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Earth, Wind, Fire, Water…Women (Part One)

It’s a sign of the times when Rosemary Radford Ruether, one of the most significant feminist thinkers of all time, takes the platform in an Adventist institution. Ruether, in addition to being a feminist, is a Catholic scholar who favors women’s ordination and women’s reproductive freedom.

It is also telling that when Ruether stood to speak on ecofeminism last Saturday afternoon in the La Sierra University Church, which can hold over 1,000 people, fewer than 150 people sat in attendance.

The second annual Young Women and the Word conference, hosted by the Women’s Resource Center and the La Sierra University School of Religion, brought Advensits scholars, clergy, students and laity into conversation on ecofeminism for the first time in the history of the church.

The weekend conference included a vespers program, two church services, a Sabbath School presentation, an afternoon lecture, a panel discussion, several breakout sessions, a film screening and service projects.

Kevin Kakazu, a LSU graduate student in religion and professor of Greek, shares his reflections on the Friday evening and Saturday morning portions of the weekend:

    Trisha Famisaran, the primary organizer of the conference, welcomes all of us and introduces the speaker. She is very pregnant and I am filled with awe and respect for anyone who would take on the task of organizing something like this while also carrying a baby.

    Jared Wright is the speaker. Jared and I have been classmates in the Master’s program at LSU the past two years. Jared apologizes for being a man opening a conference about ecofeminism. Memorable points from his talk:

    In many languages, the meanings of words change profoundly depending on where one puts the accent. In Spanish, “I speak Spanish” and “S/he spoke Spanish” look and sound exactly the same except for the accent. Jared gives a bunch of other examples [people converse–I wear Converse; she moped around the house–I ride a moped], complete with images.

    Likewise, in biblical interpretation, the meaning one gets from texts depends on where one puts the “accent,” or what one chooses to emphasize. Jared brings up the point that there are TWO creation stories in Genesis (chapters 1 and 2), and depending on which one is emphasized, an interpreter can come away with very different interpretations.

    Genesis 1 is grand and huge, and God commands people to populate the earth and rule over it. Genesis 2 is more earthy (literally), and the picture is much more intimate. Not only does God form a human and give the breath of life, but God also creates animals to help the human and gives the human the task of naming the animals.

    Regarding the place of woman in the creation, is she a helper to the man (to cook, clean, “support” in general—but never lead), or is she the one longed for, the completion, the “crown jewel” of creation? Both can come out of the text—depending on where we put the “accent.” The challenge, then, is to look closely at our own interpretations or those of our communities, see what we emphasize, and then question whether those interpretations are faithful to Scripture and experience. Jared suggests that accenting a caring, intimate relationship with earth–and empowered justice for women–is, in fact, biblical, and suggests exciting possibilities for making a better world.

Commenting on Sabbath’s services, Kevin continues:

    The second day of the conference proved to be a lovely day. It was also scheduled to be a long day, but one full of good stuff.

    Sabbath School speaker is Somer Penington, a classmate and friend of mine. Unfortunately, Amanda and I don’t get to the church until 10 (the service started at 9:30)—one drawback of attending a church where SS doesn’t start until 10. We catch the last five minutes of Somer’s comments.

Somer Penington

    [Somer did a literary analysis of Job chapter 28 focusing on the verbs that characterize man (cuts, dangles, sways, assaults, tunnels, lays bare…verbs that suggest exploiting and taking the riches from the ground) compared with the verbs that characterize God (understands, knows, views, sees, established, appraised, confirmed…verbs that suggest wisdom, which Somer notes is the text’s feminine character).]

    Two students from SIFE get up and do a presentation. SIFE does presentations at local schools promoting sustainable enterprise, and also has a project going on in Ethiopia focusing on the same.


Ford and Wilson

    Heide Ford and Halcyon Wilson from the Women’s Resource Center welcome everyone to the service. It seems that this is both a regular worship service at the LSU church and a special program for the Young Women and the Word conference. I wonder how that will go–those who came for the conference would obviously be prepared for (and in agreement with) the ecofeminist message. But I wonder how it will play with the normal congregation.

    It’s inspiring to see the whole service being led by women—young women in particular. I recognize many of the participants from the time I spend on campus around the School of Religion and hope that this continues. Amanda (Kevin’s wife) really liked the morning prayer given by Dierdre Raymond. Perhaps I will see these women leading churches at some point. Hey, the head pastor of this very church is a woman and graduate of LSU. Hope–I have it!

    Even as I have hope, we do have a long way to go. Having women leading worship services and preaching at a college church are positive steps. But we are SO far from truly embracing equality and affirming the dignity and worth of women. That won’t happen until we seriously reconsider the way we read the Bible, taking its vision of equality and using it to critique some bedrock cultural assumptions about men and women.

    Back to the service: The music, once again, is wonderful. The praise song “Agnus Dei” is…transcendent. Pictures of nature accompany each song. The slides for “God of Wonders” feature what look like images from the Hubble Deep Field, appropriate for the words (“God of wonders, beyond our galaxy…”).

    Chris Oberg’s sermon is entitled “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” Bonus points at the very beginning for the Kermit the Frog reference. She has problems with the earpiece mic at first and jokes that this is going to be a bad sermon. Once she gets going, though…well, read on.

    According to Pastor Oberg, Adventists have had a problem getting behind ecological preservation, because we’re so focused on the Second Coming. There is a major current of thought that asks why it’s important to preserve the earth if God’s just going to hit the reset button and burn it all anyway. If “this world is not my home,” why worry about cleaning up after ourselves? “I just can’t feel at home in this world” anyway.

    But what if there was another possibility? According to Genesis 1, God created the world, speaking it into existence not so much with a command as an invitation. “Let there be…” Really profound question posed by the pastor: How many verses are dedicated to humans in the story? We’re only a small part of God’s creation. The pinnacle? Perhaps. But we’re just one part of God’s labor, and the first blessing given by God is on creatures, not us. If only we showed the same care for the rest of creation as the Creator did…

Chris Oberg

    Genesis 2 shows similar concerns. God is the owner and caretaker of the garden. The animals are created as companions for humanity. At the end of the chapter, there is harmony, balance and intimacy—God with creation, man with woman, plants and animals and people and the earth. Then in Genesis 3, everything goes wrong. The perfectly balanced universe flies apart at an alarming rate. Within a few chapters, lacerations appear all over the creation—murder, destruction, rape, oppression, “power over” replacing “power with” both nature and women.

    Pastor Oberg then takes something of an aside: There is a temptation to see these verses as historical events and to bind ourselves to them as history. Pastor Oberg suggests that nothing is gained by loading these texts into our sawed-off Scriptural shotguns and wading in looking for fights. It doesn’t help to argue—“and it doesn’t convert anyone.”

    We then move to Revelation 21 and 22. There we see the same God as we did in Genesis 1 and 2. The same God who made everything says “I am making everything new.” [The same God who hovers over creation like an eagle brooding over its young chicks is the same God we encounter at the end of the story.]

    Everything marred and scarred by sin, “bleared/smeared with toil,” is made new…but, the Oberg points out, the New Jerusalem comes down to dwell on this earth. The earth made new, but it’s the same earth. We are not waiting to escape this world, but are looking forward to God making the earth new. And what we leave behind is what God has to work with. Pastor Oberg concludes that “heaven and earth are not in competition in the Adventist story.”

Dierdre Raymond

    Can Adventists be leaders in this movement? Can we lead people in singing a new song? Pastor Oberg gives some tangible (and mostly easy) things we can do to make this world a better place. A few:

    –Take reusable shopping bags instead of using plastic disposable ones

    –Take Tupperware to restaurants for take-home food

    –Recycle, reduce, reuse

    –A hard one: Seriously evaluate each of our lifestyles according to the question: “Who does this practice harm?”

    Looking forward to the Advent hope does not mean bringing about The End. It means that we look forward to see a vision of what God’s future looks like—and then bring that vision into the world today. The kingdom of God is among us now, and we can lead the world in a new song of salvation.

    A great talk, and I was prepared to go out and do everything the pastor said. What I was not prepared for was the next element of the service. The singers came out and led us in the musical version of the Lord’s Prayer, and the powerpoint images came up.

    Except this time the slides weren’t images of grass blowing in the wind or magnificent galaxies. As we sang the words, we saw images of waste, consumption, environmental destruction. It felt like a kick in the gut. As I watched a polar bear clinging to a tiny patch of ice, I sang “Thy kingdom come/Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and I found myself unable to sing anymore, because I was crying. There in the middle of the church service. Those of you who know me, I’m pretty much the stoic, inscrutable Asian man (at least in public), and I sure as heck don’t cry in church. But the images kept coming—clearcut forests, disappearing wetlands, “development” replacing nature—and the tears kept coming, too, especially as we choked out “Forgive us our debts…” The images had me saying “It’s too late, it’s too late, we’ve killed them, we’ve killed ourselves,” but yet Pastor Oberg’s closing words challenged that assertion—It is not too late to sing a new song.

    I only hope she’s right. I pray she’s right.

All photos courtesy of Briana Famisaran.

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