Schüssler Fiorenza’s ‘kyriarchy’ pits courage and creativity against Empire

Published in Geez Magazine | November 2012 | Circulation: 2,000 readers 

When I think of anarchism – even that precious, rare religious variety thereof – my last expectation is of a quiet 74-year old Harvard theology professor with a heavy German accent and a playful smirk.

Exactly 20 years ago, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza made an essential, though unacknowledged, contribution to anarchist and feminist thought, however, when she coined the term “kyriarchy” – a neologism from the Greek “kyrios” (“lord, master, father”) and “archein” (“to rule, dominate”).

What’s particularly extraordinary about Fiorenza’s offering – one that has been taken up enthusiastically by feminist theologians and secular anarchists alike, usually without realizing its Catholic source – is how it neatly encapsulates the global systems of power, control and inequality.

Kyriarchy, she writes in Transforming Vision: Explorations in Feminist The*logy (2011) is “a sociopolitical and cultural-religious system of domination,” based on “pyramidal relations of domination and submission, profit and exploitation.” Encompassing “class, race, gender, ethnicity, empire, and other structures of discrimination,” kyriarchy “works through the violence of economic exploitation and lived subordination.”

The Harvard Divinity School instructor coined the term in her ground-breaking 1992 book, But She Said – defining it at the time as the “interconnected, interacting, and multiplicative systems of domination and submission.” That book, translated into 13 languages, reached beyond traditional religious audiences.

While the definition might seem a mouthful to the non-academically inclined, the concept is simple: Kyriarchy is about the bigger picture underlying hierarchy, oppression and injustice.

The logic of kyriarchy is one of inequality and control – and understanding it takes a radical, even revolutionary, view of world politics.

“The Moral Majority in the 1970s, and the Christian New Right in the 1980s and 1990s,” she explained in her speech for the Burke Lectureship on Religion and Society, “have used Biblical texts and injunctions for legitimating the militaristic power of the U.S. as a global superpower … in the service of Empire, colonialist expansion, and heterosexist domination.”

Fiorenza follows in the footsteps of dozens of trail-blazing liberation theologians and feminists, but she refuses to prioritize one oppression over another. Kyriarchy includes at once economic inequality and patriarchy; queer theorists and anti-colonial activists alike cite her work far beyond the divinity school walls.

And while Fiorenza does not label herself an anarchist, by rejecting hierarchy, domination and obedience, she gracefully helps stretch feminism away from a sole focus on women, and into resisting domination altogether – be it racism, class inequality, transphobia or war.

“The expression ‘feminist’ still evokes in many audiences a complex array of emotions, negative reactions, and prejudice, as well as a host of different understandings,” she told the Burke audience. “The F-word is still, in most of the world, a dirty word.

“Feminism is a radical concept, and at the same time … at the beginning of the 21st century, feminism should be a common-sense notion. Women are not ladies, wives, handmaids, seductresses or beasts of burden – (they) are full decision-making citizens. Men can advocate feminism, just as women can be anti-feminist. Feminism is not just concerned about gender, but also about race, class and imperialism.”

While non-Christian feminists – and women of colour in particular – pioneered this intersecting, complex understanding of oppression (bell hooks, Chandra Mohanty and Gloria Anzaldua, for example), Fiorenza’s radical spiritual critique has offered essential tools that are rapidly gaining currency in secular circles as much as amongst Bible geeks.

Fiorenza takes her kyriarchal analysis further still, arguing that domination is not just about power-over people, but “also over nature, the earth, and the whole cosmos… Global capitalist domination jeopardizes not only the well-being of people but also that of nature.”

It’s not just talk, however. The Society of Biblical Literature elected her their first president, and she’s waded into controversy for calling on her Catholic church to reverse its rigid opposition to abortion.

But for Fiorenza, it’s the economics of today’s global capitalist empire that have particularly inflamed her last decade of passionate social change advocacy. The alternatives for the faithful, she insists, are stark and high-stakes.

“Religious communities and persons face a theoretical choice today,” she said in her Burke lecture. “We can strengthen global capitalist dehumanization, or we can support the growing interdependence of people. We can spiritually sustain the exploitation of capitalist globalization – or we can engage the possibility of radical democratization for greater freedom, justice and solidarity…

“Scripture (is) a resource of creativity, courage and solidarity. The creative power of scripture is something ongoing that can be articulated only in and through a rejection of the violent power and ethos of empire.”

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