“Indecent” Women Doing Liberation Theology Without Underwear: Saints Tina Turner & Chuck Berry

What is the connection between liberation theology and its feminist theologians refusing to wear underwear while writing their articles and books? That’s right: no underwear.

And what is the connection of their resulting theology with the poor lemon vendors in Buenos Aires who, also without underwear, squat defiantly in their full skirts and urinate on the sidewalks in front of watchful and disapproving city police? (Meanwhile, the lemon sellers complain about their “shi*ty priests”, “mafia politicians” and those “puta policia” – fu*kin’ cops).

And what about the mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, who proudly display their completely unrobed bodies on so many contemporary internet sites? Presumably many of them identify as Christians. But by religious standards, isn’t such display “indecent?”

And finally, is there any relationship between feminist theologians and those Argentine lemon sellers, on the one hand, and rock ‘n’ roll music, Tina Turner, and Chuck Berry on the other.

The late liberation theologian Marcela Althaus-Reid (1952-2009) provocatively raised and addressed questions like those during her brief career as Senior Lecturer in Christian Ethics, Practical Theology, and Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In doing so, she shed light on women’s rebellions against oppressive patriarchal norms across the planet.

You know what I mean. Think about the reaction to the effective repeal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court. Think of those Muslim women in Iran who cut their hair in public and refuse to obey the “morality police.” Even consider, if you can, the unspoken meaning behind those mature women around the world who provocatively display their unclothed bodies online for all to see.

Althaus-Reid argued that the above are all doing what she called “Indecent Theology.” Here the reference is to her thesis from her 2004 theological potboiler, From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology: Readings on Poverty, Sexual Identity, and God.

Because of the important light the book sheds on the feminist rebellions just referenced, as well as on liberation theology itself, please consider with me what Althaus-Reid means. Consider the relevance of indecency to liberation theology and to issues like abortion, the morality police, what some might call “pornography,” as well as to patriarchy in general. Consider its connection to rock ‘n’ roll and to popular “saints” like the recently deceased Tina Turner (1939-2023) and Chuck Berry (1926-2017).

Female Indecency

Althaus-Reid begins by reminding readers that Christianity itself is a highly sexualized affair. It is claustrophobically decent. (In what follows, all references in parentheses are to the book just cited.)

She says it’s not that the morality of the Bible in any way endorses Victorian sexual standards. It does not. Instead, its main concerns are liberation in all the senses (economic, political, and spiritual) that the word “liberation” connotes.

That’s because the Biblical tradition was based on the freeing of slaves from Egypt. Its resulting concern was for the welfare of widows, orphans, and resident aliens. Its prophetic tradition boldly spoke radical truth to priests, kings, and other bosses who legislated against, ignored, and/or exploited the poor.

In general, the biblical tradition promised the latter a new and brighter future. The prophet Yeshua called that future the “Kingdom of God.” By that he meant what the world would be like if God were king instead of the world’s oppressive “Caesars.” Such a world would be turned upside down. Its standards of decency would be transgressed at every turn.

Yet despite such a clear emphasis on social justice, it was the biblical tradition itself that ended up doing a headstand instead of the imperial world order. The revolutionary thrust of “The Book’s” pivotal story was tamed by the kings, princes, and popes of the world (27, 28). Far from being scandalous and revolutionary, the Judeo-Christian tradition thus became the defender of the status quo. Its point became the social control of the revolutionary lower classes, with oppressive standards of decency, especially for women.

And why so much attention to women? It is because of their embodiment of the revolutionary energy that the Greeks called eros. As psychologists and philosophers such as Sigmund Freud and Herbert Marcuse have pointed out, eros represents the basic creative energy of the universe.

In a capitalist patriarchal order dependent on overwork, the powers of patriarchy identify eros in the form of female sexuality as the fundamental factor threatening to undermine their entire project. Hence the powers-that-be covertly vilify women for deliciously “tempting” men to find meaning, fulfillment, happiness, and joy in human (and sexual) relationships that undermine the system’s requirement of “surplus repression” in the form of overwork.

And so, repressive concepts of decency in general and of theological decency in particular emerge to dominate women and, by extension, their potential partners. Theological decency decrees that:

• The woman’s body is a source of temptation

• Therefore, it should be covered by layers of clothing.

• Women need men to regulate female bodies and behavior through special rules written by men and (depending on culture and historical period) governing the integrity of women’s sexual organs, their menstrual periods, and issues surrounding marriage, birth control, abortion, divorce, voting and the ability to own property.

• To do theology (i.e., to speak authoritatively about God even in relation to themselves and their bodily processes), women must earn professional degrees grudgingly bestowed by the patriarchal establishment of academia.

• Therefore, the “degrees” informally awarded by the “School of Life” with its deviant and indecent logic are invalid (14, 32, 137). So is the spirituality resulting from lemon vendors engaging in “witchcraft,” in the informal healing arts, working as midwives, abortionists, and spiritual guides.

Theological Indecency

With all this in mind, feminist liberation theologians like Althaus Reid insist on transgressing the limits of theological decency. They insist that:

• Doing theology is a profoundly sexual act (4, 76). To repeat: this is not because sex was central to Jesus’ preaching. Rather it is because the church has for centuries distorted the teachings of Jesus in the service of the empire, acting in the process as an instrument of social control as explained above. Therefore, theologians are forced to write endless pages refuting such distortions.

• Poor women provide the most radical view of theology (16). Their enforced “otherness” teaches us something new about life and about the Greater Queer that some still insist on calling “God” (19).

• Yes, God is Queer (9, 146) in the sense of exceeding all categories and definitions (175) while subverting decent bourgeois concepts like family. [For those who live on the peripheries of society – under bridges, in slums, favelas and shanty towns, “family” ends up being an oppressive category. It arrogantly invalidates alternative basic social groupings that are just as valid, functional (and dysfunctional) as their bourgeois counterparts (159, 160, 164).]

• Far from being a liberating model for Latin American women, the cult of the Virgin Mary ends up functioning as another instrument of social control, this one aimed directly at women (13, 23, 39, 55). After all, Mary is presented as “a gadget” (88) having sex with God without any pre-coital romantic relationship (85). She does not experience sexual pleasure or orgasm from the union (88). And then afterwards she enjoys no meaningful sex life with her husband, Joseph. Such factors are supposed to set an example for all Christian women.

• Similarly, Jesus himself is strangely asexual: a young Hebrew man with no compañera and no unambiguous sexual interests. He also serves as a model of sexual abstinence (45).

• Thus, Jesus was queer in the sense indicated above: an outcast who rejected and was rejected even by his own family. They thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21). He spent a lot of time in the desert. At least once he was tempted to commit suicide by jumping from the pinnacle of Jerusalem’s Temple itself (170).

• In addition, the evangelical representations of Jesus show him as a victim of the machismo of his own culture (45, 48, 51, 80). Yes, he comes to the aid of a woman considered “impure” because of a menstrual problem (Lk 8, 43-48); and yes, he rejects the male executioners of a woman sentenced to death for adultery (John 8: 1-11). However, Jesus never questions the misogynistic patriarchal laws that govern those situations. He does not reject the laws regarding the stoning of women caught in adultery, nor those that classified menstruating women as “unclean” (6, 13).

• In summary, if liberationists take Jesus’ poverty and otherness seriously along with Paul’s dictum that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28), perhaps the best contemporary identification of “the Master” would be a twelve-year-old girl prostituted by two men in a public toilet in Buenos Aires (84).

Unclothed Theology in the U.S.

Those are just some of the reflections of Althaus-Reid operating as a professional theologian. Meanwhile, she points out, her less academically prepared Latinx sisters do their theology based on popular beliefs and practices. Their well-earned degrees come from the school of very hard knocks. Their insights, Althaus-Reid suggests, are no less valid than their sisters’ teaching in places like the University of Edinburgh.  

So, they defiantly continue to honor Santa Evita Perón. She, after all, secured voting rights for Argentine women over the objections of Argentine bishops (79). They also pray to Santo La Muerte (St. Death), Jesús Bandito, and local popular “gangster saints” who are seen as robbing and stealing from the real thieves and criminals who support those who run the government (161). They have “canonized” deceased popular singers like Rodrigo and Gilda offering them prayers and novenas in chapels dedicated to El Angel Rodrigo and La Santa Gilda (157). Those who honor such avatars kneel in church like Althaus-Reid herself without underwear, engulfed, she says, in the fragrance of female sex, and offering fervent prayers to rock stars no doubt considered “indecent” by church authorities.

All of which brings me to rock ‘n’ roll, Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, and those unclothed grandmas.

Take the grandmas first. Althaus-Reid I think would see them as doing a kind of negative theology protesting the false church-supported Victorian standards earlier referenced. They take indecency to the extreme not just rejecting underwear, but displaying their bodies completely unclothed — not for personal gain like strippers or aspiring models, but just for the hell of it.     

Their wordless indecency is consistent with Althaus-Reid’s identification of the female body as a privileged locus of rebellion against patriarchal systems of power (45). Such rebellion echoes the status of their sisters in the Global South as “single women” with no visible men (35).

After all, under patriarchy, the skirts that once signified femininity and even priesthood (37), now only convey a deep alienation (20). Set them all aside!

“Do you want indecency?” rebellious women seem to say. “Well, take a look at this! The patriarchs will not tell us how to behave and what to do with our bodies!”

As for rock ‘n’ roll, Tina Turner, and Chuck Berry. . ..  How much saintlier can you get?

During their lives, their music performed the basically feminine function of distracting millions from the overwork mandated by the reigning system denounced by Marcuse. In the process, they brought joy, fun, and happiness to millions of people who ended up attending and participating in the huge liturgies we call “concerts” – even over the protests and askance gazes of uptight Victorians and clergy.  

By the standards of Althaus-Reid nothing could be more constructively indecent and therefore holy. Thank you, Saint Tina! Thank you, holy Chuck! Thank you, dear Marcella.