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RELIGION

Swiss “Woman’s Bible” offers feminist theology for #metoo moment

Tired of seeing their holy texts used to justify the subjugation of women, a group of feminist theologians from across the Protestant-Catholic divide have joined forces to draft "A Women's Bible".

Swiss
Geneva theology professors Elisabeth Parmentier (L) and Lauriane Savoy pose under the reformation wall in Geneva with a edition of "A Women's Bible". Photo: AFP

As the #MeToo movement continues to expose sexual abuse across cultures and industries, some scholars of Christianity are clamouring for a reckoning with biblical interpretations they say have entrenched negative images of women. 

The women we know from translations and interpretations of Bible texts are servants, prostitutes or saints, seen dancing for a king or kneeling to kiss Jesus' feet.

Read also: Quiz- How well do you know these key dates in Swiss history

But while many feminists have called for The Bible, Christianity and religion altogether to be cast aside, an eclectic group of theologians instead insists that if interpreted properly, the Good Book can be a tool for 
promoting women's emancipation.

'Feminist values'

“Feminist values and reading the Bible are not incompatible,” insisted Lauriane Savoy, one of two Geneva theology professors behind the push to draft “Une Bible des Femmes” (“A Women's Bible”), which was published in October.

'A woman's bible' contains texts challenging traditional interpretations of Bible scriptures. Photo: AFP

The professor at the Theology Faculty in Geneva, which was established by the father of Calvinism himself in 1559, said the idea for the work came after she and her colleague Elisabeth Parmentier noticed how little most people knew or understood of the biblical texts.

“A lot of people thought they were completely outdated with no relevance to today's values of equality,” the 33-year-old told AFP, standing under the towering sculptures of Jean Calvin and other Protestant founders on the University of Geneva campus.

Read also: 14 fascinating facts about the history of women's rights in Switzerland

In a bid to counter such notions, Savoy and Parmentier, 57, joined forces with 18 other woman theologians from a range of countries and Christian denominations.

The scholars have created a collection of texts challenging traditional interpretations of Bible scriptures that cast women characters as weak and subordinate to the men around them.

Parmentier points to a passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus visits two sisters, Martha and Mary.

“It says that Martha ensures the “service”, which has been interpreted to mean that she served the food, but the Greek word diakonia can also have other meanings, for instance it could mean she was a deacon,” she pointed out.

Overturning religious orthodoxy

They are not the first to provide a more women-friendly reading of the scriptures. 

Already back in 1898, American suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of 26 other women drafted “The Woman's Bible”, aimed at overturning religious orthodoxy that women should be subservient to men.

The two Geneva theology professors say they were inspired by that work, and had initially planned to simply translate it to French.

But after determining that the 120-year-old text was too outdated, they decided to create a new work that could resonate in the 21st century.

“We wanted to work in an ecumenical way,” Parmentier said, stressing that around half the women involved in the project are Catholic and the other half from a number of branches of Protestantism.

In the introduction to the “Women's Bible”, the authors said that the chapters were meant to “scrutinise shifts in the Christian tradition, things that have remained concealed, tendentious translations, partial interpretations.”

'Lingering patriarchal readings'

They take to task “the lingering patriarchal readings that have justified numerous restrictions and bans on women,” the authors wrote. 

Savoy said that Mary Magdalene, “the female character who appears the most in the Gospels”, had been given a raw deal in many common interpretations of the texts.

“She stood by Jesus, including as he was dying on the cross, when all of the male disciples were afraid. She was the first one to go to his tomb and to discover his resurrection,” she pointed out.

“This is a fundamental character, but she is described as a prostitute, …and even as Jesus's lover in recent fiction.”

The scholars also go to great lengths to place the texts in their historical context.

“We are fighting against a literal reading of the texts,” Parmentier said, pointing for instance to letters sent by Saint Paul to nascent Christian communities.

Reading passages from those letters, which could easily be construed as radically anti-feminist, as instructions for how women should be treated today is insane, she said.

“It's like taking a letter someone sends to give advice as being valid for all eternity.”

The theologians' texts also approach the Bible through different themes, like the body, seduction, motherhood and subordination.

The authors say they consider their work a useful tool in the age of #MeToo.

“Each chapter addresses existential questions for women, questions they are still asking themselves today,” Parmentier said.

“While some say that you have to throw out the Bible to be a feminist, we believe the opposite.”

OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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