Beans and Rice: A Theological Reflection on “Empowerment for All”

wellsprings_theologicalreflect

Ellen Blue, Louisiana Annual Conference

In an issue of Wellsprings published a dozen years ago, I wrote about a group of my female colleagues in seminary.[1]  We met each week, initially as a study group but soon as a support group for processing what it meant to be second-career women preparing for ministry. One of us compared our time together with the necessary escape for steam when cooking beans. “If you don’t let that steam off, you wind up with beans on the ceiling,” she said, and we became the Bean Group.

Of the five women in our core group, two have died and two have retired, leaving just me in active ministry. For over a decade, my appointment has been teaching in a seminary, a place where I enjoy my interactions with a group of women on our faculty. During my own seminary journey, and now as a professor, I have found the support of other women to be an immense and perhaps on occasion even a lifesaving help.

I am currently finishing a book on the UMC in post-Katrina New Orleans. The theological underpinning for that research relies in part on the work of my former colleague, theologian Anne Joh. As several Korean-American theologians have done, she considers the concept of han, which might be spoken of as the lingering negative results of suffering. Joh recognizes han’s reality and power, but she also harnesses another concept for reflection—jeong.

In conversation, she describes jeong as the substance that makes grains of rice stick together. I must admit I did not realize how crucial it is that grains stick together till I tried eating rice with chopsticks. Now it is clear to me that it’s been a necessity for human survival. In writing, Joh expands:

Jeong saturates daily living and all forms of relationships. As a concept, jeong encompasses but is not limited to notions of compassion, affection, solidarity, relationship, vulnerability, and forgiveness. . . . Many Koreans have a common understanding of jeong as even more powerful, lasting, and transformative than love. . . . Jeong makes relationships “sticky,” but also recognizes the complex nature of all relationalism. [2]

Relationships are indeed complex, and the ways that women clergy do—and do not—stick together is part of the content of an elective class I teach called “Issues for Women in Christian Ministry.” There’s a question that comes up every time I offer it, varying only in the way it’s expressed: “Why aren’t women more supportive of other women?” Clearly, many of my female students who are pursuing their calls to ministry and/or serving as local pastors feel that they have experienced their most daunting opposition from other women.

In reality the system of patriarchy is an ancient and complex cultural system. This system distorts what it means to be human—to be made in the image of God—across genders. Both women and men deeply internalize and act out of these distortions. Women often internalize and act out messages of inferiority by self-censoring, and aligning with, and even enforcing the dominant masculine constructions. Men often internalize and act out messages that equate power with domination and violence and view women  as  inferior. Scripture and tradition in the church are not free from the systemic sin that is patriarchy.

Clergywomen’s lore has it that the first females who achieved positions of formal authority in the twentieth-century church were the “princesses,” selected as tokens by men who believed that those particular women wouldn’t agitate too ardently for serious change—would not, in other words, make waves. Many of these women were married to clergymen, and this allowed other clergymen to believe that real power would remain with the husbands who presumably could be expected to keep their wives in check. Was there any truth in this? Perhaps some, in some situations.

Yet it is undeniable that there has to be a significant number, a “critical mass” of people who are not members of the dominant group who have achieved some degree of authority before substantive change in that system will take place. Even with all the goodwill in the world toward her sisters, one lone woman in the upper reaches of a hierarchy can do little except survive.

Jealousy is often advanced as the explanation for the fact that women are not always as supportive of one another as we could be. Admittedly, the inevitable jockeying for position in the appointment process may be one reason, but it’s more complicated than that. Perhaps the bedrock reason is that we just don’t realize how much it matters.

Psalm 107:3 speaks of God’s having called those whom God has freed from oppression “from all over the place, from the four winds, from the seven seas.” Before I go further, I want to say that gender discrimination is only one facet of oppression within the church. Racism, classism, ageism—even nepotism (does your conference have families whose members never seem to get bad appointments?)—play a large role in church decisions, just as they do in the secular world. It’s important to name these problems and acknowledge how interrelated they are.

Although the Judicial Council set aside key parts of the legislation passed at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, that body had voted to weaken, if not eviscerate, the “guaranteed appointment.” Despite our commitment on paper to open itinerancy (a system where any person, of any race, ethnicity, gender or age, can be appointed to any pulpit), we have not yet achieved it or even come very close. Staff-parish relations committees still often object to a prospective pastor who is female, and white-membership congregations are still unlikely to receive a person of color as clergy. Put plainly, the people most likely to need the protection of guaranteed appointment are women, especially women of color. It disturbs me that General Conference failed to support this crucial underpinning of the move toward open itinerancy.

The suggestion that “we are past all that” inevitably arises in conversations about the existence of racial, ethnic, or gender caucuses within The United Methodist Church. Certainly, we have made progress. Hillary Clinton, a UMC laywoman, noted as she conceded the Democratic nomination for the presidency to Barack Obama that the 18 million votes she had received in the primaries represented 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. The “stained glass ceiling” has also been cracked, but it is very much still in place, and the sharp, broken edges may pose hazards of their own.

We have not yet reached the place where women in ministry do not need the ethical commitment of the larger church to make sure we can offer our gifts and talents in service of the UMC’s proclamation and embodiment of the gospel. If someone wishes to call that Affirmative Action, I say, fine. My own understanding of why Affirmative Action is right has to do with the fact that sin has consequences.

Luke (19:1–10) recounts the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who has not been honest in his dealings with people. After an encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus promises to give half his wealth to the poor. Further, to those he has cheated, he will give back four times the amount he stole. Implicit here is the recognition that the use of the resources (opportunities?) he took would have been paying off for his victims during the time he profited from them instead.

Centuries of oppression, discrimination, and lack of access to higher, secondary, or even elementary education can’t be erased by a simple declaration that “the playing field is now level.” Simply giving back the exact thing that was taken from women—access to education, to ownership of property, to numerous professions, and to ordination—will not atone for the fact that we have lost nearly two millennia—from the time of Constantine till the mid-twentieth century—of leadership training and experience in the church. It will take many, many decades—many more than have already elapsed since 1956—for women to have an equal chance for advancement in the system or even an equal chance to be welcomed to the pulpit of a small congregation.

We need to remind the men of the church that although women have been ordained, some named to the district superintendency, and a very few appointed as senior pastors of large-membership churches or elected to the episcopacy, we are still operating in a hierarchy designed and largely controlled by men. Commonly used language still marks us as the Other—a female in the position is still a “woman bishop,” a “woman DS,” or even a “woman pastor.”

And more than we need to remind the church’s men, we need to remember it ourselves. We need to process thoroughly, to know in every cell, that we still desperately need one another’s support. We need to believe at the deep-soul level that God’s call to women to be in ministry includes the call to help other women be in ministry, as well.

The theme for this issue of Wellsprings is not “help other women,” but rather “Empowerment for All.” There is a legitimate concern that if I talk about empowering others, I’m implying that power is mine to give or withhold. This is related to the idea of privilege, that some individuals start from a different place—indeed, a better or more advantageous place—and that those who talk about empowering other people may not recognize or admit it is their own place of privilege that allows them to use such language. They may think their way of doing things is intrinsically superior to the culture of the people they intend to “empower”—in other words, they may intend to “lift” individuals to a place that looks like their own.

To talk about empowerment without mentioning this critique would be problematic. Yet it seems even more problematic to deny that some people have more power than others. Furthermore, there are different kinds of power. As clergywomen, each of us holds a kind of power that other women do not. We need to recognize it, celebrate it, and use it for one another and for the common good, for the good of those for whom Jesus demonstrates concern.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza wrote about a story recorded in Luke 13. A woman who is disabled makes her way into the synagogue while Jesus is speaking. He calls her to him, thereby violating several religious rules. E. S. F. notes that along with healing her that Sabbath day, Jesus did three other things—he moved her from the margins of the room into the center, from being invisible to being unavoidably visible, and from being silent to having voice.

When we stand in the pulpit to preach or at the front of the gathering to lead worship, we also occupy the center, and we are neither invisible nor silent. Not everyone will be happy with that. Yet when women are not visible and speaking, when we cannot answer the call of God to be church leaders, then part of the body of Christ is being disrespected. The church is not doing all it could do if our voices were heard. Wisdom is being wasted.

There are many clergywomen who would prefer to see the church run in more egalitarian ways. Yet we have no place to stand to work at dismantling hierarchy without acquiring more and higher places in the hierarchy ourselves. To win and wield authority for the purpose of dismantling authority as we currently know it is a huge calling and a huge responsibility. Power is seductive. To win power, to have power, is a tricky place—indeed a dangerous place—for women.

All of us have to be brave enough to claim our power, wise enough to know when to relinquish it, and generous enough to share it with our sisters—all our sisters—sisters from all over the place, from the four winds, from the seven seas. May it be so.


[1] Ellen Blue, “Ritual Talking, Ritual Laughter,” Wellsprings 9, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 56–59.

[2] Wonhee Anne Joh, Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), xiii–xiv. A United Methodist “Women of Color Scholar” during her doctoral work at Drew, Joh now teaches at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary.

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