The DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church exists as a beacon of liberal religious thought and practice. Amid the challenges and changes of a chaotic world, we aspire to proclaim and embody the possibilities of meaning in human life, of freedom in human thought, and of peace and justice in human community.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Feminist Theology By Reverend Tom Capo

Preached on 01/01/2016
One fateful day, a samurai (who was the envy of many because of his skills) was framed; someone has made the Emperor ill and weak, and started the rumor that the samurai had poisoned the Emperor.  And so the samurai was banished to a faraway island.
Tokoyo, the samurai’s loving daughter, became miserable; she loved her father so much. She was very determined to be reunited with the only family she had left, so she set out on a journey to find and rescue him.
First, she sold all of their possessions to a merchant to gain money for the journey. She journeyed long and far towards the coastline, where in the light of day, the faraway island can be seen very dimly.
She tried to persuade the fishermen to bring her to the island, but she didn’t have enough money left to pay for the trip, so they refused to take her. Still, she never gave up. That night, she found a small, old boat on the bay, and she set sail for the island.
It was a hard journey in the small boat, but it was nothing for the valiant Tokoyo. It was still dark when she arrived shore, and she spent all day looking for her father on that island, but failed.
Night came, and a very tired and sad Tokoyo decided to rest under a tree.
After a few hours, she was awakened by the sound of a sobbing girl.  Tokoyo hid behind a bush, and saw a girl dressed in a white robe standing with a priest. They were on the edge of a cliff, and the priest was in the act of pushing the girl off of it.
Tokoyo came out from the bushes to rescue the girl. The priest paused and explained to Tokoyo what he was doing.
Apparently, an ancient serpent-dragon called Yofune-Nushi inhabited the seas around the island. Yofune-Nushi threatened to terrorize the people on the island and destroy the fishing industry (the island-people's only source of income), unless they sacrifice a virgin girl to him every year. It was said that as long as they kept their end of the bargain, the dragon would leave the town alone.
Feeling that this was very unjust, Tokoyo offered to take the girl's place. She wore the girl's white offering dress and jumped down from the cliff, diving into the ocean with a dagger in her teeth, much to the amazement of the priest and the girl.
Tokoyo dived deeper and deeper, until she found a cave. Above the mouth of the cave was a small statue of the Emperor. Out of her anger towards the Emperor, she took the statue to destroy it. But after some reflection decided it would be better to take it up on the shore to destroy rather than trying to break it underwater, so she tied it to her belt.
Suddenly, the dragon. Yofune-Nushi came out from the cave. He assumed that Tokoyo was the offering, so he attacked her. Tokoyo quickly put up her defenses and blocked the attack.  Then Tokoyo plunged her dagger into the dragon’s eye.
Blinded, the dragon made his way back into the cave, but Tokoyo chased after him. Again, the dragon put up a fight, but the brave Tokoyo continued to attack him!
At last, when the vile Yofune-Nushi was killed, Tokoyo dragged him up on the shore, where she slumped on the sand.  She was weak and tired after such a great fight.
The priest and the girl ran towards her; they couldn't believe she beat the dragon. The priest carried Tokoyo back to the village, where the news of her heroism spread like wildfire.
The news reached the Emperor, who was now well and healthy. The Emperor found out that the dragon Yofune-Nushi had cursed the statue of the Emperor, and so when Tokoyo killed the dragon and retrieved the statue, the curse was lifted.
Realizing that Tokoyo's father was innocent, the Emperor released him from banishment and brought him back home to his daughter. The Emperor regretted banishing his best samurai, so he gave Tokoyo and her father a huge sum of rewards and treasures.
Tokoyo was also given the privilege to serve at the palace as a samurai warrior alongside her father, and they lived happily ever after.

         One definition of Feminist Theology is that it “Reconsiders the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of religion from a feminist perspective with a commitment to transforming religion for gender equality.” (WGS 320 Chapter 8: Women and Religion flashcards | Quizlet)   
Before we explore this definition, I want to consider what both feminism and theology mean.   Edna Groves, a member of this congregation, shared this with me about her experience with feminism:
“All I have to do is look at the table of contents in The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan and first published in 1963, and I quickly drop back inside myself to 1967, when I first read the book. We were living in South Bend, Indiana, in a large rented home. Tom had an interim professorship at Notre Dame and our four daughters ranged in age from 12 to 3. Caring for them and keeping a home were my primary—and only—jobs. I was doing the best I could to be happy in motherhood and wifehood, taking care of others. I knew something was missing; I had known that for quite a while. Even though I had a college degree, being a wife and mother were supposed to be enough. Some joked that the ‘M.R.S’ degree was all we needed. Still, I was restless, anxious and aimless.
And then I read the book. The first chapter of The Feminine Mystique is titled ‘The Problem That Has No Name.’ I remember being curled up in the over-stuffed chair in the living room, our daughters either in school or napping, my eyes glued to the pages where she had captured my life experience and questions.  ‘Who am I? Do I really exist at all? Why do I feel like crying all the time? What’s wrong with me? Is this all there is?’  In this book—and others that followed—I saw that my personal challenges were part of a huge collective experience just being uncovered. There were so MANY of us in the 1950s and ‘60s who thought marriage and children would bring life-time fulfillment and found otherwise. In consciousness-raising groups we were talking about it.
Unformed as I was in 1967, I knew that my life was going to change. There was more to me than I knew, and I was going to discover what that was. By 1975 I was a committed feminist, had a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and a seedling sense of self. The questions? As Rilke writes, I was ‘living my way into the answers.’ Not easy, but necessary.
My understanding of feminist theology tells me I have the right to define my life. I can discern how to grow into my potential. Further, my personal experience is to be valued, and shared when I wish. My personal need and desire to grow, and my belief I had a right and responsibility to live into my potential intersects with feminist theology. So does my ongoing experience that my creativity enables me to be a catalyst for others. In very long hindsight I see that I went from not having a self and living through others, to learning and acting on what mattered to me and navigating my way in the world as a self-defining woman. Later in my life, when the psychological quest morphed into a spiritual quest, further evolving  brought me to my Self—the capital ‘S’ standing for a deep, soulful ground inside of me which is loving, available, and a source of sustenance for myself and to others.”
            “Feminism is a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women.” (Hawkesworth, M.E. (2006). Globalization and Feminist Activism. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 25–27).   How feminism manifests in our world has evolved over time, from women working to get the right to vote to the use of social media to confront prejudice.  Feminist ideology and theology has been and is powerful and potentially life changing for all of us.
Now let’s look at theology.  Theology is not static.  Prior to the 20th century, theology focused primarily on a person’s relationship with their god.  Most modern theologians define theology as a person’s or a religion’s answers to the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose, existence, as well as one’s belief/nonbelief in a divinity, in an afterlife, in a soul, and any other supernatural phenomena.   Given that feminism and theology are not static, let’s consider our definition again: feminist theology “reconsiders the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of religion from a feminist perspective with a commitment to transforming religion for gender equality.”   How does this definition speak to you today? 
            Perhaps we could look at this definition of feminist theology through the lens of our story of Tokoyo.  This story is about a strong and capable woman.  She takes on the quest to save her father, and in the end she is the heroine of the story-- slaying the dragon, breaking the curse on the emperor, and saving her father from unjust exile. 
            We have often heard stories with a male protagonist, but few if any about women.  The myths of strong, powerful, wise, and/or spiritual women are not being taught in our schools and are rarely heard around our hearths—though Disney has recently featured a few, like the bow and arrow shooting Merida in Brave—although Disney made Merida thinner and more beautiful because she was after all their new princess--and Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, who is an aspiring young black chef who works two jobs, both as a diner waitress, so she can save enough money to start her own restaurant, however she is a frog most of the movie.  Feminists and Feminine Theologians are working to bring the stories and myths of strong and wise women as well as religiously significant women to the attention of their students and the public, not to discredit the male stories and myths, but to bring balance the theology that is being taught.  They also are working to bring a feminine influence, a feminine voice, a feminine sensibility into the patriarchal influence often inherent in the values, beliefs, and traditions in all the world’s religions.  This work ultimately helps us all to be less blind to the role and significance of women in our world.
            So often we, both men and women, are blind to how our culture influences us to suppresses, minimize, and disregard women’s contributions in our religion.  I know I have been blind.  I preached a sermon many years ago in Austin, Texas, at Wildflower Unitarian Universalist church on Father’s Day about the relationship between fathers and sons.  I was approached by a woman afterward who was quite upset that I did not mention the relationship between fathers and daughters as well. 20 years ago, that was something that flew under my radar.  Not anymore.  Well, almost.  Last year, I taught Unitarian Universalist history at the Unitarian Universalist Midwest Leadership School, and—as it was sharply pointed out to me after my presentation—when I talked about the early history of our faith, from 50 ACE to the 19th century, I told the history of all the old white guys of our religious tradition. OOPS!  I hadn’t even brought up the women of early Christianity and of the 18th century that I knew about—heck it was a woman who converted John Murray, the father of Universalism in America to Universalism.  The Unitarian and Universalist women of the 19th and 20th century were on my mind and in my presentation—transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, the first woman minister in America, Universalist Reverend Olympia Brown, and so many others.  But that part of my presentation was days away.  I realized I thought it was taken for granted that old white guys wrote the early history, and in my head I thought I would talk about women in our movement when I got to the 19th and 20th century.   It just didn’t occur to me that I needed to preface my teaching of Unitarian Universalist history with, “And as you all know this history was written by old white guys and doesn’t include the many women and people of color who contributed to our movement in its early development.”   I needed to “reconsider the traditions … [of our Unitarian Universalist] religion from a feminist perspective.”
            Today’s feminism and feminist theology is expanding our definitions of feminism, and impacting our culture in new and different ways.  Today’s feminists are interested in inclusive language and strong women stories, but they are also interested in defining who they are, embracing their individuality and their rebelliousness—rebelling against cultural mores and traditions.  They want, as women, to define their own sexuality and their own lives independently of the dominant patriarchal society.  Listen to this poem by fourth wave feminist artist Kate Rose.  In sensitivity to our worship setting, I have softened the profanity in the poem.  (Elephant Journal Author in http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fourth-wave-feminist-artists_566a1b8ee4b009377b24860a)
 “This one is for you.
For the dream seekers and the rebels, the ones who not only don’t fit into the mold—they … break it as well.
This is for the women who do give a …[damn].
We give a [damn] about ourselves, our lives and those that matter most to us—but mostly we give a [damn] about making a difference in this one amazing life.
We know that we weren’t born to play life small, and while life has tried to smack us down at times, we stand right back up asking—is that all you’ve got?
This is for the women …[willing] to be themselves—unapologetically…willing to risk, to go after what we love.
This is for the women who stay up late chasing dreams, and are up early with the sun making them a reality.
This is for those women with thirsty hearts and messy hair—the ones who march to the beat of our hearts and often find ourselves alone because of our choices.
This one is for you, for me, and for all the women who often wonder if they are alone in their individuality.
You’re not.
And although we are as unique as they come, we all are linked because of the desire to break free from the expectation that we need to be well-behaved women in order to be loved.
We can’t follow the rules for the life of us.
When given the choice we always choose the most difficult road, because that is where we often learn the most.
This is for the women who take care of themselves. We are masters at keeping our [act] together, even when it seems we can’t take one more step.
This is for the women who tuck themselves into bed each night. It’s not because we don’t want a lover with us, but because we know that, unless it’s genuine, solitude is so much sweeter than putting on an act.
This is for the women who just won’t conform no matter how many times people shake their heads at us.
These are the women who drink moonshine underneath the stars with their bare feet dirty, and their eyes wild dreaming of their next adventure.
The women who prefer to be untamed. We don’t care about letting our crazy show because we know it’s just as seductive as the pull of our eyes.
This is for all the women who’ve had people ask why we can’t just be like everyone else. Why can’t we stay in unhappy relationships? Why can’t we just stay with the secure job? Why can’t we just suck it up because we are adults? That is what adults are supposed to do.
But we were born differently. Where others see stability, we see stifling.
‘We dream of a life that fills us with inspiration, and we dream of a love that even time will lie down and be still for.’ (~ Alice Hoffman)
We don’t know how to give up on the desires of our hearts.
And while we may seem to wander aimlessly at times, it’s all part of our un-plan. Because some are just born to be the movers and shakers in this life—to rattle and shake things up a bit.
And while we may drive you crazy at times, and scare the …[snot] out of you at others, life would be boring without us.
For we are the wild ones—the ones who make life worth living.”
            I suggest that Feminism and Feminist Theology are all about pushing men and women out of our cultural and religious comfort zones—to see the world in its completeness, not just in terms of “man, mankind, father, brother or brotherhood.”  Women want out from under a masculine cultural umbrella, with its gender dualities, and its black and white absolutism.  Today’s feminists accept and embrace non-binary genders and all the colors of life. 
The meditation we did today is an example of how we might explore these boundaries.  Essentially what I asked you to do was let go of control, to let someone else have control of one of your limbs.  I would guess for many of you this was a little awkward, and perhaps, so outside of your experience—say, how you define what meditation is—that you had trouble making sense of what you were supposed to be feeling or thinking or experiencing.     You probably wanted to take back the control of your arm.  Often when we talk about spiritual exploration, it is all about letting go of control, opening yourself up to something new, different, something that might offer some insight or new awareness, something that opens your mind and heart. 
However this meditation might also give you some insight into what it can be like to be a woman in a patriarchal society, where someone else makes decisions for you and exerts control over your body—think about the laws in some states that are obstructing a woman’s right to have an abortion. 
In the book, Tending the Holy: Spiritual Direction Across Traditions, there is an interesting chapter on a Feminist Model for Spiritual Direction.  The author, Novene Vest, asks us to consider looking at our spiritual work through a feminine lens.  Vest says that telling a woman to “let go” to gain some insight doesn’t work as well; Vest suggests that women might instead want to explore how to gain personal authority and identify a voice in a culture that minimizes or attempts to suppress their voice.  She goes on to consider the commonly used metaphor for spiritual work of taking a journey, but offers this: “Might not a woman be more likely to find freedom in an image that suggests a safe [enough] place … to conceive and then give birth to a child?  What would be the effect of thinking of our basic spiritual practice as involving the rhythms of nesting, gardening, creating a place of beauty…[imagining] a place long treasured, where we had enjoyed watching the play of light and shadow shift with the seasons and the years…cherished the rhythms of aging and dying and birthing again as they appear in the cycle of all living things.” 
            I am suggesting that in our spiritual, heart, or ethical work, we strive to blur the lines of our cultural limits as we discern who we are as spiritual beings.  Do not allow your spiritual work to be defined by what others say, perhaps it is a journey or perhaps it is building a home, perhaps it is being out of control or perhaps it is finding your authority.  Feminist Theology is about a willingness to buck the system, to rebel against having your identity defined by anyone other than yourself, to be willing to be moved and transformed by new ideas, new concepts, new ways of seeing life.  Feminism is for everyone, although it is through women’s experiences that we, humankind, can begin to see the world differently than we have been taught.  Feminism and Feminist Theology challenge us to understand more, empathize more, stretch ourselves more than we would if we simply accepted the cultural messages we have been fed since birth. 
            Judy Chicago, an American feminist artist, art educator, and writer, gives us some insight into what our world and our theology might be like if we accept the challenge that feminist theology offers:
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again 
So may it be.