Sharon A. Bong
‘EWA tasting and seeing Christ as the Bread of Life, Rice of Life and the Meat of Life’
Thirty women, lay and religious gathered at the table of the Ecclesia of Women, feasting on feminist theological discussions, women-centred liturgies and reflection on the occasion of EWA’s eight biennial conference held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 18-21 January.
With the festive theme, ‘Foodscapes: Gastronomy, Theologies and Spiritualities’ digested from the lens of a Catholic Asian feminist theological orientation, 12 papers, including the keynote address were delivered for women’s hearty consumption. Conversational threads simmered with key ingredients drawn from EWA’s faith and praxis of doing theology that is: “inculturated and contextualized in Asian realities; builds on the spiritual experience and praxis of the socially excluded; promotes mutuality and the integrity of creation; and dialogues with other disciplines, Christian denominations and faiths”.
EWA’s theologizing is firstly grounded in the lived realities of Asian women and men and amid the global feminization of poverty and hunger, the poor and hungry Asian women in particular. This is the feminist standpoint that EWA commits herself to that one could taste and see from the Indian platter of experiences. For example, Shalini Mulackal offers a subaltern postcolonial feminist perspective at the intersection of gender, race and caste with regard to the triply marginalized Dalit women; Cyrilla Chakalakal’s poetic and philosophical offering builds on food as memory and the kenosis (self-emptying) of women and the Eucharist; Kochurani Abraham foregrounds women’s agency not only in forging food security but also birthing full humanity through the case study of Kerala’s kudumbashree, a women-led, state-driven initiative aimed at eradicating poverty and empowering women.
EWA’s theologizing is secondly brewed from the “integrity of creation” with homage to Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si and ingested not only through an ecofeminist but also queer ecofeminist palate. Discussions were spiced with diverging views on re-visioning Christian anthropology. Heejung Adele Cho (South Korea/Canada) reclaims the integral ecology affirmed in Laudato Si – an appreciation of animals as fellow creatures of God – that is manifest through ethical and sustainable farming of animals for human consumption (e.g. Polyface Farms). Mary Yuen (Hong Kong) turns to ecofeminists such as Ivone Gebara who in drawing the parallelism between men who feast on and objectify the earth and women’s bodies, challenges the patriarchalism inherent in Laudato Si. She offers pastoral responses that seek to eschew food waste, e.g. food rescue and assistance programmes (e.g. Food Angel) and the vegetarianism movement in HK.
Sharon A. Bong (Malaysia) in her keynote address, further problematized not only the androcentrism (male-centredness) but also the deep-seated anthropomorphism (humans as imago dei) that runs through Laudato Si. In drawing from ecofeminist vegans such as Carol J. Adams, she calls for a de-centring of the human in creation to better and more fully realise the mutuality and integrity of all creation. She also draws on Agnes Brazal’s feminist cyborg spirituality to argue that even the essence of what it means to be human is increasingly being queered (made strange) and de-essentialised (e.g. the advancement of Artificial Intelligence) with humans becoming cyborgs, engendering fluid, hybrid and plural identities, e.g. human-animal and human-machine.
EWA’s theologizing thirdly dialogues with other disciplines and faiths. Jeane Peracullo (the Philippines), the outgoing coordinator of EWA, draws from a rights discourse and ethics in assessing the relevance and limits of working within an animal rights framework as conceptualized by environmental philosophers such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan and ecofeminist Carol J. Adams. They flesh out moral considerations of ‘nonhumans’ through their capacity, not unlike humans, to suffer and feel pain. Peracullo calls for a contextual, ethical vegetarianism.
Rachel Sanchez (the Philippines) and Stephanie Ann Puen (China/US) whose papers were delivered for the Skype presentations, one of the main courses served at recent EWA ‘buffets’, draw on local indigenous spirituality and the global fair trade movement, respectively. Sanchez’s Christological re-visioning uses key ingredients which include: heeding the call of Filipina theologian Muriel Orevillo-Montenegro to reclaim female images of Christ which she does in the form of rice-making-life-giving goddess Sappia from local myths on the origin of rice (a staple diet in the Philippines and much of Asia) and making the connection with the Basic Ecclesial Community’s rice-sharing initiative in observing Isang Dakot ng Bigas (One Handful of Rice), to feed the poor and hungry among themselves. Puen in drawing from Ester Boserup’s seminal work on women’s role in human development through agriculture, seeks to appraise the Fair Trade movement not only from the faith-based lens of Vocation of a Business Leader document by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace but also a gendered lens through the former’s use of the concepts “good goods, good work, and good wealth” in relation to gender justice for women in the food industry.
EWA’s theologising would be incomplete without savouring the Bread of Life – biblical reflections on food and Asian women. To this end, Bincy Matthew (India) shows how the Lukan (Luke 10:42) and Johannine Jesus (Jn 12:1-8, 13:1-20) invite all women who interiorise their feminised duty to feed men and their families, to step out from these gender stereotypes to choose, as Mary did, “the better part”, the spiritual rather than material plane; Kristine Meneses (Philippines), the new EWA Coordinator, critically reflects on the contemporary foodscape of hunger-abundance through a reading of Eichah (Book of Lamentations) vis-à-vis Tisha B’Av (one of the Jewish holidays) and Lamentations 4.9; and Rasika Pieris (Sri Lanka) offers a feminist theological reading of the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus in light of women’s struggles in Sri Lanka.
Takeaways that will nourish us till the next EWA to be hosted in Malaysia include: fasting from the notion that romanticizes women’s role as providers of food (so that fewer women are hungry less of the time), feasting on the notion that food security is inseparable from gender justice, ‘cooking’ an anthropology of the human in creation that draws from spiritualities that celebrate the intimate interconnectedness of all beings; and for each feminist present deliberating – to eat meat or go vegetarian or vegan - tasting and seeing Christ as the Bread of Life, Rice of Life and the Meat of Life!
 EWA thanks the seven video-conferencing participants that include Nontando Hadebe, St. Augustine College (Johannesburg, South Africa), Sr. Anne Achieng and Elias Opongo, sj, Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (Nairobi, Kenya), Mary Jo Iozzio, Boston College, (Boston, USA), Christine Firer Hinze, Fordham University (New York, USA), Katherine Ward, Marquette University (Milwaukee, USA), Gina Wolfe and Sr. Dianne Bergant, Catholic Theological Union (Chicago, USA), and Lisa Fullam, Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara (Berkeley, USA).