Jesus in Gender Trouble (1)

Article excerpt

The seminal question posed by feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Can a male saviour redeem and save wo/men?" (2) sounds like an innocent question, one that could be raised by a child. But it was not a simple question, because it introduced the particular into an area that in Christian thought was considered to be universal: the belief in Jesus/Christ (3) as saviour for all of humanity. That question unmasked both "saviour" and "humanity" and pointed out that these "universal" concepts in reality were gendered and had privileged the masculine. (4) And that was the case not only in the praxis of the church and the world that was shaped by Christianity, but also in the very structure of language, philosophy and theology. Christianity and its formulations of faith with regard to Jesus/Christ and humanity are gendered. And once these terms are gendered, as "male saviour" and "wo/men" it is impossible to return to the previous state of innocence. The net result of this is that the gender issue is not just "an issue" to be added onto the list of issues within ethics and anthropology, but it changes Christian reflection and discourse in a groundbreaking way.

Christology is the most important issue in feminist theology in the 20th century, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza says, (5) and feminist theologians have been engaged in discussing the gender of Jesus/Christ in relations to wo/men. In the process they have been part of the discussion of women's gender, personhood, and identity in dialogue with the most sophisticated literary, philosophical and psychological studies. (6) As a result, "women" in the original question is no longer (if it ever was) understood in an essentialist fashion, as a unified term. Rather, the differences and diversities in context and experience have become important, not least in terms of race and class, so that women speak with very many different voices. (7)

How have "men" responded to this? I write "men" because men are not to be essentialized either, as a singular group; (8) I am speaking of male scholars in the field of Biblical studies and theology. Some have engaged in a critical revising of Christian traditions to employ these traditions in the work for justice for women, and to make women visible within expressions of tradition. But so far there has been a lack of interaction with the rich theoretical works undertaken by many women. Another way to respond is to use the gender perspective to investigate and unmask the male/the masculine from a male position. However, interest in critical studies of masculinity lagged far behind feminist studies. The result of feminist studies was therefore many differentiated positions on women and women's experiences, whereas "the male" often remained a singular category. Thus, it is only belatedly that studies of the constructed nature of masculinity and its many different forms have been taken up and developed, especially in literary and cultural studies. (9)

This study will try to go in this direction. It is inspired by feminist criticism to question the way in which Jesus/Christ and "humanity" has been gendered masculine, but it is questioning from a queer position, i.e. from another marginal male position vis-a-vis a hegemonic masculinity rather than that of feminist/womanist etc. interpreters. (10)

In this essay, I shall first indicate some ways in which male theologians have presented Jesus and wo/men from and within "male-stream" positions, before I give a queer position a try. (11)

I. Jesus/Christ in Male Places

The Historical Jesus as men's place

Historical Jesus studies started in the 19th century as a white man's study, within the context of imperialism and nationalism in Europe. If one looks at historical Jesus studies 150 years later, it is still very much a white men's domain, now with its main centers in North America. (12) Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza has in several books outlined a study of Jesus from a feminist perspective, (13) but has rightly complained that male scholars have not seriously engaged with her position. …