Religious Symbols and Power Dynamics

Virginia Ramey Molllenkott

Women and the Word

Evening Sermon

March 30, 1989




…That we are delighted to have Virginia Ramey Mollenkott with us.  Those of you who were with us at worship this morning have already been inspired by her presence and her preaching.  Virginia is the professor of English at William Patterson College in New Jersey and has also written numerous books on feminism, writing some concerns about homosexuality and homophobia.  And has served as president of the advisory board for Evangelicals Concerned.  And also was actively involved with the National Council of Churches committee preparing the inclusive language lectionary.  We’re delighted that she is able to be with us this year, and this evening she will be preaching on “Shaping the future by preaching wholeness.  We welcome Dr. Mollenkott.



You’re sweet. (laughter).  It’s a lonely business being a writer. The teaching of course is not lonely.  But the writing part is lonely, and it’s nice to come out and meet somebody who’s read a line or two, you know. (laughter) But sometimes you wonder.

I understand that an hour and a half has been allotted to this segment of the Women in the Word event.  And because I really dislike one-way communication, I propose to lecture for about 35-40 minutes and then to interact with your particular concerns and comments and questions.  Please don’t feel that you have to try to mask a comment or a corrective as if it were really a question (laughter).  This is a patriarchal, oh I don’t know, game, that I would just as soon we didn’t play.  I have already learned a great deal from interaction with audiences, and I’m sure that tonight will be no exception.  As a matter of fact, after listening this afternoon to the quality of the preaching, and the quality of the discussion in the workshops I attended, I realized that many women here could do this just as well as I, and so I certainly look forward to interacting with you.

The Importance of Interaction for Power Relationships

I’d like to say that I dislike one-way communication in a very profound sense.

I think it’s part of the alienating, dominating, power-over mentality of the patriarchal consciousness in which we have all been socialized.  That means, yes, that I really do believe in interaction.  Opportunities should be offered after every sermon, every lecture, every presentation in the church and academic communities.  In my own college classroom, where I’ve been teaching for over 36 years, I encourage the students to interrupt me instantly if anything I have said seems to them either obscure or outrageous.  And that’s exactly what they do (laughing, laughter).  That sort of interruption is probably not feasible in a situation like this, and it’s certainly not advisable in a worship service, but a ‘talk on’ after the coffee hour is one way for the preacher to seek accountability to the congregation and the community.  It seems to me that for a professor, or a priest, a preacher, or a politician, to be able to make statements without have to interact responsively with his or her audience, really encourages arrogance.  I’ve heard some statements that wouldn’t possibly be made if the person knew that he would have to answer questions about those statements immediately after, and in front of the same audience that heard the statement made.  Furthermore, one-way communication, gives the wrong message about divine-human relationships, as well as about human relationships.  It gives the impression that God is a controlling God.  Gives the impression that some people were meant to be sheep, while others are meant to be shepherds, shepherds who are autonomous in their own lives, and not only autonomous in their own lives, but also having power over other lives.  In a sense of course, it’s true, that a professor or a pastor does have some power over some segments of the students’ or the congregations’ lives.  But if we’re interested in having a future, let alone a future in which people are more whole, it’s important that we find every possible way to image a fluid power structure, in which people gain temporary authority in relationship with others by their expertise and their commitment, but where the power is shared with the intention of empowering every person to earn their own authority in the area of their expertise.

This, it seems to me, is the kind of power envisioned in Paul’s image of the body of Christ, where nobody is expected to do all the work, because each member does her special aspect of it.  It’s also the sharing of the divine power that’s depicted in the 4th chapter of Ephesians.  “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in everyway, into the one who is the head.  Into Christ. From which the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth, and up builds itself in love.”  End Quote.  When we look at the average mainline church, in which the pastor and staff are expected to do most of the spiritual work, and the laity are relatively passive, we can tell that Christian churches have been embodying the wrong message about power.  I’m not talking about words, I’m talking about structures. We’ve done it, not so much, as with our language, as with our formats and structures.  And I’m suggesting that one way in which we can begin to image a more fluid and mutual kind of power, a more holistic power, is to see to it, that whenever anyone addresses a group, we provide opportunity for interacting, and thus sharing power, with other people.

Religious Symbol Systems

I’d like to speak for a few minutes about religious symbol systems.  Grouping them in one vast oversimplification as either patriarchal, or holistic symbol systems.  For all of recorded history, which is the story of patriarchy, or “his-story,”  most symbol systems have been andocentric.  For instance, although Native American symbol systems have been firmly grounded in mother earth, and thus, far more holistic than most of Christianity and Judaism, nevertheless, even there, the Pueblo Indians see themselves as the “Sons of Father Sun.”  For the Pueblo Male, this identification is empowering.  Not only to his spirit, but to his entire body self.  But to the Pueblo woman, the only way to participate in the divine identity, of Father Sun, is to deny her female embodiness, and to see herself as the Son of the Father.  Her other option is to take on secondary identification in the symbol system, by identifying herself with mother earth.  In Christianity, the situation is far more extreme, because most Christians have not been taught to regard the earth as sacred in the first place.  Not even in a way that’s secondary to “Father Sun.”  Therefore, we Christian women have Really had to do mental gymnastics in order to envision ourselves the “Sons of God,” and as members of a body of a Christ who is always spoken of with masculine pronouns.  We’ve have to deny our woman bodies in order to see ourselves as sons in a kind of disembodied spiritual sense.  Consequently, we have been symbolically empowered, only to do disembodied kinds of work.  But, since the majority of an average woman’s life, has traditionally been confined the nurturance of body-selves-of men, children, pets, houses, gardens, and to the use of the woman body in sexual and reproductive ways, clearly the majority of actually woman life has been symbolically disempowered by secularization.  For instance, I have a friend, Roberta Nobleman, who does one woman dramatic presentations in church settings.  Occasionally, when she has enacted the Nativity story, people have expressed shock at her depicting Mary in the process of birthing, with all the agonizing labor that birthing involves.  Why the shock?  (laughter).  Clearly because most Christians have never been empowered to see this part of life as sacred.  So it seems somewhat blasphemous to enact somewhat ordinary womanly, birth labor in a church sanctuary.

Language as Symbol-Feminine Imagery of God

Recently a woman wrote to me after reading my book The Divine Feminine, which is subtitled, Biblical Imagery of God as Female, and she completely missed the point.  It’s just you know, a little book full of Bible studies. (laughter).  A series of Bible Studies, of the many places where the Bible depicts God as a mother, a baker-woman, a female nurse, or householder, a mother eagle or hen, or mother bear.   You know, stuff like that.  Maybe she didn’t read the book, maybe she only read the title, I don’t know, but, at any rate, she wrote to express her rage, that I or anyone else would desecrate the name of God by speaking of Him as female. ”Don’t you know that God is holy,” she asked?  The unspoken assumptions beneath the letter writers question are these: do you know that whatever is holy is masculine, that women are secular, as are the earth and the water? And the letter writer can’t merely be dismissed as an ignoramus either, because the highly educated current pope of Rome, announced recently, that women may never hope to be priests in the Catholic church because [quote] “they do not sufficiently resemble Christ.” [end-quote.]  Now clearly he couldn’t mean a spiritual resemblance to the virtues Jesus manifested, could he? (laughter).  Because surely the life of Mother Theresa alone would prove him wrong.  No, he meant that women’s bodies are not shaped like the physical body of Jesus and therefore are not sufficiently holy.  If racism is prejudice based on the color of skin, sexism is prejudice based on the shape of skin.  You don’t pooch in and out in the right places. (laughter).  And we have got to face the fact that all traditional language of Christianity backs up the Pope.  God, the Father, only Father.  Jesus as son, the Christ as exclusively male, the holy-spirit as male, despite the fact that the Hebrew word for Spirit, Rouach, is female.  And the Greek word, nooma, is neuter.  So that to refer to the holy spirit with masculine pronouns is, from the linguistic perspective, the one wrong choice.  ‘It’ would have some linguistic preference, ‘She’ would have linguistic precedence.  For ‘he’, there is not linguistic precedence.  It was a political choice obviously.  Here’s what I’m driving at.  The church is not preaching wholeness to our daughters and sons, if it continues to uses andocentric language that sanctifies and empowers masculinity and secularizes and trivializes womanhood.  Sexist language is hurting the boys as much as the girls, because traits such as intuition and openness, child-likeness, vulnerability, and receptivity are associated with femininity.  And exclusively andocentric God-language implies to men and boys that there’s something inferior about sex traits.  Therefore, on an unconscious level boys and men are denied full access to the very traits that would make them whole.  Meanwhile, women are in a double bind.  We know that logic, autonomy, public activism, powerful assertiveness and the like are associated with both masculinity and adulthood.  We know that the church’s God-language associates all that with holiness.  But at the same time, traditional socialization tells us that such traits are not appropriate for a real woman.  Intuitiveness, child-likeness, open vulnerability, and so forth, are appropriate to women, but they are not associated with holy and therefore are desacrilized and disempowered.  Talking now about traditional language usage in the Church.  And the whole human race is the loser. Instead of healthy and whole human beings relating to each other in respectful mutuality, we have broken, half human beings seeking each other out in order to feel more whole, desperately hoping the other person will provide what’s missing.  But resenting each other all the while because unconsciously, we tend to resent being cut off from positive traits that our spouse or partner is encouraged to possess.  Similarly, it’s normal enough for those whose bodies are associated with the holy to assume that they should be the decision makers and the leaders in the public sphere.  While the women are relegated to the private sphere- to the body work of home and children and feeding and cleaning and being sexual.  After centuries of patriarchal, andocentric God-language, we shouldn’t be as surprised as we are that the American home is a disaster area- with domestic violence and incest a horrifying reality in an appalling number of homes.  Among married women, at least one out of four, currently experiences violence in her own home.  After all, the home is the realm of the desacrilized and disempowered female, and the adult male is supposed to assume power over his wife and children and utilize whatever he must utilize to get what he wants from his property.  He’s the patriarchal lord of his home.  And if you think I’m exaggerating, look at them many direct quotations from fundamentalist books in chapter 2 of my book Women, Men and The Bible.  Or check out on your own a few fundamentalist advice books, or a few books from the right wing catholic camp that are aimed at the contemporary woman’s Market.  Mainline churches have rendered themselves complicit in all this, by their half-hearted (maybe that’s too much), by their non-implementation of the feminist vision.  We did that already, right?  We had that a few years ago. (laughter).  Now we’re into something else.  The only way for the Church to counter these abuses of Power in American theology and the home is to begin to model a Christ-like use of power in church structures and policies.  If any one of us went into a home and observed from a family interaction, that one person always got his way, and that one other person was always expected to do that physical labor within the home.  And that among several children, some were favored, while one child was not permitted to mention his or her presence and was never consulted about how his life feels or was never asked about what her needs are.  What would we know?  We would know that we’re looking at a dysfunctional family.  Yet, at the highest echelons of most churches, we see a similar pattern, don’t we?  The decision makers are still mostly male.  The church guilds that do the cleaning and other physical labor are still mostly female.  I say mostly out of courtesy (laughter).  And at the congregational, the white, able-bodied, heterosexual, married constituency is the favored constituency.  While handicapped people, single people, gay women and men are to varying degrees are excluded from real power.  In the case of gay people, their presence, spiritual and financial contributions are acceptable, but only if they hide who they are.  And never mention their needs or expect any recognition of their embodiment in this world as God’s very own gay daughters and sons.

In short, patriarchal Christian churches, are, to the degree that they are families, dysfunctional ones.

It’s real hard to preach wholeness to our daughters and sons, when we have to do so not only within a society that’s Sick with domination.  Pornography really only lets the cat out of the bag, but it’s going on at all levels more subtly.  We’re not only in a society that’s Sick with domination and far from health and wholeness, but we’re working from within Church families that are almost as bad.  Worse in a sense because it’s legitimized by theological language.  Yet, we must begin somewhere.

Honoring Wholeness Through Language

I submit that we must begin by honoring wholeness in our behavior patterns, and in every word that proceeds from out of our mouths.  After all our patriarchal conditioning this will require considerable adjustment.  I heard somebody in the dining room tonight say, “Oh, let’s sit over there with the girls.”  And then she pulled back and said, “with the women I mean.”  And I thought, “Excellent, excellent, that’s exactly what you do.”  You screech to a halt when you hear yourself saying something that in someway denies the adulthood and the power of other women, or any other, you know, some of the racial slurs that are built into our language.  You just screech to a halt- happened to me in the classroom the other day.  I said something about a dark and dirty plot and all of a sudden, I heard that (laughing) and I stopped and I said, “I really apologize, that was wrong.  I don’t like using dark in that way at all because it encourages unconscious race attitudes.”  And so, I apologized.  That’s probably a good learning experience for the students, you know, to see the professor shoveling humble pie.  (laughter)  Probably a better lesson than if I hadn’t made the mistake.  But certainly just to keep on going is not wise.  We’ve got to adjust because it’s built in so deeply into our consciousnesses.  Any assumption that some people are more entitled to the good things of life than others, we’ve just got to root it out of ourselves and out of our language.  And it just isn’t easy, because unconsciously, we really do assume that we deserve and are entitled to the special perks that have been ours.  At least they’ve been ours as long as we have obeyed the structures of patriarchy.  We also assume unconsciously- by that I mean, I have sometimes presented a feminist vision, and then maybe at lunch- I think of one particular time in the middle of a sandwich at lunch with one of the participants.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes and she said, “Virginia, if I implemented what you’re talking about, my marriage would be over.”  And I said, “Well, you’ll make your choices.”  And I knew what choices she was going to make.  And I thought I had maybe just a glimmering of how Christ must have felt, you know, about the rich young ruler.  Will you also just go away?  I mean, she was gonna go away.  And it wasn’t that she hadn’t seen, she Had seen.  But she was a very frank person, and she said, “If I do it, I will lose all my status, if I lose him, I lose my status.”  That’s how you get status, in a patriarchal society.  And she couldn’t face it.  At least at that time.   We assume also unconsciously that all United States’ citizens deserve the perks that are brought to us by multi-national cooperations.  I’m talking about unconscious assumptions that you just have to be at all the time because they keep cropping up again.  If we’re heterosexual, we assume that our sexual orientation is not only the majority orientation, but the only proper and holy orientation and that we’re justified in blocking gay people in enjoying the right to ordination and the right to have relationships celebrated publically and the right to first-class civil rights and tax benefits and so on that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples.  As for our words, most of us have at least learned to refer to the sister as well as the brothers in our congregation.  And the daughters as well as the sons of God.  Most of us, at least in this room, are pretty good at repeating ‘God’ rather than saying he.  But I think our God-language still leaves a lot to be desired.  For one thing, simply using common gender terms will not cut it.  We had a long debate about this on the Inclusive Language Lectionary, because we well knew, for instance we knew that the Lutheran Church would reject the lectionary as we brought it out, because we put Mother in there.  So the debate, the discussion was whether or not to put that- in square brackets all done very open and above-board, because any scholar knows that the square brackets are interpolations.  It was all carefully done.  Very honorable.  But we felt that if a female image is not –I mean an unmistakable female image- is not introduced, you can talk from now until the cows come home about God our creator, our redeemer and sustainer, but the  imagination is still serving up a male creator, redeemer and sustainer until you introduce imagery that is clearly female.  To break that idolatry, the idolatry will not be broken simply by common gender terms or by the repetition of the word God.  Gotta hear that word “She!” Gotta hear that female image.  You can’t break idolatry gently, you know, and weakly.  Gotta take a good swing at it.  That is unless we want to continue the abuses of power and the abuses of personhood that I’ve been talking about.

Let’s take the pronouns that we use concerning the Christ.  How many of us ever image Christ as a woman by using the feminine pronoun to refer to her?  If not, why not?  I know why not.  The obvious answer is that Jesus of Nazareth historically was a human male, and that he was the Christ, therefore the Christ calls for a masculine pronoun.  But Christ was not the last name of Jesus, huh?  (laughter).  Not Jesus’ surname.  That was a title meaning the anointed one.  In order to remind ourselves, we’d better hold up the ‘the’ in front of it.  Jesus THE Christ.  Repeatedly, the Christian scriptures make references to the body of the Christ and to the fact that the followers of Jesus are intended to be the Christ.  Christed.  Anointed.  Doing even greater works than Jesus the Christ did.  Notable among these references is Ephesians 4:15, which I quoted earlier.  “Grow up in every way into the one who is the Head, into Christ.”  Grow up into the Christ.  Become the Christ.  The adult, Christed one.  Throughout the centuries of Christendom, thousands of women have indeed grown up into the Christedness that is our destiny.  And with very little help or recognition from the churchly establishment, if I may say so.  Nevertheless, faith of our mothers’ holy faith.

  If we never call Christ she, we never affirm the Christedness of our mothers, foremothers, of our sisters, and our foresisters.  Let alone of ourselves.

Furthermore, we never affirm that the Christ is depicted as descending from heaven as upon Jesus, and returning into heaven as the second person of the Godhead.  And I remind you that the Godhead in the Bible is presented in images of Mother as well as Father.  Lady-wisdom as well as Lord-Christ.  Woman as well as man.  Holy Child as well as Holy adult.  You know, Lisa Steinburg has certainly dramatized for us what has happened, because children have not been regarded as sacred.  Natural force, the Godhead is also depicted repeatedly in the Scriptures as a natural force, such as wind or water, as well as human and divine.  And I don’t think I need to say too much to you about what is happening to our environment, because we have failed to see that we are living in a divine milieu.  In short, if we want to preach wholeness to our daughters and sons as a way of ensuring that the human race has a future, other than the mushroom cloud, we must learn to affirm the Christedness of females as well as males, and the holiness of our entire earth and all the creatures in it.  Which is not pantheism.  Pantheism denies that God is anything beyond the creation.  I wouldn’t think of limiting God to the creation! How do I know?!  With my puny little mind, all that God is.  But that God is in the Creation, I am persuaded from many passages of Scripture, which speak of the God that is in us and through us, as well as above us.  And I submit that we should preach this with a strong emphasis on Biblical exegesis that utilizes a hermeneutics of liberation.  Let me take those terms one by one.  For several reasons, until very recently, mainline churches have been short on Bible study.  Furthermore, feminist women and men have become keenly aware of the way many Bible stories and injunctions have functioned to oppress, trivialize, and disenfranchise women for centuries.  Therefore, many feminists have come to regard the Bible as the natural enemy of women.  The combination of mainline church people’s biblical illiteracy, combined with feminist rejection of the Bible, has left a vacuum, into which the TV and Radio evangelists have been very happy to step in order to tell the American public what the Bible says one the subject of women, gay people, the discipline of children, and the power relationships within the family.  Ironically, most feminists, and all fundamentalists, are united in believing the most repressive possible interpretations of the Bible.  That women were created to serve men.  That gayness is an abomination.  That children’s wills are broken by corporeal punishment. And that families should be structured with male as the decision maker, the female as the submissive servant and the children as submissive to both parents, but ultimately to the father.  It is to counter the impression that our general impression has about biblical teaching.  That’s what the vast majority of people think it is.  I think we should ground our vision of a more equitable future very firmly in biblical exegesis.  I admit United States’ citizens do not spend very much time pouring over the Bible.  (laughter).  But they don’t like to flout it’s teachings either.  Whether it’s superstitions or what, you know?  Really would rather not.  By taking a respectful stance toward Scripture, and interpreting it in a liberating way, we can show American citizens that there is no Biblical barrier against male/female equity and mutuality.  And at the same time, we can help to break the shackles of those Christians that are afraid to liberate themselves, because they fear to go against the Bible.  Anybody who’s worked in a battered women’s shelter knows that those women have endured the battering because they feel that that’s what God would want of them.  That they must be like Christ on the cross and willingly embrace whatever suffering comes to them.

They desperately need to hear about Eastering, about rising up into newness of life!

By a hermeneutic of liberation, I refer to approaching the Bible by making the law of love or charity our interpretive norm. and by recognizing and teaching that love is not just a feeling, but that doing human justice is the bottom line of love.  Most women have heard enough about how much men love us (murmurs from audience), when we’re not being treated with equity, haven’t we?  After a while, I just got to the point, where I’d be happy to say to people, “You don’t have to love me, just give me a fair shake.  I’ll take it.”  I’ve recently written an article on the hermeneutics of John Milton’s divorce tracks- you know a 17th century poet and theologian- Puritan.  He makes a strong case from the Bible that divorce for incompatibility is not only acceptable but is in fact commended by scripture.  I was surprised to find that Milton insists throughout- I’ve forgotten a lot since I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on John Milton.  You know how things kind of go into your system and you forget where you got them?  So I went back to Milton and I thought, “Oh my, you need to give a little more credit here to somebody who taught you a lot more than you realized!”  So I found that Milton insists throughout, that the ultimate context for interpreting Any and Every passage in the Bible is always the law of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Certainly Milton had some blind spots about what love might entail in the uses of power, but his hermeneutics was a liberating one.  And women and black people in the 18th and 19th centuries recognized Milton as a friend to Liberation.  There’s a recent scholarly book by Joseph Witchwright called Feminist Milton.  Well I’ve always taught Milton as a feminist.  And I was very happy to see a male scholar coming forward, because now the idea will have credibility (laughter).  There are many church leaders to whom I would like to ask a question that Milton raises in the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.  [Quote] “Who shall answer for the perishing of all those souls?  Perishing by stubborn exposition of particular and inferior precepts against the general and supreme rule of charity?” [end quote.]  I’d like to see them lined up to ask them for an answer to that.  One by one by one.  “Who shall answer for the perishing of all those souls?  Perishing by stubborn exposition of particular and inferior precepts against the general and supreme rule of charity.”  It is my belief that many of today’s church leaders will have a great many lives to answer for.

Preaching the Lectionary- a process

I also think it’s important to preach the lectionary on a frequent basis.  I realize I shouldn’t talk too loud here, because I’m not a pastor in a local congregation who is forced to face these every year, or every third year.  But anway.  I back away from saying you should always preach the lectionary.  When tolerable.  When you can tolerate it.  (laughter).  And my reasons are this:  Since the preacher did not pick the lectionary passages, preaching the lectionary puts us in accountability of the larger church community and reassures our listeners that we’re not merely riding our own hobby horse.  It tends to reassure people that liberating message can be found in passages other than the favored few.  Such as Galatians 3:28, or the few passages that do focus on the empowerment of women.  Thirdly, it forces the preacher to use her brains on passages in which she might not originally have seen much promise.  Passages she would never have chosen if she had her druthers.  For instance, the sermon I preached in the Chapel this morning, I preached one other time at Sage Chapel, Cornell University.  Last November 20th.  When the Cornell Chaplain called and asked me to preach and we negotiated November 20th for a date, I asked him for the lectionary passages.  His surprise at my request told me that most preachers at Sage Chapel, and probably most preachers in university chapels everywhere do not preach the lectionary.  Now this strikes me as a tactical error, for those who are feminist anyhow, see, because they’re always imagining that we have gotten up a 20th century plot against Christianity.  See, I really can’t imagine a more important context for liberating Biblical exegesis, liberating feminist biblical exegesis than an academic setting where the future leaders are being educated.  Well, when I saw the lectionary passages for Sunday, November 20th, I was a little sorry I’d asked. (laughter).  To a Christian feminist, who dislikes inflexible hierarchies and domination over other people, Daniel 7 all about eternal kingship and John 18 where Jesus identifies himself as a King were not particularly inviting texts.  My first step was to ask God herself in the depths of my being, to open my eyes to the liberating possibilities within these texts, which at first I was not so sure existed. My second step was to look them up in an inclusive language lectionary so that andocentric language would not blind me to whatever liberating insights might be present in the texts.  My third step was to check out the biblical context of the lectionary passages.  My fourth step was to stimulate my mind (I have bronchitis you understand, I don’t always keep something in my mouth) My fourth step was to stimulate my mind by reading commentaries on the texts and their contexts, always allowing for the patriarchal bias of most of those commentaries.  You can never read them just with your guard down (laughter).  But they help anyway.  My first breakthrough came when I noticed that according to Daniel 7 the Ancient of Days on the fiery throne has hair like pure wool.  Well now we were cookin’ with gas (laughter).  I was galvanized by the image of a God who appears to be African. So then I began to notice other details. That eternal power is given to someone like a human being.  That detail in turn, took me over to the passage from John’s gospel, to the implications that Jesus contrasted the dominion of the world maintained by violence –structural violence, which looks like law and order, unless you’re running underneath looking up, then you know it’s violence- and the peaceable dominion, that is not from this world.  With that in mind, I was able to see the implications of the fact that back in Daniel chapter 7 verse 27, which I saw when I studied the context, the everlasting dominion is a corporate dominion, given to the people of the saints of the most high.  “Their dominion shall be an everlasting dominion.”  Looks more like a commonwealth, huh?  Hence developed the sermon called, “The everlasting commonwealth of the new humanity,” based squarely on two passages of scripture that were not my choice.

My daughters and sons, regardless of their race or their religion or class or sexual orientation, or all those other silly things upon which we define ourselves, instead of recognizing the trans-personal spirit that we all share.  Now nothing I have said should be construed to mean that I oppose story-telling and a narrative preaching style.  By no means. Quaker theologian Zell (?) White describes her experience as a hospital chaplain.  And she comments [quote] “My experience at the hospital made me particularly aware of how easily theology which is not held in tension with the stories of people’s lives may become a liability rather than a positive experience of healing for people in crisis.” [end quote].  So I’m asking that we ground our theology in biblical exegesis, but we always speak about it with a personal voice, from the depths of our own personal experience.  Whenever I read the book of Job, and study it, one of the things I’m most impressed with is that you’re safe if you stick it what you’ve lived.  You get in trouble when you start in on the abstractions.  The stuff you’ve heard, but you haven’t learned it on your own pulses.  Job’s vision of God may have been too narrow, which is what I think he meant when he said, “I repent,” you know?  He was after all a perfect person according to the book of Job, according to the narrator, not just from Job.  According to the voice from the whirlwind too.  But he repented of a narrow vision of God.  Still, God validated that vision.  Why?  Because Job stuck to what he had lived.  He refused to be shaken from it, and whenever I read it I think, “Oh, grant that I may have that kind of courage!”  Because the minute somebody challenges me, I start a waffle inside (makes scared noises) (laughter).  And of course, my experience with incest only serves to intensify the doubt- it couldn’t be what I think it is.  But I want that kind of courage, and I think about that often.  And as I was hearing this afternoon of this gutsy woman who just talked back to Jesus, and changed Jesus’ mind instead of just collapsing under it when she heard that nasty metaphor about a dog (laughing).  She took hold of that metaphor and she turned it around on him (chuckle.)  and changed his mind.

You’ll never preach like me, and there’s no reason why you should.  God calls you to preach like you.  Preferably like you, at your most well-read, most fresh, most creative, most quietly centered personal best, but when you’re feeling bent over, well we need wounded healers too don’t we? 

God Needs You

Being honest about the process is what counts isn’t it?  Being honest about our life process and what it’s teaching us.  God needs our various body-selves.  I’m thinking about Milton’s sonnet on his blindness where he says, “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts.”  And whenever I teach it now, I have to say to the students, “Now that’s Milton’s view, I would like to part company there.  God does need you.”

  If you do not embody all you were meant to be, God will not be completed in a way that was intended, you were intended to embody- to manifest- God in your body, in a way that no one else can do, in a way that no one else in the Whole universe is just like you.  God needs our body selves in order to manifest and incarnate all aspects of her many faceted being and becoming. 

And we need God to help us remember our connectedness to human kind, through our rootedness in God’s very self. In the process of healing and empowerment, by remembering who we are, let us share our healing and empowerment process with anybody who will listen.  I’m at it all the time in my state college classroom.  And I take a certain delight in the fact that I am being paid to swirl underneath patriarchy, and just cut it right out at the roots. (laughter.) I delight in it. (applause.)  Subverting away all the time (laughter.)  Let us both in our works and in our words preach mutually supportive wholeness to our equally sacred daughters and sons.

Thank you for listening.

Question and Answer with Dr. Mollenkott

MODERATOR:  We have a few minutes left tonight, and Virginia’s gracious enough to take questions.  There will also be question time tomorrow at the plenary session tomorrow at 1 o’clock.  Could I ask those of you who are able, and if you ask a question to come down to the mic so that everybody can hear you.

DR. MOLLENKOTT: And I remind you, it doesn’t have to be a question.  You want to say something, just come down.

QUESTION 1:  The faith community that assigns us the readings of the lectionary is the community which I believe is basically an anti-Semitic one.  And, when you suggest that we faithfully, or think about faithfully following the lectionary, I believe that you are suggesting that we use, you do not do this, but that many of us are tempted to use the Old Testament as just pointing to the New.  That everything in the Hebrew Bible is simply a presage of the New.  And this is the kind of thinking, this leads to the kind of philosophy that has undergirded anti-Semitism and the European Holocaust.

DR. MOLLENKOTT:  So right. Now remember I said, preach the lectionary.  I didn’t say whether to support it or not (laughter.)  Now, I think it’s very important, if that’s, if a passage is chosen, I think it’s very important in its own terms, and then make any relationships, making clear that this is what Christians have done with this, this is not necessarily what Jews would do with this.  They have their own terms for these wonderful things we’re talking about and again we’re not squabbling terminology here, we’re working toward a new humanity here.  And we can work together.  But I think that simply- for instance, the passage in Ephesians 5 about the husband being the lord in the home, and the wife being like the Church.  At first, the inclusive language lectionary wouldn’t do it.  I mean, we just at first g;ance, the majority of people wouldn’t even touch it.  I thought it was a mistake.  I think it’s a mistake not to touch that passage.  That passage is far more egalitarian than the traditional readings have ever admitted.  And when we finally did approach it, I think we did a fairly good job of lifting up the more egalitarian aspects of it.  To ignore it, leaves it standing there in people’s minds as the repressive thing it has been used to be.  To leave the anti-Semitic use of the Old Testament and not to preach the lectionary, to ignore the lectionary because it does that is to leave in people’s minds the idea that Judaism was only there as a prelude to Christianity.  But if you’ll talk about it in its own terms sometimes in the course of preaching, talk about it in its own terms and address the issue of Christian anti-Semitism utilizing the very passages that were picked out for other purposes.  That’s what I mean by subverting.  I fully agree with Rosemary Reuther’s concept that the way to bring Liberation is pick up people’s own language and turn it around.  That’s why I get such a kick out of the Syro-Phoenecian woman, taking Jesus’ own metaphor about the dogs and turning it around so that he would see it a different way.  The Church has talked a good line for a long time about the great people among us being the servants and all that good stuff.  But it hasn’t been enacted.  And so, I think we need to just keep lifting up.  I mean, by those terms, women are the greatest of the great, huh?  But that hasn’t really been society’s attitude, or the Church’s attitude either.  So I think what we need to do, is just go ahead and use the passages they have picked and turn them into the incendiary devices that they can be to swirl underneath the very foundations of patriarchy, including the anti-Semitic overtones and undertones, which are appalling me more and more every year that I live.  Easter sermons, oh my God.  Every year.  Ok.

QUESTION 2:  Well, I’m very concerned about the earth.  And my own denomination, which is UCC, has a national network.  So I just want people to know- also the Quakers are doing this and possibly other people, so if people want to catch me during the symposium, I’d like to network with people who are working on that sort of thing.  And the other one is TV violence, I know another group about that, so.  And speaking of one more tickets, I think TV really is a one-way street.  That’s my other cause, so.

DR. MOLLENKOTT: Thank you.

QUESTION 2: Catch me.

DR. MOLLENKOTT: Anyone else have a comment or a question?

QUESTION 3:  Yeah, I, I wanted to thank you for the fact that in this morning’s sermon you made a very fruitful connection between Christ nature and Buddha nature and Goddess within.  And thereby opening to the inter-religious kind of connection of other spiritualities.  As a goddess worshipper, I have, and in the context of BU School of Theology, I have often found that I feel like I’m working across purposes, in that I feel like my spirituality does have a lot of connections, but that I have not stumbled on useful language that doesn’t wind up threatening either me or the other person, or both of us and we all go away going, “Ah.”  So, I found that really helpful.

DR. MOLLENKOTT: Thank you.  I’ve learned a lot from inter-religious dialogue, as you can imagine coming from Protestant Fundamentalism as I did.  I was unconsciously terribly exclusive, and in my language and had gradually to wake up.  Also, I did not have the advantage of Seminary, and so I have to learn it gradually, largely from being confronted (laughing) or told off.  It has been tremendously helpful to me just to listen to how things feel to my sisters from other faith traditions.  And it’s not Syncretism!  It’s simply that you respect every body else’s experience and they respect yours.  Therefore, I regard inter-religious dialogue as a very important peace making work.  Because if we are ever to have peace, it will be through allowing other people to be who they are, rather than trying to hammer out some kind of agreement between people.  When I see the hard times the Ecumenical movement has fallen on- and all they’re trying to do is get Lutherans and Episcopalians together or something, you know, (laughter?)  Good grief.  (laughter.)  When you’re talking Muslims and Orthodox Jews and Buddhists, and now you’re talking Ecumenism.  It’s more difficult areas now.  But until we can allow the other to be the other without implying a one up, one down, which is what patriarchy has taught us we must always do, we must always hierarchize everything, then I think peace is a fur piece away.

QUESTION 4:  How do you balance the pastoral task with the prophetic in a parish setting, specifically with women who, when they begin to hear this prophetic word experience such a sense of loss over everything that they have known, lived, those who are comfortable.  How do you handle that pastoral task in balance with the prophetic?

DR. MOLLENKOTT: Well you know a lot more about that than I do.  See my only way of understanding that would be to translate it into the classroom where I have the ongoing.  I mean, it’s one thing to come in like this and lecture and leave (laughter.) Especially in a local church situation.  You lecture you stir up the orders and you leave again and you leave the pastor there to cope.

QUESTION 4:  Yeah, I’d like to see your “How To” book on that really, someday.

DR. MOLLENKOTT: mmmm.  (laughter)  I just know that I teach mainly through affirmation.  I believe in public praise and private blame.  I never read a paper out loud to trash it.  I read the paper out loud only to praise it, and then to slide in sideways a few little suggestions about how it could be even better.  Even better, see that’s the way it’s said, see.  And so, we have to find ways- there’s always something you can praise about a human being, wherever they are in their process and struggle. There’s always something you can praise and affirm.  And that’s the first thing you do.  As for- some things I just think you have to wait for life to teach.  That is for instance, that I am aware, that there are many young women in seminaries who do not have enough of a sense of history to know that there were people who shed psychological blood to get them into seminary.  They don’t know that anymore.  They’re not at all feminist.  But my feeling is give them ten years out there (laughter.)  And if they’ve got anything upstairs and anything in here, life will teach them that this is a patriarchal set up and that change is very very necessary.  So, in a sense it’s a matter of waiting people out and kind of being there alongside.  In my own family, my practice has been just to wait them out.  My brother essentially excommunicated me.  In the Plymouth Brethren we call it reading people out, right?  You read them out of the assembly; you read them out of the community.  You would not.  Such a one would know not to eat, I was such a heretic, you see.  But I waited him out.  And now he’s suffered a lot, and he’s been at our home, Deborah’s and my home the last couple of Christmases, because he was in suffering and he needed somebody to love him, and I’ve been loving him all along.  And the rest of my family is so old and sick, that it’s real hard to reject people, or to hold up doctrinal behavioral differences when you’re sick and they’re coming, and entertaining you with interesting stories in the hospital and bringing you presents (laughter.)  So we’re all healed up, you know?  I won’t say it’s a mutual relationship; it’s not a mutual relationship.  They don’t want to know what my life feels like.  And I’m fascinated, very interested in caring how their lives feel.  They’re not interested in how my life feels to me.  But, that’s ok too.  You know?  I would rather have a mutual relationship, but I’ll take what I can get.  That is, I will simply affirm their humanity.  We’re human beings here together on planet earth.  That’s enough.  That’s enough.

QUESTION 5:  I’ve just been through the process of evaluating 11 candidates for ordination in the Methodist Church or Deacons candidates.  And of those candidates who were female in the committee that I was at, if any one of them mentioned, 1/8 of the information you were, have been sharing with us this evening, they were graded down by several members of that committee.  Particularly, not saying that Christ is one and only.  Saying anything about participating with other world religions, if they had made any of the statements about Judaism that have been made from this platform that would have been held against them by several members of that committee.  And they would be considered not of the quality at this time to be ordained for the Christian ministry.  And in some cases, those are real struggles right to the end, because they couldn’t choose only a formula, patriarchal formula.  I guess my question is number 1, I want you to heal me about that process.  And number 2 is that I want somebody to say, “What is the hope then?”  The experience is that there are, there is no one who was on the committee is with me here today.  They don’t know that women in seminary hear this information, number one, and so they are still doing the thing of “You invented that didn’t you, when you came in the door?”  And, so I want some insight as to what it is, how we can work with the church to reform those, number 1.  Number 2, why would we want to, in a sense?  Both of those struggle within me.

DR. MOLLENKOTT: In the first place, I wouldn’t be saying these things if I were committed to a ministry in a United Methodist church.  Say, that I am United Methodist to the core, and that that’s the only church in which I could possibly see myself ministering.  It’s my calling; it’s my vocation.  When I’m candidating, I would really shudder down, because um, (laughter and applause) what we have to understand, and this would have horrified me to hear myself say this ten years ago, but, look, we are in occupied territory.  This is not our country.  I had a lot of simple ideas about ethics before I really studied the French Resistance Movement, say. (laughter).  I thought certain things were always wrong, like murder- that’s always wrong- until I found out about Bonheoffer talking part in a plot against Hitler’s life.  And I knew he wasn’t wrong to try that.  And he lost his own life for it.  He became one of my heroes of the faith.  Lying, well, you know?  Bonheoffer wrote about the necessity of lying, how important some lies are.  I never heard Bonheoffer take it on a chin for that the way I’ve heard various feminists take it on a chin for saying that sometimes we have to be subversive.  I heard Elizabeth Bettenhausen (?) really get raked for that! (applause).  But not Bonheoffer.  But the fact is, sometimes, one must lie.  If you want a certain ministry, you gotta get your foot in there, don’t you?  And the door’s gonna slam right on the toes if you say all.  So you lie.  Like the Hebrew midwives whom God blessed (Amens and applause).  Like Rahab whom committed civil disobedience and lied, and was blessed and all her family was saved for it.

QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE (not in microphone):  How do you balance sometimes do that and maintain integrity?

DR. MOLLENKOTT:  Well, you feel guilty every time you do it.  You go through paroxysms every time you do it. You have a community of people to whom you are accountable, and you tell them what you’ve done.  I mean, even if it’s only one other person and you tell them what you’ve done and why you felt you had to do it.  But you do it.  Because you have to.  I’ve talked to feminists who have done it.  A Presbyterian woman said to me, “If I am going in front of this committee, and they’re going to ask me if I believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and they’re not going to take any side-stepping.  If I say ‘Oh, I believe in the Trinity.’  They’ll say, ‘Oh, but do you believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?’”  And I said, “Lie.”  (laughter).  Say yes.  Now let me just, before we get to anything else, answer the other part.  Why does it matter?  One of the biggest helps to me was something written by a woman from Bangladesh, whose name I can’t remember, an Islamic woman, who was horrified at what was done by Islamic fundamentalists to the people of Bangladesh.  Tremendous looting, raping, murder.  Because the Islamic fundamentalists had felt that the Bangladesh culture had become much too –worldly.  Of course her heart broke because she was a committed worshipper in that faith tradition.  And she struggled with it. But what she came it was, “I came to my concept of who I am, and what is right and wrong through Islam.  Islamic is what I am.  So I will dedicate the rest of my life to showing people that what was done is contrary- totally contrary- to the spirit of Islam.”  And I tell you, I dedicate my life to showing the world that Patriarchal attitudes, and the dominance and submission that is still at work in most Christian churches is totally contrary to the spirit of the Christ (applause!)  “But to whom shall I go, thou has the words of eternal life.”  For me, that’s true.  I can’t just, you know, flip over and be something else for a while.  This is who I am.  This is how I got my concept of right and wrong.  And so I will work with the Bible in particular, you understand that Protestant Fundamentalists are essentially bibliolaters.  I don’t worship the text anymore, but I still respect the text.  And I don’t want the devil to have all the good stuff (laughter.)  Ok, now if the gentleman…

QUESTION 6: I was just going to give an illustration on the ethics question.  Back when I was being ordained- this is not a personal story, but an observation- in Indiana of some ministers were very concerned about the issue of smoking.  And they- ministers- had to promise not to smoke to be ordained.  And so, a few ministers who were honest weren’t- they didn’t even smoke, but they wouldn’t promise not to.  They thought it was wrong to do that.  So, they didn’t get ordained, and liars did.

DR. MOLLENKOTT:  That’s right, yes.  This of course also, of tremendous importance to the gay community.  To the gay Christians- many of whom, there’s a disproportionate number of gay people who want to work in spiritual care areas.  You know, my people are a very spiritual people!  And so, you find them knocking on the doors, “Let me serve!  Let me serve!”  And being turned away.  And many of them have decided to essentially to, pass as heterosexual people.  This is very difficult.  That was the cross I carried for many years when I was ministering from inside the closet.  And my feeling always was:  I am going to make myself a reputation, and then I am going to kick that closet door from here to Bezuvi (?)! Which is exactly what I did!  See because, the punishment they give you, if you come out too soon- I would have become a professional gay person, never asked to speak on any subject other than that.  That’s what they do to you.  They narrow you into this one little area.  Ghetto-ize you.  So I tried to establish my interest in many areas, and then I said, “Hey!”  (laughter)  And I think every gay person incidently, I know that there are gay people here, who are serving God, in a church, in a church which would not permit them to have their ministry if they were open about who they are.  And I understand it.  And I affirm that you must do that until the Spirit says to you, “Okay, now baby, Let her rip!” (laughter).  You know, can’t do it! You gotta wait until such time.  But I would say this to you.  I sincerely hope that before you die, that you will kick open the closet door so that the Church will know.  I mean the day after you retire (LAUGHTER and applause.)  You gotta do it and do it and do it!  Until the Church realizes how many of us there are, and how devoted we are.  And how loving we are.  So just, okay, if you’ve gotta have a closeted ministry.  Alright, I understand the nature of living in occupied territory.  But do make plans.  Or if you can’t even do it after you retire, leave posthumous information or something (Laughing.)  (laughter.)  But don’t let the church get away with using all that good gay energy without ever acknowledging it!  (applause.)

MODERATOR:  That’s quite an ending.  (laughter.)  I remind you that there is more time tomorrow to dialogue with Virginia, and thank you all for coming again tonight.



Books Mentioned in the Course of the Lecture:

The Divine Feminine: Biblical Imagery of God as Female- Virginia Mollenkott

Women, Men, and the Bible- Virginia Mollenkott

Feminist Milton- Joseph Witchwright

Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce- John Milton (on whom she wrote her dissertation and references here because of his liberating hermeneutic.)