The world has rightly seen a loud outcry against racism and discrimination as Black people suffer disproportionate police brutality in the US. High-profile cases, such as those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, sparked protests—under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement—of far reaching impact, with even the UK seeing statues celebrating slave traders dismantled.
But the reprehensible sentiment that in interactions between people of colour and white people, a white person is entitled to abdicate responsibility for their actions is no novel phenomenon. This paradigm has a long legacy, and is intimately connected with orientalism, colonialism and theology.
Orientalism, as an inherently Europocentric school of thought, propagated stereotypes of non-Europeans across the globe, with whom orientalists had predominantly had very limited exposure. These stereotypes still consciously and unconsciously shape the way that many white people view non-white people. Edward Said, one of orientalism’s foremost critics, suggested that such orientalist prejudices were shaped by imperialism, in which colonialists believed in the inherent inferiority of the colonised and that native lands were actually terra nullius (i.e. nobody’s land) before they were colonised. It was from there that the erroneous perception emerged that colonialists ‘gave definition’ to non-white, non-Europeans.
Unfortunately, Christian theology became connected to such sentiment as orientalists and colonialists used Christianity as a means of maintaining their dominance over others. This was true of a variety of groups, including women who were dichotomised as either wholly innocent (like the Virgin Mary) or wholly sinful (like Eve, the biblical perpetrator of original sin). The perception of women in colonised nations thus became defined by such religious paradigms, even if the local population favoured relatively matriarchal or feminist societal constructions.
Of course, women in Christianity are not so one-dimensional as to be characterised by oversimplified dichotomisations and stereotypes. Though there may be women presented as wholly innocent or sinful in the Bible, women are diversely represented and called to be a part of the Christian community. Christianity originates in Judaism, a religion which celebrates its matriarchs and the origin of one’s Jewish identity through the mother; the tradition is named after Christ, some of whose closest followers were marginalised women.
The moral responsibility of European churches and theologians is to diverge from the orientalist-colonialist legacy, by way of expressing the diversity of female representation and characterisation that exists in Church history and the biblical stories. This will not only function to celebrate the role of women in Christianity but also to combat harmful perceptions about women that are based not on the holistic biblical presentation of women but on what people think Christianity says about women.
As with any religion, Christianity has the potential to be utilised to support conservative and misogynistic ideas about women, and to essentialise culturally specific formulations of gender as a model to be imposed upon people abroad. But strength lies in the willingness of Church figures to present the more accurate and three-dimensional presentation of women in the Bible, especially to combat the idea that women can be homogenously categorised, and that divergence in cultural practises can be the basis for racist violence.
Mary studied Theology at the University of St. Andrews and is a co-founder of Interfaith Exchange. She currently lives in London working as a research fellow.
Cover photo courtesy of Luis Quintero on Pexels.com