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  • Rethinking Masculinized Sin: Critical Dialogue between Saiving and Niebuhr from an Asian Anti-military Feminist Perspective

Rethinking Sinful Human Nature

Valerie Saiving was a pioneer in analyzing theo-ethical discourse on human nature through the lens of gender. Since the publication of “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” in 1960, diverse feminist scholars, including U.S. third-world feminists, have intentionally expanded gender analysis of theology at the social, cultural, political, and transnational levels.1 Many of these theologians articulate human reality in terms of interdependence or interconnectedness. Sin should be understood via a focus on the relationality among all beings, and salvation comes to God’s entire creation as a whole rather than individually. Relationality and interconnectedness among all living beings should not be conflated with the “community of selfless love” or blind notions of “brotherhood” and “sisterhood.” Rather, interconnectedness can be considered and pursued when independence of the self and recognition of differences are articulated first. Similarly, Saiving alludes to the importance of the independence of the feminine self by articulating the danger that a woman may lose her self-identity if she attends only to those who need her care.

In response to Eurocentric and patriarchal theological discourse on human nature marked with sin, U.S. third-world theologians and ethicists have criticized individualized or privatized notions of sin that highlight human immorality. Among these theo-ethicists, for example, Rita Nakashima Brock argues that human beings are not intrinsically evil or sinful (or self-interested, according to Reinhold Niebuhr). Rather, sin reveals how brokenhearted we humans are. Sin is something not to be punished but to be healed.2 Brazilian feminist ethicist Ivone Gebara also accentuates human nature that is capable of both doing good (transforming the oppressive social structures) and doing evil (oppressing others).3 These feminist liberationist perspectives elaborate on the ideas of sin as the systematic oppression from (neo)colonialism interwoven with Christian triumphalism, patriarchal heterosexism, xenophobia, poverty, racism, environmental destruction, militarism, and so on. [End Page 115]

As a U.S. third-world feminist ethicist, in the rest of this essay, I draw upon Saiving’s theological legacy to suggest the importance of gender analysis in Christian war-talk. This essay further underscores why Reinhold Niebuhr’s rather simplistic understanding of “sin as pride” fails to encompass human realities of military sexual violence that must be named as sin in our contemporary world. More specifically, I delineate how Saiving’s analysis of the culturally constructed masculinity found in Reinhold Niebuhr’s theological elaboration on sin can communicate with our contemporary feminist critiques of military affairs including military rape and prostitution. My hypothesis is that without gender analysis, Christian war-talk becomes detached from human beings of flesh and blood and is in danger of becoming impotent in the face of human suffering.

Formation of the Gendered Self

Saiving’s psychoanalytic approach to the formation of the self may offer an insight in political theology, especially the theo-ethical response to transnationalized militarism and its violence against women. According to Saiving, a boy experiences anxiety and vulnerability as he attempts to form an independent self through the process of differentiation from his mother, the giver of his life.4 His self-pride to be an individual is an effort to hide his anxiety and loneliness, facing the other (woman) whose subjectivity is inconceivable. Self-pride emerges from the active process of a boy’s asserting subjectivity and autonomy—the masculine traits supposedly practiced and articulated by his father.

Similar to Saiving’s reflection on the male self, Jessica Benjamin, a feminist psychoanalyst, argues that within the Freudian formation of the self, the boy learns how to be masculine by voluntarily submitting himself to and imitating the paternal authority, while his subjectivity is likely to be claimed through domination over or objectification of the other.5 In other words, man’s self-assertion or individuality depends on the recognition of woman and yet this consistent dependency feeds male anxiety. Anxiety especially arises in the tension between self-assertion and mutual recognition that “allows the self and the other to meet as sovereign equals.”6

A girl may not experience psychological...


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