources such as books, Bible studies, essays, music and poetry.
4. The development of a consultation of scholars and grassroots theologians working on the intersections of economy, ecology, and empire for the purpose of creating curricula on the topic for seminary and undergraduate use and to develop a publication that would further the theological and intellectual development in the area of feminist discourse on economy, ecology and empire in the ecumenical movement.

1. Dr Lalrinawmi Ralte, India
2. Rev. Dr Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar, India
3. Ms I. Sobana Kingston, India
4. Rev. Mai Ki, Myanmar
5. Rev. Sicily Mbura Muritthi, Kenya
6. Dr Puleng LenkaBula, Lesotho/South Africa
7. Dr Mary Mikhael, Lebanon
8. Rev. Susanne Schneeberger Geisler, Switzerland
9. Dr Sabina Plonz, Germany
10. Rev. Nancy Isaac, India/UK
11. Rev. Paulette Brown, Canada/Jamaica
12. Dr Gail Allan, Canada
13. Rev. Dr Susan Davies, USA
14. Rev. Dr Margaret Aymer Oget, USA
15. Rev. Dr Rebecca Todd Peters, USA
16. Dr Aruna Gnanadason, India/Switzerland, WCC staff
17. Ms Athena Peralta, Philippines, WCC staff
18. Rev. Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth, Guyana/Switzerland, WARC Staff
19. Ms Daphne Martin-Gnanadason, India/Switzerland, WARC staff

Quelle: Internetseite des Reformierten Weltbundes

Barbara Schenck