Delivered as part of the annual series of Hendrik Kraemer Lectures, this year organised around the theme ‘Gender equity and empowerment in African public theology’, this lecture by Philomena Njeri Mwaura is inspired by the work and writings of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (CCAWT), and what ordinary African women are doing as agents of transformation in their churches and communities. The key focus of this Lecture is in the contextual theological appraisal of specific aspects of human capability development, and how this can offer both church and society a framework through which they can engage in their pursuit of gender justice and quality of life for all especially for women and girls.
The lecture begins by exploring the context in which African women live, their responses to the various challenges they experience, and how African women theologians respond to this context through theological reflection. This is achieved through reference to existing literature, with quotes from women theologians in Africa serving to attest to the significant role of women in the development of church and society. Topics discussed include: the contemporary social and religious context in Africa, with the rapid spread and increasing diversity of Christianity in Africa; African women’s responses to the challenges this context represents, including the male dominated hierarchy of Christian churches and the burden placed on women to maintain the family in turbulent social and economic times; and African women theologians responses and concerns resulting from the conflict between their feminist theological interpretations, and the legacy of imperialism and paternalism.
The lecture then moves on to discuss the nature and characteristics of African women’s theologies as embodied by the CCAWT, and how they differ to more traditional, orthodox, or western teachings. African women’s theology is regarded as being narrative-based, with story-telling utilised to educate and inform. Secondly, they are theologies of relations, not simply between men and women, families, and communities, but extending to nature itself; African women’s theologies are ecologically-sensitive. Thirdly, they are explicitly contextual, meaning that their beliefs arise from their context, informed by women’s struggles and exclusion, to include an inherently liberation-based theology that extends to all marginalised and impacted groups.
A critique of African women’s theologies is then offered, with the suggestion that to-date, too much focus has been placed on the private sphere, and neglecting the fact that much of women’s experiences of marginalisation and vulnerability has been shaped by the public arena of politics, law, economics and social policies. Additionally, they have failed to adequately and consciously deal with the issue that women experience vulnerability outside the church too, requiring wider engagement with systems that dehumanise and harm women.
The lecture concludes by proposing a strategy for evolving a public theology in a way that recognises and utilises women’s capacities. This will require dialogue with male scholars, and recognition that theology must be open and public, rather than cloistered away from view. The author suggests that an African women’s public theology needs to utilise the human capability framework as a secular theoretical framework, in conjunction with theological principles of the common good and God’s purpose for creation, for assessing the quality of life of women in Africa, as well as to act as a basis for calling the church, government and society into action.