Jesus Christ Washing the Feet of His Apostles, by Giotto di Bondone 1304-1306

199. La femme profanée (Abused Woman)

Ll12 For he delivers the needy when they call,
    the poor and those who have no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
    and saves the lives of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
    and precious is their blood in his sight. [Psalm 72:12-14, NRSV]

  La femme profanée. Photo by Rebecca Camp, August 2015.

In a vast continent extensively troubled by endless cycles of violence, war, poverty and displacement as Africa is, theologians of African origin are deeply aware of the urgency to provide narratives of hope in their work of interruption. Emmanuel Katongole, a professor of theology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, brings an innovative theological voice to this urgent task in his new book, Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa [Grand Rapids, MIC: Eerdmans, 2017].

  • The book’s dust jacket notes: “In the midst of suffering, Katongole says, hope takes the form of ‘arguing’ and ‘wrestling’ with God. Such lament is not merely a cry of pain – it is a way of mourning, protesting, and appealing to God. As he unpacks the rich theological and social dimensions of practice of lament in Africa, Katongole tells the stories of courageous Christian activists working for change in East Africa and invites readers to enter into lament along with them.”

In this exciting and captivating book, the author compels us to imagine what it really takes to make and to keep human life human in a world of senseless cycles of violence. To speak of hope in a situation of hopelessness is as necessary as to speak of light in a world shrouded in darkness. This necessity is messianic. But in messianic work, where Christians speak of a “divine necessity” – of God’s initiative in works of salvation – human cooperation is an essential key. No doubt, salvation comes from God, and is an initiative and a gift from God; but, there is no salvation on earth without human contribution, in free and willing participation. Moses’ grudging “yes” to the God who heard His people’s cry and decided to send him to Egypt to liberate them, and Mary’s final fiat at the Annunciation to God’s invitation for human collaboration in the task of birthing God’s Son for human salvation, are stories told for our reminder.

That is why in that section of Christological studies called soteriology, the fact of Jesus of Nazareth being truly human is of immense importance in demonstrating to sinning humanity that the evangelical values of which he preached and lived from one mountain (the Sermon on the Mount) to the other mountain (his crucifixion on Calvary) are humanly achievable. Jesus’ exhortation on the eve of his suffering death to “do this in memory of me” – to shed blood and to have one’s body broken to be shared – is blueprint for authentic Christian discipleship. Authenticity, in this regard, denotes freedom (to live to the full our identity as children of God) on the one hand, and cohumanity (to be in solidarity with the rest of humanity, especially the Poor) on the other hand. This is humanism with strong Christian undergirding.

A Ugandan Catholic priest, Katongole knows that he must go beyond humanistic messianism to messianic humanism. He knows that human collaboration towards a solution in areas of contagious conflicts and violence is indispensable and yet, neither does he start with the human person, nor does he stand or fall with the transcending powers of mere humans. Solidly grounded in the Judeo-Christian historical experience, he steadfastly holds on to the belief, and indeed the hope beyond hope, in the humanizing determination of the Transcendent. So Katongole stresses the necessary art and the practice of Christian lamentation.  Dare we say that he has no choice but to do a theology that is born out of a Christian historical experience of liberation, justice and peace, in spite of the apparent and repeated collapse of all human resources applied towards liberation, justice and peace. He cannot but insist on hope; so he can do no other than energetically encourage the practice of lamentation.

Lamentation is not confined to music and poetry. In the section titled La femme profanée (“Abused Woman”), Katongole draws attention to a powerful piece of art – a statue by that name sculptured by Eugene Sangymbo of Congo. He explains the powerful symbols.

  • The woman is naked, which reflects her vulnerability, and is painted white, a reflection of her innocence. Black military boots step on her breasts, arms and legs, representing the brute force of militarized violence. But the boots are empty, signifying the anonymous yet ubiquitous violence of the rebels and other armed gangs. The boots are also torn (with gaping holes where the toes are visible), which, according to Sanyambo, reflects that even the people who perpetrate violence on others are themselves victims. The image of the torn boot is thus a metaphor for the paradoxical “strong-weak,” “victim-perpetrator” identity of the child soldiers…
  • The position of the woman is also highly symbolic. She is half sitting, half lying down, reflecting the strange “graveyard” existence of the “living dead.” The boots hold her feet, arms and chest down, and thus make it impossible for her to breathe, to sit upright, or to stand up. The boot on her breasts not only humiliates her; it also destroys her potential for nurturing care and her identity as “mother.” She will never be able to feed her children.
  • On the most basic level, La femme profanée is a lament for the many raped girls and women during the Congo Wars. On a broader level, the woman (weak, exposed) represents all Congolese children, women, and men – all the victims of brutality and violence. On yet another level, La femme profanée is the Congo itself. It is significant that the base on which the sculpture rests is the map of Congo, for it is the Congo, Mother Congo, who has been violated, raped, and brutalized through the endless cycles of war.
  • Another very powerful symbol is the lamb in the background. According to Sanyambo, “the sheep represents the symbol of Christ. The woman is leaning on Christ, who remains her last refuge. There is no solution for this woman except to take refuge in Jesus, which is our belief as Christians.” Therefore, the presence of the lamb provides a Christian interpretative framework, and actually makes the sculpture a kind of Pietà. For, whereas the mother holds her lifeless son in Michelangelo’s Pietà, here it is the lamb (son) who holds the lifeless mother!

We are reading, savouring, and constantly revisiting Katongole’s powerful book.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, May 2018. All rights reserved.

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