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Scripture Scholar suggests a fresh focus on the image of Christ’s death

By ANN PIASECKI Catholic Explorer

JOLIET, IL September 18, 2006 —The second annual Bishop Imesch Women in the Church Lecture Series at the University of St. Francis in Joliet featured biblical scholar, Dominican Sister Barbara Reid.(Grand Rapid) Her research on the interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion in the modern world suggests the potential for misunderstanding.

In a 90-minute presentation entitled “The Passion of Jesus Through the Eyes of Women,” Sister Reid, a professor of New Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union, addressed the various interpretations of the death of Jesus—the sacrificial lamb, the scapegoat, martyr or model of heroic death and obedient son—and the ramifications of such images. Speaking Sept. 7 in the Moser Performing Arts Center Studio Theater, Sister Reid said the post-doctoral work she conducted in Latin America and South America produced evidence enough to indicate that the abuse of women today, in some cases, is rooted to the dissemination of biblical images on suffering.

An analysis of the Passion of Christ, she said, has mistakenly created willing victims out of people in subordinate or oppressed relationships. For instance, she said, an uninformed believer may embrace the idea of the sacrificial lamb, a metaphor used to describe Jesus’ willingness to suffer and die for spreading the Good News. The danger is that the concept is subject to misinterpretation.

The image of the lamb, which relates to the Passover lamb in Exodus 12:40, brings to mind the Hebrews in their secured safety out of Egypt. It also represents the notion of the silent sufferer, said Sister Reid, as she cited Mark 14: 60-62. Her contention is that “church teachings unwittingly may have contributed to violence.” For example, she said many women living in the impoverished regions of Chiapas, Mexico, believe they are following Jesus’ example by accepting any and all kinds of suffering.

The “hazard” therein lies in the fact that many women will accept undo hardships and spousal abuse. They believe it is their duty as dictated by God to live a life of total self-sacrifice for their children and husbands. Revealing selected statements from women interviewed in Chiapas, Sister Reid choose to quote one: “God has made it this way; we have to be humble and sacrifice for others.” Describing the dire circumstances and relentless cycle of work in the fields alongside their husbands and then laboring throughout the evening without a break to cook meals, tend to the children and clean, Sister Reid said this lopsided lifestyle is due to the image of the silent sufferer.

That kind of attitude has translated into actions that keep women in abusive situations in which they keep silent about the violence. They believe that silence in the face of violence at home is a characteristic supported by faith, according to Sister Reid. The idea of redemptive suffering also surfaces in these circumstances. People often relate any and all suffering with the notion of redemption for their sins.

In her work in Latin America and South America, Sister Reid explained how Bible study programs for women in those regions are beginning to alter circumstances for women. In the study groups, women are taught to understand more about the metaphorical language of the Bible. She suggested the better way to talk about the image of the Passion of Jesus would be one that explained a truer meaning of the image of the sacrificial lamb.

In the Gospel of John 18: 28-37, she said, Jesus is not a silent sufferer. He sends a strong message that his kingdom is not of this world and that he is testifying to the truth. In this image, the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross is directly linked to the idea that Jesus is sacrificing himself for his faith in the Father. The point is, she said, Jesus is not advancing the idea that all suffering should be equated with the notion of carrying one’s own cross. Suffering for faith, as exemplified by the Blessed Mother when she willingly accepted the role of giving birth to Jesus and by the apostles who died for their insistence on preaching the word of God, are more accurate examples of the purpose of self-sacrifice, she said.

“Another problem in atonement theology,” she said, is that the “attention is put on sin—Jesus died for our sins.” A more accurate explanation would guide believers to focus on “love.” Jesus is laying down his life, she said, to save others from death.

Later, Sister Reid said the tendency to misinterpret the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross is not restricted to impoverished countries of the world. The issue is a problematic one, and it exist in America as well. Women are making “inroads,” she said. However, the purpose of her research is to make people aware that “any theology that imposes more suffering on people who are already beat down is not true to Jesus.”

Sister Reid’s research is scheduled to be released in book form. She has not yet selected a title for the book, which is slated to be distributed in 2007.

Dominican Sister Barbara Reid, suggests a perspective on the Passion of Christ that uplifts women.

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