Categorised | Columns

Prejudice in religious finery

IN his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell writes that he once told Johnson, “I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach.” To which Johnson replied, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Poised ballerina dog gracefully balancing upon one hindpaw
(© cthoman /

Coming across instances of racism in public life no longer shocks me. On the contrary, it is when I meet people to whom the other’s race or religion does not matter that I find myself surprised, much the way I would if I were to come across a dog walking on its hind legs.

What does occasionally amaze me is the ingenuity with which some Malaysians justify their prejudices. Thus, the staff associations of the Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS) claim that the general manager fulfils the role of an “imam” for the entire staff, and must understand and practise Islam. This was part of the argument in their memorandum of protest against the appointment of a non-Malay woman as acting head of the state corporation.

I am not renowned for being lost for words, but when I read that, all I could say was, “Gosh!” Ok, to be honest, what I actually said was another word with four letters, the first letter adjacent to the letter “g” in the alphabet — but it’s unprintable.

We are supposed to believe that PKNS is primarily for the benefit of Malays. I had assumed, rather naively perhaps, that its aim was to develop the state of Selangor, for the trivial reason that it is called the Selangor State Development Corporation. We are also asked to accept that only a Malay can work for the betterment of Malays.

The corollary to this argument is that only non-Malays can work for the betterment of their respective races. There goes Umno’s (admittedly laughable) claim to have the interests of all races at heart.

The PKNS staff associations also introduce the most surprising notion of all: that the general manager of a state development corporation is also the Muslim community’s male leader of prayer (for that is what an imam is in Sunni Islam).


It is hard not to conclude that those who signed the memorandum believe development in Selangor should be for the benefit only of Malays. They also seem to think that civil bureaucrats can be transformed into Muslim prayer leaders by virtue of their competence in economic or developmental matters.

Whenever I hear remarks about Islam in Malaysia being under attack, it strikes me that it is not non-Muslims who are the ones assaulting Islam. The real enemies of Islam are the influential and vocal minority of Muslims who worship self and race, and call these God. The Messenger of God would have been horrified by racism in his community.

Justifying prejudice

Going back to Johnson’s remark about women preaching, I cannot help thinking that many of the Christian churches’ attitudes towards women have been similarly rooted in ignorance and prejudice. Only they were subsequently ornamented with theological and historical justifications.

I have alluded in this space before to the idea of the Catholic priest standing in persona Christi, in the person of Christ himself. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest… our priestly life and activity continue the life and activity of Christ himself.”

Pope Benedict XVI describes this theological principle thus: “[I]n the administration of the sacraments, the priest now acts and speaks ‘in persona Christi’. In the sacred mysteries, he does not represent himself and does not speak expressing himself, but speaks for the Other, for Christ.”

it's a boy!
It’s a boy! Does this mean we cannot see Christ in women?
Juliaf /

The Catholic Church’s official position is that only men can stand “in persona Christi” and be priests. The reasons given are generally, first, that Christ himself was a man, and second, that he appointed only men to be his apostles. According to this logic, only a man can truly be the image of Christ, since Christ was a man. When we look at a woman, we cannot see Christ in her.

This is very strange reasoning. All Christians are called to conform ourselves to Christ, to participate in “imitatio Christi,” making every part of our lives as close to the life of Christ as possible. “Put on Christ,” as St Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians. Every Christian, therefore, is “alter Christi,” another Christ, whether that Christian is a woman or a man.

To claim that a woman cannot be the image of Christ is really no different from saying that, because he is a man — and because Christians are saved by becoming like him — therefore Christ can only save men. One might even claim then that, since the central faith event of Christianity — the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead — happened to a male body, therefore only men will be raised from the dead on the Last Day.

You say ‘tomato’…

The Church is called “the Body of Christ”. Does this imply that, since Christ’s body was a male body, only men can be members of the Church? Of course not. It is no wonder that St Paul says, “For you are all the children of God, by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptised in Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female.” (Galatians 3:26-28)

Some people claim that, because Christ appointed only men to be his apostles, therefore only men can be priests. But it is also true that he appointed only Jewish men, and we should not forget that some of the first Christians, including St Peter, believed for a while that only Jews could be followers of Christ. If you were a man, you had to be circumcised, and you had to follow Jewish dietary laws. This notion had to be quickly abandoned.

female saint
What are the limits imposed upon representing Christ?
(© cruxbrasil /

If we put his male gender at the centre of the idea of imitating Christ, then we have to start asking, which part of the maleness of Jesus do we imitate? Can uncircumcised men represent Christ, who was circumcised? Can black men represent him? Once we begin to put limits on what sort of human person can represent Christ, where do those limits end?

A friend of mine in Washington wants to be a priest, but he is still waiting for special permission from Rome because, according to the rules, he cannot ordinarily become a priest. The reason? He was born with only one arm. Rick runs a theatre company, is a published author, has a PhD, and is an accomplished cook. There are no physical duties as a priest that he could not fulfill with his one arm. Yet, he has been told that his is a case that needs special pleading. This is not religion. It is flat-out prejudice. The case against women becoming priests is no less so.

I know Christians who say that Islam discriminates against women because, for example, it does not allow women to lead the Muslim assembly in prayer. These same Christians will frequently also claim that only men can be priests, and justify this with theological arguments as faulty as those of the Muslims they are wont to attack.

It reminds me of the old joke: I am a strong leader. You have autocratic tendencies. He is a dictator.

Or in this case: I am defending tradition. You tend to be rigid. He is hopelessly prejudiced.

Aloysious Mowe, SJ, was born after Merdeka and considers himself Malaysian by birthright and not by anyone’s concession. The last time he checked his passport, it says he was born in Malaysia, not Tanah Melayu.

See also Ethnic outsiders vs bumiputera-ism

Post to Twitter Post to Google Buzz Post to Delicious Post to Digg Post to Facebook Post to StumbleUpon

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

Most Read (Past 3 Months)

Most Comments (Past 3 Months)

  • None found




  • The Nut Graph


Switch to our mobile site