Ksenija Magda: Women in theological-academic positions need space for support and exchange

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  • Foto: Ksenija Magda

    Ksenija Magda grew up in Germany as the oldest of five children in a family of gastarbeiters, where she finished high school. That in itself was strange – I was the first foreigner in my gymnasium. Those years, she continues, were also important because that was the place where she learned to think critically about herself, and finally, those were the years when she lived in an area where significant developments in the fight for women’s rights took place. These experiences imposed themselves on her preserved, as she says, religiously conservative upbringing. As a believer, I would say – God had a good plan, first of all, because, until my late twenties, men in my life supported me. If they did not encourage me, they still looked favorably at my religious and academic choices. Among them, my pastors Drago Šestak and Aleksandar Birviš, my father Rudi, and my husband Toma are the most deserving. I studied theology out of love because in the early eighties when I started, there was no place for a woman – neither in theology nor in the church. My church still, but these days it seems somehow less, ordains women. For Magda, that love also became a profession when, in 2014, she got a job at the University Center for Protestant Theology Matthias Flacius Illyricus of the University of Zagreb as a professor of biblical theology, primarily of the New Testament, for which she thanks – providence. So my life had, as with early casual feminists, two equally developed halves – the family one and the professional one. I think that each enriched the other.

    How did your upbringing influence you to start studying biblical theology professionally?

    My family was very religious and I grew up loving the Bible. The passages gave me strength and life, either as stories of my childhood days or as guidelines in the stormy days of my youth. The people in my life were not casual believers or traditionalists. They were sincerely devoted to God, which meant hospitality, charity, and engagement with people (not only in the church but especially in the church). As I said before, I was blessed with Christian leaders who put God above their profit and interests, so women never represented a problem. Only later, and only indirectly, did I see that my father had certain dilemmas when looking at my life choices. I will always remember the day we spent together when he asked me to read him the Epistle to the Romans, because “I find it very difficult to read alone. I am at a loss for words,” he explained. That was the beginning of his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. When I read it to him, he asked me to tell him what it meant, and I briefly explained to him how the apostle says that our salvation depends on God, who is merciful, and not on our merits. He was silent for a long time, and then said: “It’s a shame that today is not Sunday so you could ‘help’ us at the assembly.” That’s what he called the church. He thought I should have preached at the service.

    So, I grew up in such circumstances, aware of the call and love for biblical theology, encouraged by important people in my life. There were, of course, those who benevolently wanted to give me a “religious education” – for that, there were even doctorate scholarships, but that was not my path. That’s how I got my doctorate 10 years later in “my” field, but I have no regrets. 

    In the contextual and women’s reading of the Bible, what are the main features of the biblical interpretation of the creation of the world and man? What in this case “contextual” and “female” brings to the reading of the Bible?

    Women’s reading of the Bible is a by-product of my academic research. After all, my studies of the theology of the apostle Paul (often called a misogynist) inevitably come from a woman’s point of view, because our life experiences influence our interpretation. My field of expertise is studying the “contextuality” of reading the biblical text, and of course, we must also look at the female context. But this is not the only “new” perspective, for centuries we were trapped in the context of privileged white men, whose reading was imposed on us as “objective” while other, supposedly “subjective” opinions could not measure up to it. Research should be done on this, but at least it seems to me that liberation theology is not the basis for feminist theology. It was women’s reading at the end of the 19th century that opened up questions that then triggered the incredible realization that early Christianity was the religion of the poor and often of women, like some counter-culture in antiquity. Jesus was not on the side of the rich but of the poor. This became an incredible realization for Latin America, where the church was getting rich, while the people languished in poverty. Unfortunately, Jesus often sounds like a Marxist, so it was easy to marginalize those voices, especially by the US and their red scare inside the church (so to speak).

    It is similar to feminist theology, which demands that the biblical accounts of Creation (Genesis 1 and 2) be read as one, hierarchically – ie as if women were created ontologically inferior to men in every respect. As inferior and created “from a man’s rib”, they are subordinated to men, who should lead them. The well-known tradition about the “fall into sin” (Genesis 3) becomes an argument why women cannot be leaders – because they have been deceived and are guilty of original sin! Thus, women since the time of the medieval church to this day walk a fine line: Either they will be impersonal saints/mothers or temptresses/prostitutes. Women’s readings, as well as readings from the perspective of liberation theology, indicate first of all that the God of the Bible is primarily the Liberator. Theories about the inferiority of women present God as the inventor of “(domestic) slaves”, actually some “demi-humans”. Feminist readings have opened eyes to the women hidden in the Bible, of whom there are a large number, especially considering that the Bible was written in a strict patriarchal surrounding. They are not so hidden because they are often in leading positions, which the church often denied to women for centuries later. Of course, we encounter them everywhere, from military leaders to prophetesses, and those who proactively stand up for the freedom of the oppressed and the small. Personally, my favorite character is Mary, the mother of Jesus, as Luke describes her at the beginning of his Gospel. As a young woman – about 15 years old – she sings a revolutionary song about the Savior who brings down the powerful and raises the poor! By doing so, she does not express respect for male authorities, but threatens them with God’s retribution! As time goes on, many significant studies have been written that reveal such instances. Unfortunately, if women don’t read for themselves and ask the hard questions, they won’t learn of God’s freedom. A significant problem is that women have been pushed out of positions of authority in the church, so “women’s” readings have been neglected and marginalized. But it is even more significant that often, to make it easier for themselves, they stand up for their marginalization. The cooperation between men and women, as envisioned in the Bible, is thus poorly visible. The first “real” account of Creation in Genesis 1 does not specify male and female roles in the care of Creation. Likewise, in the New Testament – salvation is equally available to men and women, and so are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “No difference!” the apostle Paul says in Galatians 3:28-29. Jesus did not discriminate, and women were his most faithful disciples. The early church did not differentiate either but proclaimed equality.

    The efforts of women to read the Bible for themselves opened the eyes of the world to all kinds of subjugation and oppression by the privileged wealthy male class in the West. One could go further and say that theologians, such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, have made incredible leaps in establishing methodologies (such as so-called “sociological” criticism and reconstruction or narrative criticism of the text) that are already standardly used in reading the texts, including holy text. Everything is slowly spilling over, it seems, to other monotheistic religions. I hope, for the betterment of the world.

    The translation and interpretation of biblical texts by female theologians are often presented as a “women’s Bible”. You pointed out the awkwardness of the term, which suggests a new text invented by women, when in fact it is a recognized and well-known text but read from various female perspectives.

    That is the problem – this whole nomenclature around the women’s issue. We realized that the issue of language is important because, among other things, individuals are socially defined by language. Language points to the discrimination of certain groups, just as history almost always shows the bias towards “winners” or perhaps better said, those who hold the power and determine the destinies of others. So, for example, in our country, women are often not included in the term “people” because “people” are synonymous with men. More precisely, women constantly have to figure out whether or not they are included in a language that favors the male gender. Or worse – men in power determine when women are involved or not. This discrimination is obvious in the translation of the Bible (and in the very language just as often). For example, when a woman asks whether the Spirit also endowed women with the gift of preaching in the community, because the pronouns (svi/ all, oni/ they) are masculine, i.e. they can denote men or can include women and men. When women began to read these texts for themselves, individually and in the original languages, questions arose and their translations did not turn out as translated by, for example, King James I of England, because it was clear to him that women were not included. With their request to define the word, women problematize texts that were considered “clear” and this is a problem for the establishment, which hardly wants to give up the privilege to include or exclude them at will.

    Female characters in the Bible are represented both by their names and as anonymous wives, mothers, daughters, maids, virgins, slaves, and more. What connects the women of the Old and New Testaments?

    Considering that the Bible was written by men in patriarchal surroundings, the female characters are quite numerous, those who are also mentioned by name and are among the heroines of the stories. Sometimes certainly as anti-heroines, but there is no shortage of men represented as villains. Contrary to our medieval moralistic expectations, the Bible is not a set of laws and orders, but examples of how God communicates with people through their lives. In this sense, nothing changes in the Old and New Testaments. Women in both the Old and New Testaments have their own experiences of God who frees them and calls them to a purposeful life in the community and for the community.

    Talking about the relationship between the Old and New Testament is theologically demanding – perhaps it goes beyond the interest of our readers. But Christians believe that the promises of the Old Testament were fulfilled through Jesus Christ, who, as the Son of God, is the main character of the New Testament. Jesus is therefore God’s promised messiah who brought reconciliation with God to the world (which includes the nation of Israel). The Apostle Paul, the main theologian of such an interpretation, therefore says in the Epistle to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus!” and it is believed that he even quotes the formula used in baptism here. This fulfillment of God’s promise was already announced in the Old Testament as being egalitarian compared to other systems in the world, and in the New Testament it was inaugurated by a “counter-culture” that implies everyone’s freedom, or better, the path to absolute freedom for everyone. Women are certainly included there. Accordingly, their role in the early Christian church is not sporadic, but, as numerous works have shown, indisputable. For example, at the end of the Epistle to the Romans, the apostle lists a large number of church leaders – one-third are women.

    When we examine the essence of Jesus’ teachings, we must note, first of all, a new quality of faith, the involvement of women, who are equally “saved”, and equally “called” even to leading positions (if we can use that expression for a system that is counter-cultural to world hierarchies per se) and they are endowed with the Spirit of God just as much as men. We should ask why this is so rarely seen in the Christian church.

    In the article Head covering as a sign of submission? An Exegetical Review of 1 Corinthians 11, 1-16 you state that the apostle Paul felt prompted to restrain women who indulged in revolutionary thinking concerning the equality of the sexes since the new customs of female freedom in the Christian church were considered scandalous by both Jews and Greeks, and often by those who belonged to the Church themselves. He sees the solution, for the entire Church, in the hierarchical structure of marriage and the man-woman relationship based on a biblical approach. Nevertheless, you suggest approaching the text in its historical context, bearing in mind the needs of the Church of that time and its progress. How do you see the position of women within society, theology, and the Church within the framework of the current social paradigm?

    The mentioned article is one of my early texts (I think it was written some 30 years ago). Today I would try to express myself more precisely, if that is even possible. The longer I live with the church and the further I study the theology of the apostle Paul, the more I see how difficult it is to live ideals, especially divine ones, in a world that lives by different rules and by patterns that are deeply rooted in (non)culture and language. I think this is also the reason why our perception of Paul is so ambivalent. He tries to contextualize the counter-cultural aspect of a certain culture. I described some of this in my book “Blessing the Curse”, in which I specifically address the leading people of the church, but I think it is important, especially for women, to observe how they often contribute to their marginalization. In the aforementioned text, I commented on the disputed Pauline text in 1 Corinthians 11, where he says, as interpreted, that women must wear a covering on their heads so as not to insult God.

    Such an interpretation is controversial for several reasons, first of all linguistic, because Paul is not talking about a head covering (or veil) but about “authority”. Then the translation that the woman must have “power over the head” is also disputed because the phrase “exusia epi” is translated in all other instances as ”having power over something”, in this case, the woman would have “power over the head” or specifically over her head. The very term “head” is problematic in this case because it seems that Paul does not want to say that woman should have authority over her husband, nor that he has authority as her head (as is often interpreted). Therefore, this is a linguistically very complicated text from which, precisely because of its uniqueness, according to the rules of hermeneutics, doctrines, or generally valid rules should not be extracted. In addition, the Epistle to the Corinthians is full of contextual problems, i.e. the problems that Paul addresses are primarily Corinthian. We can only single out the principles that lead to their solving. So, it would be advisable to see what their problem actually is – that the church has a bad reputation because of women (today at worship I would say also because of men, but the men’s problem in the text is completely obscured with this patronization of women). This, of course, hinders the evangelization of the Corinthians. This is a real problem for Paul because bringing the good news of reconciliation with God to all nations is his main task.

    If we try to reconstruct the situation, which Antoinette Wire did very interestingly and in detail in her book “Corinthian Women Prophets”, then we can see that the counter-culture of the Christian church became such that people outside (primarily Greeks) considered them mad. Elsewhere, when Paul calls on women to ask their husbands at home if something is not clear to them, this does not mean that women should not speak or take the lead, but that they should first learn and then speak, for example, that is why he calls on them to govern themselves in accordance with the norms. If you are inspired, it does not mean that you should leave your husband and family without a second thought (because household chores are not considered spiritual); if you are endowed with the Spirit you don’t necessarily always have to speak – the Spirit is subjected to the prophets and they should judge when it is important to speak and where, and the like. In Corinth, no such distinction was made, so everything resembled the “creative chaos” as one theologian called it. Paul calls all to order, including women. But I think that the line that concludes that a woman must have “power over her head for the sake of angels” actually indicates that it is the woman who makes her judgment about her spirituality and engagement. In that case, the angels would transmit God’s gifts and words, and the women themselves would still decide about their spirituality and its expression. Although Paul calls women to take seriously their gender roles as defined by society, Paul explains to them and to those who, according to social norms, are “in charge” of them that, concerning spirituality and engagement in the church, power, and responsibility still rests with the women themselves. That is, no man, not even their husband, has the right to interfere.

    Paul, therefore, calls on women to be careful, but not to give up their prophetic gift (as Wire interprets it). He does not play the patriarchal role, nor does he give up on the already mentioned baptism formulation that gives women and men equal rights within the church. He only warns that they must be careful that everything they do is useful for evangelization. Seen from that perspective and taking into consideration how much we have evolved as a society, I would even dare to say, following Paul’s demands on the equality and dignity of women as human beings who are spiritually independent, it is absurd for men, for example, to pray in the square for their chaste dressing and subordination to men and men’s authority. Today, I think, Paul would have a lot to say to church leaders for whom male authority and freedom to conduct violence of any kind represents a divine right. It is because of them that the name of God is reviled.

    What are the differences between Protestant denominations when it comes to the possibility of women becoming pastors and priests?

    This is a big question. Since Protestant mainline churches (Lutheran and Reformed) are in principle egalitarian and allow the ordination of women at all levels (priests, bishops, and archbishops), due to the hierarchical structure this also applies to these churches in Croatia. In practice, this is a political and cultural issue, which is why Croatian churches behave following the social rules of the surrounding, which is patriarchal and does not allow women to be involved in the church hierarchy. The exception and this has already been described sociologically, is that women are still welcomed when men judge that they have nothing to gain. Women in these cases have nothing to ruin, because these situations are deemed hopeless by the organization, and failure is almost guaranteed. So, the organization has nothing to lose if it hands over the leadership to women – either it will succeed despite everything, and one of the superiors will take the credit, or it won’t, and it will just “prove” that women are not capable as leaders.

    In congregationally organized communities, women participate only in the founding process i.e. while the movement is being established, but as soon as the community takes on institutional forms, men will be appointed leaders. Sometimes in these communities, especially those of charismatic type, it can seem at first that women are treated equally because they are sometimes called “pastors”, but in that case, you have to follow the trail of money. “Real” pastoral services will be reserved for men and paid. Women will work at all levels, but voluntarily and under the ultimate leadership of a (paid) man. Congregationally organized communities, which are more “democratic” in their structure, sometimes demand “independence” in decision-making for each local church. But democracy is often guided by the “traditional” interpretation of texts on women, so men always represent the first choice, especially in a patriarchal surrounding.

    To summarize, some churches display the principle of equality at the international level, but they often do not adhere to it in practice or adhere to it nominally, while in reality, this is invisible. For example, every church has the right to choose a woman as a pastor, if it wishes so, but if it does, it would be sanctioned by the majority forming various alliances, which are against it. It is a strange conglomeration of intersectional discrimination against women, which is difficult to fight. Perhaps it should also be noted that as global society becomes radicalized, so do the churches. A friend from Russia told me some years ago that the rights of women in churches diminished significantly after the “liberalization” of society, especially with the return of young theologians from their studies in the USA. Society has become more conservative and radical, and such attitudes have also been imported from other conservative surroundings. This is something to explore and keep an eye on.

    Nationalism and patriarchy seem to go hand in hand. Would you agree with that and how do you see them intertwined with the issue of (female) sexuality and (social) control?

    Definitely! Nationalism and patriarchy rest on the principle of predetermined privilege for men in patriarchy and men of a certain nationality in nationalism, respectively. It is a way to strengthen one’s position, which rests on myths of males being superior and nations being chosen. It is interesting to me that both try to find support in the Bible, which speaks of a God who chooses, but always to bless all peoples, and which in creation sees unity in the diversity of men and women and all nations.

    Ever since the 1960s, it has been clear that “giving birth” is a woman’s weak side, with the help of which she can be kept under control. Raising children costs money and does not bring profit – which is the unit of measure for the success of a human individual. If they want a family, women must have a “sponsor” who will support their children (in some cases the state even considers the children to belong to it for a higher purpose). Allowing a woman to choose between childbearing and a career automatically threatens men’s positions of power and their profits and dominance over cheap labor catering to their daily needs. It compromises the system from within. It raises questions and destabilizes.

    Is abortion evil – it certainly is. Not a single woman chooses it as her ideal. I find it intriguing how this question is posed as a “women’s” question, while behind every abortion there is a man who does not want the child and who often persuades a woman to go through it and pays for the abortion. Moralists who speak publicly against abortion (or demagoguely get the votes of ordinary believers with this topic) are especially vile, and are leading deprived lives, forcing women and lovers to have abortions, and even “solving” the issue for relatives and friends, as was the case with the great apologist Ravi Zacharias, about whom the truth finally got out when his daughter posthumously ordered an independent investigation into the many complaints swept under the rug.

    Perhaps I should end this on a more positive note – God is not a moralist. He measures the “sins” of the system in particular and takes the women’s side – be it Hagar’s in the desert, or the woman’s whom Jesus meets at the Samaritan well, who was denounced as a sinner.

    What is the specificity of feminist theology in the countries of the former Yugoslavia? From what need did it develop?

    In our country, of course, feminism and feminist theology are shunned like the devil from incense. And the women in theology themselves do not want to be judged that way. Perhaps there would be no feminist theology in our country if there was no war and the great need for humanitarian engagement of religious women afterward. It seems to me that reflecting on this engagement, above all on women believers, produced a moment in which many myths about women, especially about women in churches, began to be questioned, even to the point that some became interested in studying theology. Perhaps one cannot speak of feminist theology in the Balkans (although all terms in the phrase “feminist theology in the Balkans” have arbitrary meaning), but contours exist, and they are the product, as Roberta Nikšić saw it, of women’s religious activism.

    As the chairperson of the Croatian delegation of the European Society of Women in Theological Research (ESWTR-CS), what are your experiences of cooperation with other female theologians in Croatia and abroad? How interested is the younger generation of theologians in dealing with the topic of feminist theology?

    Our association represents a network that is perhaps even shyly offered to women theologians of all orientations and even those in some interdisciplinary theological ones. Next year we celebrate our 15th anniversary with an international, academic meeting, so it will be a good time to look back and see what we have achieved. Women, especially women in theological-academic positions, need more support and exchange. It is unpopular to admit to ourselves and others that we are women and that we need that space, so not everyone asks for membership. On the other hand, our members emphasize membership as an important factor in their affirmation as scientists, both in the country and especially abroad. ESWTR in Europe has members who work in important positions, which creates great opportunities for international conferences and projects. It gets you going from a standstill. Membership in our association is obtained upon invitation and after the proposal of at least two female scientists who are already members. Alternatively, someone can ask for a full membership, but even for that, they need the support of at least two members for their membership to be considered at the assembly. In addition to full members, we also have supporting members (for young female scientists) and honorary members.

    As for young female scientists – they often grow up discouraged from joining our “feminist club”. As I said, if you want respectability, it is best not to deal with women’s issues. How long, however, as women, we can bypass them, is difficult to say, because sooner or later “criticism” will arrive that our research is too “feminine”, and then this criticism should be dealt with. I assume that the willingness to face the problem comes with years of experience in this “male” profession and with how patriarchal and accordingly discouraging the surrounding in which we work is on the one hand, and the other hand, always, how women are used to suffering the mechanisms of patriarchy that a priori underestimates them.