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"A Theology that Comes from the Flesh."

In the western world, one way to find fecund and rich theology is to look to those silenced by the Catholic Church. Ivone Gebara, a Brazilian theologian, speaks to the National Catholic Reporter before her period of silence began in September1995. She talks about her theology and about ecofeminism. This theology not only speaks out on behalf of the poor but also demands that the underlying patriarchal presumptions about God be seriously questioned.

By Leslie Wirpsa  

What is the reality, the day-to-day life experience, that moulds your theological perspective?

I live in a very poor barrio, Camaragibe, about nine miles from the city of Recife (in northeastern Brazil). I taught at the Theological Institute of Recife for 15 years, but it was closed in 1989 by the Vatican. Since then, I have lived in the barrio, invited by the people. I do what I can in the barrio helping people in need, sharing with my neighbours, with the women, many of whom are illiterate. And I write for many magazines produced by women's groups from the popular sector.

I have been privileged in my life. I grew up in a middle-class family and was able to study. I entered the convent when I was 22.

Ever since I was a child, it bothered me that I had enough to eat, but that others did not. This conscience grew throughout my life. Injustice has always hit me hard. I suffer along with it and I seek freedom. It has always bothered me that human beings can be treated like slaves.

How would you describe the development of your faith and your theology?

I have gone through many stages, evolving in my theological understanding. And my faith. Well, God is my hope I have little hope in armies, in the powerful, in dogmas and absolute truth. My faith and theology have evolved historically, moving from a traditional expression toward liberation theology. This happened as I perceived the poverty of the Latin American people, as I saw the need for urgent structural reform. Our theology, our faith, must meet these challenges. In the 1980s, I opened myself to feminism and to seeing different forms of oppression like the oppression of women within the capitalist system and within the Christian churches. Feminism made me sensitive to these issues, it gave me new eyes with which to see other kinds of pains, pains that are also linked to the huge national and international economic and political system.

Later, I began to reflect about the dirty world in which poor people live, about the garbage dumped into the barrios. And I began to think about how garbage production is connected to the lives of the people. Poor people produce very little garbage it is the powerful that take over the territory of the poor, dumping their garbage in it. And, in my flesh, I began to feel a connection between this and the destruction of the environment, of the land and of people. I became interested in ecology and in ecofeminism.

My faith is challenged at its greatest depth by all of this. The most important thing Christianity has given me is my inability to conform to the injustice and pain of those who suffer. My faith tells me that the meaning of life is to struggle so that people may live in dignity, so that the earth may fulfil its right to thrive as a living being, housing us in mutual respect.

Why do you inspire such consternation within certain circles of the Roman Catholic hierarchy?

What I have just described touches the basic structures of Catholic theology. If you are going to speak about global injustice, you cannot leave out the existence of things within the system of the church that produce injustice. I speak about how the religious powers, in their translation of the values of the gospel, how Christian theology, in its focus on the centrality of the male human being, have been accomplices in the destruction of our people, in the oppression of women, in the destruction of nature. All this touches the power centre, it touches traditional dogma. Dogmas have a history; they must evolve. And the expression of faith must meet the challenge of life today. My faith must help formulate answers that enhance respect for life today.


What do you believe prompted the Vatican to order you into silence?

First, I am a woman and I spoke out about things like legalised abortion. I spoke about this in the context of poverty, however, and I am not 'for' abortion. This created uneasiness among some people who believe the words of the hierarchy must be respected regardless. I have deep respect (for the words of the hierarchy), but I also believe that, as a member of the church, I have a right to say what I think. And my freedom of speech and my viewpoint are connected to the lives of the poor.

Then, there are other theological questions, my discourse on God, on human beings, on life and death. It all comes together.

I did not want this silence, but I will immerse myself in my work, taking advantage of this time of reflection for myself and for my people. I will think about the ways in which I can help the impoverished, especially impoverished women.

But I cannot compare this silence with the silence of the people, because they are silenced every single day. They do not have an opportunity to discuss their silence. I do. I can say, "I don't want this". The people cannot. I am privileged.

I understand something very exciting is happening among women in Latin America. What is it?

No one ever thought a force could organise in the way that women are organising. Latin American women for so long accepted their situation of silence, they remained quiet; if we were able to learn anything, we had to accept what the wise men said.

But now, what is happening among women and among the African and indigenous people of Latin America is extraordinary: They are no longer willing to accept their cultures as worthless sub-cultures. For women, this is an historical turning point, and I do not know what the consequences will be. Perhaps we will change relationships of power, improving relations among human beings.

The bottom line is that we women are not accepting the words of masculine power. This is a huge, qualitative change and it is paradoxical. Even though we are living right now in one of the most destructive moments ever in our world, inside that destruction huge changes are taking place.

All over the world, small groups of women are saying no to their situations, they are organising, gaining independence, demanding respect for our ecosystem, seeking to solve problems through regional solutions that permit a harmonious coexistence with the environment. These initiatives are like a tiny oasis in a desert of destruction.

And it is not just women: It is also women. There are groups of scientists, ecologists, men and women alike, involved. I insist on women, blacks and indigenous peoples, because these were the groups that were silent before. Twenty years ago in Latin America, in the United States, you didn't hear anyone talking about change coming from women, theology from women a theology that comes from the flesh. No one 20 years ago was saying that women are going to carry the future forward.

What about the simultaneous evolution of liberation theology? How is it changing?

There must be a much more open dialogue between men and women about the theology of liberation. And liberation theology must open its discourse to other scientists reaching beyond economics and politics, embracing physics, biology and women scientists. Feminist theology is presenting this challenge to liberation theology the need to relocate the Christian vision of our planet, of humanity, our cosmovision, within a wider perspective.

You see, when we speak of the globalisation of injustice, we can no longer speak of the First World versus the Third World, of a rich world against a poor world. Poverty is globalising; impoverishment is extending to the First World. Just walk around Harlem. Or think about the undocumented people on the borders. Increasingly, we live in a world full of people who circulate all over the globe seeking a place to live in dignity. This phenomenon is not just taking place in the Third World, and the roots of culture that are being destroyed are not limited to the indigenous peoples. All kinds of groups of people are losing their roots in this system of death, of sin, of destruction.

We must come together from different traditions of faith Buddhism, Christianity, the African religions asking ourselves what we have in common and recognising that none of us will survive if we let this system continue. Change must not only take place in the economic and cultural spheres, but from within our theological structures. I can no longer emphasise the Almighty Father and validate a hierarchical system. I can no longer emphasise the death of the Son as the most important aspect of salvation we must speak of the rebirth. We always say the death of Jesus brought his resurrection. But it's the other way around. It is because Jesus has risen that he died: He fought for life, and that is the reason they killed him.

On June 3rd 1995, Ivone Gebara, a Notre Dame Sister (Canonesses of St Augustine), was silenced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and ordered to spend 2 years in France studying "traditional theology". The Aisling Magazine would appreciate any information as to her present whereabouts.

First published in the National Catholic Reporter, USA, August 25th 1995.
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