Tag Archives: breasts

Scylla, Charybdis, Trans-Jesus and identity by foreskin

We’ve circled back around, now week by week I am repeating writing on readings I have already written on. This is a good discipline for me, because I am forced to revisit and rethink what I thought I knew. My reflection for this week three years ago was here.

This time…

Let me try to find words for the unspeakable.

I did say “try”, be patient with me.

I’ve just finished reading Kimmel and Messner’s “Mens Lives (1989) and I am struck by something that’s kind of disheartening (bear with me this is relevant to the lectionary readings). Even pro-feminist make writers, thinkers, people I meet make presumptions about women. They want to keep women “safe” and allow them to “succeed” and all the rest of it, but generally implicit in their rhetoric about women is woman as necessarily heterosexual- responsive or defensive vis-à-vis men. There is a huge failure of the imagination when it comes to the idea of woman as having motivations, desires or concerns that do not centre on men, either positively or negatively. I don’t think this ought to be excused on the grounds that these male writers might be writing about men, what women think or feel about men might well be relevant to their writings, but the absences are still telling. Women are not conceived of as able to have any headspace which is not invaded in some way by patriarchy.

As women we all too often take this on board, and our reactions to things become responses to patriarchy. Thus a woman who does not love or nurture men is a “man-hater” etc. Even feminists are tricked into talking and thinking about men too often, and what is worse thinking of ourselves via the male gaze.

I want to try to reach a consciousness that is lesbian/asexual or at any rate one that is not defined by men or their absence. The lectionary is not an ally in this. Are you laughing at me at this point because I access my lectionary via bishops (ie an all-male group)? Should I perhaps not be responding to the lectionary at all? Is my faith heritage so patriarchal that as a woman I can only have an implicitly heterosexual or trans-impostor role within it (please note I do not think trans=impostor, but within patriarchy this is a common discourse. That is to say I can view myself as woman-victim or I can view myself as woman-object or I can take on a male lens and victimise and objectify other women but it is very difficult to find a genuinely female-affirming gynocentric or better a non-binary point of view. Pretending the gender binary does not exist or does not have power is naïve to the point of foolishness, deconstructive work is needed even to assume a non-binary perspective)?

Have my confusing thoughts lost you yet?

The first reading at first glance seems very female-friendly with rejoicing coming from the desire-object Jerusalem who is depicted as female. After last week’s incredibly patriarchal readings (everyone at church was grumbling at them) it is easy to take this as an oasis and not to question it. Feminist spirituality within the patriarchal edifice is so often this, determinedly not looking a gift-horse in the mouth. But when we stoop to be dogs and feed solely off the crumbs that fall from the Eucharistic table we are limiting ourselves and denying our true Godde-given dignity.

As a lesbian, it is very easy to draw me into relating to the desire for the breasts and lap of the wonderfully nurturing and voluptuous Jerusalem. The reading says “mother” but it says it with a knowing wink. The implied reader is not really thinking like a baby, apart from the temptation to surrender critical capacity and agency and simply be carried (by tradition, by habit). The last line (which we do not notice because we are excited to be flourishing like grass and wonderfully held) reminds us that there is still a “Lord” and we have not lost our “servant” status. “Power” can be part of motherhood too but we’d love to gloss over how oppressively that can be experienced by the pre-schooler. We want to idealise this comforting femininity and we forget that God in reference to this Jerusalem is still the patriarchal structure intact.

We have gained nothing but the command to close our brains off and rejoice.

Is this the Word of Godde? Praise, praise, praise. Tremendous deeds. The psalm comes in to keep us distracted (again like babies). Oh look a pretty bauble…oh look a consumer product… When the going gets tough the tough go shopping…glossy brochures advertising the “experience” of various educational institutions (if you want to know why this is a problem please see Thornton and Shannon)….God didn’t refuse my prayer or his kindness…

My prayer

His kindness

There’s asymmetry here and as a good (“good” lol…”good feminist” is surely an oxymoron) revisionist feminist I want to change the pronoun to female and close my eyes to the things that I don’t like. After all God is objectively greater than me- more powerful, wise and enduring than I can be. Isn’t s/he? Aren’t they?

And what sort of a relationship can I base upon a knowledge like that? That all I can really know of God (praise Him, praise Him) is the idea of my own inferiority and God’s superiority. God’s unknowability stresses my limitedness. God’s power my weakness, God’s omnipresence my weariness, God’s wisdom my lack of knowing anything. Is this God? Or is this a great projection of my own existential terror?

And if the latter then what does it mean for faith? If I don’t believe in God’s “tremendousness” then can I believe anything? Could I survive as an atheist? Experience tells me not. I seem to be caught between a Scylla and a Charybdis of my own spirituality here. Patriarchy has told us that Scylla and Charybdis are both female. Alright then, as a truly transgressive lesbian feminist my mission is to make sisters of them. I have not yet found a way to steer safely through, but I know from having flesh-and-blood sisters that discomfort and reluctance to engage does not mean we are not kin. Come with me Scylla, take my hand Charybdis, we need to confront the second reading!

In the second reading difference is being undone- that is the difference between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. I have often taken this on glibly to think about how progressive this unification of opposites is. No matter what sort of a penis we have we are now all equal. Yes the foreskin is no longer a bone (pun intended) of contention.

See what sleight of hand the smiling lectionary has pulled on us now? We are all equal as males. What does this mean to non-males, non-penis-bearers? What have we been “pricked out” (Shakespeare) for? Nothing. We are absent. We have to read this from our own absence, to construct our own being with no building blocks. I am not circumcised, but neither can I properly refer to myself as “uncircumcised” therefore as usual the lectionary has not spoken to me or about me. What are we going to do about this girls (Scylla and Charybdis)? I can see why you wish to devour them all now!

So is that what a woman becomes? The wish to devour? A vagina dentata? A big mouth? How easily this view of womanhood (hole, chalice, receptacle, womb, urinal, kiss) is colonised back into patriarchal smugness where they think everything that exists comes from their seed (this is as true in intellectual work as traditional discourses of baby-making). And how do we answer that? Patriarchy has so colonised the whole globe and the whole language(s) that I know if no place outside of it. Besides bell hooks (in Kimmel and Messner) shows that any attempt as separatism works against feminism and reinforces/reifies inequality.

I am left not knowing where to even stand, how to begin to speak (and yet all these words).

So here we are in the gospel- Scylla, Charybdis and I. We’re being sent out now like lambs among wolves (no kidding, Jesus). We are here to bring peace, we’re are we meant to get this peace from? Is it more unpaid, unacknowledged women’s labour to fashion this peace out of crumbs and discarded foreskins or something? We are meant to accept whatever is offered. Oh this again! Against this preaching I am the bad woman who left the (heterosexuality that was) offered and asked for something different. And failed to find/obtain it. What am I but the queer art of failure (Halberstam)?

I cannot explain why, but I see trans-Jesus wink at me. We are both caught up in this charade but they are not bound completely by the role and invite me also to see the joke. Respectable, tame, church-going Jesus suddenly spreads his/her/their wings and reveals themselves in drag (or is the respectable “passing” the drag?). Jesus is also caught up in the necessity of making sisters of Scylla and Charybdis. Jesus here is a human queer -vulnerable, rejected, made invisible, the sign that is opposed (Luke 2: 34; cf Acts 28:22). Am I wrong to catch a glimpse of a Jesus I can identify with? Who may claim this?

Then this happens:

“Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you,
go out into the streets and say,
‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet,
even that we shake off against you.’
Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand.
I tell you,
it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town. “ (luke 10:10-12)

What does this mean to us queers, feminists and critical voices? What does it mean for the church’s reluctance to receive us? We are treading on snakes and scorpions when we attempt to even begin to articulate our experience. A far cry this is from the breasts and comforting lap of “Mother” Jerusalem. We are both and neither, something the writers of scripture and compilers of the lectionary never considered. The question remains whether God considered us?

Everything hinges on that.

 

 

Halberstam, J., & Halberstam, J. (2011). The queer art of failure. Duke University Press.

Kimmel, M. S., & Messner, M. A. (1998). Men’s lives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Thornton, M., & Shannon, L. (2013). Selling the dream: Law school branding and the illusion of choice. Legal Educ. Rev.23, 249.

 

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Be glad because of her

Trigger warning- this is in a public place and anyone can read it so I have no way of knowing the background of all possible readers. I have very positive (though at times also ambivalent) ideas around “motherhood” and I have drawn on them in this reflection. But I realise that some people have major trauma and disappointment around the lack or inadequacy of mothering in their own life. Sometimes we inadvertantly invalidate them or make them invisible by using motherhood as a metaphor. I don’t want to lose the richness of what I get out of this experience and what some readers might get, however if you are someone who finds positive discussions of motherhood triggering in any way please accept my apologies and don’t read this week’s reflection.

Rejoicing and an extended, lusciously female-bodied mothering metaphor are up first this week, probably making some people move uncomfortably in the pews (if they are listening) because yes, even breasts are mentioned! Abundant ones! Coming up to an election, I wonder if we will be feeling this ideal of being mothered and comforted and spead over by a prosperity that belongs to the mother and therefore is shared with us? “The wealth of the nations” oh we do have to have that discordant colonialising note don’t we…to remind us that these are actually the words of religion, not literally the Word of God. Even in this beautiful, loving, familial image there is the human preoccupation with “the economy” in the narrow sense of wanting to have more than people in “other” countries.

But I am all for being carried and fondled and having every need met by a secure and prosperous mother. I particularly love that toward the end of the metaphor the “she” pretence slips and God takes responsibility “as a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you” (my bolding). Whose “abundant breasts” were we really talking about? Then there is the switch back to “Jerusalem” but the shift has done its work and destabilised patriarchy, because God has been seen for a split second (which is the only way we ever see God) as a doting mother filled with unquenchable love and the instinct to nurture. My heart sings with Miriam Therese Winter this song.

Yes, exactly as the reading says:
“When you see this, your heart shall rejoice
and your bodies flourish like the grass;” of course elsewhere in the bible (Psalm 90: 5-6) the idea of grass is used to signify impermanence and quick mortality. So this “flourishing” may be short-lived. But I do flourish when even the old texts of tradition give me permission to see God in this way, even for the moment. And I could leave it there, but I suppose I better remember there are more readings.

The psalm continues the theme of rejoicing that is exactly where my heart is with the first reading, except that if we read this psalm from the perspective of the earth (and it is hard not to) then the earth is forced to “bow down” and the sea is “turned to dry land” so that “the Lord” is somewhat of an ecological disaster. But it is just a metaphor! I want to cry, but there is that in Christianity unfortunately, the tendency to see the earth as unimportant, something that we are master-stewards over to exploit, not as part of God’s beloved creation to be lovingly in relationship with. The parts of the psalm that are left out as usual give some context too. God is once more on the side of those whose heads are being ridden over (e.g. the refugees and the poor). Mind you the idea that God allows it to happen for some time or for some purpose may be problematic.

In the second reading Paul reminds us that the purpose of being Christian is to be transformed, to be constantly the “new creation”. It is not about denominations, creeds, traditions, circumcision, uncircumcision or stopping marriage equality and abortion. We honour the suffering (survived hopefully), the flawed humanity and God’s grace in ourselves and others. We show peace and mercy and we don’t engage in silly attacks against each other. This is a timely reminder for a Sunday when we will all be dealing with the results of an election (and the end of a very mean-minded and desperate campaign).

In the gospel Jesus is sending his apostles out two by two (with a giggle I think this is a little like the door-knocking canvassers pre-election). But what do these door-knockers bring to the house? Stern warnings about sexual immorality and fear-mongering about Islam or other religions? No. One-off acts of patronising charity that pay no attention to the real source of the inequality? Again no. Cliches about “letting go and letting God” or “everything happens for a reason” or mindless and extended “Praise, praise, praise the Lord!!!!” choruses? Not that either! Sorry modern Christians we are going to have to look again at what the mission is.

The apostles are to offer the household peace. They are to accept hospitality if it is offered. They are to cure the sick and proclaim the “kingdom of God”. How do we do this? How do we bring peace and acceptance, healing and good news to the “real world” that we live in? This is something I believe each of us needs to meditate on and nut out, I don’t have the obvious answers and clearly the exact manifestation would change depending on time and place. But significantly this is not just up to the individual either. Jesus commissions the followers all from one place, and sends them out in pairs. Community is the source of our ministry and collaboration is the order of the day. Despite what we are sometimes told “the priest” is not some sort of Christ super-figure. Christ sends out priests in teams (not just as individuals) from the community. Christ is the whole part of that process and reality, not just the one individual within it that claims to be “called”. I need to remember this both as one called and as one who accepts (or critiques) the ministry available in the church.

And then as the end, if we have been called to preach to the household that is the church out deep God-given knowledge that feminism and its insights are also crucial to bringing about an inclusive, meaningful and slightly more achievable “Kingdom of God” and they want nothing of it what then? I did leave. I did wipe the dust off my sandals but I do not accept that God wants to punish the ignorant (even the privileged and therefore wilfully ignorant) and the slow to listen. I’m a teacher after all, I don’t give up on the apparently unteachable, I try to work toward miracles every time.

And so I am back in the church, back in the teams of preachers that like me want to call the church and society to account (in terms of social justice not in terms of narrow conceptions of “morality”). And there is something motherly and nurturing about those patches of church that genuinely wish to transform (as opposed to control) the world. And I rejoice for and with that “mother place” that “Jerusalem” that I can find within church, due to those people who focus on our shared humanity and the need to be “new creation” instead of hairsplitting matters of tradition.

And I know God rejoices in the church that behaves that way. God who also wishes to comfort “like a mother”. God knows, life has taught me a lot about the patience and trust of mothers.