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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Respect, Not Pity

What do an Olympic judo contestant from Saudi Arabia and a group of nuns in the United States have in common? All are women struggling to faithfully fulfill their vocations and exercise their gifts in misogynist cultures dominated by men whose condescension (or worse) toward women is veiled in the garb of patriarchal religious traditions. Both are stories of men in long robes trying to keep their women under wraps.

Last week Wojdan Shaherkani competed in a heavyweight judo match at the London Olympics representing Saudi Arabia. Shaherkani is not a world class judo wrestler but was nonetheless sent by her country to be one of two women on the Saudi Olympic team. As such she became the first Saudi woman ever to compete in the Olympic games. Completely outmatched, Shaherkani was, as anticipated by her country’s leaders, beaten in less than two minutes.

Shaherkani was in the Games because the International Olympic Committee had threatened to bar the Saudi men from competing unless the team included women. Shaherkani had never before been out of the country, had never even competed in an official judo competition. The Saudi sheiks were prepared to comply with the letter of the law in order to allow their men to compete, but had no intention of complying with the spirit of the Olympics which, more than any other sports venues, has come to be a place celebrating the achievement of women. Tweets by her own countrymen labeled her a “Prostitute of the Olympics” and her handlers in London refused to allow her to speak to the press. Frightened and alone, she gamely lost the match while retaining her dignity, perhaps opening the door for women from her country in the future. As her opponent, Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico put it, “I did not feel pity for her. I felt a lot of respect."

Meanwhile the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is meeting this week fifty years, ironically, after the beginning of Vatican II. They will be discerning their response to a Vatican decree earlier this year placing them under the supervision of two American bishops charged with helping the nuns “reform” themselves of alleged (according to the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) “doctrinal confusion.” This assault on the nuns by their Vatican overseers was just the latest episode of official attacks on American nuns which has included formal denunciations of books by Catholic scholars Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham and Margaret Farley of Yale, both highly regarded by Catholic and Protestant theologians. Farley’s award winning book, Just Sex – A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, is a marvelous exploration of sexual ethics, thoughtful, balanced, sensitive and comprehensive in its treatment and approach and, I might add, respectful of if not always in agreement with Catholic tradition. I suppose the bishops and cardinals should be given some credit for alerting people like me to a must-read book I would otherwise have overlooked!

Don’t accuse me of Muslim or Catholic bashing. Both traditions are rich and can be generous in their affirmations of life, justice, and peace. And spare me the rationales. I don’t expect all Muslim dominated cultures to look like Western secular democracies. But there are plenty of Muslim countries that have found ways to incorporate women’s leadership and self-determination into their social systems without violating the Koran. And I’ve read Catholic ecclesiology and understand that Catholic structures of authority are different from those found in Protestant churches. I’ve listened to the condescending explanations delivered to Protestants that treat us as if we are just not quite smart enough theologically to get it. I get it. I just don’t buy it. The princes of the church may not care to be compared to the royal family in Saudi Arabia. There are differences, of course. But on this question the distinctive robes and ceremonial head gear adorn the same male privilege and the desperate desire to maintain it.

Johnson, Farley, and their colleagues in the Leadership Conference don’t need my defense. Their dignified and firm reaction to Rome and its representatives in the United States demonstrate that they are more than up to the task. But it’s hard not to imagine that they are deeply wounded by the demeaning and disrespectful actions of the leadership of the church they have vowed to serve. Wojdan Shaherkani didn’t need me or any man to hold her hand on the mat. She defied her government’s cynicism and the humiliation of certain defeat by competing as best she could. I agree with Melissa Mojica. I don’t feel pity for these women, just a lot of respect. As for the princes in Rome and Riyadh, pity rather than respect is more than generous.

John H. Thomas

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