CULTURAL HERMENEUTICS

Lalrinawmi Ralte

Introduction

I belong to the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram. The Mizo people once believed in an indigenous religion, but in 1894 Christianity was brought to Mizoram by the Welsh Presbyterian Church. Today, ninety three per cent of the population is Christian.

I will begin my reflection paper with my own experience in the church. After my graduation from theological school in 1985, I worked in the Synod Office of the Mizoram Presbyterian Church. Here I was made aware of the extent to which I was oppressed and treated as inferior in my work place because I was a woman. Not only will the Synod not ordain me or other women, but we are also refused promotion to leadership positions.

It was in developing a new consciousness of myself as a woman that I began questioning these injustices especially as the Mizo church continued to exclude me and other women from religious leadership, both lay and ordained.

My gender gave me a marginalized and secondary status in the church. I was put in a position where I was not allowed to express my feelings about the injustices done to me by the church. I did not dare raise any questions about the church, because it was not the church’s custom to have authority challenged. In the name of God and at the expense of justice, the patriarchal church continues to make people obedient and to silence them, especially women and the poor.

I began to search for the place a woman might occupy in the church. Mizo women are almost all Christians and regular church goers, and yet the church does not allow women positions of authority and recognition. If a woman attempts to cross over this line, she will be chastised and may even be excommunicated from the church. Within this system there is very little space for a woman to be truly Christian and truly herself as a woman and a whole person.

My qestions were: Where were the sources of the problems? Why was the ministry of women problematic? Why were women evangelists and missionaries increasing day by day in spite of restrictions imposed on them? On the other hand, why were many women leaving the church and forming their own religious groups? The answer to my questions seemed to be that the church was a community where neither spiritual satisfaction nor healing was possible for many women. The church reacts to the situation by saying that women who leave the church are “going the wrong way.” This I believe is an inadequate response because the church avoids the real problems by blaming the victim (women) rather than searching within itself.

It is important to articulate a liberation theology that could lead to a religious transformation for women and men. In order to do this, I would like to go back to the early Mizo society and to do a careful analysis of the status of women in the indigenous religion in order to find out whether there elements which empower women and help them in their struggle for justice.

As I have studied Mizo history and folktales, I have seen that there is a tradition of women being very important in the Mizo society and in religious life. This happened even within the strongly patriarchal Mizo structure. Women were once considered the upholders of the culture and of religious life. Why this did not continue once Christianity was brought to Mizoram is an important question to ask.

There has been an attempt to neglect and forget the role of women in traditional culture and religious life. What Christianity seems to have maintained are the Mizo patriarchal oppressive structures that were used as a tool for dominating women.

In the beginning of Christianity in Mizoram, the missionaries licensed some men to preach in the churches. So, the elderly men whom they trusted most became elders and those elders preached in the church. The elders interpreted the Bible according to their biblical knowledge which was very limited. There were many inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the Bible.

The Bible is like a Taitiang1 stick for Mizos. One end of the stick is pointed and the other end is curled. A pointed stick is used to hit people and even kill them. The other end is used to save people from falling, i.e. to save their lives. In Mizoram the Bible is used like a pointed stick to attack women. Some women die and some women are wounded. The wounded woman needs healing. On the other hand women have found liberating passages in the Bible.

This feminist re-reading of the Bible will be discussed from the cultural perspectives. Culture and tradition played an important part for the Mizo people. Whenever the discussion on women’s ordination in the church, or the partnership of men and women in the church, the common problem is often someone said, ‘we are not culturally ready to accept women as partner and equal in the church.’ Therefore, feminist bible study will be dealt from the cultural perspectives.

The woman accused of adultery (John 7:53-8:11)

I would like to look at the above texts to show how the Bible has been used to degrade women. This text is about a woman accused of adultery.

For Mizo Christians, the law of the church interpreted sex as bad, woman’s body as dirty, and menstruation as shameful because when a woman is menstruating, she has to hide. She is afraid that others will know of her menstruation. With this idea, the church developed two different ceremonies for marriage. The first ceremony is for virgins, and the second ceremony is for people who have had sex before marriage. To get married in the second ceremony is shameful, but the first is honorable. Adultery was considered to be sexual intercourse outside marriage. According to Mizo law, adultery was the greatest sin for women. A wife was prohibited from having sex outside marriage because she herself was the property of her husband. A wife was bought in marriage; her husband had control over her. A husband had every right to do whatever he liked with his property. When a wife commits adultery, she breaks the patriarchal law by taking power for herself. Being the property of her husband, she has no right to do this. Therefore, the sin of adultery was unforgivable and the punishment was unavoidable. This is structural problem that traps women. It is a matter of the power men exercise in having control over women. This text has been used to reinforce the prohibition against women’s adultery. In this text the woman accused of adultery is brought to Jesus.

Traditional Interpretation of the Text

At Samsuih village in Mizoram,2 when they heard about the Gospel of John’s passage in early Mizo Christianity, they were surprised and said, “Oh, adultery must be the greatest sin in the world because even in Jesus’ time the adulteress woman was to be stoned to death.” So they took precautions against women committing adultery. Women had to sit facing the walls in the church so that they would not see the preachers and men in the congregation in order to avoid adultery.3 None of the women, whether married or unmarried, escaped this precaution which was imposed upon them.

The sensitivity of the relationship between men and women were very strong even in other churches as well. At Phulpui church, men and women were not allowed to dance together at the revival service. The elders stood between men and women while singing and dancing as a partition wall to divide them.4 Also in Lungkawlh village, bamboos were used to divide men and women in the worship singing.5

Some Mizo men believed that the culture of Jesus and their Mizo culture were the same, both hating adultery and both punishing it with the death penalty. The Mizos gave more importance to the cultural law of Jesus’ time than to the Gospel message. Through this passage from John’s Gospel, Mizos believed that their patriarchal law was natural and was ordained by God.

Most Mizo men tend to believe that they can interpret the Bible to their own advantage. They failed to look at the central message, which was that Jesus did not condemn the woman but rather condemned the men who were stoning her.

Since its establishment of the church the church continues to be very patriarchal because women were excluded right from the beginning of Christianity. Not only the church people were sensitive, according to Upa Chalhnuna, the decision for excommunication and welcome to full membership were decided by a full male member of the church. Women had no voice.6

Power Over Women

As we have mentioned earlier, women’s sexuality in Mizo religious life was controlled in relation to ‘paradise.’ In Christianity women’s sexuality is controlled in the socio-cultural context. Sexuality was powerful and was dangerous. Women posses the powerful force of sexuality.

We may ask the question, “Why do men see woman’s sexuality as powerful and dangerous?” Sexuality was related to blood and fertility. Blood is powerful because it is life. Since blood is related to fertility, that is related to reproduction. Men who believed they were the owners of the generations wanted to control the family line. To purify their family line, men controlled woman’s sexuality.

We really need to see how the manipulation of the theological interpretation of the Bible oppresses women. The distortion of Bible interpretation makes Mizo women fearful of the Bible.

It is clear that the cultural degradation of women is a tool of women’s oppression in the Mizo society. Some of us may stop saying that the “adulterous woman is bitten by tiger.” It is important to remember the importance of seeing how our language hurts others. It is really important to stop using the myth of the tiger to justify our prejudice against women. Even though it is a hurtful story for women, it is important to remember because simply to forget does not make a woman’s life better. It is a dangerous memory, but let us remember for the hope of a better life for women in the future.

So this biblical interpretation of John 8 became the tool for the dehumanizing of women because the oppressive interpretation is used to attack women like the pointed Taitiang stick. It is a story of death but not life from death. It is a disempowering story.

Mizo women were vulnerable. Women were threatened with death by the laws imposed upon them. Women were abused because they were guilty of sexual activity. Women were rejected because they were dirty because of her sexual behavior.

I would like to use the symbol of a ‘stone’ to show the attacks on women both in the Biblical and in Mizo traditional interpretation. Here stone image is not used in a general sense of women’s attacking tools, but stone is an image I am developing for the reflection of this adultery passage of the Bible. Since sexuality is so powerful, men have used their own interpretation of this Biblical text as a tool to control women. For this the symbol of stoning was important.

Symbol of Stones for Mizo Women

For Mizo women, stones are symbolic of any issue that attacks women. Any negative attitude towards women that degrades women’s life situation is stones. For example, if we continue to believe that the derogatory sayings about women in the past are true, it is like throwing stones at women. Behaviors that make women inferior and powerless are symbols of stones. Any idea that encourages women to identify with or integrate with the patriarchal church is a stone of death. Any law that does not protect women, such as the one by which a woman cannot inherit her husband’s property, is a stone thrown at her. Any prohibition that restricts women’s full participation in the church is a stone. Any action that imprisons women either physically or mentally is stones of death. The patriarchal structure that pushes women into poverty is a stone. Any virtue that keep women silent such as ‘silence is virtue for Mizo women as a stone. Any preconception that inhibits women’s liberation is a stone. Any life situation that disempowers divorced women is a stone.

These symbols of oppression push women into a denial of their existence as persons. We ignore our lives and see our experience as unimportant. We are separated from each other by rejecting each other. We deminish others and ourselves. We close our eyes to see the empowering life from others. We do not challenge the policy that oppresses the less privileged and less advantaged people.

Feminist Re-Interpretation of the Bible

The interpretation of the Bible missed the point of the message at Samsuih village because it was interpreted with man’s interest at heart. The fulfillment of the Gospel has not reached Mizo women yet. Instead women believe that they received what they deserved, because the church told them to feel that way. We need to reinterpret the text so that we can appreciate the wonderful contributions of women in the church because they were more active than men in receiving the Gospel were. We need a feminist liberation theology that transforms the oppressive family structure where the father is the head and the wife and children are the property, which was reinforced by the church. We need feminist social structures to reject the social structure that excludes women from leadership in the society, which was reinforced in Christianity.

We need radical feminist critique to change the hermeneutical privilege of men into the hermeneutical privilege of the poor and women. We need an empowerment of the Holy Spirit to reject what is the oppressive for women and oppressed people, and to proclaim the inclusiveness of the Gospel. When I heard about this text and its interpretations, it made me wonder and ask the question, “What has our Christian theology to do with the lives of women?”

Men blamed women for the cause of adultery. Sexual intercourse was basically between men and women. Men created the problem but they refused to do justice to women. It was a life without love; justice was destroyed. It was a life of men hating women where there was no caring. Men rejected women as equals and controlled their lives. It was a miserable life in which we could not see the good heart in each life. Men continue to blame women as the only source of this problem and started a smoke in our life, and from the smoke we cough, and from the cough we die. This was a death-dealing issue, so we cannot minimize men’s control over women.

In this story it was the behavior of the men, who wanted to stone the women, which was condemned. The mentality of the men was that she deserved the penalty.
I want to reinterpret the above passage so that it is liberating for women. Today we may not physically stone women to death for sexual intercourse. But still we continue to stone women to death symbolically. We the Christians have a tendency not to accept that we are all created in the image of God and we reject women due to patriarchalism.

In this text the woman was rejected because she lived an uncontrolled life. She felt confused by feelings of desire and betrayal. According to her accusers she breaks God’s law but in the process becomes visible to Jesus. This woman’s bad situation turns out to be the window opening for her liberation, and her life is uplifted. Her bad experience gives her a possibility of new life; “go and sin no more” is equal to “don’t get stuck in that.” Women who come forward are more dangerous than those who are silent are.

Jesus was not seen as using his power over, but it was power out of him. Here power is something Jesus put into practice. Jesus gives responsibility to others. Jesus is the one who offers God’s forgiveness. Jesus is the source of life giving grace. Jesus’ role is a model for justice making.

The challenge to re-do this text for me is a life saving responsibility since our male pastors interpret the Gospel in a way that suppress Mizo women. The great challenge of this text is to focus on the empowerment for women. The dialogue between the woman and Jesus and its consequences are the greatest story for women. This is the deepest theology and the most life-giving story for Mizo women. We see the theology of the “Compassion of Jesus.” Jesus did not leave her alone; instead he continued to have a dialogue with her. Jesus gave her a way to free her from all the oppressive ropes, and to release her from the tie. We see a gospel story of forgiveness from cultural sin. Sinning and punishment was not the final destiny for the woman, instead forgiveness follows. Forgiveness is more important than sinning. The woman was forgiven. This is a “theology of transformation and liberation.” The situation was changed from death to a transformed life. This transformed life is liberation.

This is a theology of ‘discipleship.’ This discipleship is a personal life by self-examination. This is a call of oneself to learn not to be judgmental, but having new eyes for seeing others. The judgment is not in our hands. We have a “theology of the shifting of perspectives” through the teachings of Jesus. We see the politics here and we see how the woman was used as a political weapon. We see a woman who is trapped by culture delivered by Jesus, so this is a story of deliverance. We see “a theology of sexuality” in which one society’s perception is condemned by Jesus. These are the healing stories for women. This is an inclusive theology for women. This is a gospel of acceptance, irrespective of sex. One who came to seek help was helped. One who seeks justice got justice. One who was lost was found. One who was outside the community was taken inside the community. One who is rejected is welcomed. One who has never had a life got a joyful life.

Through interaction and integrity, culture challenges the Bible and the Bible challenges culture. So, this traditional oppressive interpretation of the text can be changed to be liberating and healing for Mizo women, and many other women who are also trapped by the cultural degradation of women.

Bible is still seen as androcentric text because we have a male God. This male God had little to do with women. The interpretation was very oppressive for Mizo women because they do not uplift women’s status. Instead male theologians used the Bible to justify their own prejudiced attitude towards women. So, the Bible cannot be called a neutral book. It is used as a political weapon against women’s struggle for liberation. Mizo male theologians have used their patriarchal God to establish the inferior role and nature of women based on the Bible. Their use of the Bible justifies the position of men and women in the society. We need a liberating Bible that gives women a central role. We need a Bible that moves women from sideways to center.

Source: http://www.womenutc.com/lalrinawmiralte1.htm

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About Zou Sangnaupang Pawlpi Delhi

Zou Students' Association Delhi Branch
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