Historical examples? You can see elements of what I'm talking about in the civil rights movement in the USA, women's suffrage in the UK, Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh Language Society)'s campaign to save the Welsh language, the long haul to abolish slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (a story that is still not over), the attempt to get the South African government to acknowledge the spread of AIDS, the movement toward same sex civil partnerships and in the struggles of people with learning disabilities to be allowed to live as adults with the normal freedoms regarding their own education and reproductive life. There comes a point in most campaigns, just as the new order is almost within reach, that will be marked by vocal opposition and delaying tactics. In some campaigns, the use of violence, physical or verbal, breaks out on one side or both. This conflict stage can last a long time. It may be heralded as the catalyst for resolution but is seldom, of itself, decisive. If the phenomenon is not anticipated and planned for, it leads to a collapse in morale among those who may have done sterling work over many years to bring to light injustices and work for change. It can also seriously undermine an institution or organisation as people begin to ask, 'Is this worth all the effort and apparent chaos? ' (The classic argument at this stage is, 'We could be putting our energy into something so much more important.')
To come back to my title. The situation we have with women bishops is that while the vast majority are persuaded, there is a disproportionate amount of effort being put into strategies that make the final goal impossible. So, while I can guarantee a large audience for an article like this, suggesting that people think the recognition of the feminine in God and the life of faith is very important, I can be equally sure that the ideas it contains will spawn opposition which will be, in its own terms, effective in lending resistance. (This leads to the 'This is undermining our belief in reconciliation, unity and peace so we won't say anything,' argument and ultimately to voicelessness.)
Many people will say that emancipation is not a biblical or theological idea. They will point to the notion that it is a political concept to do with human rights. The word itself comes from the Latin 'ex manus capere' - to take from the hand and, in its earliest uses, usually denotes an extending of welcome or accepted status to those who were previously disenfranchised. Now, although this can indeed be understood in terms of the procurement of political rights, it is, I believe, just as valid to understand it in theological terms as the process of setting people free to be who they are in the image of God. Enter the Exodus narrative which is, for the Abrahamic faiths, the definitive story of God's desire to emancipate people from the chains that ensnare them and tie them to treatment that diminishes their humanity as well the imago Dei in them. Rabbi Dr Kenneth Chelst writes movingly in his book, Exodus and Emancipation, about the original exodus as akin to the experiences of African American slaves. Both peoples suffered centuries-long persecution. Emancipation is not over and against the biblical tradition - some kind of lesser secular value - but right at the heart of it. Of course, right there in the Exodus narrative we find most of the elements of opposition, conflict, self doubt, low morale and collusion in one's own adverse fate that I've mentioned above.
|Kenneth Chelst, Urim Publications 2009|
Exclusion itself is not necessarily a bad thing. To exclude a group of children from an activity that is beyond their strength and ability might be a very commendable thing, serving the children's best interests. However, when a group of people persistently report that their exclusion is harmful and where means of discussion and development are denied, this is a strong clue that exclusion contains elements of oppression. History shows that the journey from exclusion to acceptance is always a political one. Sometimes the issue in hand is deemed to be of lesser significance than other more pressing issues and therein lies another danger (the 'These people don't know they are born compared to someone else' argument.) Again, feminist insight suggests that all forms of exclusion and oppression are linked in subtle and complex ways so that denial of one group's plight shapes, at a very deep level, what it is then possible to think and say about other groups. A few years ago a Nigerian student of mine did some empirical research across the university about attitudes to oppression. In the group he surveyed, he found that those who held the opinion that 'lesser' kinds of oppression are worth challenging were nearly three times as likely to be actively engaged in campaigning against more serious forms of oppression and exclusion.
Do I detect that we have gone a bit soft on all this? The path to any form of change that involves a previously less acceptable group being included in mainstream activity is never easy and always costly.