Post-Colonial “Loose Women” and the Bible
“The Bible is not preoccupied with sex,” Kwok Pui-Lan told her large audience at Sunday’s lecture. As though this introduction was not, she added, “I promise you that this will be exciting.”
Kwok’s talk marked the first of three in a series sponsored by the Religion department titled “The Bible, Postcolonialism, and Gender.” Kwok, Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Boston, spoke on “A Postcolonial Reading of ‘Loose Women’ in the Bible.”
She began by relating Paul’s gospel and the story of Rahab and compared them to Western imperialism in Asia. Biblical interpretation is limited by the lens through which stories are studied, she explained, just as historical interpretation is limited by the framework one chooses.
To illustrate her point, she drew a parallel to the Oberlin Memorial Arch in Tappan Square that graduates traditionally walk through: many students have refused to do so. With a different lens, “the arch stands as a symbol of intervention in Third World countries.”
She continued, “In traditional Chinese [and American] history, the Boxer Rebellion was a secret society who fought against the Manchus and killed Westerners. The communists offered a revisionist version of history — they called it an uprising [and] condemned the missionary activities, accusing [the missionaries] of being the running dogs of American imperialism.”
Kwok returned to the subject at hand evaluating the different interpretations of the biblical story of Rahab, “a prostitute living in Jericho.”
The traditional Western version of the story is that Rahab befriended conquering Israelites to be spared from harm.
“White scholars using a feminist lens [say that] Rahab is portrayed as a heroine — she protects Israelite spies, contributes to their victory, and provides protection for her family,” she said. “Others, [however], say she is a sell-out,” physically as a prostitute and politically as a collaborator.
Kwok emphasized that while prostitutes are commonly characterized as “loose women,” they must support families who are dependent upon them for financial support. She cited Thailand as an example, where “the prostitution industry made 7.6 billion dollars in 1995, and was the third highest source of foreign currency.”
She said, “Paul writes in his gospel of women who are seen in the traditional interpretation as dirty and immoral...But one must move away from [that] earlier approach of looking for proof or rejection of same-sex love and same-sex intercourse.”
Instead, she suggested that perhaps Paul’s attention to promiscuous women was not necessarily an indictment of homosexuality, but a reinforcement of the prevailing social values of the time.
“Post-colonialist analysis,” she insisted, “places gender and sexuality in a wider context of social relationships that support the politics and economics of patriarchal power and ideology of conquest in the Roman empire.”
In tandem, she said, “the intersection of social relations and our interpretation of loose women...highlight the power of sexual regulation in social relationships and political domination.”
There are myriad different angles to approach the subject, Kwok emphasized, and if people do not pay attention to each of them, “we become ideologues.”
In the end, her lecture certainly challenged Oberlin students to continue to
expand their world views and to find new lenses through which to observe history
and society by asking them to consider “how many women, Chinese or
American, are remembered by the arch?”