Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Former President Carter on Women, Religion, Violence, and Power: An Interview with Sister Maureen Fiedler

For Interfaith Voices, Sister Maureen Fiedler interviews President Jimmy Carter about his new book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. The book looks at the influence of religion (at a global level) on the lives of women and girls — as either an oppressive or a liberating force. What follows are my transcripts from and observations about the audio version of the interview to which the link above points.

Fiedler begins the interview by asking Carter:

You say in the book that (and I'm quoting here) "the most serious and unaddressed  worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls." Why give that issue number one status in the world?

He replies: 

It's the most serious and all-pervasive crime in the world because the abuse is quite often physical and mental, and it quite often results in death. As a matter of fact, there were about 40 million people who died in the second world war, the worst war we've ever had, and about four times that many little girls have been killed, murdered or strangled by their own parents, or either aborted when their parents find out the fetus is going to be a female . . . . So that's the most horrible murder that's going on in the world, and it's going on pretty much unaddressed.

Fiedler also asks Carter, 

You attribute much of this gender discrimination to the false interpretation of religious texts used to justify gender discrimination. Can you give us some examples from your own Christian tradition? What texts are used to justify the second-class status of women?

Carter doesn't respond directly to Fiedler's question about Judaeo-Christian texts used to justify gender discrimination. Instead, he notes that he teaches Sunday School at his Baptist church in Georgia each Sunday when he's home, and in that context, he wrestles with the way in which biblical texts are either cited out of context to subordinate women to men, or in which a group of texts used to support male entitlement is isolated from the overriding concern of the scriptures, which is to stress the equality of men and women in the eyes of God.

Carter states, 

I see quite often that the texts in the bible are misinterpreted by men who want to claim that they are superior to women even in the eyes of God. When I have a problem with that, which I do quite often when I read certain passages in the bible, I go back and refer directly to the teachings and words and actions of Jesus Christ, who was probably the chief protector of women's rights that ever lived. And he was very attentive to giving women special consideration in all of his ministry.

Fiedler notes that she understands Carter has written a letter to Pope Francis, in which he addresses his concerns about the oppression of women, and which the pope answered. Carter states that this is correct. He hasn't yet met Pope Francis, he notes, though he did meet Pope John Paul II and discussed the question of women's status in church and society with John Paul, finding him very conservative.

In his letter to Pope Francis, he has asked the pope to join with him to help alleviate the abuse of women and girls. Carter indicates that in his response to the letter, Pope Francis states that in his opinion, the role of women in the Catholic church should be greatly enhanced in the future, or, as Carter says, "words to that effect." 

Fiedler asks Carter if he would be willing to have a face-to-face dialogue with Pope Francis about these issues. He replies that he certainly would welcome the opportunity to do so. 

Fiedler also notes that Carter has left the Southern Baptist tradition in which he was brought up to join a Baptist church that's part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and she asks about his reasons for making that move along with his wife Rosalynn. Carter indicates that a primary reason that he and wife Rosalynn broke with the Southern Baptist Convention is the increasingly reactionary stance that that religious body has taken regarding gender issues. It now active espouses the subordination of women to men, using selective biblical texts to justify that position.

The conversation ranges from Christianity to other world religions, including Judaism and Islam, where the same debates about the status and role of women that are found within countries with a Christian cultural basis are also occurring. As he discusses the global implications of these debates, Carter makes an interesting observation: he notes that it's typically male leaders of the religious traditions of the world who have the authority to interpret the religious texts central to many of these traditions. And he notes that male leaders of various religious traditions have a tendency to interpret the texts of their religious traditions in a very selective way, as they focus on a handful of texts that they take to be prohibitions against women exercising power or authority in faith communities and in society as a whole while ignoring many other texts in their holy books that place men and women on an equal footing in God's eyes.

But as he also notes, echoing a point made by Catholic feminist thinker Sister Ivone Gebara that we discussed on this blog recently, in many cultures of the world, women also internalize the values proclaimed to them by male religious leaders, and they pass on these values (centered in the assertion of men's right to control women) to younger women, to their own daughters, with the expectation that the next generation of women in turn internalizes the notion of male entitlement and of the female imperative to obey men. A case in point, he says, is the practice of female genital mutilation in some African cultures, where it is mothers who urge the genital mutilation of their own daughters, passing on to the daughters a form of bodily disfigurement that is about male control of female bodies which had been inflicted on them in the previous generation.

As the interview concludes, Fiedler asks Carter to dream with her about what might be done to alter the way in which male leaders of many of the world's religious traditions use religion to subordinate women to me. Carter replies that his hope is to see the religious traditions of the world beginning to recognize that God sees women and men as equal, and that both genders therefore deserve to be treated with equal respect. 

He also notes that international law has a key role to play in making this happen, and that the United Nations has laid the groundwork for laws that would prohibit discrimination against women with the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and other statements. But unfortunately the U.S. Congress refuses to pass any statement supporting these U.N. initiatives, and appears highly unlikely to do so in its present configuration, Carter notes wryly.

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