Lessons from Sharon

Reflections from the book: Sharon: A Passionate Rose After the Heart of God, 2016 edited by Liza B. Lamis

by Francis Neil G. Jalando-on

 

My learnings from Sharon

The book starts with what kind of person Sharon is, and the experiences that honed her. The introduction pointed out two particular experiences that have special places in the formulation of her theology and spirituality. The two were intertwined: her imprisonment in 1985 for participation in a people’s march, and her dismissal as a teacher of the College of Theology, Central Philippine University because of her involvement in the Filipino people’s struggle for national liberation.[1] The editor aptly stated that these experiences “only deepened her commitment to take religiosity into the crucible of the people’s struggle there to find relevance and meaning.”[2]

The book is divided into three chapters: One – A Woman Takes the Lead; Two – Doing Theology from the Underside; Three – Journeying With the Filipino People. The editor compiled the available resources – speeches, reports, lectures and reflections of Sharon – and weaved it into a very engaging, challenging, thought provoking book that oozes with so much passion that it pierces the very core of my soul that led me to affirm my calling, enriched my faith, and encourages me to be brave enough to do something.

What can we learn from Sharon that will help us formulate our theology especially in the area of gender sensitivity and feminism? Let me use an acrostic of SHARON. Here are six main things that I learned from the book:

 

S – Situation-awareness is key in formulating a theology, and making decisions

Sharon fittingly reminds me “Let us be wise as serpents and really watch what is unfolding.”[3]

As I began to fully embrace my calling as a pastor, I listened to the preaching of other pastors attentively. I listened as Baptist pastors made sexist jokes about their wives — how they talked too much, or were indecisive, or any other stereotype wrongfully applied to women — and encouraged women, especially homilies during wedding, to “learn in quietness and full submission.” I felt that there was something wrong with the way the pastors of the CPBC, and pastors of other denominations as well, speak about women and gender. It made, and still, makes me angry, but it also inspired me to learn.

Sharon has taught me that churches need to be aware that patriarchal thinking has permeated our preaching, and our theology.

“Our patriarchal history and social system have broken us, women. We have learned to accommodate token listening, stereotypes, and marginalization. We have ceased to question the fine line between servitude and love. We have accepted the unfair social ascriptions imposed on us. We have even used biblical passages to justify our silence and subservience.”[4]

I think that, sometimes, the sexism of our pastors is unintentional, though it’s harmful nonetheless. But it proves one thing: We have allowed patriarchy to saturate the Christian community like a disease, and sadly, churches have even been its biggest advocate. Sharon wrote about this sad reality.

“Sadly enough, if there is a group of persons who cannot be authentic, it is women… Most women today think and act like males. Patriarchal society has trained them to be so. Many women either depreciate themselves – perceiving themselves as inferior or subordinate, or they try to be what they are not because they fear ridicule of being considered abnormal or of being rejected, unwanted and unloved.”[5]

Churches need to re-examine also the composition of their leadership and decision making bodies. In the 21st General Convention of the NCCP, Sharon pointed out that “Only one of the ten Church heads is a woman. Definitely, all of them are not young anymore. Processes within the Executive Committee are, in the man, alienating to women and youth. Even with a woman General Secretary we cannot claim to be gender-nor-age sensitive.”[6]

Generally, most leaders before spoke about the potential of men — the leaders they are called to be and the good they are called to bring to the world. However, when it comes to women, churches often talk about what they should be and what they should not do, rather than recognizing who they are, and their own potential also. This teaches our daughters that they are to be what society or their local pastor calls them to be, and further perpetuates the belief among young and adult women that they are not capable of being a leader and succeeding independently.

Sharon reminds us of the situation of women in the table of decision making:

“In the corporate world, the table is where plans are hatched, decisions are made…While it is true that more women find themselves at this table, it is not very easy for us to get to it…Moreover, the table has set parameters: rectangular with a “presidential” section where usually a man sits. This table is a symbol of our hope to be treated as equals, as partners. And for as long as the table has sides, women’s rights will continue to be violated.”[7]

Sharon would repeatedly remind church people that patriarchy has remained the greatest threat in the recognition that women can do it also.

“It is still a reality that even with the Women and Youth Desks, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines still remains a patriarchal institution. Even with the election of a laywoman as General Secretary, serving for eight long years, feminism has not sunk deep enough in the consciousness of our constituents…I would like to remind us that when we elected a women General Secretary, the message that we wanted to put across was: A WOMAN CAN. IT’S ALL RIGHT.”[8]

 

H – Helper of the marginalized

The marginalization of women starts when the doctor proclaims, “It’s a girl.” Most of the time, especially in the Filipino culture, people expect to have first born son. Even women in the family are dismayed if it is a girl. When our first born, Kairos, was born we heard a lot of comments like – “we are happy for you because you have a boy” (as if we are not happy if it is a girl).

Majority of the world’s population are females yet they have unjustly receive an unfair balance in life even from birth. Most often, society has treated women as second class citizens. Sharon is reminding us that the church should be a community of equals because this is what Jesus demands of us. She said, “…our mission is to build a communion of sisters and brothers – to sustain Jesus’ ministry of gathering people together. This communion can be built only when we dismantle systems and structures that make equals unequal.”[9] She further elucidates in one of her speeches, “I want to say…that bringing our nation and all nations to Christ involves three crucial actions: 1. Building community; 2. Making meaning; 3. Nurturing hope.”[10]

Because of power play, one of the abuses perpetrated to women is domestic violence. Violence against women done by men is a real problem in our culture. Sharon analyzes the situation as this,

“Violence against women is perpetrated from a position of socio-economic strength. It is about control. It also is not always sexually driven. Since VAW often occurs in situations of unequal relationships, the real motivation is often domination, a way of putting women in their places and letting them know who calls the shots.”[11]

Violence against women is a problem that the church should address. Our responsibility is not just social justice but more so at the level of ecclesiastical justice. We must preach in our sermons, teach in our Sunday school classes, and start it with our children during Vacation Church Schools that women are to be cherished, honored, and protected by men because this is the mandate of Jesus Christ. In this case, the church must be in the forefront in the struggle to eliminate violence against women. Sharon said, “…under the patriarchal system obtaining in Philippine society, most experiences of women are violations of their personhood. To confront, challenge, and dismantle patriarchy, therefore, is to work for the elimination of violence against women.”[12]

 

A – Ability to ask questions that everybody is afraid to ask

Sharon is not afraid to ask questions. Her reflections in the book stems from the questions that she asked; questions that many are afraid to articulate, or most probably, questions that other people have not even thought of asking. Asking the right questions then is one the things that I have learned from Sharon.

Here are some of the questions that Sharon articulated in the book. These questions led her to formulate her theology.

“In 1984, the economic and political situation of the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos turned from bad to worse. I started to ask difficult questions about what I was trying to do in a Seminary when all around me, people were dying before their time – if not from hunger from bullets fired by the soldiers of Marcos who claimed to be the protectors of the people.”[13]

“Theology, for me, began when I asked the question about where and why the Filipino peasants…were suffering and what possible means are available in removing that suffering.”[14]

“…my question changed from “Who is God?” to “Where is God?” There was a shift from the nature of God to the locus of God….And that started a series of questions: On which side is God? On the side of the rich or the side of the poor? Why has God chosen to take that side? What is God doing? What does God expect me to do?”[15]

Sharon is very pointed in her questions. She has that ability to confront you with the things that she raised. Her daring inquiries will make you re-think your positions. I am particularly challenged with what she said,

“Can we really speak about the united body of Christ? Or more importantly how are we – pastors and priests – dismembering the body of Christ which we claim we are building up? We fragment the body of Christ when we do not preach the whole gospel to the whole world. It is unfortunate that pastors and priests choose only Biblical passages that make our congregations comfortable.”[16]

In one instance, I remember a preaching about how women should this or that so that men will find them. I am sure the pastor probably meant no harm. However, his statement was rife with sexism, whether he was aware of it or not. To imply that women would do anything for the sole attention of men illustrates the pastor’s assumption that everything women do is for the attention of men. Patriarchy and sexism have led to the thinking that women are always on the search for a mate – and will do whatever is necessary to “catch” one. Sharon has this to say about that,

“If, therefore, it is true that women were created in the image of God just as men were, how is it possible that we doubt in our capacity to decide for ourselves and to depend on our strength? How is it possible for us to call ourselves weak or inferior?”[17]

 

 R – Radical thinker and doer

Sharon is a radical thinker. She would always go to the root of the matter, and start from there. Many are bewildered with her thoughts. She wrote, “Many did not understand her…others gave her token listening because they did not quite know what to do about her “weird” ideas.”[18]

Sharon, without hesitation, has declared that Christians should be involved in politics, and that women’s voices are part of the equation.

“Participation in political affairs IS the Christian mission…the political implications of having a woman General Secretary, I meant that our women’s work in the NCCP is about inserting ourselves in the body politik, there to raise the voices of all the oppressed.”[19]

In the year 2000, Sharon said “By electing a lay woman General Secretary, the NCCP was making a political statement.” After eight years she did not let go of that statement. She reiterated “Having a woman at the helm of leadership is a political statement. It says that society must be characterized by justice and what is justice but that everyone has his/her fair share of everything in life.”[20]

Her most difficult situation was when she was outrightly delegitimized by another woman – the Philippine president herself. She said that in all of her public statements she lifted up feminist values: freedom, equality, bias for the oppressed, justice. But all of these values were contradicted by another woman. She rhetorically asked a question, “How can women champion a cause with a woman like that?”[21]

Most of the time, when pastors mention women, their statements would include or relate to men and or children in some way. When pastors have mentioned the women of the congregation particularly (And I have been guilty of this also), it has usually been followed by a bit of unsolicited advice about how to attract a husband or their supposed roles as mothers — as though women are not valuable apart from men and children. Sharon had this kind of experience with male leaders of the church. Speaking about her experience as General Secretary during the Executive Committee meeting, she wrote,

“My sense is that men do not know what to do with statements and ideas of women. After a painfully delivered General Secretary’s report that has caused profuse sweat,, sleepless nights and excruciating migraine, they call for a vote of acceptance…And the report marches into the archives. It is not engaged. It is not debated on…It poses a question of people’s attitude about novel ideas about thoughts never before expressed. The call of the women and youth delegates is: If our voices have been met with condescending tokenism, we ask that it (tokenism) be transcended. To respect the women and youth means to take us seriously because our issues are serious.”[22]

Sharon believes that to be a Christian is to be ecumenical — “My conclusion is that one cannot be a Christian and not be ecumenical.”[23] And part of the ecumenical agenda is the agenda of the women, and the youth. According to the latest statistics in 2016, the majority of Filipinos or 54 percent are under the age of 35 or in the category of youth, and most of them are also females. Speaking to the delegates of the 21st NCCP General Convention, she challenged “It would not be a bad idea at all if our clarion call at this 21st General Convention is: FEMINIZE THIS CONVENTION AND LET IT EXUDE A YOUTHFUL GLOW.”[24]

The creation of a better world for Sharon involves the exposing and dismantling of the patriarchal system that pervades in our society, a system that degrades the women. She wrote,

“For us, Filipino Christians, the clearest and most profound theological statement that we can ever make is our involvement in the struggle of the people. The creation of a better world is the bottom line of the ecumenical agenda.”[25]

“The ecumenical movement today continues to work for peace based on justice by dismantling all that deny people of the gift of life.”[26]

 

O – Open to learnings that are considered “out of the box”

Sharon challenges us not to be imprisoned by the four corners of the classroom, or the church. For her, lessons start with the experiences.

“My classroom then became the streets, the shanties of the urban poor, the rice paddies where the peasants were, the small boats of the fisherfolks. My Christian Education curriculum included the eternal verities of life seen through the eyes of the poor, the deprived, and the oppressed. As I became more and more steeped in their struggle, my faith became more alive and dynamic. It was no longer ethereal, esoteric, and other-worldly.”[27]

In this, we must reflect on our experiences and learn from it. Women, in particular should articulate their experiences and raise questions out of it. I hear a preaching on Proverbs 18:22 that says “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” This scripture is rather feminist because it declares that women are a treasure and bring good to the relationship. But what came out was opposite of it. Rather than promoting that women and men are of equal weight and significance, the pastor expounded that while women are waiting for their future husbands — as if women had nothing better to do than wait for a husband who may or may not come. The pastor proceeded to talk about women learning about domestic chores — while you are waiting for your husband, learn to cook and learn to clean. Read books on parenting so you will be ready when you have his children, and learn how to be submissive. He was describing a “perfect wife” based on his patriarchal thinking.

This pastor’s statement illustrates his internalized belief that women were created solely for the purpose of being wives and mothers. And that is anti-feminist. Sharon, then, is asking us to question these experiences and learn from it.

Building on the background of experiences, Sharon defined what Christian Education is for her,

“For me, what is integral is that Christian Education is an instrument for BECOMING CHANGED PERSONS, who will change their circumstances…That is the awesome power and terrifying potential of education – not to make “smarter” persons but to help shape and make “different persons,” hopefully, better persons.”[28]

Using this definition, which I totally agree, we are then not called to not conform to societal roles or expectations. Instead, as Christians, we are to follow and adhere to who God calls us to be as individuals that make up a whole community. In this case, some women are then not meant to be wives and mothers. Some men are also not meant to be husbands and fathers. God’s plan is different for everyone.

 

N – Never accepts tradition as Gospel truth

Tradition has a way of making us blind. We believe that since it said by someone who we deemed as authoritative then that must be it. There are many mistakes that were perpetuated because of tradition. Most blatant of this is our interpretation of the Bible that is rife with patriarchal thinking. I heard many times from the lips of Sharon the words, “Fundamentally new, yet fundamentally better.” These same words I also heard from Dr. Lester Edwin Ruiz. This for me is a challenge to challenge the old ways, and come up with new ones, not for the sake of having something new but coming with a new one which is better.

For Sharon, office arrangement is even part of challenging the status quo.

“The first thing this woman General Secretary did was to turn the office around. She moved out the desk of the General Secretary from an inner corner that hid it from public view to a spot that faced the door, which she kept open all the time except she had deadlines to beat. For her, the person and the position must be accessible….But she was taking a risk by so doing for then accessibility made her vulnerable.”[29]

Sharon is someone who challenges me to test my preconceived ideas and unlearn it if something better comes in. I am reminded of a Latin motto inspired by the Reformation period, “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” – “Church reformed, always reforming.” Sharon then is telling us, “To blindly accept explanations handed down by government or the church of our fathers is to bar the truth. To bar the truth is to further imprison ourselves. To seek the truth is to accept the freedom that God offers to each one of us.”[30]

Traditionally, only men can occupy leadership positions. Sharon challenges this assertion. In a lecture delivered to the women of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches, Sharon defined what women leadership is all about.

“Women leadership is what I call FEMINIST LEADERSHIP…Feminist leadership: 1. Starts from experience, not ideas. 2. Consultative, not imposing. 3. Integrated, not compartmentalized. 4. Emergent, not permanent. 5. Uplifting/Empowering, not competitive. 6. Creative; constantly looking for new ways of thinking and doing. 7. Meticulous; attends to details.”[31]

In addition, feminist leadership for Sharon also includes anything that is life-giving, and life-affirming.

“Women are natural healers because we stand for a caring and nurturing undergirding of life processes. As life givers, women’s vocation is to ensure that life is lived to the fullest…Anything that spawns unpeace is intolerable and we will go to great lengths to see that an atmosphere of peace and harmony is created.”[32]

 

A continuing challenge to everyone

Let me quote extensively the understanding of ministry of Sharon. I agree with Sharon that we should for the self-actualization of people; that their faith should be strengthened against evil things; that people should be liberated from any form of imprisonment to that they will be making decisions as free individuals; and to be with the people in the quest for transformation, which is the primary mission of Jesus Christ.

“To minister is to encourage people to realize their own value and worth. It is to help them wrestle with a self-understanding that includes the unearthing and refining of their latent capabilities as well as developing their commitment to serve others. This is ministering for SELF-ACTUALIZATION.”

“To minister is to help people know how to deal with the dark forces of evil society. They must be enabled to live and walk in the dark. Their mettle and fibre must be strengthened. They need to go beyond shallow, narrow, superficial spirituality. This is ministering for FAITH.

“To minister is to create space for freedom so that people may liberate themselves from all forms of captivity. To be free is not to fear challenging points when the road ahead splits and persons are left with choices because they have been given a framework for decision-making. Freedom provides opportunities for self-determination. This is ministering for DECISIONS.

“To minister is to accompany people in their quest for a new ordering of things. It is to follow the example of Jesus who preached and worked for the reversal of social systems and structures. This is ministering for TRANSFORMATION.”[33]

I believe that Jesus lived a life like a true feminist as Sharon would repeatedly assert in the book. There was nothing sexist or anti-feminist about in his life. Jesus treated all people equally and he was not one to stereotype or demean. This means that everything that we hear that is sexist, stereotypical, and racist do not fit the values of Christianity, but comes from a patriarchal culture that we must strive to expose and dismantle. As Ephesians 2:14-16 says, Jesus “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…making peace…through the cross.”

[1] P. x

[2] P. xi

[3] P.35

[4] P.97

[5] Pp.22-23

[6] P.37

[7] P.55

[8] P.7

[9] P.17

[10] P.67

[11] P.59

[12] P.56

[13] P. xiii

[14] P. xv

[15] P. xv

[16] P.15

[17] P.24

[18] P.5

[19] P.10

[20] P.8

[21] P.11

[22] Pp.38-39

[23] P. xviii

[24] P.40

[25] P.29

[26] P.64

[27] P. xiii

[28] Pp.88-89

[29] P. 4

[30] P.24

[31] Pp.72-74

[32] P.96

[33] P. xvii

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