“Giving Birth To A New World” by Ruthann Knechel Johansen

July, 1978 at Manchester College

Ruthann’s powerful speech inspired the formation of Global Women’s Project.

Thank you, Sister Ruthann!

No matter where one stands in the feminist debate, the single most distinguishing feature of all women is the ability to give birth. Whether we have given biological birth or simply watched an infant with its parents or witnessed the arrival of a calf in the pasture of discovered day-old kittens with still-closed eyes under the porch, we have become quiet in the presence of mystery and the sense of participation birth always affords. Birth is an interdependent act which counters individualism and breaks into our isolation. It carries with it the promise of regeneration and renewal. All life begins with a seed, and inside each seed is yet another seed seeking to flower forth and to bear fruit. In birth we are not only participant nurturer, but also the agent of liberation.

The desire for liberation – to burst forth in all loveliness and to be saved from the fearful void of isolation – is the spark of the Divine, the Spirit of God, pulling us toward integration or wholeness. Just as I could not be born biologically alone, so I cannot be liberated or reborn alone. When Jesus told Nicodemus he needed a transformation of his spirit, Jesus used the birth image because it is participatory and releasing: God working as an agent of salvation in Nicodemus and Nicodemus’ acceptance of his dependence on God could result in rebirth. Liberation is a cooperative movement at the most fundamental level, as being born or giving birth reminds us; therefore, by extension we know that as members of the human family none of us can be liberated alone. Because of the indwelling of the Spirit, which makes us restless for reunion with God and which moves us toward community, we must join together to enable the birth of a more humane society here at home and to extend that same liberation globally.

Despite the cries for renewal and regeneration, which surround us at this moment in history, we are apparently fascinated by and drawn toward death and destruction. During any two-hour period approximately 26,000 more infants will join us in the human family. By the accidents of their births some of these children will die before they reach one year; others will lead permanently hungry lives, and the rest will eat and grow up in their better or worse environments over which we have no apparent control. If we redirected the world’s military expenditures for four days, we could feed all the world’s 200 million undernourished children for a year. Despite a U.N. Special Session on Disarmament in May 1978 and SALT II negotiations, our pleas for a disarmed world seem unheeded as the arms race proliferates. We are caught between longing for rebirth and wondering, “How long, O God, will you hide the secret from us?”

As women who espouse the sacredness of our own lives, we must examine the kind of world in which we live with other equally sacred human beings. Many women have struggled hard against stereotypes and feelings of worthlessness, against unfair discrimination, against political and economic structures that have not recognized, registered, or protected our contributions, against isolation and silence to reclaim some awareness of the gifts our lives are from God to us. We have looked to our own needs and longings to lead us toward equity and justice. By looking to our needs, we have found tremendous disparities between what the Gospel tells us and what that church had practiced, between the Constitution, American social mythology, and some laws, between our abilities and preparation and the opportunities to use such abilities. Within the American women’s movement we have learned that liberation must be communal, that none of us is really free when other sisters are in bondage. If that is true for us as American, Christian, middle-class or working-class women, it must also be true for those whom we have not seen and who do not live next door to us. Jesus provided the basis for a global understanding of liberation when he answered his incredulous disciples who asked, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison?” He said, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these you have done it to me.” We are compelled, therefore, to compare our desire for liberation with the needs of others in the world.

In order to make such a comparison, we can look at five feminist goals, from a global view; by doing so we may understand the issues of liberation and justice more fully.

One fundamental goal of women is the right to control our own lives. We want to make those decisions, whether biological or professional, that influence our lives directly. Thus we have advocated that women decide whether or when to have babies, that they decide whether to have a career and which career it should be. We’ve encouraged one another to consider her own fulfillment, the use of her special talents. We’ve been slow, however, to see that gaining control over our own lives is too narrow a solution to the problem of exploitation and oppression; it is an individualistic approach to liberation. What we must really seek is fair participation in all decisions that affect us; what we must create in both our domestic and our global societies are participatory structures. It is possible that a woman who is married to a patriarchal man, even a generous one, can have control of a part of her life, but if she does not participate in the decisions of her husband which inevitably affect her, she is still unliberated.

Similarly, even if all countries acted benevolently (which we know they sometimes don’t), we could not be liberated in the present international system because it does not provide for equitable participation of individuals or nations in decisions. The elites of governments make those decisions often against the wishes of the little people. When we do not participate in decisions we feel impotent. We feel impotent to challenge the monopoly of the food industry in the United States, for example, where four corporations sell ninety percent of America’s breakfast food, another four sell ninety percent of all soft drink, and Campbell’s produces ninety percent of our soup. We feel powerless to alter the fact that between 1952-1971 farm prices accounted for only six percent of the increased food prices while food marketing accounted for the other ninety-four percent.

We assume that no one favors the destruction of the environment, yet whenever a Liberian tanker spill destroys sea life and covers miles of coastline, we have no group with which to register our outrage. When radiation from a Chinese atmospheric test falls on Pennsylvania farm land, our present international system provides no means of preventing nations from atmospheric testing and of protecting plant life from harm. How can we consider ourselves liberated, even if we gain control of our personal lives, when we live in the midst of systems that silence the voice and tranquilize the conscience of sacred human beings?

A second desire of all women touched by a sense of equity is the desire to be paid equal wages for equal work. Although this seems like an eminently reasonable desire, we must recognize that within our own country, there is a wide gap in payment for kinds of work done. Generally, professional, white-collar workers receive more than some hourly laborers. Domestic help and childcare personnel are paid least in proportion to the necessity or importance of the work they perform. We forget that equal pay for equal work, though seemingly sensible, may still perpetuate gross inequities in a hierarchical structure between the to and the bottom and reflect our cultural values. The American practice of rewarding the elites – government officials, bankers, business executives, and professionals – with the largest incomes is imitated in other countries of the world. The top twenty percent of the US population received 38.8 percent of the national income in 1970; the bottom twenty percent received 6.7 percent. Our high consumption of industrialized goods – the highest in the world – also contributes to global inequities.

On a global scale, the disparity in income distribution is even greater that in the United States. The top twenty percent of the world’s population, according to the estimates of the World Bank in 1971, received 71.3 percent of the gross world product. The middle forty received 23.5 percent, and the lowest twenty percent received 5.2 percent. The pattern is repeated around the world in countries without planned economies. Any work not done for monetary gain – which includes most of the work women have traditionally done – is not registered as part of the gross national product. Thus, in many African countries where women do sixty to eighty percent of the agricultural work, the US Labor Department reports that only five percent of the women work. For the bottom twenty percent of the world’s population, 5.2 percent of the gross global product hardly seems equitable.

A third concern of many women today is that all people should contribute equally to the maintenance of the family, office, church, or organization. No one should be relegated to do forever the menial tasks. Like the desire for equal pay, this desire seems quite sensible and sure to build a spirit of cooperation rather than hostility. But if we are to extend this conviction to a global scale, we are forced to recognize that as the richest nation on the planet, we thrive off the labor and poverty of the poor world.

Off the southwest coast of India, mechanized trawlers that are owned and operated by a transnational corporation scoop up fish, process it at sea, ship the frozen or canned fish to Europe and North America, and thereby lower the protein intake of Indians in the area and remove a source of livelihood for local fishermen. In Latin America land that could be used to grow food to feed the poor is instead used to produce goods for export such as coffee, carnations, and roses. We must understand that corporations become transnational so they can make the largest profits by taking advantage of the lowest cost labor wherever it exists. When we get luxury items – carnations or coffee – produced by underpaid labor, that is exploitation, not equity.

A fourth desire of women has been to receive equal educational opportunities that will enable us to be co-contributors to our society. We have not wanted our contributions to be measured solely in biological terms, important as those are. At that same time that we are benefiting from continuing education programs in most universities and colleges, from adult education programs in our communities, and from countless private and church-related educational training, in some African and Arab states eighty percent of the people are illiterate. Women in some African societies have had in the past a sense of social participation that leisured American women lost in the move from rural to urban life, from private to mass production, and with the increase in exported by the developed world, and with the increase in middle and upper-class wealth. However, some development programs, exported by the developed world, have an adverse impact on women in developing countries. Developers, reflecting their own social conditioning, give economic farm assistance, machinery, and seeds to the men in the recipient society where women previously have done sixty percent or more of the field work. Now the women are denied participation and are tempted to imitate the worst of our Western habits: coveting leisure and material signs of affluence. Surely such conditions cause us to question the positive values of affluence.

The fifth goal that we cherish as women committed to liberation and justice is our desire for protection from physical abuse. For years, women have been silent about physical abuse done to them by men, a silence which must end. But the violent retaliation against men and the justification of such violence by women is horrifying. The abuse of children by psychologically and physically battered parents shows us how violence is perpetuated from one generation to another. The willingness to return evil for evil, and to defend that as just, helps us understand why global violence and the perpetual preparation for war as the ultimate so-called security continue to increase.

One of the principle slogans of the Suffragettes over fifty years ago was “Give women the vote and there will be no more war.” Since then, we have had World War II, Korea, wars of independence in Africa; we’ve agonized over VietNam, the Middle East, Ireland. Defense budgets mount with the global competition in the arms race consuming more than $400 billion annually in public funds. The United States leads the world as the major exporter and seller of arms to the developing nations. Despite all the peace rhetoric to the contrary, we and the world learn about our personal and cultural destruction-oriented priorities from the violence that our city streets and public schools spawn, from the violence that we and our children can watch on every commercial television network and in theatres, from the violence of exploitive structures that make Iranian or Brazilian peasants pawns of multinational corporations or military governments, and from the ultimate threat of holocaust because we and the Soviet Union together possess enough nuclear bombs to annihilate every city in the world seven times over.

Because we live on the top of the world economically, politically, militarily, educationally, it is easy not to see the effects of our lives and choices on others. Few of us feel we are living in the midst of direct violence. None of us means harm to others. But when we look at the globe as a total unit, we are forced to conclude that, relatively speaking, we belong to the oppressor class. By accident of birth, not by divine design, we are part of the privileged. Our personal liberation desires may actually separate us further from the oppressed of the world society and keep us on a path that means death for millions while it appears to bring us life.

There are at least two ways we can deal with the disquieting reality that we live in an interdependent order acting as if we were free, isolated persons or nation. One way is to try to extend the privileges of the privileged to larger numbers of human beings. The second way is that we can become one with the oppressed and undergo a radical conversion, with the grace of God, of our own personal and social priorities. Both ways have been tried or discussed at various times in our history.

Generally, American institutions have tried the first way to handle injustice when it became obvious. We have developed selective programs to try to extend economic and political advantages to the disadvantaged. Thus, we have welfare programs that are the object of criticism of both the recipients and the taxpayers. Our foreign aid programs have also been selective, going to our friends, and not universal. Development programs are designed to extend some of the technological advantages of the industrialized world without disturbing the basic power balance of the world. The sale and transfer of military equipment is likewise an effort to extend selectively the right to control and protect one’s own territory; arms trade should never be accepted as an effort to make the earth more fair and free. The practices of multinational corporations reveal how the attempt to extend economic advantage often covers a strong desire to protect the vested interests of the powerful and wealthy. In all these selective programs wealth and power may be extended horizontally across the globe – to the top few percent of the population of any given nation – but not vertically from top to bottom. We act like Nicodemus when Jesus told him that he would have to be reborn. Pretending ignorance, stalling for time, looking for a way out, Nicodemus said something like, “Come on, now, how can I enter again into my mother’s womb?” We, like him, hope we might realize salvation by merely tinkering with the system, with our private lives and priorities. But a rebirth? A total reorientation?

I hold faith that the women of the world understand rebirth. Birth is an important image for women not simply because we know birth as an essential or potential part of our conscious nature but also because it is an avenue through which we can give birth non-biologically to the life of the community. Birth is likewise an important metaphor for men because through it they may contribute to biological life in the particular, and by extension to all human life; it is also the means through which they can infuse their work in the world with the tenderness of a parent nurturing growth and life. In giving or attending birth, we are participants with God at creation and in so being come closest to integration. It is only from a profound sense of personal integration that we can begin to attend the birth of a new world.

In Bolivia such birth has begun to happen. Between December 1977 and mid-January 1978, four women and fourteen children changed the course of their country’s history. These women undertook a hunger strike to demand from the military government which has ruled oppressively since 1971 “unrestricted amnesty for political exiles and refugees, restoration of jobs for workers fired for organizing, reinstatement of labor unions and removal of the army from the mines.” (Christianity and Crisis, May 1, 1978) Their use of children caused great concerns, but the women assured their critics that the children would eat as soon as adults took their places. Slowly the strike grew until more than 1380 people were fasting; churches and university buildings became centers of peaceful protest. Observers from world-wide human rights and religious groups were sent to Bolivia; the Catholic Church began to take an important role in the negotiations between the government and the strikers. When negotiations broke down the original four women said they would reject all liquids, a decision that would have been fatal within two days after their prolonged fast. Finally on January 17 at midnight General Banzer went on television to announce an immediate and general amnesty; further negotiations removed the army from the mines.

New birth has also begun in India. Parabati was widowed at 15 and left to work the farm alone with her infant son. With the assistance of her brother the land was put legally in her name; she became a very good farmer whose advice was sought by her neighbors. At age 18, Parabati began to organize the women of her village who had to walk nearly two miles every morning and evening to get water for cooking, drinking, and bathing to see if they could get the government to put a water tap in their village. After thinking about the problem a great deal and aware that taps usually went to the influential or wealthy, Parabati gathered eighteen women from her village, told them to bring their children with them and enough food for several days. They staged a sit-in at the water commissioner’s office. That was twenty-seven years ago. Though the authorities at first ignored the women, they eventually realized they would not be sent home. Four months and three sit-ins later, a water tap was placed in the village.

The new world can and must begin here in the most developed nation of the world. If we wish to take seriously the issues of liberation beyond a narrow personal or national self-interest, we must consider non-violent ways to de-develop our gluttonous overdeveloped society. We must weaken all the unexamined links between power and wealth, between security and military strength, between class or race and privilege, between national boundaries and personal identity, between the good life and materialism. We must say that it isn’t true that cuts in military spending will mean cuts in employment; we must speak the truth about eh accepted elixir of economic growth in a world of finite resources; we must demonstrate human solidarity in a world threatening to drive us apart. In so doing we may learn, as Thoreau observed, that “we are as rich as our ability to do without things.” Or with Steinbeck we may conclude that “The quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’.” We will observe the rebirth occurring within us as we in faithful response to the example of Christ lay down our lives for the liberation of all the oppressed and participate again with ah sense of awe at the continuing creation of the world and at the continuing creation of our integrated, reborn selves.

The world awaits our liberation – the spiritual rebirth, the integration that makes servanthood possible. The feminist movement awaits the example of women who can break free from the existing power patterns, the authoritarian/dependent structures that have repeated themselves throughout history as the oppressed became oppressors ad infinitum. When we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our highest calling is to be true to the God who lives within us and also beyond space, the soul force will arise to act out our commitment to human solidarity and cosmic unity. Neither a great social program nor a sophisticated theology are prerequisites to live in harmony with life. We need only the simple stuff of life – a commitment to the essential goodness by transcending the old order and creating new relationships and structures that nurture justice.

Brethren, Mennonite, and Friends women must take seriously their unique role in showing the ways of peace and justice. We must point up the connection between armaments and empty stomachs, between corporate profits and a polluted environment, between individual rights and global oppression-exploitation. We must do this not only in words but also through actions. By choosing voluntarily to live simply, to resist our culture’s consumption patterns that make hostility and armaments essential, and to redirect the resources over which we have control into meeting the basic needs of two-thirds of the world’s people we can, corporately, make our convictions felt in the world. By refusing to pay war taxes and instead choosing to redirect that money into a genuine peace building, enough people can turn a war system into a peace system.

One symbolic way of redistributing our portion of the world’s wealth is to refuse to purchase luxury (non-essential) items or to tax our luxuries and redirect the “luxury” monies toward meeting the needs of people who are victims of our consumption. Though a rejection of luxury or a self-imposed luxury tax can be misunderstood as a legitimation of luxuries and can never be substituted for the conversion of our hearts, as a symbolic act it may make us more aware of our consumption and our power to live differently in the world. In choosing simplicity we way together as women of the world that we want to serve life rather than death. We demonstrate that since the old structures are not life-giving, we will follow God’s spirit, the light within, and transcend the old in order to be faithful. We show that the world’s children are our children, that the land, the water, the air, all living things are to be preserved with gentleness, that indeed we are willing to be midwives, participants in the continuing birth of God’s world.

The feminist movement may be at a juncture in history similar to the one in Judaism when Jesus was born. The Jews had the Hammurabi code; they had the law of Moses; they had made progress in living together. Into their midst came the one who said, “You have heard it said an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth…You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I show you a new way. You shall love your God with all your heart and soul and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If we take liberation and can never be substituted for the conversion of our hearts, as a symbolic act it may make us more aware of our consumption and our power to live differently in the world. In choosing simplicity we way together as women of the world that we want to serve life rather than death. We demonstrate that since the old structures are not life-giving, we will follow God’s spirit, the light within, and transcend the old in order to be faithful. We show that the world’s children are our children, that the land, the water, the air, all living things are to be preserved with gentleness, that indeed we are willing to be midwives, participants in the continuing birth of God’s world.

The feminist movement may be at a juncture in history similar to the one in Judaism when Jesus was born. The Jews had the Hammurabi code; they had the law of Moses; they had made progress in living together. Into their midst came the one who said, “You have heard it said an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth…You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I show you a new way. You shall love your God with all your heart and soul and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If we take liberation seriously, we are called to be reborn ourselves and to become the soul force for love in the world. We are called to prepare the way for the great breaking forth, the rebirth, of all humanity, for the birth of a new world.

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2 thoughts on “Giving Birth To A New World

  1. I had talked to Nan Erbaugh at the COB Annual meeting in Richmond about a partnership with GWP and Midwives for Haiti. Is there a form to fill out for a grant? Who do I need to talk to about this?

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