June 5, 2000
This week we are here to witness the five year review of the Fourth World Conference on Women, many of us vigilant to make sure that the world community moves forward rather than backward when it comes to ensuring women’s rights. You will probably also see some people who are here for the purpose of hindering governments in building on what was done in Beijing. These groups act in the name of religion and family, claiming that things like women’s access to family planning, state protection from domestic violence, and women having the option to work outside of the home not only violates their religious beliefs but also presents a threat to the family. For example, the Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, “proposes a new feminism for a new millennium which must include virginity and maternity as the realization of the vocation to love and to give of oneself.” — as if a woman’s value lies only in her capacity to reproduce.

Well, I am sure I stand with women from many different faith traditions when I say that these people cannot monopolize the interpretation of religion when it comes to defining family and women’s rights. Riffat Hassan and Nawaal el Sadawi, both Muslim feminist scholars, as well as Judith Plaskow and Debra Ornestein, both Jewish feminist theologians, have done amazing work doing gender justice within the context of their religious faith.

I speak to you today from the context of my Christian heritage, which has nurtured me into the understanding that I as a woman am created in God’s image and that it is God’s intention that all women and men be treated as God-bearers. The story from which I have chosen to base my sermon is the story of Ruth and Naomi, which is in both the Jewish and Christian scriptural traditions. I want to encourage you today to look at the biblical tradition not so much prescriptively, as a given formula for what you ought to do and how you ought to do it. Rather, I invite you to interact with the text with dialogical imagination. Try to see yourselves in the characters in the text. What similarities do they share with us today? What were their struggles, and how can we as women and people who care about women learn from their struggles?

Indeed, many women in the bible, like many women today, found family life to be a challenge. In biblical times, like today, some families began when parents sold their daughters into marriage; when a woman was raped and had to bear a child against her will; when it was perceived that God used God’s fertility powers to help a woman reproduce; when relatives merged into kinship groups for economic or security purposes.

For my text I have selected the Book of Ruth, because it incorporates many issues that women in many different kinds of families still experience today. The Book of Ruth begins with a focus on Naomi, a woman from Bethlehem, who because of a famine moves with her nuclear family to the country of Moab. While in Moab Naomi’s husband dies, but her two sons grow up to marry Moabite women. These sons incidentally named Mahlon and Chilion, which is Hebrew for weakness and consumption also die. Naomi, a widow without sons, then ceases to see value in herself in a patriarchal culture that defines women’s worth through their husbands and sons. She hears word that the famine in her hometown has finished, so she decides to return to Bethlehem.

At this point in the story, Ruth takes the lead role. Whereas Naomi characterizes herself with emptiness, renaming herself Mara which means bitterness, Ruth shows characteristics of fullness. She readily accompanies Naomi to a foreign land and together they live as a family unit. Ruth becomes the bread-winner in the family. She goes out to the fields and gleans to support Naomi and herself. Ruth also carries a spirit of determination and commitment to Naomi strong enough to face the challenges of living as an ethnic minority.

One similarity we see between families today and the familial structures in which Ruth and Naomi live is fluidity. They cover the range from the nuclear family, with Ruth and her husband and two sons, to domestic partnership with Ruth and Naomi living together in support of one another, to extended family, when Ruth marries Boaz and has a son whom she raises together with Naomi. Even when women imagine their for themselves a husband and children as an ideal family, sometimes parabolic reality breaks into mythic dreams of what a good family is when they experience the devastation of intimate violence, economic hardships, or the loss of a loved one. Other women choose not to follow traditional formulas for families; they choose not to have children, or seek to pursue a career and a family or cannot have traditionally sanctioned families because of their sexual orientation. The energies of these women make worthwhile contributions to the societies in which they live.

Another set of similarities we can see between the family story of Ruth and Naomi and families today are the challenges to survival. Contrary to groups that claim they have a monopoly on the definition of family values, the survival of the family does not face danger due to women becoming educated, working outside of the home, having freedom of mobility, being able to choose for themselves, and having flexibility in gender roles. Indeed, had Ruth not acted outside of her gender role and traveled to a foreign country, worked in the fields, and faced challenges with authority, their stories would have ended in poverty and isolation.

The fewer options women have, the more they and their families suffer. Take for instance the women at Hunter College, here in Manhattan, who had been on welfare assistance until the new welfare repeal laws dictated that in order to receive Temporary Aid to Needy Families the women must work at least 20-30 hours a week, and somehow in the formulation being in school did not count as work. As someone who has just finished her first year in theology school, I can attest to the fact that being in school is a full time job. It seemed to escape the common sense of lawmakers that getting a solid education is the best way to get women and their families out of cyclical poverty. Many women in New York and all over the country have resorted to giving up their opportunity to go to school in order to keep their benefits. Women at Hunter College, however, have organized to form the Welfare Rights Initiative, which does advocacy work for women who have lost welfare benefits while in college. Like Ruth to Naomi, these women provide a support network for each other and women like them, pushing to change a system that limits their options.

Another issue many women and families worldwide face, like Ruth and Naomi experienced, is living a transnational identity. Both women had, at different times, been foreigners in the lands in which they lived. Ruth and Naomi moved for economic reasons traveling where they knew the land was not barren. Lack of resources is still a reason that families move. Particularly with the effects of globalization such as the deregulation of factories that results in low wages and expendable workers, families or sometimes family fragments have to migrate to find a living wage. In their new homes they often face racism, language, cultural and economic barriers. Some families become refugees because of war or political strife, many unable to keep their families intact or having already lost members of their family due to the devastation of war. If religious groups want to talk about keeping families together, they need to be talking about economic justice and peacemaking and empowering women. Truly, the more political, economic and social power a woman has, the more capable she will be of keeping her family strong.

The final parallel I want to draw out of the story of Ruth and Naomi and relate it to our situation as women today is women’s relationship with each other. Ruth and Naomi come from different understandings of what it means to be a woman. Naomi sees herself within fixed boundaries; she cannot conceptualize having any worth without association with male authority. Granted, one cannot quite blame Naomi for this perception of self; from the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Rachel, and Tamar who sacrificed their relationships with other women or offered their bodies for the status that bearing a son brings, clearly there weren’t many options around for childless widowed women. But really, standing right beside her showing great hesed, a Hebrew term repeated consistently to show Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, Naomi had a woman in her family who was pushing the boundaries of what a woman can and cannot do and she was doing it successfully! Naomi does not seem to realize how gifted she is to have Ruth’s loyalty; her need to find identity through male presence makes her unable to recognize this blessing. It is not until later on in the story when Ruth becomes associated with Boaz that Naomi perks up. Again Naomi becomes an active player in the story as she helps Ruth scheme to seduce Boaz. Not until Ruth gives birth to a son is she described as more to Naomi than seven sons.

What is our role in the gender justice arena for women like Naomi women who just don’t seem to get it, women who continuously insist on defining themselves and, in extension, all women, according to patriarchal assumptions? Do we demonize them, making them the next category of “Other” that must be subordinated to make room for our enlightened tendencies? I think not. In order for the women’s movement to work, we need to act with hesed, loyalty, as Ruth did with Naomi, to ensure that all women are left with options, so they will not be limited to working in a patriarchal paradigm. True, these very women may be the ones standing in our way of doing what needs to be done, which is why we need to work with creativity, not through dualistic categories that can divide women. We cannot imitate our oppressors’ tendencies to divide– instead, we must push forward with ensuring human rights for all women. Women’s rights God’s promise to us; we as a global family of women must claim this promise for ourselves and for each other.

Leah Fowler lives in Atlanta where she is currently a student at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Before studying at Candler, Leah worked at the Presbyterian United Nations Office with a focus on gender justice issues. She continues to incorporate feminist and international analyses into her theological studies.