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Martha Ann Kirk, Th.D.-Embodying Christ to the World

A Profile by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Martha Ann KirkMartha Ann Kirk would soon be eight years old. “You’re all invited to my birthday party,” the beaming little girl announced to her class in the southern Texas town where she lived. Her parents had said everyone could come. But during recess, one of the Anglo girls said, “You mean you’re going to ask Mexicans into your home?” Martha remembers the deep hurt she experienced during that first encounter with prejudice. “I felt that everyone in class was my friend,” she told me. “Even at that age, it didn’t seem appropriate to treat people as lesser human beings.” The incident marked the beginning of a lifelong dedication to justice, peace, and compassion.

In a 2005 issue of the Graduate Theological Union’s alumni magazine she described her mission in these words: “I hear God’s Word speaking through the voices of the disadvantaged and marginalized. I am called to incarnate God’s Word through the creation of drama, story, dance, arts, and ritual.”

Martha Ann Kirk will be one of the presenters and a part of the music team at EEWC’s 2006 conference in Charlotte, NC, July 20-23. She will feel right at home with the many religious backgrounds represented in our group, because if anyone knows the meaning of “ecumenical,” it’s Martha Ann.

“I had a rich Christian background,” she told me in a phone interview in late April.  Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and her father and his mother were both Southern Baptist Sunday school teachers. “They really taught me a love of the Bible,” she says. Added to the mix on her mother’s side were a German Lutheran grandmother and a German Catholic grandfather. Then there were all her Methodist and Presbyterian cousins. “I feel truly blessed that in my family and in my experience, I pray with many groups of Christians.”

When she was 16, she knew she loved to pray and felt a deep call to help people. She started to talk about entering the convent. “Although I couldn’t have put this into words at that time, the convent was a place where women could really live up to their full potential. One of our sisters was one of the first women in Texas to get a doctorate, and she built the college (now a university) where I teach. Our sisters have been hospital administrators and have started orphanages.

“As I was growing up in my little  town of 6,000 in the 1950s, my father was an attorney. And I never even dreamt of a woman attorney or a woman doctor.  I remember when I was in high school, a woman attorney from another town came and had some business with my father. And it just sort of cracked my mind open! A girl — a woman — can be an attorney?  It was like a man having a baby or something like that!” she laughs.  “Both of my parents were educated and both of my parents were broadminded, but if we just have never seen something else, we don’t imagine it, we can’t visualize it.” 

Looking back on her small Texas town, she remembers “not only prejudice against Mexican Americans and African Americans, but girls were to cheer on and praise the boys. Girls were to clean up the messes the boys made. Entering the convent put me in a world of women who developed their gifts and used them at the service of others.”

In her book, Women of Bible Lands: A Pilgrimage to Compassion and Wisdom (Liturgical Press, 2004), Martha Ann bemoans the fact that “the hero’s quest seems to apply predominantly to male heroes. . . . While men in their heroic stories go out and confront dragons, women’s heroism seems to be in confronting the dragons of the limitations of their lives and abilities imposed by patriarchal culture. Sometimes this confrontation of dragons involves external challenge, but more often it involves facing dragons within, in confronting self-internalization of the limits. Women questioning oppression take the first step of the heroic journey” (p. xxix).

She distinguishes between “heroines” and “female heroes.”  She calls attention to the invisibility of female heroes in history and literature because of how historical records and stories have been developed and passed down by patriarchal cultures. “Heroines, that is women who are supporting characters for male heroes, have been used extensively. Female heroes have rarely been developed or analyzed.”

She writes that “many studies of children’s literature, of literary masterpieces, and of the Bible reveal that traditionally stories of powerful or independent females are rare and that powerful females are often shown as evil. Stories that get preserved and stories that reveal women as good are usually stories of women as mothers, wives, caretakers of men or children, or women waiting to be helped or rescued by men. . . .It is crucial to have female symbols of wholeness, not just symbols of complementarity, supportiveness, or passivity.  Biblical female images of God can be symbols of wholeness” (pp. xxix-xxx).

In the classroom and beyond

As a professor of religious studies at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, TX Martha tries to help her students understand this, especially in her “Women of Faith” class. She speaks about the limits a woman has within herself, the “dragons”  that tell her to be quiet when she should be speaking up for just causes, such as a better school system.  “Again and again, that gets the 19- and 20-year-old women in my class thinking of the limits they have internalized,” she says.

She is also aware of the influence of gender role traditions and expectations in particular cultures. “Fifty-one percent of our students are Mexican American,” she says, “and there are some ways in which Mexican American grandmothers and mothers have huge amounts of indirect influence. But on the other hand, there are often family structures where the man always has to be on top, always look best, always look like the breadwinner. Some of our Mexican American students speak of resentment from males. The women students  may be smarter and they may work harder than their brothers and their husbands. If they’re gifted by God with a good brain and good working ability, they shouldn’t feel that they have to hide it.”

Martha is deeply committed to her students. “I try to encourage my students to fully develop whatever potential they have, and to keep in mind that God gives us gifts not just for ourselves but to serve the community — to help make a better world for all the people around us, particularly the vulnerable, particularly the children, she says. “Just recently some of the lesbian students on my campus came to me — they were experiencing some discrimination — and I said, ‘You know, we need to very gently, but  firmly, keep helping people  to “get it” that all people are created in the image of God, and we just have to hold our ground and not let people be disrespectful.’” 

She is well aware of how religion can be used to hurt people. “This is a hard time in the United States, because religion is so distorted. Religion is used as a club rather as an invitation to follow the Holy One in love, justice, and compassion.”

She views God’s calling in a broad worldwide context — a vision that characterizes the Order to which she belongs. The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word serve in the U.S., Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala. In addition, she says, “many of our sisters have come from Ireland and some are working there now. And for the year 2000, we felt that God was calling us to do something new, so we started a mission in Zambia. We are in an area where 70 percent of the adults are HIV positive or have AIDS, and there are a huge number of orphaned children in that area.  So I feel my family lives in many countries. God calls each of us to move beyond narrow definitions, to move beyond personal selfishness, to move beyond just taking care of my blood family, my tribe, or my nation — but to recognize more and more that all human beings are in the image of God. All children of the world need to be protected and cared for and helped.”

Using the arts for a better world

But as Martha works in justice and peace studies, she says she finds that “unfortunately, in the context in which we live, people don’t even know how to dream about cultures of cooperation rather than cultures of competition.  People don’t know how to dream about working for just structures of sharing rather than structures of dominating and greed and trying to have the most and control others.” One way she thinks that such a dream of a just and loving world can be imagined (a necessary step if it is to materialize) is through the arts. As Martha emphasizes, “The arts can often help open our imaginations, open the eyes of our hearts to the reign of God, the reign of justice, the reign of peace, lives of compassion.” On a backpacking trip through Europe in 1974, Martha had sat on a hillside in Assisi and asked God whether she should do further work in theology or art.  God guided her to both.

The President’s Peace Commission of St. Mary’s University has honored Martha Ann with the “Art of Peace” award, which is given in recognition of  “the use of the arts in peacemaking.”  Martha’s use of the arts for justice and peace also manifests itself in the international outreach program she directs, using story, drama, dance, mime, and music. Her efforts for peace and justice reach across both geographical and religious boundaries.

In recent years, she has led numerous study tours to biblical lands and was a speaker and panelist with Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze women at the “Women of Faith in Culture and Society Conference” in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. 

Her book, Women of Bible Lands, which covers stories of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women from the 19th century BCE to the 9th century of the Common Era, underscores the importance she attaches to both pilgrimages and storytelling. “We construct our identities as we hear stories,” she told me. “Children who hear lots of stories have more of an opportunity to develop good concepts of themselves and to develop courage and imagination. And we as women need those stories that broaden our horizons rather than narrow them.”

If Women Wrote History

“Peace is built as people travel across modern borders, as women talk to women of other cultures, as women remember ancient women,” she wrote in the introduction to her book. “Peace is built as men and women learn to have historical perspectives. Uncovering and recovering women’s stories can contribute to a more egalitarian, less domineering world. Stories of ancient women travelers give people today courage to travel. Women’s history is as important for men as for women” (p. xxviii).

Pointing out that “99 percent of both biblical and ancient stories of women are actually men’s stories of women rather than the women’s own interpretations of experience,” she wonders “if women had written 99 percent of history would struggles for political power and military victories be primary subjects as they are now?” (p. xxx).

When I asked Martha to expand on that thought, she said, “A chapter of my doctoral dissertation looks at the history of history and shows so many male authors of history going back to 3000 BCE.  History holds up values. So often we have had textbooks that hold up values of dominance, values of military power, yet for the future of the world, caring for the earth, God’s precious fragile creation, caring for the children, teaching children to cooperate and respect others — these are the most important things for the future of the world. So how is it that we are paying the business executives more than we are paying the kindergarten teachers?”

“We need to talk about what things are really important,” she continued, “and we as women need to be very courageous in demanding, for instance, health care, childcare. We who have taken care of others in the private sphere need to use our voices in our local communities, in our states, in our country, in the whole world itself. Recently the World Council of Churches had on their website charts of world military expenditures, and it is just awful that huge amounts of the resources in the world are poured into weapons for dominance and destruction while there are people starving to death. What is the main thing we do in this country?  What is the main source of revenue?  Building the arms that are sold all over the world and sold to both sides in various conflicts! So how do we call ourselves people concerned about peace in the world when we are actually the sellers, the traders of the weapons?”

In her book, she points out how throughout history women have suffered  economic inequality, violence, and sexual abuse from men, with few questions raised as the patriarchal narratives focus on “the stories of male heroes.” She continues: “Is this suffering what God wills? Or is God more like a sister who invites women to share stories, listens to them, weeps with them, and invites all peoples to turn their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh?” (p. xxix).

Female Imagery for God

Martha Ann likes to talk about the female divine images throughout Scripture that are all too often overlooked. In her book, she writes, “One has only to look at human relations around the globe today to see that the idols of phallus and spear predominate. Will the Peoples of the Book cling to the idols of masculinity or seek the true God beyond the images?”

Pointing out that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have gifted humankind with the teaching that God is transcendent, she writes, “Now is the time for these traditions to face honestly the idol of the warrior from outmoded tribal eras.” She is not suggesting reverse sexism, but balance.  “The true living God is no more womb and breast than phallus and spear. While this book points out some images of womb and breast that might stand by those of phallus and spear, in the end all idols and images are inadequate” (p.11).

I asked Martha to talk about why inclusive language and female imagery for God are so important to her. She said she tells her students that the Oxford dictionary says that the word “men” is no longer used generically but refers to adult males. “When you say ‘all men,’ it’s hard for people to visualize women and children. In the ’70s, it became more and more apparent to me that our language needed to respect and embrace all people. But I also began to realize, as a Christian, the significance of the first chapter of the Bible.  ‘In God’s own image, God created them. Male and female God created them.’ And the female reflects an aspect of the face of God or aspects of the divine nature that we need to know and need to appreciate. Whether it is a humorous song like ‘Washerwoman God’ or a song exploring many biblical  images from worship like ‘We Are the Body of Christ,’ it has been important to me to pray in the beauty of the Creator reflected by all that is best within the feminine and all that is best within the masculine.”

She continued: “Whenever I was doing my doctoral dissertation in the 1980s and was working with Colleen Fulmer at GTU and looking at the structures and text of Roman Catholic worship, I found that on an average Sunday morning, we would have about  65 masculine images of God — Lord , Master, He, Father. . . Of course,  God is reflected by kings and by fathers and by lords, but all the sociological and psychological studies point to the importance of language, and you are really impoverishing God’s people — and particularly impoverishing children — when you keep them trapped in structures that have about 65 male images on a  Sunday morning and often no sense of the greatness of our God as ever bigger than we are and reflected in the good works of women as well as in the good works of men.”

Washerwoman God

Since she had mentioned “Washerwoman God,” and “We Are the Body of Christ,” two favorite songs of those of us familiar with Colleen Fulmer’s recording, Cry of Ramah, or who had heard and sung “Washerwoman God” under Colleen’s songleading at the 2004 EEWC conference in Claremont, CA, I asked Martha how she and Colleen came up with that imagery. (In their collaboration on both songs, Martha Ann Kirk wrote the lyrics and Colleen wrote the music.)

Martha replied, “I had been invited to give a retreat to UCC women and another speaker was Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund, then Dean of the Faculty at Pacific School of Religion, and she said, ‘You know, there is a poem, Bakerwoman God; we really need someone now to talk about Washerwoman God.’ I had just done a dramatization of the Samaritan woman at the well who heard Christ’s offer of living water. Actually, what I was doing was scooping up handfuls of water and throwing them up in the air — really enjoying the image of that living water!  And she had just made that passing comment.

“At the time, for the National Presbyterian Women’s meeting, I was preparing to do a dance interpretation of ‘Bakerwoman God,’ based on the poem by  Alla Bozarth-Campbell.  And so, I began thinking, ‘Barbara Brown said you’ve got to do something with washerwoman God’ —  so I just started thinking of all the biblical images and quotes about washing with water.  Colleen and I would toss ideas back and forth and laugh with each other, and she started putting a melody to it.  The introduction is very deliberate in the contrast  – “Leader of armies, King of kings and Lord of lords, while I march stiffly and wave my fist and then go into a whole other style of laughing and dancing.”

Washerwoman God,
   We know you in the waters,
Washerwoman God,
   Splashing, laughing, free.
If you didn’t clean the mess, 
   where would we be? . . .

As Martha recited Scripture passages about water and God’s cleansing, I suggested one more she might want to add to the list: Ephesians 5:26-27, where Christ is described as cleansing the church with “the washing of water by the word so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind.” I pointed out that the “no wrinkle” part suggests a God who does both washing and ironing.   Martha Ann laughed with pure delight.  “I love it! I love it!” she exclaimed.

Jesus, of course, never hesitated to compare God’s working with the everyday work generally assigned to women — sewing a garment, searching the house for a lost item, baking bread.

The other song on which Martha and Colleen collaborated is a wonderful song of the mission God gives us as Christ’s body in the world.

 We are the body of Christ,
      Birthing, feeding, touching, weeping
  We are the body of Christ, 
      Mending, bleeding, healing, dancing
    Glorify God in our bodies,
       Dance with God through our lives

The song reminds me of Martha Ann’s observation about the raising of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. “Jesus gave new life to Lazarus,” she wrote in her book’s introduction, “but he invited the community to go and unbind the one who had been dead. Communities today are being given the gift of mutual discipleship. The world has been called from the tomb of patriarchy. ‘Unbind him and let him go free’” (p. xxx). It is our task now to spread that message, to be Christ’s body in the world.

Our conference theme

I closed the interview with Martha Ann Kirk by asking what it was that so thrilled her about our choice of the 2006 conference theme, “Rooted in Love, Powered by God,” based on Ephesians 3:16-21. I remembered that when she had first heard about it, she had emailed to express her delight and to say that she had danced, sung, taught, and prayed that Scripture.

She explained why she resonated so much with the theme: “So often people act as if justice, overcoming racism, overcoming prejudice against women, is some new strange phenomenon.  But these issues are rooted in love, they are powered by God, and the more we as Christians go to the deep roots of Jesus Christ’s compassion and the way he related to people, and Christ’s understanding of the nature of God, the more our branches, our flowers, and our fruits can grow and be nourishment and beauty for the world. So let us be rooted, let us not be afraid to spend time in deep quiet prayer, listening to the wisdom of the Spirit.”

Editor’s note: Throughout the upcoming 2006 EEWC Conference in Charlotte,North Carolina,  Martha Ann, along with musicians Catherine Cuasay and Janice Pope, will be leading us in interactive exercises, singing, movement, and liturgy.  On Saturday night, July 22, she will also present a one-woman dramatic presentation based on her book portraying what she has learned from her travels in Bible lands and the stories of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women over the centuries.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni is editor of Christian Feminism Today and author or coauthor of nine books, the most recent of which is What God Has Joined Together: A Christian Case for Gay Marriage (with David Myers, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, paperback edition, 2006).