Elizabeth A. JOHNSON, ed. The Strength of Her Witness: Jesus Christ in the Global Voices of Women. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2016. pp. 354. $35.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-127-0. Reviewed by Karen TEEL, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA 92110.
In The Strength of Her Witness: Jesus Christ in the Global Voices of Women, Elizabeth A. Johnson has collected twenty-five essays on Jesus by women theologians from around the world. Originally published between the years 1990 and 2013, the essays reflect the wide variety of perspectives that women have been taking on Jesus.
The collection is carefully organized in four parts. Each author is identified not only by name but also by home country or countries, allowing the reader to see the range of perspectives at a glance. Part I, “The Easter Experience,” contains three essays on Mary Magdalene, including two by biblical studies scholars. Part II, “Sweeping Overviews,” contains surveys from the US and Australian contexts, several entries from the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, and a Jewish feminist critique. Part III, “A Symphony of Voices,” gathers constructive essays in Christology from every continent. The theme of Part IV, in which voices from the USA predominate, is “Fresh Takes on the Body of Christ.”
It is appropriate that this volume does not claim to be a sourcebook of “feminist theology.” As Johnson indicates in her brief introduction, theology claiming the label “feminist” has often been framed by Rosemary Radford Ruether’s classic question, “Can a male savior save women?” Johnson rightly acknowledges, however, that many women theologians are not concerned with this “burning” question (xii). Reading through the essays with the authors’ social locations in mind yields the important insight that the divide falls roughly between white and “first-world” women on the one hand, and Indigenous, nonwhite, and “two-thirds-world” women on the other. The more general phrase “global voices of women” is thus aptly chosen.
But what concern does drive most women theologians whose peoples are still struggling with the aftermath of colonialism—or, as Johnson puts it, women “in situations of intense suffering and struggle”? Is Johnson correct that they see Jesus mainly as a compassionate friend and comforter, a loving Lord who displaces the patriarchal lordship of men (xii)? While these thinkers do not wonder simply whether a male Jesus can save them, neither does Johnson’s description, in continuing to frame them as concerned primarily with patriarchy, do justice to their arguments. In Teresa Okure’s (Nigeria) interpretation of the commission to Mary Magdalene as a clarion call to treat people of all cultures as “children of God” (29), in Virginia Fabella’s (Philippines) demand that the church “rid itself of its non-liberating structures” (127), in Lee Miena Skye’s (Palawa, Australia) insistence that Australian Aboriginal women’s Christologies will lead the way to “human and earth wholeness” (168), in M. Shawn Copeland’s (USA) declaration that “If Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, cannot be an option for gays and lesbians, then he cannot be an option” (277), empire itself is on the hook. Far from enumerating theologies of grateful reliance on the comforting companionship of Jesus, these postcolonial thinkers are questioning whether powerful Christians will allow Jesus to liberate us all from the ongoing effects of colonialism, and to help us to forge a healthy, collaborative future for ourselves and our planet. If so, then he is indeed, as Johnson states, “one who brings hope” (xii).
Here emerges a most generous, if unexpected, gift of this volume: Taken together, the “global voices of women” suggest a subtle but radical critique of feminist approaches that continue to treat Jesus’s maleness as the quintessential theological conundrum of our time. The problem is that the shape-shifting legacy of colonialism, variously illuminated by the Indigenous, nonwhite, and “two-thirds-world” theologians, is a global system of domination from which white people benefit—including theologians, and including women. This means that, intentionally or not, white women theologians (myself included) participate in a system that oppresses women everywhere. And for the women it victimizes, this totalizing system represents a larger and more urgent problem than patriarchy alone. As a result of reading this volume, then, white women theologians committed to global solidarity among women may find ourselves reconsidering our own theological priorities and commitments. In this way, The Strength of Her Witness could function prophetically to advance dialogue and unity among women theologians around the world.
Perhaps, before very much longer, so many women will be writing so many theologies about Jesus that the idea of gathering a representative sample of our approaches in a single volume will appear laughable. In the meantime, Johnson’s judiciously edited and reasonably priced book provides a tremendous resource guaranteed to suit the needs of many courses, both undergraduate and graduate, in Christology, constructive theologies, postcolonial theologies, liberation theologies, feminist theologies, and global theologies.