Reconciliation: feminist shadings.
This paper is an attempt to identify certain feminist shadings on reconciliation. It is based on the premise that women make better reconcilers in the light of their own experience of suffering and commitment to relationality or community. It does not purport to propose a programme of reconciliation nor does it purport to address how reconciliation can be effected in a particular context. Rather, it raises certain issues in relation to the process and praxis of reconciliation from the perspective of women. It examines insights gained from study of women in their role as reconcilers, and the manner in which women have coped with conflict in their lives as portrayed in select biblical passages. The paper also considers whether and how these elements, viz, rootedness in faith, affirmation of the God of life, the recognition of oppressive systems, resistance to oppression, forgiveness, repentance, insight, good judgement and ritual could be possible resources for the development of a perspective for reconciliation with the self and the community. It is hoped that it will generate further reflection in our attempt to isolate a strategy or strategies for reconciliation between individuals and communities, in the church and society.
We live in a world today where the contempt for the "other" is growing and the mantle for violent change is falling on individuals and groupings who are influenced by a globally transportable ideology stemming primarily from a belief that a new world order can be crafted by a theatrical display of force. Terrorism, caste violence, sexism, abuse, genocide, and more of the like are characteristic of the day. This says a lot about us, our present day societies, and our cultures. The emerging picture is difficult, embarrassing and humiliating. The painful truth is that the acts of violence and barbarism occurring at present are nothing but the natural consequence of generations of individuals and groups having been force-fed with speeches (filled with) hatred of others ... based on ideologies that are hierarchic, oppressive and dehumanizing. While some struggles that result in violence and separatism are authentic, one needs to be cautious about always blaming somebody else. For, in it there's a danger that you start putting forward a different and exaggerated take on events and, in due course start believing your exaggerations. The theme of reconciliation today is in vogue and has become somewhat of a buzzword.
What unique insights do women offer to our understanding of reconciliation? What gifts do women bring to the practice of reconciliation? Probably the most significant ambiguity in the ongoing work on reconciliation has been the lack of inclusion or recognition of women's experiences, or women's ways of fostering reconciliation. Women's possible and distinctive contributions to reconciliation practice and theory seem to be an untapped resource by both scholarship and the church. To my limited knowledge, there seems to nothing written on reconciliation from the perspective of women. Lessons learned from women's ways of effecting reconciliation seem to have been completely ignored by the church. Theologians and reconciliation theorists have ignored gender as a separate category by which to analyze and evaluate the exercise of reconciliation.
In addition, the biblical text, particularly the Hebrew Bible, portrays reconciliation as something that is pursued by men in male stories. This does not mean that there are no tensions between women, or that there are no instances of reconciliation among women. Is the lack of women's involvement in reconciliation, as reflected by the Hebrew Bible, because women have a more effective way of reconciling? Whatever the reason, biblical authors seem to know little about the resolution of conflict in the women's world. Does reconciliation become necessary in the male world because men, driven by greed or other motives, engage much more in the struggle for power? Men certainly do cross one another more often than women, and this makes reconciliation between men necessary. However, in most cultures, it is women who push for reconciliation.
Any theory or programme of reconciliation must therefore address the issue of the integration of women, and do so from within a conceptual framework that does more than fit women into the categories and value systems that consider man the measure of significance. For women to become fully visible in discussions and practices of reconciliation, an epistemology is needed which shifts from male-oriented to female-oriented modes of social behaviour, communication, and decision making styles derived from the actual experiences and interests of women, while at the same time remaining suspicious of the universality and self-definition of any experience. I see two major hindrances to women's participation in the reconciliatory process. The first hindrance is caused by the popular rendering and devaluation of women's experiences. The second comes from the dichotomy that is created between the public and private realms.
The devaluation of women's experience
Female experience could be the foundation of an alternative, developed vision of a reconciled world. However, women's experience is often identified as an exclusive, distorted, powerless, ineffectual, and voiceless reality. This is because men have defined the territory of the public realm, established the rules of all discourse, and limited the scope of public interests so that women's powers and strengths are seen only as the opposites of men's. Hence, if women have been less involved in formal attempts at reconciliation, it is because they are considered to lack the skills, experience and language that generate knowledge and a sense of efficacy. Women are diverted away from knowledge and expertise in many important areas, including reconciliation and peacemaking. Women's language is the language of the non-influential, of those who are deferential and dependent. (1) It is women's "ghettoization" in the private sphere that teaches them to be other than full participants. The proper representation of women's interests and contributions would necessarily entail a recognition of the inadequacy and partiality of traditional conceptions of the community as an instrumental alliance.
The polarization of the public and the private
Women's activity is mostly confined to the domestic or the private sphere. The polarization of the public and private spheres along gender lines restricts women's leadership role. Redefining our concepts of activity and community necessarily challenges the assumed bifurcation of the public and the private into radically different isolated realms. Such redefining also provides a foundation for a theory of activity that could include women, "female" virtues and "female" interests, without it having to adhere to an ahistorical or essentialist reading of women's lives.
What feminists must do is to look at reconciliation in such a way that it can express the specific and different ways in which women have wielded power and initiative, been in authority, practiced citizenship, and understood freedom whether in the private or the public realms. This means that we accept Gerda Lerner's advice to discard the "oppressed group model" for defining women's roles. (2) Such a model emphasizes far too much the idea that since women have been segregated from male public territory, women's consciousness and experiences have been one of pervasive alienation. Women's occupations, status, experiences, rituals and consciousness clearly reflect patriarchal norms and definitions, but that is not all. The situations of women reflect, albeit in a distorted way, a different perspective on society, viz., an attempt to attain autonomy and emancipation in the face of systematic oppression, and to speak in what Carol Gilligan calls "a different voice". (3)
Contemporary feminists are reluctant to stress the differences in activities and norms that appear to distinguish women's interests from men's. The fear is that this stress might undercut the demand to eradicate inequities in the methods of recruitment that discriminate against having access to the dominant institutions of social intercourse. However, neither the blind demand for access, nor the uncritical embrace of "maternal thinking" will enable us to usher in the feminist future. What is needed is the development of categories of analysis protean and inclusive enough to describe adequately the position of different women in different social, economic, religious and political systems.
Women's relationality and their aptitude for reconciliation
Many women have been socialized to avoid conflict, to smooth over troubled feelings, to be reconcilers. It is not easy for women to put themselves in conflict situations. In many cultures, women are the family peacemakers, the reconcilers between various factions. In patriarchal cultures, where women are subordinated, they are socialized not to cause conflict; they are trained to stay in their proper place. However, their reconciliation skills are valuable ones. What makes women better reconcilers?
Denise Lardner Carmody maintains that women seem psychologically oriented to invest in relationships.
They are usually more concerned about staying connected and maintaining ties with other individuals and groups than are men. Much more than men, women typically define themselves in relation to another, and not as isolated individuals but as group members, participants in such-and-such a family or work circle, etc. The maintenance of connection or relationships is so high a value that women will often subordinate to it many personal goals. For women, being is "being with", work is collaboration, and things are best decided by talking things through. So, constructive building, rather than men's negative objecting or destroying, characterizes most women's group interactions. Therefore, dialogue and consultation tend to be more important for women than solitary brooding. (4)
There are of course men who do consult and women who do not consult. There are women who can be destructive and men who build rather than tear down. However, both popular stereotypes in the mass media, to the refinements being brought forward by contemporary social science, emphasize the more relational pattern of women's ways of coming to understand and decide. For most women, reality is markedly more ecological, symbiotic, relational and processive than it is for men. (5)
Women's relationality seems to hold implications for an adequate model of reconciliation, and a spirituality likely to be viable for both sexes in the future. Women do express a sense of belonging to one another. This has enabled feminism to remain the ally of other marginalized communities and liberation movements. Part of this inclusiveness is the result of women's own experience of suffering and the acknowledgment of the pathos in the suffering of others. Another part, however, "likely stems from women's aboriginal orientation toward the whole, the all of us, that makes cooperation more natural than competition." (6)
This rationally-defined existence of women results in a social understanding in which dichotomies are less foreign, everyday life is more valued, and a sense of connectedness and continuity with other persons and the natural world is central. The representation and integration of this vision entails the development of more encompassing categories of analysis for women's participation in the world and the church, and, more particularly, to the development of a holistic understanding of reconciliation.
We need to reflect on some new ways of fostering reconciliation, since it is well known that we have not been notably successful in our attempts to do so in the past. If reconciliation is a journey from the past into the future, a journey from estrangement to communion, or from what was patently unjust to the search for a future that is just, then we need to determine how women can contribute to this process. What this paper tries to do is to identify certain feminist shadings on reconciliation as revealed in select biblical texts. It does not purport to propose a programme of reconciliation. Rather, it examines insights gained from the experiences of women in their role as reconcilers, and the manner in which women have coped with conflict in their lives. The paper also considers whether these elements can be a resource for the development of a perspective for reconciliation with the self and the community. It is my hope that it will generate further reflection in our attempt to isolate a strategy or strategies for reconciliation between individuals and communities, in the church and society.
The biblical witness
The Bible attests to women who accomplish the role of mediators for reconciliation and healing, and also to women who are themselves the victims of conflict.
i) The reconciling work of women: The wise woman of Tekoa and the wise woman of Abel Beth Ma'acah
Two unnamed women in the Hebrew tradition were identified as "wise" women, and the narratives that carry their stories speak mainly of the reconciling role the women played in the context of conflict. In the first instance, the life of Absalom is spared on account of the intervention of the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam. 14); in the second instance, the whole city of Abel Beth Ma'acah is saved from Joab (2 Sam. 20) by the action of a second wise woman. In both instances, the interventions were not completely successful. Absalom's restoration was later followed by his revolt, and Abel Beth Ma'acah was saved in exchange for the life of Sheba the Benjaminite. Both women exercised wisdom, courage and faith in carrying out the task of resolving conflict and restoring peace. (7) Both women envision an alternative to the planned violence of David and Joab, respectively, and employ careful speech and diplomacy with authority to stop the violence. One of the questions that other women have asked concerns where and how might the two biblical "wise" women acquired their skills of negotiation. The response has been that they acquired the skills of persuasive counsel and diplomacy within the context of the family, where as mothers they would have had to mediate and bring peace between children in their games of war and destruction. Having been marginalized on account of their gender, the women had nothing more to lose and hence spoke freely. They became the champions of mercy and a debunker of the harshness of all that treats life cheaply and is willing to toss it away to satisfy hurt feelings. (8) The women stand outside the seduction of politics and militarism, and can imagine another way. They question the mindlessness of violence and the arrogance of power, and uphold justice for the innocent, though it did involve violence in the case of Sheba.
The woman display faith. What kind of a faith is this? It is a faith that honoured the fragility of life and at the same time guarded against sentimentality. No doubt the women had seen enough in their years to pursue any criminal. However, they are still convinced that God wants life rather than vengeance, and that God is eager to reward those who act mercifully and preserve life because that is God's own way. These convictions enable the woman to play their part well. (9) When all is said and done, these two women were called upon to resolve the conflict between males, and they used skills derived from their experience within the family: rational considerations, persuasion and rhetoric, rather than spontaneous action. Fortified with faith, a commitment to life and an alternate vision they succeeded in their mission.
ii) Women in conflict: the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah
What happens when there is conflict between two women? How do women resolve conflict and reconcile with one another? What resources do women rely upon to cope with conflict, and what kind of skills do they bring to bear upon the practice of reconciliation?
To be childless in a patriarchal society represents a loss of status. The story of Sarah and Hagar (Gen. 16-21) is told with sympathy for Sarah and sensitivity for Hagar, but a feminist critique recognizes its painful limitations. Both Sarah and Hagar are victims of a patriarchal society that stresses the importance of sons, and of a narrative structure that revolves around the promise of a son. Sadly, but not surprisingly in such a context, the two women make victims of each other. (10) The story describes the privileged woman's exploitations of her subordinate. Sarah uses Hagar. Hagar's pregnancy results in a conflict over status, for she apparently covets Sarah's position. Pregnancy and motherhood become a source of pride. With Abraham's approval, Sarah treats Hagar harshly, and Hagar, pregnant, flees in an attempt to seek freedom from the oppression. However, God appears to Hagar in the wilderness and advises her to return to Sarah and submit to her (Gen. 16). Finally, Sarah bears the long awaited heir. In Genesis 21, Sarah experiences a threat to her son's inheritance and convinces Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. Now Sarah has divine approval and Abraham, with much hesitancy, does send Hagar away. Hagar once again has an encounter with the Divine in which the promise given to her in an earlier encounter (Gen. 16) is reiterated, "I will make a great nation of him" (Gen. 21:18). Hagar regains independence and although her son does not benefit from being the son of Abraham, he does grow to be a great nation. Hagar finds her son an Egyptian wife and ensures the continuance of her ethnic identity, culture and values. There is no mention of Sarah's and Hagar's paths ever crossing again, or any allusions to their thoughts or feelings on the subject. After all, it was Sarah who gave Hagar to Abraham in order to have a child.
Jacob has two wives, who were sisters, and he loves one (Rachel) more than the other (Leah) (Gen. 29:30). The favoured wife is initially barren and the other is blessed with a fertile womb, almost as a compensation for not being loved by the husband. The rivalry and conflict over children and the husband's different affection for the sisters is set within the larger context of the conflict for dominance between Jacob and his brother Esau. Literary parallels have been drawn between the two sisters and the two brothers.
The two sisters match the two brothers, the issue of who is first born is crucial, favouritism creates a problem, and Rachel in stealing her father's teraphim (Gen. 31:19; 34-35), has even been described as a female Jacob stealing family blessing. (11)
While the narrator describes in detail the attempt made by Jacob to reconcile himself with Esau (Gen. 33) he does not seek to inform us of any such attempt on the part of the women. Do the women remain unreconciled for the rest of their lives? Some assume that the contest ended once Rachel conceived (Gen. 30:22). But this is an assumption. Rachel got what she wanted but Leah was still starved of her husband's affection. Was she able to be reconciled with her sister? It would be interesting to know what kind of impact this rivalry may have had on the children growing together in the same home. How did this rivalry impact upon the dynamics within the family?
That women needed children to give them status in patriarchal society is evident. Conversely, it is in the interest of patriarchal ideology not only that women bear children but also that they desire to do so. (12) Thus, these narratives represent the women as desiring children, especially sons at all costs. Hence, whether they are able (Leah) or unable (Sarah and Rachel) to conceive, they offer their maids to their husbands in an attempt to have children through them. The text presents this particular means of obtaining children as something that is done for the woman's sake and not the man's, as is done in both the ease of Sarah and Rachel. When Rachel's maid does give birth to a son, Rachel declares that she (Rachel) has prevailed over her sister (Gen. 30: 8).
The text is rife with an androcentricism that values a woman for her ability to produce sons, and depicts women who will go to any lengths to have children even to the extent of subordinating other women or even destroying relationality that is based on kinship ties.
By dividing women into upper and lower class women, patriarchy prevents women from gaining power by forming alliances. Women of the lower status (Hagar, Bilhah, Zilpah) are exploited for the sake of higher-class women, which is really for the sake of patriarchy. (13)
Patriarchy relies upon women's cooperation, and one of the rewards for cooperation is status. Higher-class women comply with patriarchal expectations because it gives them status as mothers, and can thereby "realize the patriarchal idea of fulfilment through motherhood." (14)
The texts therefore portray a male perspective on women as mothers, who, driven by maternal instincts, jealously guard the interests of their children and themselves through manipulation. Women are depicted as envious, competitive and unable to get along, even when they are sisters. The text tells us that women cannot form bonds that transcend their own narrow interests and cannot cooperate except on rare occasions. "Far from discouraging envy on the part of co-wives, patriarchy exploits it as a means of keeping women divided against one another and therefore powerless." (15) Competition is encouraged and even God seems to encourage competition by making one woman fruitful and the other sterile. (16)
Ingredients for reconciliation
It is possible that one might ask what insights these texts, which are basically family stories, derived from within a tribal society, could offer to a modern or post modern society? Valid as this question might be, I detect within these texts certain basic principles or general ingredients essential for fostering reconciliation in varied contexts.
i) Rootedness in the faith and affirmation of the God of life
God is always present opening and closing wombs, sometimes taking the side of the oppressed woman but also sanctioning the oppression at times. Jacob's rhetorical question, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?", is a statement of abdication. However, implicitly, it is also a theological conclusion. For all the playfulness of this story and for all the inventiveness of the family, the future belongs to God. Birth and barrenness, fertility and denial of fertility, are in the hands of God. (17) All life comes from God. The women struggle against each other and a system that constrains and forces competition. Sarah might have experienced a certain sense of victory when she succeeded in ousting Hagar and her child from her home. Rachel claims that she struggled the struggles of God and prevailed over her sister (Gen. 30:8). But have they in reality triumphed? On a feminist reading, all women suffer: Hagar is cast out, becoming the mother of a great nation excluded from the covenant; Sarah stays within the patriarchal hearth and almost loses her only child to the father; Rachel loses her life in trying to bring forth life, and Leah, despite the many sons she bore, is still not loved by her husband. "Does anyone prevail in a system that pits brother against brother or sister against sister, a system that is blithely sanctioned alternately by God's silence and God's arbitrary participation?" (18) I guess all the women are victims and all survive the conflict. I would like to uplift here the fact that despite the very ambiguous nature and functioning of God, the women hold on to their faith in this very unpredictable GOd for this God is also a God who hearkens to the afflicted, including the barren, and who has special concern for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. The names given to the children borne by both Rachel and Leah and their maids testifies to this.
Hagar's encounter with God in Genesis 16 must have, I believe, enabled her to accept Abraham's decision in Genesis 21 and leave his home along with her son. In chapter 16, the harshness of Sarah's treatment was motivation enough for Hagar to flee. The intensity of the oppression was so great that she risked her life and fled. However, God urges her to return to the site of oppression and she does so without questioning, maybe taking courage from the promises made by God. This faith sustained her and enabled her to cope with further instances of abuse from Sarah. When requested to leave in chapter 21, the uncertainty of the future did not seem to have deterred Hagar in any way. She did not beg and plead or appeal to Abraham's conscience to retain her and his son. It is disturbing to imagine a slave woman and a young child being turned out of a home with nowhere to go. But Hagar responds to the God who addresses her. Sustained by the belief in the God of the afflicted who appeared to her in the wilderness, who she knew implicitly would take care of her, Hagar left with confidence and raised her son. She chose a wife for him, an Egyptian to ensure the continuation of her traditions, culture and value, and the Egyptian identity of her descendants and eventually Ishmael's destiny as the father of a nation. It may not be sufficient as personal vindication but, for a powerless woman of her culture, it is a striking reward. (19)
Although there was no opportunity for Hagar to make her peace with Sarah, and vice versa, she probably was reconciled with her past and found resources within herself to come to terms with what has happened. I am in no way reducing or undermining Trible's conclusion regarding the experience of Hagar, (20) and the parallels that can be drawn between Hagar's story and the journey of Israel. However, had Hagar stayed and fought for the rights of her child and herself, the situation could have gotten even more complicated and intensified the conflict. (21) In many ways, Hagar and her child experienced far more joy and freedom in their separation from Abraham and Sarah. (22)
The women recognized that the God of life is present, and responds and manoeuvres in accordance with a plan that seems both oppressive and mysterious at times. Yet, these women hold on to this God without expressing any reproach against God, for God was a God of life. Sometimes, faith empowers women for confrontation, as is the ease of the "wise women" of Tekoa and Abel Beth Maacah, at other times, it empowers them for compliance. However, simple coping is the challenge many women face. The faith of Hagar and Sarah enabled them to cope with the conflict, and to continue to live their lives amidst the oppression.
ii) Recognition of oppressive systems
Conflict and violence that mar the relationship among various ethnic, linguistic and, particularly, religious groups, have deep historical, psychological and, above all, economic roots. Beneath the surface of apparent religious strife, or other conflicts and rivalries there lies submerged a world of oppression and domination. Almost every communal conflict is the symptom of a situation of bondage or of a longstanding injustice that has not been redressed. Our liberative role is to go below the surface level to the underlying causes. The real proof of our work as agents of unity and communion is precisely in our ability to respond to situations of bondage and injustice. Communion, amity and harmony cannot be promoted among various groups without a commitment to justice and liberation.
The underlying cause for the oppression of Hagar is patriarchy and its expectations of women and motherhood. It has already been pointed out that in the texts, women of higher status (Sarai) subordinate women of lower status (Hagar) in order to enhance their own status in the community. In this manner, they collude with the dictates of patriarchy. But the masterminds, the ones who propagated and legislated the ideology of patriarchy and who drew the grandiose plans for sexism have gone unpunished and are living in comfort (namely, Abraham and Jacob). Perhaps it is more appropriate at this juncture to make a distinction between victims and beneficiaries. Sarai benefited from patriarchy by virtue of her class and position of power. Similarly, Rachel benefited from patriarchy by virtue of her beauty and the attraction that Jacob had for her.
This indicates that the distinction between perpetrators/beneficiaries and victims is not always clear. For example it is true to say that most Dalit women are victims and most upper caste women are beneficiaries and some upper caste women are also perpetrators. But the greater reality is that all women are victims of an evil ideology that damaged their humanity in different ways.
The women's dissatisfaction with their position and situation is given recognition, and hence Sarah's frustration is aimed at Abraham: "May the Lord judge between you and me" (Gen. 16:5), or, as in the case of Rachel, at Jacob: "Give me children or I shall die" (Gen. 30: 1). However, the real source of the problem, the patriarchal system, remains unrecognized. It is significant that Sarah who was, like many other women of her time, cognisant of the fact that it is Yahweh who opens or closes the womb, does not express any reproach against God, or even Hagar for that matter, but against Abraham. In Sarah's statement, therefore, there is a condemnation of a system (although she probably does not recognize it as patriarchy) that challenges the intrinsic worth of women, and puts women in situations where they need to compete against each other for recognition and acceptance. (23) The statement also includes an appeal to Yahweh for judgement against such a system. (24)
Hagar, on the other hand, names her oppressor. In response to the messenger's question, "Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?" she responds, "I am running away from the face of Sarai, my mistress"(Gen. 16:8). Hagar identifies the source of her suffering. In her statement there is a critique of the functioning of her mistress, who holds the power of the social structure that is oppressive, abusive and dehumanising. Through her fleeing, Hagar seeks liberation and an alternate life where there is less suffering.
iii) Resistance to oppression
The logical response to an oppressive system should be resistance. Some women prefer to withdraw when conflicts are painful. I am reminded here of the many women who are victims of domestic abuse, and who flee their homes to shelters in search of refuge from the torture and the battering they receive from their husbands or other male relatives. One needs to make a distinction between the withdrawal of women with power from conflict, and the withdrawal of women with no power. In her discussion on creating communities of accountability, Andolsen speaks of "middle class white women that have been socialized to avoid conflict, and smooth over troubled feelings, to be 'reconcilers'" (25) She cites the African-American theological ethicist who maintains that white women who feel threatened too often, "take their toys, their funds, their programs, their printing press, and go home, where they can perch on a ledge and not have their boats rocked. This itself is a privilege." (26) This applies also to educated, caste, middle class woman in India. Withdrawal from conflict may be the privilege of the powerful. But withdrawal on the part of the oppressed is resistance. It is an action that conveys the individual's decision no longer to tolerate the oppression. It is not cowardice. Hagar's statement, "I am fleeing", is a statement of resistance. It expresses her rejection of slavery and of her past life and dehumanization. (27) Later, Hagar is sent away and, as maintained earlier, she offers no resistance. This too is an act that exemplifies her resolve to resist further oppression and suffering. It is true that one needs fortitude to struggle with conflict instead of withdrawing, or striving for premature reconciliation. However, if positive change is not stimulated, envisaged or foreseen, one needs to withdraw to avoid the destructive consequences of conflict.
Once the oppressed withdraw in resistance, the process of reconciliation and healing will begin and it begins with the victim. Sarah may not even have been cognisant of the wrong done to Hagar. The process of healing and reconciliation begins when the humanity of Hagar is restored, and this is possible even without any repentance on the part of Sarah.
The texts also attest to the subtle and probably unconscious manner in which women resist the expectations of patriarchy. Despite the purported power of the male over the female, Sarah succeeds in attaining her goal of banishing Hagar from her household and disrupting the natural line of inheritance, thereby circumventing any threat that Hagar might pose. Leah trades mandrakes for the sexual services of Jacob (Gen. 30:16). The women therefore do not come across as totally helpless victims. These examples reveal how women cooperate and resist patriarchal control.
iv) Forgiveness and Reconciliation
In many discussions on reconciliation, an emphasis is placed on confession and repentance, which are identified as pre-requisites for reconciliation. A genuine confession as Ackermann maintains would be--"I no longer stand by my wrongdoing; I repent of it and side with you in condemning it." (28) Repentance on the other hand is a complete hundred and eighty degrees turn--"a going in the opposite direction." Can there be forgiveness without repentance? Rather, is repentance necessary for forgiveness? In the first instance, the answer is "yes" and in the second, the answer is "no."
Sarai does not confess her wrong doing nor is she presented as someone who repented her actions. Yet, I think Hagar forgave her and experienced reconciliation. It is possible that Hagar repented of her own role in instigating Sarai's insecurities and forgave herself and was in turn able to forgive Sarai her oppressor. I think we need to forgive ourselves as much as we need forgiveness. Ackermann writes,
Forgiveness is not a uniquely religious act. We forgive so that we can live with ourselves and with others. Forgiveness is not simply wiping out a wrong or denying memory; neither is it excusing a wrongdoer. Forgiveness is an active, willed change of heart that succeeds in overcoming naturally felt feelings of anger, resentment, vengeance and hatred. For me it has a gift like quality. When confession and repentance meet forgiveness, reconciliation can happen. Relationships can be restored. Whereas forgiveness can happen without reconciliation taking place, reconciliation cannot happen without forgiveness. (29)
Talk about forgiveness and reconciliation often result in an impasse. There are some acts that are so detestable and evil that one finds it hard to even imagine forgiving the perpetrator. In a recent conference on Dalit hermeneutics, there was much discussion on "righteous anger" and the need for the possible acceptance of the notion of "just war" to counteract the violence that has been experienced by the Dalits. It is essential that we do not minimize the moral significance of rage and feelings of revenge. They are legitimate emotions and need to be given a place. Just imagine the anger that is felt at the abusers of children and women, perpetrators of genocide and caste violence, and those who enslave people to understand moral outrage. Any speech about forgiveness and reconciliation that fails to acknowledge the moral force of anger, hatred and retribution is premature and cannot bring about reconciliation. (30)
On the other hand, living in a state of "unforgivingness" has its own dilemmas. We are caught between legitimate feelings of moral outrage and retribution and the price that there is to pay for not being able to forgive. How do Christians, for instance, deal with the injunction to love our enemies, to forgive those who harm us as God forgives us, if we are not able or prepared to forgive? There is no hope of reconciliation without forgiveness. We will have to count the cost to ourselves if we do not forgive. Forgiving requires stepping out of the 'victim' role. (31) This can be very difficult but can be done.
v) Insight and good judgement
Insight is the flash of light, in which we grasp what something is ... where the solution to a problem lies. The progression from experience to insight ... from insight to judgement, and from judgement to decision is a steady march of greater and greater self-transcendence. With each step we stretch ourselves, knowing more and risking more. With each step reality changes for us ... and we change with it, for in these acts of transcendence, of going-beyond, we see that we and reality are isomorphic: we are patterned to one another. (32)
In Genesis 31, Leah, cognisant of her husband's lack of love for her, hopes that by beating sons she would change the heart of Jacob. Of five sons given to her, she names three with reference to Yahweh. The first she names Reuben because, "Yahweh has looked upon my affliction" (Gen. 29:32). The second she names Simeon because, "Yahweh has heard that I am hated" (Gen. 29:33). (She names a third, Levi, with the hope that "my husband will become attached to me because I have borne him three sons".) The fourth she names Judah for, "This time I will praise Yahweh" (Gen. 29: 35). I am intrigued by this sudden shift in Leah's state of mind. Although the names have no philological wounding, it is significant that the first two children are named within the context of her unhappiness, her affliction and her husband's hatred. The fourth son is named in what seems to be a jubilant frame of mind. After this statement, the names she gives to the sons born to her maid Zilpah are accompanied by statements that are very positive, namely, "Good fortune"(Gen. 30:11), "Happy am I, for women will call me happy" (Gen. 30:13). Children born to her in the second phase of her childbearing years are named in a more-or-less positive frame of mind, for there is no allusion to her suffering.
What caused this shift in Leah's attitude? Could it be possible that Leah, after much pondering, did gain an insight into the problem? Despite the lack of love from her husband, she found within herself something that gave her hope: an insight into how blessed she really was as far as her ability to birth children is concerned. She was respected as the mother of four sons: no small accomplishment in those days. Even though Leah was not the better looking, she had children, she had a family, security in old age under the guardianship of her children, a roof over her head, maids, and so on. (33) She was privileged, except for her husband's disregard of her. She had much to praise God for. She probably was moved now with compassion for Rachel, who had everything except for what was most important in those times, viz., the experience of motherhood. Leah judged herself to be in a better position than Rachel. Her womb was now closed for she decided she had enough children for the time being. This realization did not in any way lessen her desire for her husband's love and attention but it seems to have abated the feelings of rivalry and competition. She was reconciled to and accepted the lacunae in her life, and decided that she was not going to fight Rachel anymore. Execution is not separable from insight for the wise person. It was a realization that enabled her to transcend her fears and misgivings about her sister, and filled her with joy that she was able to praise Yahweh. Although the text does not concretely express improved relations between the sisters, there seems to be a decrease in animosity between the two. They even agree jointly to assist Jacob in countering Laban's injustice (fen. 31:17ff).
vi) Taking risks
In all the actions and decisions of the women in the narratives there is an element of risk. Hagar would have lived a lifetime of servitude had she not resisted the oppression and taken the risk of journeying into a future wrought with uncertainties. Jacob took a long time to make peace with his brother from whom he had stolen his birthright. However, when he did decide to reconcile with him, he is said to have stayed on the opposite side of the Jabbok, and after a night of wrestling with his fears and guilt, he is said to have sent back the slaves, the women and the children first. At least this is what the narrator says. Maybe Jacob sent them on ahead while he tried to assess how much this was going to cost him. But he was pleasantly surprised that Esau made no demands. (34) It possible for us to conceive of the slaves, the women and the children actually crossing the Jabbok on their own initiative to meet Jacob's brother and his family whom they had not yet met? They had nothing to fear, and the possibility of new relations was probably more important than the fear of the past, which was what was haunting Jacob and causing him to hesitate. The women went forward in anticipation of future relations. For the narrator, women are expendable and are significant only in as much as they move the story forward. However, seen from the perspective of women, this initiative on the part of the women is relational, courageous and risky.
The taking of risks is essential to maintaining resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. Resistance is characterized by responsible action, grounded in faith and community, and strategic risk-taking. The aim of such risk-taking is not necessarily to engender successful reconciliation, but to prevent our own capitulation to structural evil. (35)
vii) Rituals of reconciliation
Jacob and Esau enter into a ritual of reconciliation, and the women also participate. A significant aspect of this ritual of reconciliation that is often overlooked is that all members of the family, at all levels--the slaves, the women, the children--participate. Even though Jacob and Esau are the main characters in it, the conflict has implications for the communities that they represent. Reconciliation takes place between the two communities; it begins with the least in the family and makes its way upward to the brothers, who are the heads of the families. In most attempts at reconciliation, the terms under which reconciliation must take place are discussed by the leaders of the community, often without the participation of those at the bottom of the social ladder. The peace treaty between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33 bears witness to the role of the community, who in a way set the process in motion with the leaders only approving the process of reconciliation and formalizing it. Allowing or enabling the women of conflicting parties to meet and create empowering alternative modes of conversation and action, which mutually strengthen us for the struggle against the systems that promote conflict, is half the journey towards reconciliation.
Feminist religious communities struggling toward full human liberation need religious rituals in which they confess their sins and embody their moments of reconciliation.
The praxis of reconciliation is integral to the mission of the church. The dominant paradigms of reconciliation have been generated from an overwhelmingly male base of experience. I would note that the major deficiency in most of the received paradigms is the stress on logic, rights and independence, to the detriment of feelings, relationships and connections. In a holistic model, both of these lists of human qualities should receive their due. The former are stereotypically male and the latter are female and very often the latter list stands inferior to the first. Stereotypically, when women are asked to solve problems, they place more emphasis on the second list of qualities. Women seem to he better at integrating emotion with reason. In a careful study and analysis of texts such as those identified above, and of their history, women will find many such undercurrents or feminist/womanist sensibilities that would have a central place for the empowered mission of reconciliation by the church. The solid achievements and hopeful precedents set by the women in the biblical text witness to their immense faith, wisdom and resistance to systems of oppression, the readiness to forgive, and the risk taking. By combining the many insights gained from the study of the theology of reconciliation and these feminist sensibilities and skills, I see at least the foreshadowing of an effective mission of reconciliation.
(1) Virginia Sapiro, The Political Integration of Women, Urbana Champagne, University of Illinois, 1983.
(2) Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds its Past, Oxford, Oxford University, 1979.
(3) Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard, 1982.
(4) Denise Lardner Carmody, Seizing the Apple: A Feminist Spirituality of Personal Growth, New York, Crossroad, 1984, pp. 62-63.
(5) Denise Lardner Carmody, Ibid., p. 62.
(6) Ibid., p. 62.
(7) Claudia V. Camp "The Wise Women of 2 Samuel: A Role Model for Women in Early Israel?", CBQ 43 (1981), pp. 14-29.
(8) Denise Lardner Carmody, Contemporary Reflections on Scriptural Texts, New York, Crossroad, 1988, p. 48.
(9) Ibid., p. 45.
(10) Cheryl Exum, "'Mother in Israel': A Familiar Figure Reconsidered", in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Letty M. Russell, Philadelphia, Westminster, 1985, p. 77.
(11) Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, Gender, Power and Promise: The Subject of the Bible's First Story, Nashville, Abingdon, 1993, p. 77.
(12) Esther Fuchs, "The Literary Characterization of Mothers and Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible", in Feminist Perspectives on Biblical scholarship, edited by Adela Yarbaro Collins, Chico, Scholars Press, 1985.
(13) J. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Trinity, 1993, p. 122.
(14) Ibid., p. 122.
(15) Ibid., p. 134.
(16) Ibid., p. 134.
(17) W. Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, Atlanta, John Knox, 1982, p. 254.
(18) Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, Gender, Power and Promise: The Subject of the Bible's First Story, p. 80.
(19) Sharon Pace Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar's Wife, Minneapolis, Fortress, 1990, p. 52.
(20) Cf. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Minneapolis, Fortress, 1984, p. 28, where she states that, "Hagar foreshadows Israel's pilgrimage of faith through contrast. As a maid in bondage, she flees from suffering. Yet she experiences exodus without liberation, revelation without salvation, wilderness without covenant, wanderings without land, promise without fulfillment, and unmerited exile without return."
(21) Renita Weems, Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women's Relationships in the Bible, San Diego, California, LuraMedia, 1988, p. 15.
(22) W. Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, Atlanta, John Knox, 1982, p. 184.
(23) J. Cheryl Exum, "'Mother in Israel': A Familiar Figure Reconsidered", p. 77.
(24) Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, p. 12.
(25) Barbara Hilkert Andolsen, "Daughters of Jefferson, Daughters of Bootblacks"--Racism and American Feminism, Macon, GA, Mercer University, 1986, p. 122.
(26) Katie Geneva Cannon, "The Mudflower Colllective", God's Fierce Whimsy, p. 39 as cited by Ibid., 122.
(27) Elsa Tamez, "The Woman Who Complicated the History of Salvation", in New Eyes for Reading, edited by John S. Pobee and Barbel von Wartenberg-Potter, Quezon City, Philippines, Claretian Publications, 1986, p. 14.
(28) Denise M. Ackermann, After the Locusts: Letters from the Landscape of Faith, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 118.
(29) Ibid., p. 119.
(30) Ibid., p. 119.
(31) Ibid., p. 120.
(32) Denise Lardner Carmody, Selling the Apple: A Feminist Spirituality of Personal Growth, p. 33.
(33) It has been suggested that Leah suddenly realised how grateful she ought to be to God, and to Rachel for that matter, for she could have remained unmarried on account of her eyes. Even though Jacob was deceived into marrying Leah, that marriage was made possible because Rachel allowed it out of compassion and loyalty to her sister. Rachel could have warned Jacob of Laban's plan to dupe him. However, she did not.
(34) This underscores the notion that the one who experiences subordination is often more amicable to reconciliation than the one with the power.
(35) Sharon D. Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Minneapolis, Fortress, 1990, p. 22.
Dr Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon is Professor of Old Testament Studies at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, in Chennai, India