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Toward a Feminist Postmodern and Postcolonial Interpretation of Sin-4

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     I have argued via a reading of the Hagar-Sarah story that this approach shows promise for conceptualizing women's sin in ways that move beyond restrictive oppressor/oppressed essentialisms; however, essentialization is only one of the insufficiencies in feminist theology mentioned at the outset of this essay—the other being the problem of privileged heterosexuality. The biblical Sarah-Hagar story, not surprisingly, plays out in a context of normative heterosexual reproductivity. My feminist poststructuralist approach to construing sin in that story did not destabilize that regime, nor was I able to essentialize strategically any sexual identity outside of compulsory heterosexuality. Here we see a limitation of poststructuralist and postcolonial theories, which suggests that one would need a hermeneutical strategy specifically oriented to reading past the story's heteronormativity—a strategy often referred to as "queering" a text.85 This hermeneutic destabilizes heterosexuality not by finding historical evidence of nonheterosexual identities (often impossible to do, especially in ancient texts) but by reading homo- and/or gyno-eroticism into a text like the Bible, thereby unsettling contemporary assumptions of what is sexually normative and what is "deviant" (a dictionary definition of "queer"). Queering the Bible has been classified as a type of reader-response criticism86 and is related to a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion and retrieval.87 The Bible, from a queer perspective is read sometimes as a "text of terror" and other times as a "friendly text" with stories about characters that can "function as queer ancestors of faith."88 It is beyond the purview of this essay to queer the Hagar-Sarah story; however, given that I have argued so adamantly against the implicit heterosexual privilege in the feminist appeals to the Genesis accounts of creation, I would be remiss not to at least indicate that a queer hermeneutics would entertain the (insurrectional) possibility that Sarah and Hagar—like Ruth and Naomi, for example—could function as queer ancestors of faith.89

     This proposal toward a feminist postmodern and postcolonial interpretation of sin hopefully marks an advance over previous proposals by virtue of the way it avoids (1) an oppressor/oppressed essentialism in discussions of structural sin and (2) the heterosexual privilege entailed in uncritical appeals to a natural sex binarism. However, I also believe this proposal can reinforce the important agendas I mentioned at the outset of this essay that have for years been woven throughout womanist, white feminist, ecofeminist, lesbian, and other women-oriented writings on sin. Those agendas include, for one, protecting and strengthening the ability to appeal to the principle of women created in the image of God as found in the Genesis 1 text. This is a motivating factor especially for those feminists who situate sin in terms of a doctrine of creation. I strongly endorse this agenda and believe my poststructuralist construal of the imago dei in terms of discursive identity performativity protects this principle for feminist theological use. Freeing this Genesis-based notion from any assumption about a natural male/female binarism will disassociate the appeal to creation in the image of God from the unwanted entailment of a privileged compulsory heterosexuality.

     A second longstanding feminist theological agenda I support is healing what has historically separated men and women. This agenda is vitally important in patriarchal and demonarchal society, and I believe that the most successful efforts in this area (both on interpersonal and societal levels) are compatible with my theoretical position. Men and women need to find new and better ways of relating (e.g., for many men, less androcentrically defiant, and for many women, less weakly self-effacing, as Kierkegaardian feminists might say). As men and women learn to transcend these traditional ways of being, they can see that healthy, productive gender roles are not biologically determined or God given; rather these roles must be creatively negotiated and renegotiated. A poststructuralist approach to gender, sex, and sexuality provides tools to expose how constructed we are and, thus, how open we should be to a diversity of identity performances.

     Valorizing women's ways of being and attending to women's experiences of sin is a widespread feminist agenda (reflected, for example, in the writings of Saiving and Plaskow). There is much dispute among feminists about what constitutes valuable women's ways of being. Ruether, at times, criticizes traditional feminine ways of dressing and forms of domestic labor.90 However, given that many women do find pleasure in performing certain gender conventions—especially ones associated historically with femininity (in some cultural settings this might include domesticity, nurturing, and beauty regimens)—then it will be important not to denigrate the empowerment or pleasure women feel by cooperating with these normalizing disciplines—as long as one is also critically aware of the effects of undue cooperation. I believe it is possible to distinguish between performing gender conventions in empowering ways on the one hand and on the other being oppressed by those conventions or "sinning" by undue cooperation with them. Some liberationist or radical separatist feminists tend to see conformity only as oppressed complicity. Poststructuralist analysis uncovers both complicity and (sometimes parodying) resistance in ostensibly conventional behaviors and attitudes. I argue that by exposing the ways in which "feminine" roles are discursively constructed, one can decenter any binarisms or essentializations and yet preserve the choices many women make to signify their lives (in some contexts and periods of time) in those "traditional" ways.

     A fourth agenda can be found in feminist discussions of sin focusing on the structural oppressions under which marginalized women suffer. These discussions attempt to correct the often apolitical and individualizing tendencies in many doctrines of sin. I strongly support the theological and ethical motivations behind these feminists' rejection of a subjectivized view of sin that ignores so-called social sin or relegates it to a ripple-effect of personal, individual sin. In a poststructuralist framework, there is no private self untouched by power; there are only subjects negotiating societal and interpersonal disciplinary structures. By emphasizing how the subject is constructed in relation to power regimes, the dichotomy of the personal/subjective versus the societal/objective is avoided. Furthermore, a postcolonial invocation of strategic essentialization can mobilize oppressed subaltern or minority communities to resist particular situations of structural oppression, without entailing any static oppressor/oppressed essentialisms.

     Given that a more global and multicultural perspective is spreading throughout many theological circles, our sense both of the enormity of human and ecological suffering worldwide as well as the complexity of assessing moral culpability and accountability for this collective sin will only increase. Correlatively, as philosophers continue to challenge the ways in which the modernist paradigm of the phallic and logocentric "I" no longer serves contemporary ways of thinking, theologians will increasingly need to reconstrue doctrines which have been too long explicated within that paradigm. In part because of their focus for several decades on gendered sin, feminist theologians have acted as midwives for creative and timely perspectives on society, the created world and human agency. I situate this essay in an appreciative and critical position vis-à-vis that now decades-long feminist tradition.

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