By Kwok Puilan
Body and Sexuality is a path-finding volume, which breaks the silence of a long-held taboo. Based on the papers from the second conference of Ecclesia of Women in Asia held in Yogyakarta in November 2004, the anthology provides much needed insights for Asian Christian women to affirm their body and dignity. It makes significant contributions to Asian feminist theology and is a valuable resource for churches, clergy, seminarians, and pastoral workers who are working for women’s emancipation and liberation.
The anthology is interdisciplinary in nature and broad in scope, including discussions on Body and Sexuality: Asian Societies/World; Body and Scriptures; Sacramentality of Women’s Bodies; Sexuality and Church Leadership; and Images of God’s Body. The authors engage feminist biblical and theological literature, as well as gender theory, women’s psychology, queer theory, and Asian philosophy and religions. Together they criticize the dualistic construction of spirit and body in the Christian tradition and lift up emancipatory elements in various Asian traditions that are life-affirming for women.
Never before have we seen such a plurality of female subjects entering into Asian theological discourse. We have theological reflections on Filipina domestic workers, female sex workers, lesbians, butches/femmes, older women, and victims of clergy sexual abuse. By attending to bodies in their particularities, the anthology testifies to the diversity and inclusivity of the Ecclesia of women in Asia.
The use of body as a heuristic tool to interpret scriptures offers fresh insights. An intercultural reading between Pauline body theology in 1 Corinthians and Asian understanding of body points to new possibilities in understanding the Christian community. The bent body of a woman (Lk. 13:10-17) becomes an occasion for critique of patriarchal culture then and now. The presence of women’s bodies, standing silently near the cross, bears witness and testimony of true discipleship. These critical readings point to the body as a site of struggle as well as a site for reclamation for women.
It is noteworthy that sexuality is not seen narrowly through a gender/sex framework, but is consistently placed within the larger cultural, political, and economic contexts. The authors are keenly aware that sexuality is shaped by changing cultural ethos, as well as globalization forces. The exploitation of women’s bodies and sexuality is intimately linked to women’s migrancy, patriarchal business culture, and hierarchal leadership in church and society.
Yet, the anthology does not treat Asian women only as victims, but as subjects capable of seeking their pleasures and expressing their desires. For example, Pushpa Joseph articulates a Sakti’s theology, which creatively links the spirit, the body, and the erotic through recapturing liberating impulses from Tantric philosophy. Sharon Bong offers a queer revision of Christianity and speaks of the autoerotic pleasure of women, which challenges compulsory heterosexuality and motherhood.
The book also offers concrete suggestions and resources for the churches struggling to affirm the full potential of women. Through re-imagining the church and Eucharist from the perspective of women’s body, it mitigates the androcentric biases of church doctrines and enables us to envision the Body of Christ in bold new ways. It also suggests strategies to address pastoral concerns such as clergy sexual misconduct, care for elderly women, and empowerment of marginalized women, such as prostitutes.
I recommend this courageous book enthusiastically and hope it will be widely read and used as a springboard for further discussions on women’s body and sexuality in Asia. The book will stir and agitate, as well as gives the readers hope.
Episcopal Divinity School,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
* This review was published by the Asian Christian Review 1, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 85-86.