Chapter 6: Feminist Ethics: A Search for Meaning and Hope from the Margins, by Aruna Gnanadason

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 6: Feminist Ethics: A Search for Meaning and Hope from the Margins, by Aruna Gnanadason

(Aruna Gnanadason is on the staff of Women’s Desk of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, and an active member of EATWOT.)


Women have not been active in the field of theological ethics in India. Unfortunately, the theological establishment in our country have not taken seriously enough the contributions women can make to this important field of theology. There has been no strategy to empower women to become qualified in this field and therefore the non-existence of women theological ethicists is no surprise. This is indeed a shame that after so many decades of work in theology, India still paints such a dismal picture. I am therefore grateful to the editors that they have asked me to contribute to this volume being brought out to honor Dr. K.C. Abraham. On a personal note, I am very happy to write because we as a family have much to thank Dr. Abraham for - a man who as a pastor to us lived out the principles that he teaches as a theological ethicist. We have known him for many years now, and recognize the important contributions he is making to theological thought and education, in India and globally.

I have heard Dr. Abraham speak at innumerable gatherings and have read a lot of what he has written and I have been struck by the methodology he uses to link faith to the struggles for life in our societies. His starting point is of course the context of our world today and the many dangers it poses to the life of millions in our world. More recently, the rapid globalization of the world economy and the challenge that the market is posing to the quality of life, has been a central concern to him. Within this broad spectrum of concerns, it is important to note that he is increasingly paying special attention to our ethical responsibility to creation. He has from the earliest stages of his theological work emphasized the need and responsibility of Christians to get immersed into social action and movements as a theological imperative for our times. In a context where millions in our world are either excluded or have been rendered invisible by callous and inhuman policies and actions of international financial institutions and agencies (which are supposedly there to regulate trade and create the space for the powerless), to talk of ethical engagement of Christians in struggle for life, is more urgent now then ever before. I am therefore grateful to Dr. Abraham for his contributions to liberation theology which attempts to shape such a commitment of Christians everywhere.

In my paper, I attempt to open a dialogue on another area of ethical and moral engagement, which receives scant attention in India. Increasingly, women theologians in Asia, Africa and Latin America are pointing out that well-being or the quality of life has another very important dimension this is the way in which we relate to our bodies and talk of sexuality. Much of the violence women experience in the world is centered around the physical abuse and control of our bodies as women and the denial of basic rights over one’s own sexuality and sexual choice. Most Indian cultures are inherently patriarchal and have viewed women as the property of men and therefore she has very little control over what happens to her body. We live in cultures in India which have permitted the most outrageous traditional practices, with no regard for what this does to the innermost psyche of individual women and to their communities.

There are two reasons why it is important for women to get more actively engaged in ethical discourse in India, as in all parts of the world. The primary reason for this is that it is often women who find themselves in the midst of almost daily ethical and moral choices that they are called to make in their own lives but also in the life of their families or communities. Women are critical in molding the ethical consciousness of families -- to deal with the pressure of modern life and the demands it makes, on particularly the young, to break out of the norm and to experiment with life. Women are called to often make moral choice about their own bodies, their relationships as well as their lifestyles. It is matters related to women’s sexuality and sexual choice that cause the greatest unease in the church -- and therefore the inability of the church to provide a powerful moral condemnation of the violence women experience.

In 1988, the World Council of Churches launched the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women. At the mid-point of the Decade, the WCC initiated a project of ecumenical Team Visits - Living Letters - to every member church, for the first time in its history on a single major ecumenical theme. This project is almost complete. The purpose was to reflect with the churches on how far they have come in their solidarity with women, and with them to identify the obstacles that stand in the way of change so that more creative and intentional plans can be set in place for the remaining years of the Decade and beyond. A small group of women and men, a Readers Group, has been analyzing the reports received from the teams. Yes, the WCC has been moving along in its history of standing in solidarity with women but the question is whether the churches are moving along in this history too! The anger, the frustration, the pain and agony. . . but also the extraordinary love and patient endurance and perseverance of women in the churches is very evident. The Church on the other hand, has neither responded to the pain and outrage of women, nor has it recognized this immense love women have for the Church. The Church is steadily "leaving women behind".

What we discover through the Team Visits is that now steps are being taken by many churches to "accommodate" the presence and participation of women. This indeed is not what women yearn for. The Decade process has made it clear that to most women, it is not those small concessions that the churches offer that really matter. The question being asked by women is whether the Decade will invite "the churches and the ecumenical movement to discover and nurture an enriched understanding of the very nature and mission of the church . . . growing from and supporting a new community, embodying the visions of all persons . . . ," as the Readers Group describe it in their interim report. They add, "Women are calling for the strengthening of the community of women and men in a way that will lead to fundamentally new understanding of ecclesiology."

How can the churches meet and dialogue on their brave commitments to koinonia and the unity they seek, without facing up to the fragmentation of the community of women and men? How will visible unity ever be reached as long as there is this brokenness within each of our churches and societies? The Readers Group challenges the WCC to relook at its criteria for membership and the way in which it calls on the churches to dialogue. Such claims do indeed sound presumptuous -- but is it not true that at the heart of a new community of women and men in the church lies that basic question of how we live in faith and faithfulness so that we will truly reflect in our life that we are indeed the Church of Jesus Christ?

The Team Visits have opened our eyes to the extent of violence that women experience and the resounding silence of the Church or indeed its theological legitimization of the violence. I share some images and I ask -- how can we claim discipleship when we as the Church refuse to face up to the moral and ethical challenges that images, such as these described below, evoke?

The image of a woman who is battered for 20 years by her clergyman husband and who would forgive him, "because the Bible tells her to," the image of a young mother and father who cannot understand why their three-year-old daughter was sexually abused in the day care center to which they had entrusted her each morning; the image of a woman who was sacked from the women’s program of her church because she refused to comply to the request of the president of the church that she and the other women vote for him in his election campaign; the image of a 14-year-old migrant domestic worker who faces the death sentence on trumped up charges, because she would not give in to the sexual demands of her employer; the image of a male priest of a church saying that every time he beats his wife she should thank him, because she is one step closer to salvation; or the priest who would make sexual advances on a woman who out of vulnerability turns to the church for pastoral comfort. . . these are but a glimpse of the many such images that are gathered during the course of this Decade. The Ecumenical Decade is challenging the church not to ignore this reality but to courageously speak out and stand in solidarity with women. How can the churches not face up to their responsibility to hold each other mutually accountable for the violence in their midst? How can we make statements about our evangelistic witness to issues of justice, peace and the integrity of creation in the world, when even within the womb of the church, there is no safety for women?

Even as I write this article, I have before my mind’s eye a letter I received recently from a woman in Nigeria. She has both her Masters in Theology and a Masters in Education, and yet she writes: "I am in a very difficult and life-threatening marital situation and it is imperative that my children and I get to safety as soon as possible (before I become a statistic of domestic violence). . . ." For her the ethical choice is clear whether to live on in a farcical and dangerous relationship so as to serve the demands made on her by society . . . or to protect herself and her children. Hers indeed is the kind of moral choice which millions of women are being forced to take, increasingly.

To speak of the violence we experience as women is not easy -- every encounter is surrounded by the tears of women. We weep together, but we also reflect on the theological challenge to us as women, to transcend our victimization and transform our pain into political power and action. It is true that it is the very personal faith, a childlike spirituality that has sustained women who live in contexts of violence . . . but we so easily see the inseparable link between our faith and our obedient action in the world and demand a violence-free and safe world.

The second reason why women must get more engaged in this discourse is because they have something radically new to offer -- a new way of understanding society, of human relationships and even of being church. Women are speaking with a new voice, a courageous voice which challenges many traditional assumptions -- the most important is the challenge to the notion that women are required, by tradition and by the biblical heritage, to submit to all forms of inhuman treatment. The courageous work that women in theology do in all parts of the world, to deconstruct basic theological and reconstruct more inclusive and life affirming principles, is an example of this.

In this article I would like to explore what implications this issue has on the Church on the basis of two basic principles: the question of "the common good" and the use of "power and authority."

To Be or Not to Be: To Live for the Common Good

I have opted to use this as an ethical yardstick, because often women, or rather the women’s movement in India, has been targeted and blamed for the breaking up of the family unit. I often have it said to me, when I speak in gatherings, that women always only speak of negative images, never affirming what is positive and good in our lives -- but is there not a basis on which women are forced to speak out, or is silence preferred? In the Indian psyche, the sanctity of the family is to be maintained at all costs for the common good, even if it requires a woman to live in daily violence, even in jeopardy for her life. It is disheartening to see how the work of a core of committed women in the women’s movement in India is so often trivialized or rejected. The work they do to avoid perpetuating or acquiescing in the oppression of women but rather to contribute, whenever possible, to the further understanding of dissolution of sexual inequality, has often been branded and labeled as "Western" and therefore rejected as not being related to the India’s "cultural ethos." But then, it is out of a commitment to "the common good" that the women’s movement in India is to be weighed. It must be recognized for what it is: ". . . the women’s movement represents, not merely an oppositional force fuelled by anger, a rather negative reaction to oppression, but the development of a distinctive female culture, a positive creative force inspiring men and women alike," write Johanna Liddle and Rama Joshi.1

In fact, I will boldly claim that the women’s movement has at its central binding force a commitment to "the common good." Perhaps the most striking example of this truth is what happened in Beijing in September of 1995. Over 30,000 women gathered in the holiday town of Huairou, some 60 km. from Beijing, for the parallel NGO gathering of the IV UN World Conference on Women, Peace and Development. They came from all parts of the world, they came with their commitment and courage, they came with their multitude of concerns and voices but they came to meet each other, to share their stories of struggle and pain. It was clear that the women gathered often entered the struggle from different vantage points, they did not always agree with all that was spoken, but what could not be ignored was that there were some common issues that did draw them together -- it was not accidental or designed that over one-third of the 4,000 workshops by different women’s groups, from all regions of the world, focuses on the issue of violence against women -- some of the best being organized by Indian women, What was at the heart of Huairou was the commitment of the women present to draw energy and support from each other -- it was a consciousness that they were doing it all "for the common good." Women have through the centuries been devoted to ending all forms of violence. This commitment extends beyond what happens to individual women, it is built on the determination that war, poverty and cultural and social practices are the forms of violence that destroy the fabric of families and societies.

However, Asian women draw attention to the fact that the family in Asia is a source of control of women:

The family, along with the state today, has sought to control women through rigid definitions of sexuality and appropriate for itself reproductive rights and control over her body; violence and subjugation have been woven into institutionalized forms of religion whose patriarchal tenets have marginalized and domesticated the female and the feminine, shackling her and legitimizing violence against her. Social and legal codes of justice have either been blind to crimes against women like wife-battering and prostitution that have in fact received tacit social approval; or have seen violations like sexual assault and rape as acts of individual aberration and deviance and have even rendered some totally invisible, as in the case of homophobia.2

All this is in fact what does breaks the family unit. There is the constant demand on a woman to give up everything, most of all her dignity, even if this demands submissiveness and silence in the face of outrageous and inhuman treatment, so as to serve the common good. There are in India proverbs, teachings and cultural norms which are taught to a woman from childhood, preparing her for such a life of hardship and injustice. There is for instance the old Hindi saying that accompanies a woman from the family of her birth into that of her marriage: "A woman is like spit, once spat out she cannot be taken back in." She is expected to give up her identity, her dignity, and in cases even her name for "the common good." She cannot "be taken back" even when she tries to warn her family that her life is in danger. The almost daily newspapers stories of "accidental deaths" of women in their homes reveals the consequence of our silence.

One way by which the control has been achieved is by privatizing violence against women into the domestic realm. Corrine Kumar. writes:

And in the traditional human rights discourse there is no place for women. Human rights was born of a specific world view which endorsed the relegation of women to the private domain. The privatization of crimes and violence and crimes as a domestic issue made these violations invisible, denying them their public face and any political significance or social reparation. The assumptions of gender intricately woven into the international covenants on human rights articulated in 1948 legitimated the denigration of women. The founding fathers of the liberal tradition from Hegel to Rousseau understood the feminine as woman’s biological nature, lack of political consciousness, emotionality, irrationality, all of which made her a threat to public life and citizenship. Women could contribute by rearing citizens, but not by being citizens. Liberalism and the politics of the nation-state sought to make men good citizens and women good private persons."3

And to this is added, the theological dimension which again privatizes women’s pain...

"Christ died for you on the Cross, why can’t you bear some suffering too?", "Your husband is your cross . . . you have to carry whatever comes, silently." "Christ forgave . . . you must also forgive . . . such statements are no figments of my imagination -- they are words of advice given by clergy, or in other words, the Church, to women who finally opt to seek refuge in the Church when the daily violence becomes unbearable or dangerous. This indeed is what makes the discussion on violence so difficult to deal with -- the fact that it is a theological problem and that the violence is so often legitimized by religious practices and teachings -- including that of the Church. The silence is rooted in these theological convictions and teachings. The doctrine of forgiveness, the doctrine of the Cross as a symbol of redemption, the myths and the mysteries surrounding the human body and human sexuality, the identification of sin and temptation with femaleness, the Image of God, the mind/body dualism that devalues female life, the depreciation of creation . . . these are some of the problems Christianity poses, giving subtle sanction to the violence women experience. Sometimes the church tends to engage in an unqualified affirmation of sacrifice and suffering for the sake of the larger community -- the common good -- without taking into consideration who sacrifices what, for whom and within what kind of relationships.

The Church’s reluctance to deal with the issue of human sexuality is at the heart of the problem. All religious traditions have tended to convey warped images of sexuality, providing quasi-divine legitimization for rape and abuse of women’s bodies. It is therefore easier to discuss, for example, the economic and political roots of prostitution than the reason why men seek out prostitutes. The Church would rather take a moralistic stand on the women involved in prostitution, blaming them for their lack of a moral code of behavior than challenge the men to examine their depraved sexuality. Joy Bussert writes: "Christian theologians like Luther projected ‘uncontrolled sexuality’ and thus responsibility for the fall, onto women, as the object of sexuality, since sexuality appears to be what they feared most in themselves."4

To achieve this order of power women had to be kept in control in the private sphere, with rituals, religious practices, customs and traditions, defining "the common good" from a particular vantage point which will render women invisible. What is needed is a radical reclaiming of what we mean by the common good. Keep silent and listen . . . the women of India and of the world are reclaiming their right to do just this, out of their deep commitment to preserve life.

Power and Authority. . . Can the Church Sing Another Song?

Women often as they struggle for justice in painful situations are ridden with feelings of guilt. Often they will say, "but does not the Bible say that as women we must be submissive?". . . or "I will have to obey my husband, this is what my pastor told me is the expected behavior of a ‘good’ woman." To convince women in such situations that there is another truth which has to be unraveled, is not always easy. Such a dilemma is related to two central concerns of theology and ethics: power and authority. Therefore women theologians have recognized the need to also deem it important and some new insights are emerging. Letty Russell, in much of her writings explores this theme, as she attempts to demonstrate what constitutes genuine authority. She writes that in fact, "everything feminists touch in a patriarchal society seems to turn into a question of authority."5

Women theologians have particularly drawn attention to the fact that it is the "authority" of the scripture and tradition that are problematic. This is because the starting point for women’s theological work, in all regions of the world, is their day to day, existential experience of life. How they understand their daily experiences of struggle, informs how they understand the place and authority of the Scriptures and other religious traditions. Kwok Pui Lan, "rejects both the sacrality of the Bible and the canon as a guarantee for truth." She writes:

For a long time such a "mystified" doctrine has taken away the power from women, the poor and the powerless, for it helps to sustain the notion that the "divine presence" is located somewhere else and not in ourselves. Today, we must claim back the power to look at the Bible with our own eyes and to stress that divine immanence is within us, not in something sealed off and handed down from almost 2000 years ago.6

I cite Kwok Pui Lan as one example of what women raise as central in all parts of the world. The Church has held women ransom for too long, based on what in fact constitutes the basis for the authoritative voice of control of women.

Letty Russell writes that "if authority is understood as authorizing the inclusion of all persons as partners, and power is understood as empowerment for self-actualization together with others, then the entire game of authority shifts. . . ." 7

Ecclesiology and Ethics --- A Way to Reconstruct Anew Authority and Power?

I understand the new work on ecclesiology and ethics which the World Council of Churches has launched to be a way to find new ethical principles to interpret the very nature and being of the Church. Of course throughout Church history there have been efforts to discover the connections between ecclesiology and ethics. The entry point into the debate has varied, but there has always been an awareness in the Church that the search for visible unity and the communion the churches seek, is connected inextricably with the authority with which the Church interprets and lives up to its traditions, but also the way in which we act as Christians in the world. In fact it is in servanthood to Christ that the Church discovers its basis and this is what formulates its ethical and moral authority in the world. The Ronde Consultation on "Costly Unity," which drew together the work on ecclesiology and ethics put it this away: "the Church not only has, but is, a social ethic, a koinonia ethic."8

Such an affirmation, of course gives to the Church the responsibility to engage in the moral formation of its community -- it is to "help shape both character and particular moral choices and action people take, singly and together. In doing so, they teach and embody virtues, values, obligations and moral visions."9

But then, new questions have been raised in recent times about this authority of the Church by what many see as the complicity of the churches in political conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda and Burundi, in South Africa and in Northern Ireland. In all the situations cited, a section of the Church was in itself directly involved in provoking and participating in the violence -- often giving theological legitimization for the conflicts or for the oppression of "the other." Though slightly different in context, one could add an event that must not be forgotten: the silence of the Indian church during the Emergency period (1975-1977) even though everyone knew of all the atrocities committed by the Indira Gandhi regime. But then, equally shameful was the protest lodged by the officers of the NCCI, against WCC for having condemned emergencies. All this has led to an understanding that for the Church:

Some of the presuppositions which have been taken for granted in the past are beginning to crumble. Regarding the Church and its self-understanding, the question is no longer simply when and by what authority the Church (as distinct from the individual Christian) should take a stance on ethical issues. Instead the focus is on what it means to be the Church in face of the fundamental ethical challenges of our time or, to put it differently, how church fellowship can be maintained in face of ethical conflicts. It is no longer possible to assume the traditional theological bases of the understanding of the church as given and concentrate solely on the question of the legitimate connection between ecclesiology and ethics. The ethical debates surrounding the struggle against racism, the relationship of rich and poor and the Christian witness to peace have opened up a new perception of the reality of the Church, which needs to be worked through ecclesiologically.10

Unfortunately, as women, we have found it difficult to persuade the churches and the ecumenical movement that the issue of violence against women is as much an issue of ecclesiology as is complicity in political conflicts, because women have been silent for too long and the churches too have been complicit by their often silence, but also by their sometimes legitimization of the violence theologically. The Decade has pointed this out repeatedly to the churches-first that the veneer of silence with which violence against women is dealt with is a moral failure of the Church and secondly that outrageous biblical and theological legitimizations of violence, calling into question the authority and power of the church, as a moral community. In a recent discussion on "impunity" against the former corrupt political regime in Argentina, individual after individual present spoke out in shame against their silence in the face of oppression -- each one felt that they had succumbed to the fear of repression, maybe of the possibility of "disappearance" -- but now they recognized that their silence had sanctioned so much of the violence.

This had meant that many corrupt leaders who had been accused of crimes against humanity escape without being charged, tried and punished for criminal acts committed, with official sanction, in times of war of dictatorial rule. "Impunity can happen by default -- the deliberate lack of action at all."11 Suddenly, in the midst of that litany of voices from various people, a woman spoke up. She was middle-class and smartly attired. She spoke of the many years of violence she had experienced in her home in the hands of her husband and her shame at the silence that she had decided to maintain. She recognized her submissiveness as granting impunity to the perpetrator of the violence against women -- perhaps her only option is to get away from that abusive and life-threatening relationship. Does this not challenge the churches and the ecumenical movement to respond to the issue of violence against women as an ecclesiological concern, as serious and as vital as are other issues of moral engagement to which the Church is challenged?

To continue Konrad Raiser’s analysis of the new debate, all of which comes alive, if we would only look at violence against women in the same framework. He writes, "The radicalizing of these questions becomes especially clear if we take seriously that the scope of ethical responsibility is no longer confined to life in personal relations or in social structures. What is at stake is the preservation of the very foundations of life itself."12 He is of course referring here to our inhumanity to all creation, but then the question I ask is whether such an enquiry can ignore the fact that for women living in unsafe environments it is life itself that is constantly at threat. Added are the new forms of violence being heaped on women by the colonizing of our wombs by bio-technology and other scientific methodology, controlling the reproductive choices and capacities of women -- threatening the "very foundations of life itself."

The Voice of Hope from the Margins. . .

from the Excluded

Women have found ways to deal with the violence. They have moved away from their victimization into recovering a sense of their identity and integrity. Out of such a commitment to discover the sources of their power, women have been able to be creative in the conceptualization of new forms of community and relationship. Corrine Kumar raises this in the form of a series of questions which are the challenges that women pose to each other and to the Church:

The patriarchal ethic has only violent answers. We need a radically new ethic, another vision of the world. Can we women who know the sacredness of life return the spiritual to the material? Can we rediscover the feminine in the increasingly violent male ethos of civilizations? Can we bring back the sacred to the earth? It is not difficult to see that we are at the end of an epoch. Can we find new words, seek new ways, create new possibilities out of the material and human spirit to transform the existing exploitative social order and discern the great human potential?13

Corrine speaks Out of a "secular" consciousness of the women’s movement which increasingly seeks the "sacred," the "spiritual." The feminist theological movement in all regions of the world attempts to discover a theological response to these "secular" questions. It begins where women in theology attempt to deconstruct basic ethical principles such as "the common good" and "the question of moral power and authority," but from there it moves to the creative impulses we see around us, as women in faith and faithfulness reconstruct the future image and face of the Church as a "community of Christ, bought with a price, where everyone is welcome,"14 as Letty Russell describes it. Her image of the Church in the Round -- of round table talk and of leadership in the round is an exciting image of the church inclusive and open, welcoming, hospitable, comforting, prophetic and visibly present in the struggles for justice and life. Indeed she aptly sums up what women are saying. The ecclesial reality of the Church is intricately interwoven with its life as a moral community -- it has to constantly test its authority to be the moral voice in the world against its ability to respond with courage and conviction to the voices of the excluded, the voices from the margins. The Decade has gathered together the voices of women globally -- it is now the responsibility of the Church and of the ecumenical movement to stop and listen . . . for wisdom flows from here . . . .

Listen to the women


Listen to the women

They are arriving

Over the wise distances

On their dancing feet

Make way for the women

Listen to them. . .15



1. Johanna Liddle and Joshi, Daughters of Independence. Gender, Caste, and Class in India (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1988), p. 5.

2. From the Bali Declaration, Asian Regional Meeting on Violence Against Women held in Bali, Indonesia, organized by WCC, the Christian Conference of Asia and the Asian Women’s Human Rights Commission, 1-6 August 1993.

3. Corrine Kumar. "The Universality of Human Rights Discourse, in Gnanadason, Kanyoro Musimbi; McSpadden Lucia Ann, Women, Violence and Non-Violent Change (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996). p. 42.

4. Joy Bussert, Battered Women: From a Theology of Suffering to an Ethic of Empowerment (Lutheran Church in America, 1986).

5. Russell Letty M., Household of Freedom, Authority in Feminist Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987), P. 59.

6. Kwok, Pui Lan, quoted by Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to Be the Sun Again (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993), p. 107.

7. Russell Letty M., op. cit., p. 61.

8. "Costly Unity?’ Final Statement of World Council of Churches Consultation on Koinonia and Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. Ronde, Denmark, February 1993.

9. Best Thomas and Robra Martin (eds.), Ecclesiology and Ethics; Costly Commitment. WCC Consultation in Jerusalem, November 1994.

10. Konrad Raiser, "Ecumenical Discussion of Ecclesiology and Ethics," The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 48, No. I, January 1996, pp. 7-8.

11. Harper Charles, "From Impunity to Reconciliation" in Impunity, An Ethical Perspective, WCC Publications, 1996. p. ix.

12. Raiser Konrad, op. cit., p. 8.

13. Kumar Corrine, op. cit., p. 53.

14. Russell Letty M., Church in the Round, Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1993), p. 14.

15. Corrine Kumar, op. cit., p. 30.