How should we approach Faith and Feminism in the Caribbean?
By Corey Gilkes
January 06, 2014
I wouldn’t mind doing about two or three articles expressing my opinions on the topic. Not sure why, I suppose fools really do rush in where……. Anyhow, it partly stems from the IGDS conference last week plus something I saw in a post two mornings ago, particularly two words: “fornication” and “adultery.” I don’t know why the person’s use of the two words struck me given that they are still commonly used but I suppose I’m always deluding myself that in this age of accessing information with just a click, certain terms would die a natural death as people become more conscious.
But I’m sure that that’s related to a sore point of mine: our reflexive adoption of Eurocentric cultural prejudices and our seeming reluctance to openly confront religion and its persistent contamination of how people think, how they inter-relate and how public policies are made. I guess I’m a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a greater focus on religion, particularly the influence of Christianity. I’ve singled out this faith not to ignore Islam and Brahmanic Hinduism but mainly because I think it is there we need to use as a central point. It’s an historical fact that the cultural basis upon which Caribbean societies were oriented is Western civilisation and that in turn was shaped in keeping with the Western Christian ethic. More than that, Britain and the rest of Europe, having gone through a long history of theocratic governing and the bloody wars that resulted from that, developed a culture of secularism and debate on all matters, including religious ones. That was not transferred to a Caribbean where such a culture would have undermined colonial rule and it was not addressed in any meaningful way upon so-called Independence. Quite the opposite, religious emotionalism, messianic pretences and scriptural passages are regularly invoked by our own politicians to gain or to retain office.
Now let me state my personal position one time; as if it wasn’t already obvious, me eh no big fan. My own views on organised religion are along the lines of what I like to call “hostile indifference” and are much, much closer to atheism although I have issues with them too which is why I don’t really belong in that camp either. But insofar as organised religions are concerned I consider all to be bigoted, intolerant, anti-sex, male-chauvinist murder cults. Christianity’s role in making African and Asian peoples accept ideas of lowly status in the Caribbean and Christianity and Islam’s complicity in formenting racist interpretations of earlier cultures has been extensively documented. The same thing holds true for how women are viewed; long before the Middle Passage, Western Christianity had already been infused with anti-women, anti-nature attitudes it inherited from Levite Judaism, Athens and Rome. Explain that to most devotees, however, and if yuh cuss ‘way they mother, you’d get less hostility. Not surprising; the Church is seldom honest about its own history. Indeed, a great many devotees are not even aware of the actual history of the faith and its evolution over the years because it’s simply not taught. It is this aversion to certain types of intellectualism and its dogmatic insistence on arguing that its teachings derived from an external, other-worldly entity why I particularly don’t see Christianity or for that matter any of the Abrahamic faiths as having any transformative value in any really progressive society.
But that’s *my* opinion, I will not even attempt to impose that on others and say “this is how you should be thinking if you want to bring about progressive change.” This is something very near and dear to many people in the Caribbean and defines much of their existence. And that’s ok, that’s fine by me. It really is. I maintain, though, if we’re really serious about transforming our societies and bringing about a real concept of a Caribbean civilisation, not even the pious can continue avoiding detailed examinations of religious ideas and teachings. I am well aware that there are many within the institution who are attempting to reform from within and I have much respect for them. And for those who take the Eurocentric atheist stance on religion, keep in mind that in the Americas Christian denominations were more than just imperialist enablers and myth peddlars. Although Christian work in the Caribbean was principally geared towards acceptance of colonialism and the “natural” right of the Euro to rule, there were some unexpected outcomes. The history of the Caribbean shows very clearly how religion, the church, has been a major force in galvanising political and social awareness and change; it has been the hub around which many people subjected to colonial rule would go on to undermine and bring down the illegitimate structure. Our trade union and independence movements can all point to their origins in the pew of some church. We cannot ignore or dismiss that.
I will say that there are volumes and volumes of research into biblical scholarship showing the validity and invalidity of the canonical texts. There are also studies done by theologians and priests on the extra-biblical texts and traditions such as the Nag Hammadi scrolls, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the recently authenticated Gospel of Judas. All these things and more paint a much different picture of the early Church and the early Christianities and done by researchers, some religious, some not, seeking to present challenges from feminist, anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian perspectives. These are works we need to start discussing since very few in organisations like the IRO can be counted on to do it.
That speaks to the way history *should* be taught in post-colonial states; history should be more than just dates and events. It should also be more than exercises in hubris, pandering to eternal victimhood or to exploit narrow tribal insecurities. One of the purposes for which it should be utilised, especially for those of us with African, Asian and indigenous American ancestry, is to traverse backward and forward through time as it were to access knowledge that can be used to enrich our own spaces. This in turn will eventually lead to serious questions and challenges posed from political and economic arenas in major international institutions. To illustrate somewhat: no patriarchal religion as far as I know is completely patriarchal; in the formative stages the architects incorporated – perhaps arrogated – elements of ancient Divine Feminine myths, rituals and dress in order to legitimise the new faith’s standing. Within the very Bible many hold up to be exclusive, the benchmark for morality and spirituality over, say Orisa or Hinduism – just two faiths with clearly Divine Feminine elements – are passages lifted out of and describing events that can be traced to ancient cultures that venerated the goddess principle known by many names like Auset/Isis, Ishtar, Asherah and Cybele. So what were the cultures behind these stories? How did they function, interact, conduct business? What was the status of women? What were their ideas of progress and development? Small wonder conservative academics are always guarding and influencing what interpretations of the past are made widespread: too many people may start asking and answering these questions.
All the more reason why we must undertake our own serious de/re-constructions of religious tenets and history as we go about the slow process of creating models and institutions in keeping with Caribbean realities. There are those who will argue that one cannot change the laws of the Church as one is interfering with the laws of god (as I’m hearing some say right now regarding Pope Francis as I predicted a long time ago). Such an argument is blissfully ignorant of the historical fact that Church tradition has changed and has always been changing. Regarding the marginalising of women, the oft-used argument by many Christians that many people twist the bible to suit misogynist agendas, while valid, is still not good enough. The spirit of all religions lean towards inclusiveness, love and equality. But they were all contaminated by the male-focussed, authoritarian, chauvinistic worldviews of the Eurasian cultures they were developed in.
Now I know is ah jep nest nobody eh want to pelt; dais always the case. In the recently concluded IGDS conference in UWI’s St Augustine campus, I eh think it had one presentation going into detailed examination of religious texts and Christianity’s role in the dehumanising of women. I guess it’s still too hot to touch. To quote Father Tissa Balasuriya, who I’ll come back to from time to time: “In all the discourses on women’s rights, religion and women remain the most controversial”……But *he* did it. I mean he get some licks on he calves, de Vatican did initially excommunicate him too and so on but he did it and he wasn’t the first either. So we need to do it from a Caribbean perspective and soonest. There is too much uncritical acceptance, too much romanticism surrounding religion in Caribbean society. There are too many progressive public policies that are being hijacked, stalled and watered down because religious leaders, slick-talking, bible-waving conmen and their mouthpieces on the basis and authority of de-contextualised, badly translated and often forged ‘nansy stories deciding that their beliefs must orient how everyone lives. Not that the other denominations that much different; in Trinbago it’s almost a conspiracy of priests, pastors, pundits and imams (why imam couldn’t start with “p” too?) to fling out serious learning.
So, y’know, dais my take on it dey. I would like to see more conversations done on this by the real scholars and academics. The BBC took an important step about two or three weeks ago, sadly I don’t think they have as a podcast or video the debate on faith and feminism, but at least they are having these conversations on their end, wha we doing?