Crossing Over - Contemprary Feminist Theologians on the Theology of the Cross




Defence of the Research Paper presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Master of Advanced Studies in Theology and Religion:

“Crossing Over. Contemporary Feminist Theologians on the Theology of the Cross.”



Dear gentlemen,

To start off this defence, I will sketch the problems concerning the theology of the cross that my research has inquired into. Next, I will briefly outline the scope of my research, sketching the answers proposed by the feminist theologians in my reading and finally I will voice the results I arrived at. After my presentation I will be glad to answer any questions you have.


Questions raised for consideration

The theology of the cross is concerned with the cross event of Jesus of Nazareth. This event has been and remains a problem for Christians, because it is difficult to understand how a death on the cross can fit within salvation history. In other words, how can the death of one person save all of humankind? Through the centuries different answers have been voiced, interpreting the dying of Christ on the cross in such a way to safeguard the Christian kerygma that God indeed, wants His/Her creation to flourish. Sin, however, impedes the bond between God and humankind. The crucifixion took a central place in the restoration of the bond between God and the sinful human being, necessary for this flourishing.

An interpretation proposed by the church fathers and in the 20th century systematised by Gustav Aulén is designated as the Christus Victor theory. It centres around the idea of a cosmic battle between God who liberates and the devil who enslaves, with Jesus playing a key role. These theories see the devil as an adversary of God and give him moreover a legitimate authority in the world because of the sinfulness of the human being. How the battle is won can either be explained by the ransom theory or by the idea of the deceived deceiver. In the ransom theory, Jesus is the price to be paid in order to liberate mankind. However, since Jesus is the Christ, he was without sin and so the devil could not lay any claim on him. By making an innocent man die; the devil forfeited his authority and was defeated. The model of the deceived deceiver explains God’s role in this drama. God made the devil believe that Jesus was an ordinary human being, sinful and thus mortal. So God deceived the deceiver. This theory is thoroughly dramatic because the devil is defeated at the precise moment when it seems that God is going to lose the battle. It takes evil seriously but reveals its fragility at the same time.

Another theory has satisfaction as a motive. God became man because the infinite insult to God’s honour, due to the sinfulness of humankind, could only be satisfied by the death of a God. However, the one who pays should be human, because humans are responsible. According to Anselmus, the solution lay in the God-man Jesus, who voluntarily and obediently gives his innocent life. Justice is done, and with His/Her honour satisfied, God is again in a position to love and forgive humankind. Obedience and justice are important themes in this theory, as is the substitution motive. Christ dies in our place, but because he is without sin the price he pays is excessive obliterating all future sins of humankind.

Calvin keeps the same model but exchanges the honour of God for the Wrath of God. Christ’s death is then no longer a satisfaction but becomes a punishment. Therefore it is called the penal substitution theory. Human sin instigates the Wrath of God, condemning us to eternal damnation. The God allowed Jesus to bear the punishment for our sins. He bore the Wrath of God and exempted us from punishment. This theory focuses on punishment and substitution.

Again a different idea was voiced by Abelard who thought God’s aim with the death of Jesus was pedagogic. Because God showed his infinite love for the human beings this induces the believers to love God more and thus lead ethical lives. Christ embodies God’s perfect love, when humans encounter Christ; they are led to imitate him in his love for God and the neighbour. By acting in this way, they are unified with Christ and are enabled to share in the divine love. Love is instrumental in the liberation from sin. Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God’s love for human kind and he is at the same time the perfect answer of humankind to this divine love. Abelard sees salvation in the life and the death of Jesus, again obedience is the key factor that makes salvation possible. By getting to know and experience the life and death of Jesus, human beings are brought to transformation, because they are touched by God’s love in Christ. What is very important in this theory is the importance of love that is seen as merciful, forgiving, patient, self-giving, obedient and humble. True justice is expressed in voluntary service to the neighbour, inspired by Christ’s kenotic love.

Luther took inspiration from the early church fathers when he proposed his “happy exchange” theory: Christ took our sins upon Himself while imputing us with his divine justification by dying on the cross. The justification of Christ comes to us through faith in Christ. Human beings do not contribute to salvation in any way, it is granted to them by God. Left to themselves, they can only be sinful, and even when they are justified they always remain sinner and justified. For Luther the cross was the starting point for all theology. He countered the then prevailing theology of glory with a theology of the cross. Again, the importance of humility and obedience were stressed.

What feminist theologians demonstrate is that interpretations of these theories, however well meant originally, were detrimental to women and to all groups of people that are victims of abuse, violence, oppression, injustice and discrimination in our society. This is because theologians have generally been much more occupied with the theodicy question than with the suffering of Christ and by extrapolation of all people. The problem therefore does not as much lie with the theory itself, but with the way this theory works in the actual life of the believer.

What is important for my research are the recurring motives of suffering leading to salvation, of the importance of obedience, of the divine agreement with substitution, of humility and patience, of the necessity of death for salvation, of the importance and value of sacrifice, of the once-and for-all-ness of salvation and of the maleness of the saviour. The coupling of violence and salvation is another problem feminist theologians outline, as is the static and hierarchic order of creation that is presumed in the theories.

How one sees the cross is important for anthropology, as it is for our vision on the world, on the church, and on Jesus and God. Since this research paper is concerned with the workings of the theologies of the cross, the obvious starting point for me was the cross.

Feminist theologians object to the cross as the only site of salvation, for this links salvation to violence and suffering. According to the victims, their suffering never is redeemed, and their pain remains present and real. It seems moreover that the redemption of the perpetrators is more important than the suffering of the victims. Whenever it is stressed that Christ saved us once and for all, this could be explained as a free-pass for the perpetrators who can go on committing injustice because they are already certain of salvation. When the suffering of a Jew on the cross is seen as the ultimate suffering, this doesn’t take into account the myriad of tribulations people undergo today.

A distinctive feature of the human being in these interpretations is the hierarchic patriarchic power that rules interhuman relationships. Because of the fact that power and responsibility are separated, the victim bears the burden of responsibility while the power resides with the perpetrators. Violence seems to be part of the human character while suffering and a sacrificial identity is encouraged in the powerless. Human beings seem to be interchangeable, especially where suffering and pain are concerned; the substitution of the powerful by the weak is condoned. Dying for the salvation of the other is considered to be the highest form of love, while passive suffering is encouraged because this is most like the suffering of Christ. Women are deemed natural victims, they take on or are attributed the role of suffering servants. The dual nature of Christ seems to be divided between oppressors and oppressed, attributing the glorified divine nature to the oppressors and the human, suffering nature to the oppressed.

The world has a natural order which is characterized by hierarchic patriarchal power using violence to upkeep it. The earth suffers because it is mistreated and exhausted by the powerful. Nature is subordinate as are the weak in our society. Since salvation has become individualistic, we have adopted an ”each for him or herself” attitude. We stylise reality so as not to see its ugliness, whenever we can we are blind to the needs of the world and the people living in it.

The church as an institution often sides with the powerful and has thereby passively and sometimes actively participated in or contributed to the perpetuation of abuse and injustice in society and the church alike. The church often condones power as control because she subscribes to a static reality and thus sees change as threatening.

Theologies of the cross often seem to view the life of Christ as just a preliminary to his dying, which makes suffering and death the salvific events. His willingness to take on our sins and to die on the cross is highly valued. Since Jesus usually is portrayed as a white male this has led to racism and the fact that the majority of the world population (not being white and/or male) cannot identify with Christ. Whenever Jesus is defined as the ultimate revelation of God in history, this is a stumbling block for the interreligious dialogue. The importance attached to the maleness of Jesus as our Saviour has made women question their salvability. It has also led to the idea that women cannot properly imitate Christ and that their access to the divine must always pass through a male intermediary. The virtues derived from the cross event exhort the vulnerable to become or remain victims that suffer in silence and bear their burden with dignity. The cross teaches them to respect authority unquestionably and to exercise self-sacrifice and denial. This effectively makes active resistance, either in situations of domestic violence or abuse and concerning injustice in society unthinkable. It also induces guilt into women whenever they want to pursue their own dreams. The strong and powerful however, seem to be exempt from the practice of these virtues. Here also, the vulnerable will expiate the sins of the powerful.

The relationship within the divine Trinity is seen to be an unequal patriarchal relationship where the crux of the power lies with the father who dominates his son. God can then be seen as a sovereign tyrant, cruel and bloodthirsty but also perhaps subject to the cosmic law of satisfaction.

Feminist theologians do not underwrite these interpretations of the cross, they want to redeem the cross, find explanations for the event that contribute to the flourishing of all of creation.


Scope of my research/proposals

The feminist theologians in my reading all spoke from their situation in life. Stating this situation was very important because they continuously referred to their own experiences in life to illustrate the points they wanted to make. It also makes them vulnerable for criticism since they leave the safety of the abstract. However, they invite discussion about their proposals convinced that diversity is in fact enriching. They choose to be humble and accountable for what they propose. I read feminist theologians from Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Protestant, Anglican and Methodist denominations. Although they individually focussed on other subjects, I found the differences had more to do with their experiences in life than with the different churches they belonged to. From their bibliographies I could derive that most of them consulted theologians from various churches. I tried to include as many different outlooks as possible, limited of course by the time and the number of pages allowed. I tried to bring together material from theologians that I found attempted a positive answer on the meaning of the cross today. All of the theologians I consulted published specifically on the theology of the cross, and they all did so from an engaged Christian identity, wanting to reform theology from within. They employ a hermeneutics of suspicion and hope, in order to construct a theology from which all creation can benefit.

Feminist theologians look at the cross from Jesus’ life. In this life of healing, inclusive table community and the restoration of interrelatedness, Jesus revealed what God wanted for human beings, namely: the reign of God. Only from the life preceding it can death receive saving power. His saving work began in his life but did not die with him on the cross; on the contrary, the community of followers experienced an empowerment to continue the work of Christ.

Feminist theologians value the suffering they observe on the cross; it is a great comfort to know that God is not indifferent to the tribulations of His/Her people. This suffering should be recognized, mourned and remembered. The cross bears a sacramental witness to the character of God. However, suffering should also be resisted, although this might lead to more suffering. Feminist theologians seek the reason for Jesus’ death in his life. We, Christians should live out of the love that was revealed in all of Jesus’ teachings and praxis, and that was passed on to us after his death. The cross teaches us that our efforts for the reign of God are not without risk and that the positive outcome is not guaranteed. However, it makes it clear that we are obliged to take up our commitments, even if they entail suffering. Since feminist theologians are unhappy with the bond between suffering, sacrifice and death, they make suggestions that retain sacrifice but reject annihilation. One such proposal is the maternal sacrifice, where new life results from pain and demands continuous sacrifice which however is life-giving for all parties. Another one is the salvation through God’s erotic power that works toward right relations. Then there is the covenantal salvation that designates us as God’s partners, created out of sustaining and life-giving love and empowered to do the same.

The cross reveals that God’s power is not domination through violence, but is life-giving, in the way that it transforms despair to joy, isolation to connection and mutual relations that propagate the flourishing of creation. God is always present in transformative solidarity with the victims. God transforms through insight and strength resulting in us taking unexpected action. God admits evil as a risky by-product of the freedom of the human being. Feminist theologians earnestly want to preserve the mystery that is God, while stressing that God works outside of human categories of justice and power and that God’s salvific activity is forever surprising.

It is because the resistance of Jesus to domination seems to spring from his knowledge of living in the embrace of God, that feminist theologians find Jesus’ life inspiring. Jesus’ death was neither necessary nor inevitable, because of the freedom of the human being. The image we have of Christ is very important because we act upon images, they colour our actions. That is why Jesus portrayed as a white, Caucasian, blue eyed man has led to a legitimation of the sovereignty of the white male over the rest of the human population. To counteract the ill effects of the dominant picture, other images of Christ should be considered. How we speak about Jesus also is very important, describing him as Emmanuel, God with us, reveals possibilities for transformation and stands for a leadership of love.

To feminist theologians, Jesus can only be called unique as the foundational representative of the way of the cross, meaning loving and being true to one’s commitment to the reign of God, even at the risk of one’s life. Salvation is not a once and for all event, it is a continuous process in which men and women can equally participate.

While feminist theologians appreciate the historical maleness of Jesus, they deny that this maleness has anything to do with salvation. A solution could be to see Jesus as a cross dresser, but since the whole point is that a male is dressed like a female mimicking female behaviour, this does not seem to be very helpful. Envisaging Jesus as the incarnation of the divine Wisdom is another avenue to relinquish the bond between maleness and salvation. This image has possibilities because of its universal scope. However it remains abstract, something which the next proposal definitely is not. It is the idea that in the tradition of the church a number of women have been recognised by their contemporaries to bear the image of Christ. They can be inspirational to other women by indicating that indeed, they, as women, are valuable partners in God’s redeeming work.

Some feminist theologians advance the image of Christa, a crucified woman, as an important image of Christ, for its impact is such that the true scandal of the cross is revealed: a human being can participate in the work of the divine and is in fact welcomed into the sphere of the divine. Besides, it could help women identify with the passion and the death of Jesus. It also exposes the forgotten suffering of women and points to where Christ is to be found today: in the biblical categories of the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

The virtues feminist theologians derive from the cross are: attentiveness to suffering and to what causes it. Discernment, suspicion and hope should be cultivated. Commitment to the active propagation of the reign of God is another exhortation going out from the cross. Our personal conversion is linked to the communal conversion; the cross teaches us that salvation is for all. We should cultivate the power of love in the knowledge that we are sinners and perpetrators at the same time.

Feminist theologians read in the cross event that all human beings deserve respect and should be seen as valuable members of the human community. We are transcendent and permanent in God. However, human beings should see themselves as contingent and historic beings; which leads to evaluating diversity as enrichment and not a danger to be suppressed, ignored or eliminated. Our identity is dynamic and multidimensional, meaning that we are forever becoming human with the help of God. We are fundamentally relational because we are defined by a God who is relation. This relationality is a gift and a curse, because it is the site where we can realise our calling to become more human but it is also in our relationships that we turn away from God. From a feminist theologian’s view of the cross, human being should renounce violence. But the cross also signifies that human beings are not defined by the victimisation they experience but by the commitments they make.

Our world is holistic, interrelated, rich, abundant, diverse and beautiful. The earth belongs equally to all people, but we should care for it. It contributes with humanity to the flourishing of all creation.

The cross provides the contours for the community of the people of God. It should be committed to the promotion of the reign of God while at the same time abstaining from violence. It should care for the victims as well as for the perpetrators. The church’s power and leadership should be based on love. She should take accountability for her actions and omissions and should be in constant renewal. She should be open and inclusive, attentive to the riches of diversity, and humble towards her knowledge, which is always contextual. The ambiguity that is present in the world should be recognised as a positive element also in the church itself, because it is typical of the limits of our creation. The church should be committed to political, economical and social action in the world.


Results of my research

What I wanted to accomplish with my research paper was to note the main criticisms voiced by contemporary feminist theologians concerning the theology of the cross and the proposals they advanced to redeem the cross. In my reading, I saw feminist theologians crossing over from interpretations of the cross that were especially harmful to women to interpretations that were potentially beneficial to all human beings. It was scary but also exciting to realise that there were no clear-cut answers available. From the viewpoint of the feminist theologian this is in fact to be expected, for there is no denying the complexity of our world. My reading has opened my eyes to injustices I was not even aware of. The ambiguity they perceive in our world is also to be found in Christianity: God is transcendent and immanent at the same time, Christ is both human and God and salvation began in the life of Jesus but is not complete and will not be until the end of history.

I liked the idea that in order to overcome evil, good and evil both should be transformed through healing and forgiveness.

The crossing over also took place in the interpretation of the cross, moving from tradition to contemporary feminist interpretations, leaving behind what was no longer relevant or what was detrimental and retaining what was valuable, and going from their own experiences to a knowledge compelling us to become co-redeemers in “the way of the cross.”

The idea that suffering should be mourned is very valuable; perhaps we need new rituals in our church that allow the deburdening of this pain into the embrace of God.

Although suffering and the cross are life-changing experiences, they can also be potentially life-giving if one finds, or better perhaps, is given, the strength and creativity to resist this suffering in whatever way possible. From this viewpoint, the cross empowers victims and perpetrators alike to become co-sufferers, co-redeemers and co-creators. Other human beings can be inspirational because of their approach to suffering.

The most confronting result of my reading has been the realisation that violence can never be the manner in which Christians respond to suffering. That endurance can signify strength usually escapes our attention. Here of course, the ambiguity of suffering rears its head.  If one responds to suffering with the power of love, we make ourselves vulnerable to more suffering. I found the exhortation to let our action-taking be strategic and aimed at boosting the hope and imagination of the community very helpful in this regard.

The power of God as erotic power for right relations is very exciting although it can never be an abstract power. The idea of right relation is suitably vague to allow many interpretations. The exercise of discernment and suspicion can be helpful to distinguish which relationships are allowing the partners to truly flourish in the reign of God. The idea of a covenantal salvation could fit in with this.

The metaphor of maternal sacrifice appeals to me as a mother. The message it conveys, that new life does not require dying is indeed hopeful. However, I feel it glorifies the suffering of the mother while it downplays the sacrifices men make when th truly become fathers top their children, committing themselves to their education and caring for their welfare. Another holdback I experience with this metaphor is the fact that the church has traditionally conferred value on two kinds of women: the mother who was saved through motherhood and the virgin, whose virginity granted her special worth. The metaphor of the maternal sacrifice fits into these categories and is perhaps in concordance with patriarchal thinking because it secures a woman in her role as a mother. Any woman who cannot have children is of course exempt from this experience and runs the risk of being perceived of less than a woman. This metaphor though I like it a lot should be handled with care and can only serve as an additional image.

A God who is vulnerable, who loves always more and who’s wrath reveals the fact that He/She cannot remain indifferent to what human beings do in the world, is perhaps not the God that human beings want, but in my view it is the God human beings need. God lures us toward creation’s flourishing, while safeguarding human freedom. The image of God which appeared most in my reading, and which I appreciate very much, is that of a God who is actively present in transformative solidarity with human beings. It accentuates the partnership that is a gift but also an appeal. Believing in such a God demands courage, because it leads us into uncharted waters.

If we ignore Jesus’ life as a locus of salvation, we give the impression that it is only Jesus’ death and resurrection which make him divine. If we reduce the significance of Jesus to these events, we ignore our vocation as human beings to be co-creators and co-redeemers in the embrace of God during our lifetime. We are then also still looking for the extraordinary signs, while ignoring all the life-giving words and actions that happen in our daily existence. Concerning the uniqueness of Jesus, I wonder whether the reason why tradition clings to it is not arrogance. It might also have something to do with the necessity to preserve the status quo concerning the importance of male leadership. The fact that the establishment should be protected can also be a motivating factor. It purports to the power of the church and the moral authority attached to the vicarious position of the pope. Perhaps it would be better for Christians to think of their religion as the right way for them to encounter God. This would engage them personally, which seems to me to be very important.

Concerning the truly challenging notion of the coming Christ as the community of Christ, I wonder if the idea of the community of saints could find a place in this concept. This certainly would be exciting to examine, for it could take our responsibility as a community to another level.

Especially meaningful to me was that the real scandal of the cross lies in humans participating in the work of God and thus being welcomed in the Divine union. It opens the possibility for female images of the crucified. Duly explained, they could awaken us to the implications of a God becoming human. Since Christa caused such uproar in the past, this must alert us to the fact that even when officially negated, people make a connection between maleness and salvation. As long as the image of a crucified woman remains a taboo, the idea that women are included into the male category will in my opinion stand. Women will still be considered less capable of representing salvation and of being equal religious subjects.

The importance that feminist theologians attach to communal salvation seems to me to be especially important in view of the problems of globalisation today. We should be aware of our possibilities and of the good and bad consequences that can spring from our scientific and technological knowhow.

I appreciate the fact that feminist theologians highly value the dialectic knowledge/action. This dialectic, of course, has to take place in, with and for the community where it will increase hope and fire the imagination.

One of the most revealing but also most confronting insights of my reading was the warning that women should not feel responsible for the failure to make everyone we encounter happy. We should trust God more, if He/She can relinquish control, then so should we. When we recognise that we are defined by God our outlook on the world, other human beings and on ourselves changes. It awakens us to self-love in community and to solidarity.

An idea we are not really used to because of the anthropocentric thinking in our theology, is that God is indwelling in all of creation. If we really would take this thought to heart, we would perhaps be less urged to let our economic interests prevail on the preservation and flourishing of the earth.

Feminist theologians cross over once more when they revision the church. The positions of victim and perpetrator should be left in order to relate to each other. The competition that is absent here is also absent in the relationship between the human being and the divine. Only by working together, exercising freedom and responsibility, will creation be redeemed.

The cross remains an ambiguous symbol, so rich, powerful and important to Christianity that we cannot afford to drop it. However, it should never be taken out of its context, meaning the life and resurrection of Jesus. The cross shall always stand for isolation, suffering and pain, but also for relatedness, joy and healing. We should be adamant to convey that there is no salvation in the cross, but that t is found in the life of Jesus and in the work of Christ that is also the work of the community of followers yesterday, today and tomorrow. Resurrection is experienced daily through the life-giving actions of the Christ community. Becoming a redeemed human being means crossing over, leaving behind what is nefarious to ourselves, our neighbour and the earth. This means that we are deepening our union with the Divine. Are we brave enough to join into this crossing over into the embrace of God? I hope and pray we are.








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Universiteit of Hogeschool
KU Leuven
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