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Deliver us from evil. (interview).

Evil is probably the last thing people think of when they first meet Ivone Gebara. The Brazilian Sister of Notre Dame exudes grace and intelligence and compassion, and her smile brightens up a room. But evil is precisely what Gebara has been thinking and writing about lately. Her book Out of the Depths: Women's Experience of Evil and Salvation (Fortress Press) was translated from French and published in the U.S. last year.

Gebara lives in the town of Recife in an impoverished region of northeastern Brazil and is one of Latin America's leading theologians. For 16 years, she taught theology, philosophy, and anthropology to seminarians and lay ministers at the now-defunct Theology Institute of Recife. A member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, Gebara also wrote about women's issues, ecology, and theology in her book Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Fortress Press, 1999).

You're a classically-trained theologian. How did you start doing the kind of work you do with poor women?

Let me tell you about a key event for me. I was leading a Bible study for a group of about a dozen workers in Recife, where I live. I was the only woman in the group.

The wife of the worker at whose home the meetings took place never joined the discussions. I kept asking her to join us, but she wouldn't. I felt really uncomfortable about that, so I decided to visit her one day. I asked her, "Why don't you want to study the gospel with us?"

She said, "You really want to know?"

I said, "Of course!"

And she said, "Because I do not understand what you are saying. You have a male language."

I said, "Me?" I was so. upset! "No, I don't have a male language."

She said I did. I asked her for an example. So she said, "When you read the gospel, you always take examples from the life of industrial workers in the union. You analyze political issues. You talk about how the workers need to get together and discuss issues."

I said, "Yes, that's true."

"But you never talk about how we women are suffering. You never talk about Friday."

"Friday?" I asked. "Why Friday?"

She said, "Because Friday is the last day of the week, and it's the worst day for women because we have no money to buy our children food. And you never talk about our sexuality. You do not know about men and women's sexuality--what we can suffer. You never talk about children's education or the absence of men in our home. You never talk about the way we women want or need to be loved."

She was right, I didn't talk about these issues. So for me this was an eye-opening conversation. I began to become more aware of the questions in women's lives. Sure, unions and politics are also women's concerns, but they're not the only thing. I became more aware of the special suffering of women, and of how my own language wasn't inclusive.

Now in history, in music, in everything, I am aware of the need not to ignore the experiences of women. I am aware of language in church. And if I tell a story, I always tell a story about women and men, in order to integrate specific problems in my language.

Your latest book is on evil and women's experiences of it. How have you experienced or observed evil where you live?

Commonly, evil is seen as something you choose to do. You choose an evil action, and then you can go to Confession to say, "I am a sinner because I did this or that." Evil you do is always your own responsibility. But because I am living in a poor neighborhood and am dealing with women's problems and suffering there, I reflect on evil in a different way.

First of all, women live in a structure of violence. It's a structure I call evil because it produces evil--the evil of not having food to eat, not having schools for their children, not having housing. In the midst of this evil, the women are trying to live their lives, trying to do good for themselves and their families. The women are struggling to survive, and in doing so they are living a mixture of good and evil.

Another evil I see is the way in which women, especially poor women, are perceived as having less value. In our culture, men are more valued. Of course, a rich man has more value than a poor man, but a man is still a man. A woman, on the other hand, is valued only when she lives "for" others. The domestic jobs women often perform are not valued in our society, and this is transferred to their own lives having less value.

Finally I try to understand the impact of racism. In Brazil most people living in poverty are African Brazilian. In the past we never considered skin color as a source of suffering or evil. But the notion of evil needs to include all the suffering that people experience because of the reality of social, political, economic, and cultural structures.

In my book I call these things--not having access to basic necessities, not having access to power, not having access to education, not being valued, and the subjection to racism--I call them the five anthropological fields where poor women in the Third World live a special experience of evil as suffering.

In addition to your writing, what else do you do?

I have no special job, but people in the neighborhood know me and keep me busy. People of the parish call me to help them reflect on topics like Easter or Christmas or drugs. Or a women's group might ask me to talk about an issue like guilt. There's also a small kindergarten where I help out. And sometimes when people need to go to the hospital and they don't have money for a cab, they ask me to drive.

So my job is in some ways just to be a good neighbor. I try to love them and I feel that they love me.

You've written that some women in your neighborhood view feminism and church politics as "white people's issues." What's your answer to them?

First, poor people never say to you, "Oh, you are white. You don't know our reality." In Latin America we have a heritage of slavery, and this mentality still exists. I live in a poor neighborhood, but everybody knows that I am different. I try to live very simply. I have a simple house; I dress simply. But everybody knows that I'm a teacher--a profesora.

Some of the women in my neighborhood are indigenous; many others are from African backgrounds. Some are white, and most are mestizas, mixed. I ask people, "Tell me your roots, tell me what you know about your family." To this day, many are ashamed to be from an indigenous background. Traditionally in Brazil, indigenous and black people were considered "savages." And there are still people who say, "He is black, but he is good," or "She is black, but she has a white heart." So beauty and goodness are associated with whiteness. I try to help people to value their heritage and culture.

How do you think faith and God relate to your understanding of evil in the lives of poor women?

First, sin and salvation are mixed up in the lives of poor women. I'm not talking abstract theology here. For poor women, an experience of salvation is very connected to what they are waiting for in their lives.

For instance, in my book I write about a woman who goes around the city and collects paper. From my perspective, a dirty street is a bad thing. But from her perspective, it's a very good thing because she can collect the paper and sell it. Salvation for her is to sell paper and have money to buy food for her family. Salvation is not abstract, it's very concrete. Salvation may mean having a piece of land to work, to plant, and to harvest.

If God wants us to live our life here and now, then this is where our salvation and our condemnation happen. This may sound different, but it doesn't change the perspective of the gospel because the gospel is always very concrete.

I'm going back to the traditional values in the New Testament. In the gospels, what is called salvation or liberation is connected to daily life: Share your bread; be healed if you have a disease; be able to see; be happy. It's very simple.

But these very simple things are less and less accessible to poor people because the big structures of our society are preventing people from having a life of peace, a life of joy. And from the perspective of the poor, the current globalization kind of robs them of their right to be happy and to have a simple but respectable life, a life with dignity.

I try to connect the small evils with the big evils of today. We all have responsibility, but different responsibility. You and I may not be as responsible as President Bush or other political leaders in the world, or as presidents of multinational companies. But we are each connected to this web of life, and by playing our part in evil systems, we can rob the lives of others.

Many Americans believe the global economy will eventually improve the situation for everybody. Is that a delusion?

The economic theory of globalization proposes as its goal to give a good life to everybody. But the reality is different. Whenever I come to the U.S. I see how many immigrants are coming to cities like Chicago or New York. They're coming because they need to find jobs, because there aren't any in their own countries. It's not because they don't like their own countries, it's because they're suffering there. And if we ask why they're suffering, the first answer is because of miserable economic conditions.

The big question today is whether we can have another, fairer model of globalization, one where profits are shared. Now the big multinationals set the prices, for instance, of coffee or sugar or labor. When the workers of an American multinational company in Mexico ask for wage increases, the company can say "no." The multinationals have the upper hand, and they can pull up their stakes and move somewhere else.

The current setup of the world economy is leading to a destruction of people--and destruction of the Earth.

At least in the First World, people have the impression that liberation theology is kind of passe, something from the '70s and '80s. What's the state of that movement today?

It's very different from the '70s and '80s. Back then several countries lived under dictatorships. Liberation theology in Latin America had a socialist vision, and they were hoping that Latin America would become a more just and autonomous continent.

After the Berlin Wall fell, after the Sandinistas in Nicaragua fell, after the fall of different social movements in Latin America, many things changed. Now we don't hope for the same model of socialism as we did in the '70s, but instead for another kind of socialism built among all countries, another model of economic, social, and political organization. In some sense the theological discourse of the '70s and '80s is over.

I'm not talking from the perspective of the '80s. I am talking from the perspective of 2002. We're aware that the current model of globalization is destructive and that poor people from all continents are the first casualties of globalization. Worldwide more children are dying now than 10 years ago.

Today we don't have a concrete social plan saying, "Now we are here, and we want to be there." Today our utopia is tied to our values--the values of creating conditions that allow each person to live with dignity.

And to live with dignity and to live with integrity also means to listen to what your body really needs. Your body needs less than what capitalist society proposes. You don't need five cars, two houses, 200 T-shirts, or so many kinds of food.

So would you still call the theological discourse that you and others are engaged in today "liberation theology"?

Liberation theology has always been a contextual theology. The context we live in has changed over the past 30 years. Now we're in a new moment of liberation theology, and what I am doing is feminist liberation theology. The liberation theology of the '70s didn't deal with subjects like feminism and ecology. But now we are in this new moment, and the answers aren't coming from theology alone. Theology can help you reflect on some issues, but you also need to participate in other movements to find answers to our problems today.

For instance, for the past two years, in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, we have held the World Social Forum. This is an initiative of very diverse groups that come together to debate alternatives to the current economic globalization and to build a more effective international coalition of social movements and organizations. Although I am a feminist, I'm also a citizen of the world. And I think we need to start forming alliances to best struggle against the destructive aspects of globalization.

These are such giant problems that you're addressing. Are you able to see much hope anywhere?

I see hope in lots of places: in Porto Alegre, in the protests in Seattle, in The Hague. I see hope in Brazil when peasants join together to say "no." New national and international organizations are now developing that empower people--in East Timor, in Cuba, in Palestine, in Africa. These are ordinary people working for justice. This is a new development that gives me hope.

What about institutions like the church? Do you see hope there?

I think a lot depends on whether the people leading the church have true authority. When I say authority, I mean concurrence between what they are saying and how they are living.

Today you really can't speak of a global Roman Catholic Church. Who is that? It doesn't exist. You need to be more specific about who in the Catholic Church you are talking about. What group? What people? What bishop? Our church is very pluralistic.

You personally have been involved in a conflict with the hierarchical kind of authority in the church. How did you deal with that?

This happened in 1994, because of my feminist option, my option for the life of poor women, and because of how I think about Christian tradition. I experienced how much some authorities in the Catholic Church aren't open to the real questions of people.

Issues around sexuality and birth control are very difficult issues--especially for Catholic women. Church authorities make decisions about women's lives, about their bodies, about their sexuality, about their choices, without really taking women's personal situations into account.

How were you able to resolve this conflict?

The Vatican's Congregation for Religious Life required me to go to Europe and study and reflect. So I went back to the University of Louvain in Belgium--which is where I had studied theology and philosophy, so it was easier for me to go there because I knew lots of people.

It was not a good time in the beginning, but later it was a more positive experience for me. I pursued a new Ph.D. in religious sciences, and I got it summa cum laude.

So why did I accept these orders? I was really upset. But if I wanted to stay in my religious community, it was a condition I had to meet. So I decided to stay in my community and leave Brazil for a while. And I also stayed because So many groups of women were supporting me, telling me, "Don't leave. We need you. We need you inside the community and inside the church in order to help us to reflect on what is going on in our communities."

This was the contradiction for me. I feel both comfortable and uncomfortable in the church. At times I feel I'm both inside the church and outside of it--looking at what is happening in the world and asking that the church become more compassionate.

You have written about a similar ambivalence for you in your neighborhood: that you live in it but are also apart from it in some ways. How do you see your role there?

I always say that I have become what I am partly because I am living in this neighborhood. I don't hear about the hard lives of these people on the radio or TV, I'm right there in their daily lives.

To be honest, though, I didn't choose this neighborhood. My community had a house there, so I went. I find I learn more from the people's lives than they learn from my life. I know I do not need to live there to be committed, but it's the history of my life that led me there and I'm happy to live there.

Still, the difficulties there are greater now than when I moved there. Now we have lots of drug dealers. Practically each week someone is killed by one group or another dealing drugs. Sometimes I am a little bit afraid.

At the same time, the place is very beautiful. You see beautiful trees of coconuts and mangoes. It's really very colorful. It's lovely to walk, and there are mountains. It's a very beautiful region, but it's also very sad.

How do you see the issues for women and the earth connected today? When did you start getting into ecofeminism?

I started in ecofeminism by reading Rosemary Radford Ruether. But I never called myself an ecofeminist until an interview I gave was printed with a title like "Ecofeminist in Latin America." So I now have the title of ecofeminist!

I do connect the issues of care for the environment and the situation of poor people. I link the oppression of nature with the oppression of poor people, especially women. It's not that men don't suffer because of ecological destruction. But women experience ecological destruction differently. In poor neighborhoods of Brazil and elsewhere, finding clean water to drink is the job of women. Finding good food is an issue of women. It's not the question of having food, but what kind of food.

I also began to be aware that our theology has been both androcentric--man-centered--and anthropocentric--human-centered. If you start considering ecosystems, your understanding of the image of God needs to be different. Your understanding of salvation needs to be different. Your understanding of ethical approaches needs to be different.

If you open our life, our human life, to all life, if you begin to understand how much we are connected to the entire web of life, then Christian theology becomes different.
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Title Annotation:Ivone Gebara
Author:Gebara, Ivone
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:3171
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