Theological Re-Examination of Women and Power

by Rose Wu
Hong Kong Women Christian Council (HKWCC)


The Private and Public Spheres of Life

A distinction between the private and public spheres of life emerged in post-industrial society. Women are often confined to the private sphere and rejected in the public sphere. The women’s movement, developed in Europe and the United States in the 1960s, raised a thought-provoking slogan: "Personal Is Political." Women came to realize that what seems to be personal is embedded in social policy, the allocation of social resources and the division of labor between the sexes. Women’s choice of the number of children they will bear, for instance, is determined by the population policy, contraceptive measures and the medical and health care service available to them. Whether or not women can keep their jobs after marriage, whether or not they have paid leave, maternity leave and child care services are related to the flexibility or inflexibility of their working hours. In other words, if women have no say in shaping the structure of society, there is no way by which they can solve the problems in their private sphere of life.

In traditional Christian theologies, there is also the fallacy of a simple dichotomy between the private and public spheres. Many people perceive the Gospel of Christ as the grace of personal salvation and sin as the result of the degradation of personal morality. Therefore, the major task of the Church is to evangelize the individual and to bring more individuals to Christ. Women scholars, however, have been critical of this view of personal salvation which can easily separate the individual from Nature and society. If we ignore the injury and oppression caused by the evils of the social establishment, we might easily be exploited by the governing authorities as machines who then exploit others too. A true religion cannot be established outside of society. The Gospel of Christianity is not beyond the reach of society. Christianity is God’s Word that becomes flesh, who lives among us and is filled with grace and truth.

Submission and Sacrifice

Traditionally Chinese culture teaches women to be good wives and good mothers - humble, hard working and ready for self-sacrifice. Confucianism upholds the idea of obedient and virtuous women - submissive for the sake of harmony.

These ideas may not be suitable for modern Chinese society, but they have, to a certain extent, molded the collective subconscious of many people. Why does our culture encourage women to sacrifice themselves?

Dr. L. K. Sun argued in one of his recent articles entitled "Humanism or Motherism?" that there is a philosophy of slavery in Chinese culture. On the one hand, it honors the victim. On the other hand, it allows the victim to victimize other victims. Thus, Chinese culture honors the greatness and self-sacrifice of motherly love, but it also turns a blind eye to the ways in which mothers-in-law get psychological compensation by venting their anger and frustration on daughters-in-law.

In the Church, submission and sacrifice are often exalted as Christian virtues which are often used as yardsticks for women. How on earth should we interpret the self-sacrifice of Christ and his crucifixion on the cross? We mustpoint out that the Bible symbolizes Jesus in many ways. Jesus is not only the lamb of sacrifice but also the noble king, the high priest and the advocate of humanity. He chose the way of suffering and sacrifice because he challenged the powerful establishment and tradition of his time that had become ossified.

The liberation theologians of our times have identified Jesus as the liberator who sets people free from institutionalized evils. There is no love without justice. Love without justice is not true love but spoiling and indulgent. We should not take a word out of its context and then misinterpret "sacrifice" as the only virtue of Christ and definitely not as an excuse to ill-treat women.

The Old and New Social and Spiritual Order

What exactly is the ultimate goal of the women’s movement in the context of a society that is ruled by class division and male domination (including the Church)? To the person in the street, the answer might be: Women seek to walk in a male-centered world and to fight for equal opportunity for economic and political representation.

To feminists, the problem of that approach is that when women fight to enter the world of men they identify themselves with its mode of operation - "competition and elimination." That is not very helpful to changing the current structures. The contribution of women, as feminists believe, does not lie in a power struggle with men but in the creation of an ethically oriented value system and order or, in other words, a new mode of operation based upon "caring and cooperation."

Three Types of Power

To gain a clearer understanding, a scholar of religion, Starhawk, classifies power into three categories: "power over" others, meaning manipulation and interference - a top-down relationship; "power with" others, meaning sharing power with others and caring for each other - a partnership type of relationship; and power within," that is to say, power that dwells internally in each individual - an internal source of empowerment.

Women have got to assert their own value and power and to deny the myth that they are the weaker sex or victims. Women must act to actualize their actuality, that is to say, to positively nurture and bring out their innate power, "the power within." Hone Kong women are now facing the opportunity of a redistribution of power in 1997 when the sovereignty of Hong Kong will be transferred from Britain to China. It is time that women, who have been and are being placed at the periphery of society, affirm their identity as masters of our society and adopt a critical feminist perspective of male-centered values (including those of the Church) and that we strive to create a society that enshrines caring and sharing as its core.

A study of history reveals to us how the world and the Church - controlled and ruled by men, constructed on power and a consciousness of one’s class - are edging toward the brink of self-destruction. We must work together for the sake of our younger generation for a better world centered on humanity and dignity, to build a new partnership based on sharing and cooperation.

The liberation of women does not necessitate the oppression of men. Instead, it will set men free from the closed mindset of absolute power so that men and women may join together and start anew to garden the world given to us by God.

(Ed. note: This reflection is one section of a paper entitled "1997 and the Women of Hong Kong" that was written in April 1992.)