Articulating a Different Future
An interview with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
By Caroline Matas
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has taught at Harvard Divinity School as the Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity since 1988. She is a co-founder of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Her newest book, Congress of Wo/men: Religion, Gender, and Kyriarchal Power, is the first in a series by Feminist Studies in Religion, Inc.1 Caroline Matas, a former student, recently sat down with Schüssler Fiorenza to discuss the book’s vision and implications for feminist activism.
Your new book, Congress of Wo/men, envisions a transnational feminist movement that responds to the problem of neoliberal capitalism. How did that idea get its start?
I’ve been arguing in my theological work for a feminist political biblical interpretation and theology of liberation. This book is one more mosaic stone in my theological landscape and endeavors. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist works weren’t published—now publishers are interested in gender studies. However, they then sell books at such high prices that students and general readers can’t afford to purchase them. Hence, FSR.inc, the organization I am chairing, decided to start a series of affordable books on feminist studies in religion. I volunteered to submit a manuscript to open the series and to work out the publishing process. To that end, I decided to work through and revise a series of lectures which had been published in Spanish in Costa Rica. That’s how this book got started. As I had done when working on my book Democratizing Biblical Studies, I decided to teach a seminar, Feminist Theory and The*logy, and to use the manuscript in the seminar as a teaching tool and in order to get critical feedback. A great, diverse group of students enrolled, whose work and reflections are collected in the last chapter of the book.
This resulted in a “metalogue,” which gave room to those students’ written reflections on the topic at hand.
Such an intellectual working out of theory with students is very satisfactory, because students who take my classes are usually concerned with articulating different religious visions—which is what we tried to do in the seminar and to gather in this book. The roundtable metalogue thus seeks to serve as prologue to the discussion with the reader.
Something that’s distinctive about this work is your commitment to a unifying, transnational vision of the “congress of wo/men,” which seems to come into tension with the increasing focus on identity politics in feminist discourses. I wonder if you can speak more to how—or whether—identity politics contribute to or work alongside your transnational vision.
There is much discussion about identity politics in feminist theology, be it sexual, racial, or cultural identity, but very little problematization of “American-U.S.” identity common to the various identities. As you know, I come from a German experience and background. I have grown up after the war and Nazism; I was a refugee during the war and grew up with the vision of Europe (at the time there was no feminist analysis of the sexist “myth of Europa”) as the antidote to nationalism and Nazism. I remember a youth congress where all the participants sang their national anthems, but the German participants refused to stand up and sing our national anthem when it was played. This experiential, political background informs my vision of the congress of wo/men.
The image of the congress of wo/men is a cosmopolitan image, and not a national image stressing borders and borderlands. It must be seen in relation to my key image of the ekklēsia of wo/men. Ekklēsia originally does not mean church but denotes the democratic decision-making assembly of full citizens responsible for the kosmopolis of wo/men that encompasses the whole of creation. The imaginary of the ekklēsia/kosmopolis of wo/men signifies not only all-encompassing inclusivity, but also dynamic multiplicity and the convergence of many different voices. In Christian terms, it is foreshadowed in the image of Pentecost, where people from different regions and cultures could understand the Spirit in their own languages, an image that invites Christian wo/men together with wo/men from other religions and persuasions to struggle for the realization of the kosmopolis of wo/men, as God’s alternative world of justice and well-being. Thus, the kosmopolis of wo/men is the counterimage to the exploitation of neoliberal globalization.
Your book heavily critiques neoliberal globalization. What made you focus on that particular concept?
The manuscript was finished and submitted before Trump was elected president and before “Trumpism,” with its encryption of neoliberal politics and exploitation, took dangerous hold of the national body politic. In this U.S. context, I was concerned that feminists were seeking to distinguish and divide themselves in terms of identity politics, while neoliberalism became increasingly a unifying negative force of exploitation. Hence, I am arguing in the book that, because of neoliberalism, the biggest dividing line is now between the 5 to 10 percent of the world population who have enough to live and all the other people, who are relegated to becoming cogs or “disposables” in the global neoliberal economic system of exploitation.
For instance, we talk about “third” and “first” world wo/men, but if you go to the Philippines or you go to India, you see the same thing that you see here—the enclaves of the rich, on the one hand, and more and more people without housing living on the streets, on the other hand. In Europe in the 1970s, that was not the case, but it is more and more the case today in Europe and in the United States, where the social net is being cut down. Widespread poverty, in contrast with the wealth of the 1 percent, exists all over the world now. It’s just that the United States and Europe do not yet have such blatant poverty, as is the case in so-called second or third world countries.
And you see neoliberalism exacerbating this process?
What’s so clear now, and what analysts of neoliberalism have argued for years, is that politicians are becoming more and more “salesmen.” With the presidency of Trump and the Republican takeover of the government, it becomes increasingly obvious that the United States is going to cut down the social net more and more and resort to undemocratic means to do so. It’s obvious that all civil rights are in jeopardy, since neoliberalism goes hand in hand with the abolishing of civil rights. Hence, my book argues that we need a different feminist religious vision that can inspire resistance to neoliberal exploitation.
You coined the term “kyriarchy” in your earlier work. How does that speak to the forces of neoliberal capitalism that you see at work in the world today?
In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists used the term “patriarchy,” but it became increasingly clear that this term was not adequate, because it didn’t express issues of race, class, nationality, and so on. And so I was looking for a new, more adequate term. In German you have the term Herrschaft (the domination of the Lord), and in my religious background “Kyrie eleison” is a well-known phrase. Kyrios in Greek means lord, father, elite male, head of household, and head of state or empire. And archein means ruling. So the term kyriarchy means rule of the kyrios, the emperor, lord, elite, educated, propertied head of household. I suggest the word kyriarchy is more appropriate than patriarchy, because it does not simply mean male domination but elite, propertied domination.
In your book, you mention Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. I’m curious how you see that book’s themes asserting themselves in this cultural moment, and how you see your book interacting with those concerns.
What is striking to me is the religious mind control of wo/men and the implication of wo/men in it. Neoliberal Trumpism is focused on the control of wo/men. It may be acted out differently in reality than in The Handmaid’s Tale—I mean, women aren’t necessarily being closed into certain spaces and controlled in that way—but what’s going on is really the universalization of the control of women through sexual control and poverty. And, I tried to show how religion is used to keep wo/men under control.
What role do you think theology can play in on-the-ground feminist movements fighting those forces?
I see the major task of theology and religion as creating and sustaining a different vision of hope in the face of the dehumanization and exploitation of neoliberalism. Creating a vision of a different world of justice, care, and well-being is the task of religion. What I’m trying to do here is to name how religious traditions can help make sure that people understand themselves as—and this is the language of my tradition—daughters and sons of God, representing the divine and, as such, called to care for their neighbors and all of creation.
Do you see your work as being rooted in the Christian faith or the Catholic tradition? Do you anticipate there being any barriers to women of other or no faiths in seeing this text as inclusive of them?
I am clearly rooted in the Catholic tradition—not the Roman Catholic tradition, but the Catholic tradition. For me, religion is not just an area of study, but also a language of vision, love, and justice. For me, religion and scripture are always relating to and within a community context. Hence, religion is not restricted to biblical religions. I think the vision of the book is open to all feminists in religion. When Judith Plaskow and I founded the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion more than twenty years ago, the editorial board had a big debate: Should we call the journal feminist studies of religion or feminist studies in religion? We did not want to objectify religion but saw religion as a place of struggle and inspiration for wo/men. Since my training is in practical theology and biblical studies, the book speaks probably more to wo/men in Christian traditions, or to a Christian cultural context. That does not mean that a Buddhist or Jewish or Muslim woman can’t connect with my vision. Rather, it means that they would have to translate it into their cultural-religious idiom.
In one chapter of your book, you target “essentializing femininities” promoted by some of the Religious Right and the Roman Catholic Church. Do you think conservative Christians will be receptive to the critique?
I don’t know. I think Catholic readers will be. I don’t know how to convince evangelicals. To give you an example: Maybe five or six years ago, I was giving a talk at a small evangelical college. In the workshop following the talk, there was a young woman who was convinced that the gospel of femininity was what made her mother a great example for her own life. She saw the household codes as very positive texts. I tried my best to convince her otherwise, but it was clear that she could not hear my arguments, because, for her, my attack of the biblical texts of submission was an attack on the life choices of her mother.
In terms of my own community, the Catholic wo/men’s community, I have tried for years to say we need to strategize differently. The Vatican, and especially John Paul II, have developed a romantic kind of theological universe arguing theologically for the idealization of woman as legitimization for the second-class citizenship of wo/men. The result, I think, is that more and more young wo/men are no longer identifying with Catholicism anymore, or are not interested in engaging the Christian tradition any longer. I think we need to have a feminist conversation about the religious ideological underpinnings of “femininity.” And I would love to have an interreligious conversation on this topic to explore the structures of femininity in different religious traditions. It seems to me that most conservative strains within religions are maintaining the control of wo/men as essential to their identities.
I know that you—and certainly others—have described your work as hopeful. Do you think of yourself as a hopeful person?
No, and according to my partner, Francis, and anyone else who knows me, I’m the “pessimist” in the family.
But your work is pretty hopeful for a different future. Do you think that’s possible at this point?
It’s just that this is the only thing I can do—articulate hope for a different future in order to bring it about. I don’t know how else to resist the dehumanizations of Trumpism. As a theologian, I need to critique the oppressive systems in politics and religion, and I need to try to articulate an alternative vision.
How about the feminist movement broadly? Do you have hope for the direction it’s been going in recent years?
It is interesting to note that in recent years feminism has become publicly present again. There were some years when you couldn’t mention the word “feminist” at Harvard, but now it’s in all the newspapers again—especially with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But the campaign also showed that feminists still have a lot of work to do.
You end your book with a “metalogue” of young feminist voices. I know your colleagues have praised that as a model of radical feminist praxis—using your platform to invite more voices and ideas to the table. But outside the context of a seminar at a university, what kind of forms do you imagine this metalogue taking? Book clubs? Online groups?
All of them would be great. As long as you don’t ask me to engage with Twitter, because I’m still not on Twitter.
Twitter is an instrument of Trumpism that is undermining any ability to perform critical analysis. And it’s preparing people for slogans. So I don’t think it’s innocent—but a neoliberal tool.
- Schüssler Fiorenza uses the spelling wo/men to call attention to the problem of essentializing language. In her usage, the term wo/men refers both to women and to men who experience oppression in any form. To indicate “the brokenness and inadequacy of human language to name the divine,” she has adopted the spelling of G*d, in analogy to the orthodox Jewish spelling of G-d. Since theology means speaking about G*d, she also writes it with an asterisk, the*logy, to call attention to masculine G*d language. The Bulletin employs the spellings “God” and “theology” but asks readers to keep in mind the constraints of androcentric language that Schüssler Fiorenza addresses in her work.
Caroline Matas received her master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School in spring 2017. She will begin doctoral work at Princeton University in fall 2017.