Religion, while a welcoming and peaceful force for some, is a powerful system that has been manipulated by many people, ranging from average citizens to those in power, and used in many ways for various reasons. Often throughout the course of history, religion has been the basis of wars and political struggle. Religion, in the past and present and throughout the world, is used as a justification for discrimination and oppression of many groups. Oppression that comes from religious power is documented in many forms, one of which is literature. In Susan Minot’s novel Thirty Girls, rebel leader Joseph Kony carries out his violent and oppressive power on various groups, particularly young women, with a religious justification. While oppressive religious power, especially that which affects women, is not a new idea, it is being challenged now more than ever. One school of thought that aims to challenge patriarchal religious systems with a new way of thinking about and approaching religious tradition is feminist theology. Feminist theology aims to understand why oppressive systems operate how they do and presents a new way to think about religion. With new feminist theology practices, systemic religious power, namely the oppression of women, such as that seen in Thirty Girls is explained and challenged by feminist theologians in a way that would make religion far more inclusive and progressive.
Throughout religious history, it is evident that religious systems manifest power in ways that are considered oppressive and non-inclusive, particularly towards women. For example, in many Christian religions, women face oppression on a number of levels. Dating back to Christianity’s origins, women were excluded from the church. In the Bible, God is referred to as a man and most important religious figures and leaders are men. In most Christian denominations, women cannot hold certain roles, especially those of leadership, in the church, such as that of a priest. By excluding women from certain roles simply because they are women, religious systems actively participate in patriarchal systems and establish themselves as oppressive. While it is hard to question that there is sexism within religion, it is not as simple to understand why. Feminist theologians, like Elizabeth Johnson, have established an explanation for the oppressive power that exists in religion.
Feminist theologians, like Johnson in She Who Is, argue that the patriarchy in religion is one of the oldest and most deeply-rooted forms of sexism, because “it understands itself to be divinely established” (Johnson 23). This argument states that those, specifically men, who hold religious power believe that God himself has established men to be of greater value than women, or that God has appointed men to be in power or more powerful than women. In Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls, Kony and his soldiers demonstrate these beliefs. In Thirty Girls, religious oppression happens though patriarchal systems that exist in Christianity. Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, is responsible for the kidnapping, rape, and abuse of young women, specifically the thirty that the novel focuses on. Kony and his soldiers justify acts of violence and oppression with religion. One of Kony’s former soldiers says that Kony is visited by divine entities, or “spirits” that advise him (Minot 280-81). Similarly, Kony believes himself to be some sort of divine individual, as he leads the girls he kidnapped to believe that only his “blessing” could cure them of AIDS (Minot 223). Furthering the oppression of women that is rooted in religion, Kony tells a woman her “vagina must be watched carefully or the devil will enter her” (Minot 222). Each of these examples points to a religious system that is tainted by patriarchal beliefs that have continued to oppress through time.
The way in which Kony believes himself to be operating under the direction of the divine is consistent with the feminist theology argument that men, in this case Kony, believe themselves to be divinely appointed by God to lead. The thirteen spirits that each have a different identity and purpose “come into” Kony show that he feels himself to be divinely close to God through the spirits. The blatantly violent and sexist acts that Kony carries out, or appoints those working under him to carry out, are justified by the fact that Kony believes himself to be close to God and carrying out the actions that God is willing him to. It can be argued that Kony, being male and thus closer to divinity, sees himself as closer to God than the girls who he kidnapped and abused, thus justifying the dehumanization and mistreatment of them. Because the patriarchal aspects of religion drive the violent and oppressive actions and beliefs of those like Kony in Thirty Girls, it is important to recognize and analyze the way in which an oppressive religious system operates so that those who practice religions can do so in a way that is more inclusive.
Since feminist theologians see the issue with deep-rooted sexism that operates within religious systems, it is important for them to counter the oppression that arises from those systems. Feminist theologians argue that small changes can be made in the way religious systems operate that would allow religions, like Christianity, to move away from the beliefs and practices that establish males as God’s ideal image. For example, Elizabeth Johnson argues that the language in which God is spoken about in Christianity, such as “God the Father,” leads followers of the religion to believe that God himself is actually a man or that men are closer to being divine than women are. For this reason, Johnson and other feminist theologians encourage the use of feminine pronouns not necessarily in place of, but rather in addition to male pronouns, so as not to make men the exclusive projection of the image of God. Additionally, feminist theology advocates for inclusion of women in religious roles to promote inclusivity and equality. Overall, the goal of feminist theology as it relates to Christianity is to eliminate the dehumanization of women that has been perpetuated by sexist religious systems and carried out by those, like Kony in Thirty Girls, who use religion as a justification for sexism and unjust actions. Feminist theology aims to celebrate differences on all fronts and “not to make women equal partners in an oppressive system,” but rather “transform the system” (Johnson 32).
While not all who are religious and not all religious men uphold and support the oppressive and sexist aspects of religion, particularly Christianity, it is important to acknowledge that they exist. By acknowledging oppressive systems of power that exist within religious systems and analyzing them, as feminist theology does, changes can be made by the religious and non-religious alike in the name of inclusion and equality. Sexist, oppressive, and harmful interpretations of religion, like those Kony expresses in Thirty Girls, can be lessened through the adoption of small changes in the way religious traditions are carried out and interpreted. By evaluating these complicated religious systems, over time it is the hope that religions can become something much more inclusive of women and all different groups.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. SHE WHO IS: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. CROSSROAD, 1992.
Minot, Susan. Thirty Girls. Vintage, 2014.