The Table

In a two-part series, “Psalms in Latin American Feminist Perspectives,” theologian Mercedes Garcia Bachmann of Buenos Aires, Argentina, brought a slice of feminist hermeneutics to the Faculta Valdese di Teologia, and unintentionally, a sliver of understanding to Pope Francis’ “blindspot.”

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Bachmann began her presentation by noting that many biblical scholars and teachers in Latin America are often too involved with social or public movements to contribute new scholarship in theological forums, so there is “more going on than to read.” 

I attended the first lecture just a few days after Pope Francis returned from the Philippines, where he spoke repeatedly about fighting a “colonization of ideology,” cautioning against “gender theory” as an unwelcome requirement to receiving foreign aid. Fighting corruption and capitalism are obvious themes of Francis’ pontificate, however hearing “gender theory” wrapped into the privileged colonizer stereotype stung for me (especially in knowing how harmful the “global gag rule” was for providing needed health education and services for families).

While usually the first to roll my eyes at the vague-reasoning of “well, he is an old Argentinian man,” as to why Francis doesn’t understand women, gender, or sexuality, it was in reading Psalm 91 in particular, through an intersectional lens of feminist liberation theology that helped widen my understanding of his context.

“Some of my students are born into democracies, but for those of us who were born into a dictatorship, there is a sense that we are always in danger of persecution and injustice.”

“Religion came to the continent with conquest and weapons,” Bachmann said, and so there is an awareness that persecution is always possible. And the colonizer is always present. I don’t agree with Pope Francis on his “ideological colonization” – especially with our Roman Catholic historical baggage, but for me (and perhaps to my ignorance), it became less confounding (though not less twisted) that he rejects western cultures of privilege and wealth.  After feeling completely deflated and disappointed from the reports from the Philippines trip, I think I needed a feminist theologian to shed some rational light from her own experience of Argentina onto what felt wrong and irrational. She didn’t mention the Pope, but her vigilance to perspectives of social and economic reasoning, often before (for me, the instinctual) feminist response, reordered the exegesis enough to make it feel distinctly Latin American, or at least less western. 

In reading Psalm 91 we “read from the body,” which Bachmann ascribes mostly as a technique of feminist theologians and women, but in this sense it is a matter of protection, from peril, war, and death.  Where I think Pope Francis falls short in his socio-economic approach, even if we give him the benefit of the doubt that he is “reading from the body,” is that his body is male (the norm, the un-gendered), and the “gendered” the others are out of his peripheries. In seeking protection, even bodily, it is not the same protection a woman or non-conforming gendered person might seek.

We discussed how many people create amulets from Psalm 91, or leave their bibles open to the Psalm to protect their homes. These “superstitious” or popular practices are generally dismissed as outside Catholic institutional norms. Here, as feminists we are asked to elevate these “outsider” practices as valid; while the Catholic institution attempts to restrict how the bible should be read or interpreted, women are always outside of these practices (in house churches, for example).

We also discussed Psalm 128 as a social critique of an economic system that might erode peasant family values: one which prioritizes family, land, children, and stability. Very simply, the ideal is described as children growing and working on one’s land (as investments), while one’s wife matures over years (like wine), the blessing comes from a stable family.  In doing so, the Psalm is postured against the temporary resident, the landless, those without inheritance: women’s dilemmas.

Just as biblical scholars in Latin America may be more involved in social movements than scholarship, Bachmann suggested that in the shadows of persecution, social needs take priority over the concept of salvation (which she described as an “after life” deliverance).  We concluded our first meeting noting that there is a salvation in reading the Psalms “from the body,” as God’s miracles are often bodily, coming through human bodies, feet, throats, wombs. Through women.