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Out of the Depths: Women's Experience of Evil and Salvation

Ivone Gebara (Author) Ann Patrick Ware (Translator)
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Whether understood as sin, as embracing all manner of suffering and injustice, or as the inexplicable human choice of evil over good, evil has historically been described and pondered chiefly through male categories understood as a universal viewpoint. Likewise salvation. Gebara here presents an alternative, feminist approach to evil and salvation. She allows women to voice their personal suffering from their own contexts, thereby manifesting their many differences. She then introduces a perspective on evil and salvation based in gender analysis to address specifically "the evil women do," the evil they suffer, and women's redemptive experiences of God and salvation.
Release date: 
May 3, 2002


"Ivon Gebara is an original, creative thinker of enormous grace and undaunted courage. In each and every page of this book one meets the author in her clearly articulated arguments and her passionate commitment to justice, particularly justice for poor women. Moving from a firm anthropological foundation, Gebara examines the traditional Christian understanding of evil that has supported and incited such a destructive view of women. She artfully and thoroughly analyzes the definition of evil created by men that ignores 'the evil actually borne by women.' We owe Gebara an immense debt of gratitude for honoring her intuitions and unmasking evil in a way that makes possible moving beyond it and creating greater solidarity in the world."
– Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Drew University

Table of Contents

    Translator's Note


    Everyday Evil
    Evil and Women
    A Male View of Evil
    Silence about Evil
    Feminism in Latin America

  1. Women's Experience of Evil
    A Feminist Phenomenology
    The Power of Witnessing
    Women's "evils" Seen through the Lens of Justice
    My Own Story

  2. Evil and Gender
    The Concept of Gender
    The Relativity of Difference
    Gender as a Hermeneutical Tool
    Gender and Epistemology
    Gender, Difference, and Violence
    Nature and Culture
    Gender and Women's Experience of Evil

  3. The Evil Women Do
    Women Weaving the Cloth of Evil
    Women of the World
    Religion, Violence, and Women
    The Feminine Face of Religious Violence

  4. Women's Experience of Salvation
    Personal and Community Suffering
    Everyday Resurrections
    Relatedness as a Condition for Life

  5. God for Women
    God and the Daily Experience of Poverty
    God's Baroque Face
    God in the Absence of God
    God in the Fabric and Weaving of Life

    A Select Bibliography


Excerpt from the Introduction

Evil has always been spoken of as an experience common to both women and men. No one who lives on any social or responsible level is exempt from it. No one, even the person without any personal experience of evil, can live outside the historic fabric of solidarity in the mystery of good and evil.

The problem which captivates my thought is not the existence of evil, but rather the understanding of it, the way it is interpreted, and especially the role this interpretation has played in history and theology, particularly in relationship to women.

What I mean by evil will become clear as we go along, but I would like to explain a few points at the beginning.

Evil as something one undergoes
The evil I want to talk about is not the evil we do personally, but that evil which we undergo, which we suffer or endure, something not chosen, the kind of evil present in institutions and social structures that accommodate it, even facilitate it. Evil of this sort has no connection with conscience or choice. It is sometimes beyond recognition. One lives it in one's daily life; one sometimes endures it without even naming it as evil. Moreover, it often happens that this kind of evil is accepted as fate, as God's design or as punishment for hidden sins. Evil is so mixed in with our existence that we can live in it without even taking account of it as evil. I'm thinking particularly of those men or women who work or have worked as executioners in dictatorships, of soldiers fighting in war, and of so many others who by their activity keep a system of violence and injustice operating. This "work" is their livelihood but it is also an activity which results in evil as a product. I'm thinking also of the many women who live in an almost blind obedience in their homes or in religious institutions, without taking any notice of the exploitation they are undergoing and which, in a certain sense, they copy.

We might ask when evil becomes evil. Do we have to be conscious of it to denounce it? Does someone have to name it and bring its noxious character into the limelight? By what criterion can we declare it evil? These questions give us an inkling that it is not simple to define evil's domain. Even if it is possible to speak objectively about evil or about fighting against evil, it is not simple to discern it personally, especially when it permeates a larger social structure.

Some deeds become evil through excess; some through insufficiency. There is an evil which can come about even as we intend doing good. It seems to me that, if we are to denounce certain aspects of evil, we need a critical conscience to make its depravity evident. We need certain agreed upon criteria to recognize its features as damaging to a person or a group. We need a certain prophetic quality as well as philosophical and psychological analyses to unveil those connections which produce violence or maginalization. This is a process bound up with the very dynamic of human history.

In all this we often observe a kind of shrouding of evil in our behaviors which makes it difficult to grasp even if, sometimes, it seems apparent. Evil is the bad seed sown in the midst of the good, difficult to distinguish and root out. Evil is also like leaven mixed in the dough. Sometimes it began as something good and degenerated into evil.

These comparisons make the distinction between good and evil even more obscure. Can we say, as we do in the case of leaven, that it seems to be and is always good? I think evil can be leaven too and, paradoxically, it can also make the dough rise.

When certain events lead to a consensus as to their malice, it is easy to condemn them. But there are others: events intermingled in our culture, education, religion; events or behaviors regarded as normal, common, even good, in which there seems to be no evil. In such instances it is not easy to spot its presence even when we suspect it is there. Events or situations on the domestic scene, the privileged habitat of women, constitute some of those places where we often have difficulty in detecting evil.

The feminist perspective proposes opening a path of reflection on the domestic milieu, that arena of relations between men and women, that place of private history, that unavowed sphere of hierarchy and exclusion. ...

Excerpt from Chapter 2

"One is not born a woman; one becomes it." This noted saying of Simone de Beauvoir leads us to suspect that there is no conformity between one's natural, biological identity and one's sexual gender. This is the area where feminism has made a special contribution, especially about the social identity of men and women from an analysis of gender.

Apart from the complexity of "becoming female," Simone de Beauvoir's reflection, no doubt influenced by the meaning of human choice as developed in the philosophy of Sartre, makes us think about the situation of women. What does "become" actually mean? Can one really choose what to become in a culture where certain social rules are fixed like fate? Which women have the privilege of choosing?

To what extent is it possible to change the historic constructions that have fashioned our culture or the cultural constructions that have fashioned our history? How can the concept of gender, used as an interpretative tool, help us understand evil, particularly the evil endured by women?

Several questions occur at the outset related to the concept of gender. They accompany this reflection as an indication of the complexity of the problem.

Introduction to one historical meaning of the concept of gender
What exactly does the term gender mean? Is it only the declaration of masculine and feminine in humanity? How shall we explain this word? And what is the goal of any reflection which uses gender as an interpretative tool in a theological and feminist approach to evil? For the sake of clarity in answer to the foregoing questions, we need to deal with history and theory in some precise way.

Analyses of gender have been at the heart of feminism for eighty years as a means of setting a value on the sexes and denouncing the use of power deriving from the difference. Gender is considered an important tool to point out the inadequacy of various theories attempting to explain the inequality between women and men through their biology. The task is to reveal the powers that affect the social division of labor and those aspects of social life that affect relationships between men and women. Feminists are unanimous in saying that analyses using gender have helped us avoid two big dangers: one is holding up the masculine as normative for humanity (androcentrism); and the other is believing in the neutrality of scientific study. The category of gender invites us to abandon a certain simplicity about theological knowledge and to construct a more inclusive theory of the Christian faith. Using the concept of gender keeps this dimension....

Excerpt from Chapter 4

... In this chapter I am not suggesting a new theory of the cross, but I want to describe actual experiences of women, especially in the light of Christianity. We need to define what we mean by the cross and to discover, from a feminist point of view, how to go beyond multiple crosses, without any one of them becoming an absolute.

In the same way I want to try to grasp how people see successive crosses by successive rescues. This, I believe, is the great challenge facing us today if we are to go beyond fixation on one specific form of suffering – crucifixion – undergone historically more often by men than by women. Male suffering, public suffering in the name of a group, seems to be the criterion for all suffering. In a patriarchal society, as we said, male suffering, acts of public heroism have a role of redemption for the country, the nation, the people. Women's suffering, on the contrary, has no such role. It forms a world apart. It is less noticed, sometimes passed over in silence, often forgotten. It has no impact capable of arousing public sentiment. Even in our language, we speak, for instance, of the brotherhood of the world and rarely of sisterhood. Language hides the way we consider the masculine normative and universal.

Various statements about "the man Jesus," who died for us on the cross, highlight even further this patriarchal tradition of exalting male public suffering and the role of the male as savior. This is not a question of criticizing the actions and personal feelings of Jesus the man; it is a question of critiquing the patriarchal culture anchored in this mentality. Actually the personal experience of Jesus is not available to us; it is known only through the many interpretations made of it. And each interpretation reflects a theological point of view that suits it. Likewise, at this same level of interpretation, a feminist interpretation comes on the scene and engages in a dialogue with others.

As we know, the ideal suffering of the patriarchal world is not only anthropocentric but androcentric as well. Thus it minimizes not only women's suffering but also the violence inflicted on animals and plants, and the ecosystem in general.

If that has been understandable, given the conditioning of the past, today we are asked to reconsider our positions if we are to think and act effectively with accuracy and justice, with an eye toward the needs of our times. There is surely an ethical urgency to be willing to render justice to women but also an urgent need to rouse us from the apathy and insensibility so typical of our day. People, men and women alike, who neglect to fight against certain forms of suffering, on the excuse of powerlessness or some cherished tradition, become accomplices in destroying life. Feminist attention to the cross can open one more door to the possible paths of salvation for our times....