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Published on 14 November 2022


Since the 1960s, feminist thought has instigated a rethink of traditions, practices, scriptures and theologies. Along the way, it has merged theological, social science, cultural and ecological studies, among others, so that the different perspectives have mutually enriched one another in an ongoing conversation. Apart from initiating a rethink in multiple disciplines including Christian theology, the feminist movement is an object lesson[2] of a ‘social contract’. This essay firstly outlines a reshaping of Christian theologies from feminist perspectives and secondly explores examples of the evolution of feminist theology as a model for a social contract for people and planet.

What justifies a theological reflection on a social contract for people and planet if the classical understanding of a social contract is that it is a societal agreement based on moral and political rules that do not require divine sanction? If we understand theological imagination as constructing symbols for God’s relationship to – and action in – the world, then eco-feminist theology has an adequate answer. It imagines that the

Spirit’s action does not supplant that of creatures but works cooperatively in and through created action that is becoming. [3]

Such continuity between divine and human action in the world shifts focus from interventionist ideas of God’s actions to the moral agency of people for their survival and productivity. From a feminist perspective, this takes place in concrete cultural, social and historical contexts. Rather than confine them, the situated nature of feminist theologies retains a dialogical openness that keeps them mutually accountable, critical and always pointing to the vastness of God, which we cannot fathom from a single perspective.

An (eco-) feminist theological contribution to a social contract is therefore apt for being accountable, critical and transformative. It is critical and creative by offering a relational epistemology undergirded by the Spirit as a realm for interconnection of people and planet. It is contextual and concrete by being situated in complex intersections of economic, cultural and political situations. It is accountable and exemplary for demonstrating a decolonising ethic in its theologising methods and (spi)ritual practices.

A feminist ripple through Christian theologies

The power and control narrative of the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1–2:4) has shaped Christian faith-based attitudes that have entrenched values that influence power relations. A traceable line links theological constructs to entrenched values that breed systemic violence in the world. That makes theological reflection itself a site for moral reflection and the critique of feminist theology apt.

Dominant western patriarchal perspectives that have created sociopolitical and economic power imbalances in the world were theologically undergirded. A world without a doctrine of human equality and an understanding that all of creation possess intrinsic value ensued. Theologically sanctioned subjugation of the non-white, feminine ‘others’ and nature is at the centre of what feminist theologians critically review. The Christian symbolic world that projected a God completely removed from creation was nurtured in that hierarchical milieu.[4]

The central argument for feminist theological reflection is rooted in the affirmation that God created women and men equal (Genesis 1:27). Eco-feminist theological insight has built on that insight to construct imagery of the earth as the interconnected body of God, permeated by God’s Spirit[5] (Ephesians 4:6). The visions for life that emerge from these assertions are the basis for a theological contribution to imagining a feminist social contract for people and the earth. At the foundation is the belief that people and the earth are sacred because God’s Spirit permeates their being. They possess intrinsic value because the Spirit connects them to God and to one another in an interwoven community of life.

Eco-feminist spiritualities and theologies built on inclusive ways of thinking subvert the dominant ideologies that have shaped the current exploitative world order. The ecological crisis is an interconnection of crises of water, earth pollution, population growth and exploitation of natural resources leading to increasing poverty, especially among people in the Global South, indigenous communities and marginalised communities of the Global North. The exploitative economic development model that puts profit above restocking nature and ensuring justice for all people is at the centre of the crisis. Shaped by western patriarchal ideologies that have combined with industrialism and colonisation, it has culminated in global exploitation of planet and people.

Eco-feminist theologies hold in tension the view of a radically transcendent God and that of a radically immanent God (Acts 17:28) who is Spirit, the mystery that imbues everything.[6] That relational and interwoven reality is a

passionate web of relationships: intra-personal and interpersonal, communal and societal, global and planetary… based on justice.[7]

The understanding of ‘the self as a web of relations constantly interacting with others… (and) more open to transformation and change’[8] underpins theological reflection located in particular sites of struggle.

Eco-feminist theology thereby acknowledges intersecting forms of oppression – women, poor and indigenous people and the earth – and the interwoven nature of power-domination ideologies. It, therefore, links various forms of oppression through the analysis of the logic of colonisation. Understood in a complex ecological framework, the review and questioning of patriarchal truth claims of the past incrementally contribute to the renewal of socioeconomic, cultural and religious practices in a dynamic way.

The dynamic work of the Spirit understood to be in the various modes of engagement shaped by ecological conversion is thus a counterpoint to traditional western patriarchal theology that presupposes the idea of a transcendent God as a pre-determined entry point to theological reflection. That image of a transcendental God as ‘Other’, far removed from people and planet, ruling everything in powerful dominion in institutionalised, patriarchal hierarchies of power is challenged by eco-feminist theologies that analyse power and arise to subvert it.

The 2004 Accra Confession, a document of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (formerly World Alliance of Reformed Churches), discerned and declared the global economic system as fundamentally unjust. It brings into sharp focus the role theology must play in public spaces, its significance as a reflective building block for societal transformation, social cohesion and the flourishing of life and pursuit of justice in the world. Such theological endeavour is also necessarily collaborative. Those who work on theological projects must recognise that they exist within interlinked networks. The lived experiences of women on matters of race, gender and class that critically assess dominant power structures in society ‘seek liberation for the entire community in an overarching oppressive social order’ [9] and commit to the survival and wholeness of the entire community of life – female and male, and the planet. The ‘mediating ethic’ is the virtue of renouncing privilege in order to learn from lived experiences of women. As such, ecological conversion should undergird the self-understanding of the dominant if they are to shift towards a deeper sense of being embedded in an interconnected and interdependent web of life.

The prophetic impulse embedded within the Judeo-Christian tradition makes it possible to rediscover, retrieve and apply Christian truth to the various intersecting realities. Faith, which starts from within the heart of a person and the heart of a community, is capable of inspiring transformative theological constructs and practices that incrementally shape personal and structural relations.

The Circle Women’s theologies of life

The Global South churches that have become epicentres of Christian growth explore new modes of racial-economic-gender-ecological global injustices as sites for renewal and transformative theological discourse in the 21st century.[10] Theological reflection that pursues a more just world concerns life in cosmic view – (re)affirming and building (inter)relationships in all their diversity, including relationships among churches and among women scholars.

The decolonial imagination of African women’s theologies is evident in the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (hereafter the Circle), which has now critically reviewed patriarchal perspectives for more than three decades. The Circle consciously reviews western and missionary patriarchal theologies through ‘meaning making’ that contained within a corpus of published research. The regional groups of the Circle are concretely situated within their local contexts with a commitment to ‘soil our hand in our efforts to achieve the goals of dignity, liberation and fullness of life in Africa,’[11] as the end of the preface in one of the Circle’s publications reads. Their work is epistemologically, methodologically and practically relational. The Circle’s mainly co-authored and co-edited rather than individually presented work underlines the values of mutual accountability and listening as essential for theological engagement. Women’s lived experience in these spaces has incrementally developed social models for ethical responses and practices that challenge competitive individualism and valourise social responsibility and mutual accountability.

The book, Talitha cum! Theologies of African, co-edited by Nyambura Njoroge and Musa Dube is a case in point. Its subject matter is framed under three categories as 1) transformative biblical hermeneutics, 2) transformation of theological frameworks and 3) transformation of church and society. The self-understanding of the Circle reveals its basic commitment within a ‘social contract’ constructed around the image of a circle to signify the work of women and of God’s Spirit. Dube asserts that it is a

circle of women (which) describes those who are seated together, who are connected and who seek the interconnectedness of life… as a continuous flowing force… to be nurtured by all and all times. A circle of women pursuing theology together… (as) part of the life force in creation: they are in the circle of creation.

The Circle also critically engages with white feminist theologians’ work as those who first championed gender analysis. They bring to the fore ‘global oppression inherent in colonialism, neo-colonialism and globalisation (and) other categories of race, class, age and religion to which even women subscribe.’ [12] This reveals the extent to which feminist theological reflection takes place within a patriarchal frame of mind that requires collective, ongoing, incremental transformation. The Circle as an ecumenical gathering of women’s ‘written voices’ is a lived example of ongoing transformation. It proposes theological and ethical frameworks that critically assess patriarchal western, African male-dominated and women’s theologies[13] in order to ensure that ‘power flows from all to all among those who are in the circle of life’.[14]

Other examples that subvert the androcentric hierarchies include the participation of men and are intersections of ‘written voices’ from the Global South and Global North in conversation.[15] David Hallman’s Ecotheology: Voices from South and North is an example of a collaborative research project, which although it does not self-identify as gender-based theological reflection, features more than two dozen voices of women theologians. They each offer eco-feminist critique based on an alternative cosmological narrative to the dominant patriarchal ones. The interrogation is grounded in biblical witness, theological challenges, wisdom from indigenous people and eco-feminism. They collectively contribute to the theological and ethical appraisal of the churches’ agenda by addressing foundational truths of the Christian faith.

The global ecological crisis begs the question of whether the Christian faith is faithful to its foundational relational truth that has the potential to shape interrelatedness, mutuality and eco-justice in the world. An anthropocentric, hierarchical and patriarchal system, which is the prism for Christian interpretation of truth, has contributed to the problem. In order to reform, Christianity needs a radical (going back to the roots) transformation. Kwok Pui Lan’s idea of ‘recycling Christianity’[16] alludes to conversion – that is, a need for ‘metanoia’[17] and resurrection that moves churches from an ecclesial to an ecological solidarity. [18]

Similarly, the Ecological Solidarity and the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988–1998) of the World Council of Churches, which urged the full participation of women in church and societal life, decry racist, classist and sexist ideas as part of the struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. [19] The decade was envisioned as a period to uplift women as visionary and vocal leaders of peace and green movements. An aggregation of such actions as a building block towards an accountable social compact is not necessarily a creation of a new movement, but in essence a recycling of Christianity – the prophetic impetus that has renewed the Christian faith has always been present. The question is, what assessments have followed an intensive period of focus on feminist themes and what strands of transformation stem from it?

A social contract of accountable relations

Could we speak of feminist traditions that predate the ‘Age of Empire’? The ideas embedded in cultural morphologies, like non-binary gender references and liberation motifs, open conceptual space for deeper feminist theological exploration.[20] If we replace the imperial patriarchal blinkers and anthropological theories of the 19th century with blinkers that privilege the feminine, does a juxtaposition of feminist theological works and methods nurtured by diverse cultural milieus extricate some archetypal traits to inspire deeper eco-feminist theologies? Would women’s performance of femininity then have in common what Gqola terms ‘failure to conform to regimes of containment’? Would that offer ‘freeing visions of unsubjugated femininities’[21] that inspire theological imagination of God’s relationship to, and action in, the world that challenge a society caught up in oppressive structures?

Eco-feminist theologies, informed by feminist ideology and feminist theologies, are instructive for developing situated models for theological-ethical responses to oppressive patriarchal structures. In order for eco-feminist theologies to continue to be prophetic in that regard, they must continually deepen and expand conversations that bring together women and men in full participation. That way the Christian tradition and its theological foundations will incrementally reflect the inherent worth (read: love and justice) of people and the planet.



Introducing Feminist Cultural Hermeneutics: African Perspective, Musimbi Kanyoro, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002. The Oxford Handbook of The Bible and Ecology, Hilary Marlow and Mark Harris, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

‘’Female Fathers’ and ‘Male Mothers’: Overlooked Non-binary Gender References in Southern Africa,’ Kuzipa Nalwamba, in Women in Christianity in the Age of Empire, edited by Janet Wooton, Chapter 6b, London: Routledge, 2022.

Unsweetening Histories, Ramachandra Vinoth,

Green Theology: An Eco-feminist and Ecumenical Perspective, Trees Van Montfoort, London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2022.

[1] Kuzipa Nalwamba works at the World Council of Churches (WCC) as Programme Director for Unity, Mission and Ecumenical Formation and as adjunct professor at Bossey Ecumenical Institute. She is a retired ordained minister in the United Church of Zambia.

[2] An object lesson is a teaching technique that uses a physical object as a point of discussion.

[3] Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, Elizabeth A Johnson, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1993, p58.

[4] Globalisation, Gender and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue, Kwok Pui Lan, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2012.

[5] See The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Sallie McFague, Michigan, Fortress Press, 1983.

[6] See She Who is Mystery: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Elizabeth A Johnson, NY: Crossroads, 1992.

[7] ‘Ecology, Feminism and African and Asian Spirituality: Towards a Spirituality of Eco-Feminism’, Hyun Kyung Chung, in David Hallman, Ecotheology: Voices from the South, NY: Orbis Books, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994, pp175-178.

[8] Globalization, Gender and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue, Kwok Pui Lan, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2012, pp60-1.

[9] ‘Womanist Theology,’ Emilie M Townes, p161.

[10] The 2004 Accra Confession (World Communion of Reformed Churches) offers such perspectives, grounded in John 10:10, ‘…that all may have life in its fullness’, cf.

[11] ‘Preface,’ Nyambura J Njoroge, in Talitha Cum! Theologies of African Women, eds. Nyambura J. Njoroge and Musa W. Dube (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2001), pviii.

[12] ‘Introduction: ‘Little Girl, Get Up’,’ Musa W Dube, in Talitha Cum! (Ibid), p11.

[13] One example from the volume that captures the ethos is Musimbi Kanyoro’s ‘Engendered Communal Theology: African Women’s Contribution to Theology in the 21st Century,’ in Talitha Cum! (Ibid), pp158-180.

[14] ‘Introduction: ‘Little Girl, Get Up’,’ Musa W Dube, in Talitha Cum! (Ibid), p11.

[15] ‘Chapter 4, Insights from Eco-Feminism’, in David G Hallman, Ecotheology: Voices from the South and North, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994, has the following contributions:

a. ‘Ecology, Feminism and African and Asian Spirituality: Towards a Spirituality of Ecofeminism’, Hyun Kyung Chung

b. ‘A Tide in the Affairs of Women’, Anne Primavesi.

c. ‘Women, Economy and Ecology’, A Aruna Gnanadason.

d. ‘Eco-feminist and Theology’, Rosemary Radford Ruether.

[16] Globalisation, Gender and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue, Kwok Pui Lan, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2012, pp109-110.

[17] Metanoa refers to a transformative change of heart, repentance or change of one’s way of life resulting from spiritual conversion.

[18] ‘Ecology and the Christian Recycling of Christianity,’ Kwok Pui Lan, In Ecotheology: Voices from South and North, ed. David Hallman (Geneva, WCC Publications, 1994), p107-111.

[19] ‘Ibid, Kwok Pui Lan, p11.

[20] For example, the female-led protests in Iran after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in morality police custody arguably originate from such female-power motifs from within the local culture.

[21] Reflecting: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, Dineo Gqola, Johannesburg, MF Books, p157.