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In Chile, a Spiritual Space for Activism

| January 4, 2011

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Every morning participants gathered for physical exercise around a spiral, signifying the ways in which our lives and commitments move.

Women who formed the backbone of the antipoverty and human rights work of liberation theology in Latin America have organized for women's empowerment for decades.

Twenty years since Chile emerged from dictatorship, the legacy of faith-based activism against authoritarianism lives on among women who challenge traditional patriarchal notions of Christian religion. The fertile ground that in these two decades has nurtured women who seek full participation in their churches and society at large is the annual Women’s Theological Week, which convened most recently November 17 to 19 in Santiago, Chile.

The gathering has been organized since 1991 by the Diego de Medellin Ecumenical Center (CEDM, its Spanish acronym), an institution that channels faith to address pressing social issues. Women’s Theological Week brings together Catholics and Protestants, theologians and grassroots community organizers, nuns and Pentecostals under the multi-hued banner of feminist theology.

In Latin America, feminist theology springs from the liberation theology that was born as a theological commitment to the poor in Latin America in the early ‘60s and came into full maturity when military regimes took the continent by assault in the ‘70s and ‘80s. During the 17 years (September 1973 to March 1990) Augusto Pinochet held Chile in his grip, from under the protective wings of the Catholic Church arose neighborhood health committees, human rights groups, soup kitchens, crafts coops and an array of mutual aid groups, with majority participation by women, to resist the authoritarian political and economic policies.

Liberation theology taught how to read and analyze the Bible in light of the repression Chileans were witnessing. But by the mid 1980s when secular women took to the streets demanding “democracy in the country and in the home,” women’s empowerment gave way to a sense of marginalization even in the progressive but male-dominated liberation theology circles.

Women’s Theological Week coordinator Doris Muñoz, a CEDM staffer who during dictatorship participated in the Catholic-led Sebastian Acevedo Movement against Torture, exemplifies this itinerary. “My political conscience is embodied in the Christian ethic of giving sight to the blind.”  When, in 1988, she entered a Chilean seminary renown as a place for reflection on liberation theology, she perceived “levels of discrimination” and realized that it “was not the same to study theology as a woman, or to study theology as a layperson.”  Today Muñoz considers herself a feminist theologian or, more precisely, an eco-feminist, because “the patterns that degrade the environment are the same as those that subjugate women.” She insists, “We need a change in cosmovision because androcentrism dominates the world and we as women suffer as a result.”

The roadmap for that paradigm change is described in the book Espacios Abiertos: Caminos de la Teología Feminista (Open Spaces: Paths of Feminist Theology) launched by theologian Ute Siebert in the context of the Women’s Theological Week. Siebert, a co-founder of the women’s ethical and spiritual collective Con-spirando, describes how in Latin America “Biblical interpretation from a woman’s eyes has been much more difficult than reading the Bible from the vantage point of the poor.” The scant references to women, she explains, often convey explicit messages of discrimination or outright aversion. The search for new names, images and metaphors for the divine without the connotation of power, obedience or symbolic violence has been a lodestone for the process of constructing feminist theology.

In Chile, the powerful influence of the Catholic Church and its Evangelical brothers on sexual and reproductive health public policy, as well as traditional concepts of family embraced by the country’s conservative president, encroaches upon the lives of all women, believers and non-believers alike.  For Mary Hunt, co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER, of Silver Spring, Maryland), who was featured speaker at the first Women’s Theological Week and returned for this year’s twentieth convocation, “Seeing how religion plays such a key role in preventing women from making their own decisions, preventing women from being who they want to be, I think it is rather short-sighted if you want to make social change but don’t want to deal with religion.”

More than a hundred women attended this year's Women's Theological Week retreat and roundtable discussions on "Women Making Memory, Sharing Transformations, and Building Gender Justice." In former years, the event has focused on feminist interpretations of the Bible, images of women and the divine, environment, encrypted violence against women, celebration of body and creation of ritual.

Although seminar participants come from a diversity of ecclesiastical practices and life experiences, the points of convergence, specifically, what Mary Hunt calls the “dynamics of religion,” overshadow their differences. “Top-down leadership, a single my-way-or-the-highway approach to reading Scripture, and the exclusion of women from ordained ministry cross religious lines. In twenty years, women who normally would have been in their own silos—the Baptist silo, the Pentecostal silo, the Catholic silo and Jewish silo— are now in waves together. Because of the rise of religious fundamentalism, you now have waves of progressive Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims who are working on some of the same things and treating their religions in the same ways.”

At La Trinidad Lutheran Congregation in Santiago, a woman is in the pulpit men had occupied during the first 30 years of the parish’s life. Pastor Neli Maske grew up in Brazil active in both the Lutheran Church and the Worker’s Party, but credits her years in Chile as fundamental to discovery of a theology from a woman’s perspective.  She attended the first Women’s Theological Week as a student and participated in the most recent as ordained pastor.I came from a society—Brazilian and Lutheran—where these issues are fairly resolved. In Chile people look at you as if to ask, 'Who are you to wear a clerical collar?'”

Yet many Catholic women have been drawn to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Chile, headed by a woman president, attracted by the openness, opportunity for greater participation, and trust exuded by women pastors, especially in the eyes of victims of domestic violence reluctant to confide in their priests or male pastors.  La Trinidad Congregation once hosted a forum on sexual and reproductive rights, in which Maske posed her belief in a woman’s right to choose.

Neli Maske observes that the greatest strides achieved by women of all faiths are in regards to leadership. “I know women who two decades ago were completely submissive as persons, and today coordinate women’s spirituality nationally. But these women leaders are still invisible in church structures, and the challenge that lies ahead is to give visibility to women and women leaders.”

Married and a mother of two children, she is a positive role model. Yet she confides,  “Many in the ecumenical world marvel at how I unite all these roles. You look at yourself, and, frankly, it clashes with a machista society. And, sometimes, I just feel exhausted. I admire nuns because they have the freedom to develop themselves fully, without raising children and running a home.”

As Stephany Diaz, a 25-year-old religion education student who traveled to the Women’s Theological Week retreat from southern Talca, put it, “After twenty years, I think feminist theology in Chile is still in diapers.  It is very hard, but, for me, it opens up a whole new way of thinking.”

[Picture 2: Pastors Neli Maske and Natalia Salas and CEDM staff members Maria Palma, Doris Muñoz and Loreto Fernandez.]

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