Tag Archives: feminism

In the bleak midwinter

I wrote things on the weekend but they were really, really sub-par. Maybe because my keyboard was not working properly or maybe because I am ill. Maybe because of how desolate I feel about the state of the world (families being divided, young women being murdered, friends in abject poverty and my own financial situation so insecure). Maybe God is sick of me always talking, talking, talking achieving nothing.

I don’t know why but my well of things to write is dry. I look at the lectionary readings and feel numb. I feel resentful of the church and its deceitful bishops and emotionally stunted and dishonest male priests. I can’t seem to get out the words of hope or even coherent criticism.

All I can do is read Micah again and again and again and draw comfort (of sorts) from a sad and wrathful God. I don’t always go to the bible for cheer, I go there to validate the deepest negative feelings and attempt to survive them. Here is a lovely chunk of Micah if anyone wants to join me (but don’t be stingy with yourself, feel free to read the whole thing. As well as Micah I am reading the gospel according to bell hooks. I find anything written by her is full of wisdom (relatively humble wisdom) and a determined hope and love which cuts through even her own incisive criticism. Read some bell hooks if you can.

And for the rest I will drink my herbal teas and gargle my salt and try to cure this stupid cold because I can’t afford not to “work”. I will thank God even for this desert time. Because even this is not as bad as the worst depression that I suffered for over a decade. I don’t feel that God is very far from me, and I feel that God is trying not to get frustrated by how stupid and slow to learn I am. Or maybe it is just me that is frustrated. God’s patience may still wait for me to work out the next step and the next.

Thank God for bell hooks and all the transformative feminists. Thank God for my social networks. Thank God for the person who just read these words and is being patient with me also.

Thank God. And let’s change the world.

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A transgressive, transformative masculinity

This week’s readings are hereI only consciously used the gospel (Matthew) but I read all of them.

Joseph was a man, a tradesman- perhaps a small business owner. He was working class, though probably not poor, his son Jesus seems to have received a decent sort of an education and had the freedom to wander as a street-preacher/magician rather than being desperately needed to support the family. I guess what I am trying to portray is a man with a vested interest in the status quo, a man with some privilege but also precariously enough placed that “honour” was a concern.

It was a patriarchal world. Men’s honour especially around “their” women’s sexuality was a significant thing. For Joseph to act as a man of his time, do the “right” thing, the “rational” thing, the “common-sense” thing would be to break off his engagement to Mary. In his time and place, it may not have been seen as unusual or unduly harsh if he made a big fuss (which might have led to her being cast out of the community or stoned I suppose) but he is “righteous” and unwilling to expose her to shame. Nevertheless there is no real question within his place and time (and his role as a man, a potential head of a household) of continuing a relationship with a young woman who is pregnant with someone else’s child.

It’s easy then to view what happens simplistically, God speaks and Joseph obeys. If we go further and view God as “male” then it becomes a meeting between two males to discuss the fate of a woman and child. If we read it this way, then nothing very radical happens, though we breathe a sigh of relief that Mary and that important baby are safe.

But what does our experience tell us about God speaking? An “angel” appeared to him in a “dream”. Without wanting to keep God out of the equation, I want to bring in a more modern understanding of what dreams are. Our “subconscious” communicates our deeply held and sometimes hidden from desires and truths to us in dreams. Science around natural processes like evolution, tells us that God’s influence over the world works with the nature of what the world is, with the cause and effect (and free will) of processes, organisms, lifecycles, webs of relationality. God can only communicate to the person whose heart is open to God (otherwise we have no free will). God calls us into right ways of being with each other- yes- but never against our deepest self. Joseph’s call from God and unhesitating response to it reveals something deeply true about Joseph’s nature and inner being.

Joseph resolves on the “common sense” course of action but his sleep is troubled by his inner need for relationship, to be a nurturer of something he neither owns nor controls. God speaks into his potential for unselfish love and asks for the impossible. Lay aside your patriarchal ownership of your family and follow Mary’s vocation, nurture a child of God. Significantly the angel says “Do not be afraid” indicating that the only thing stopping Joseph from this radical course of love, was fear. God takes away the need to fear, the need to know, the need to control.

Oftentimes men who claim to be “feminist” or “pro-feminist” or “anti-sexist” expect women to be very emotionally nurturing of them, to explain everything and open up everything to them and to keep on every step coaxing, seducing and rewarding them for the slightest pro-feminist leaning. Let’s not get side-tracked into “not all men” because that sort of a debate is actually part of the pattern I am speaking about. Men then, within patriarchy often expect women to be the keepers and sorters of their emotions one way or another, to constantly reassure and encourage them and to take emotional responsibility for a relationship.

Within that context, this is a good week for me to remember that even though I often use the female pronoun for God, God is in fact NOT FEMALE just as much as I have previously asserted that God is NOT MALE. I need to underline that in preface to looking at who does the “emotional labour” of this encounter.  Initially I was suspicious of the way Mary gets talked about and does not get to speak in this story, and in fact far too much of the bible is phallocentric and features women only in semi-objectified roles. But when I remember the way Mary comes across in Luke and John’s gospel as very much having her own mind and motivations, her own feisty relationship with God and deep trust in her child. When I remember how little Joseph is featured in the gospels except as a background to Mary and the baby or in a “Mary and Joseph” sort of a scene where they both fail to fully understand Jesus then I am keen to see the value of this episode.

Then I begin to see that what we have here is a man taking emotional responsibility for himself and his own difficult feelings, sitting with the situation instead of rushing to take it out on “his” woman and letting God speak and advise him instead of expecting to be emotionally babied. Then I get to see that the angel’s “explanation” to Joseph is no sort of an explanation really, that ultimately he is still in the dark about a significant event in Mary’s life. His choice to love and trust her unconditionally remains a choice, it is not at all made easy or logical by the angel quoting scripture at him!

So Joseph takes the pregnant Mary into his home and becomes one of those heroic people who loves a child for some reason other than a desire for your own genes to continue. Jesus is born into a home that transgresses the hetero-sexual matrix (in the way his parents fail to stick to the strictest versions of their gender roles, in the loss of patriarchal “honour” by Joseph accepting him, in the unorthodox way he has been conceived- although we actually know very little about that we know it wasn’t something that happened within marriage). God as Jesus’ co-parent relates to Mary and brings Joseph into the equation too. I like to think that after all this courage, Mary and Joseph had a loving and warm relationship and I certainly am not trying to undermine the idea of a man loving a woman or a woman loving a man. It is significant though, in a time when we are as a society asking questions about whether there is one shape of family only that God has mandated to recall that Jesus’ own situation was somewhat transgressive and not entirely respectable for his place and time. His parents had to show great courage to bring up this child of God.

So add this one last miracle to the lead-up to Christ’s birth. A man follows his heart (stirred by God) to courageously love and follow what he cannot control. A family is made outside the narrowly patriarchal tradition of what counts. God is with us!

Shout for joy- daughter, sister, beloved

 

I have nothing against the Sunday readings and if I had more energy would do two blogs this week. But Tuesday was the feast of the Visitation, the one day of the year when the church lectionary passes the Bechdel test (Ruth and Naomi could be argued too I suppose), and the one Feast day of the year that actually talks about God’s work working not just through men, not even just through an individual woman, but at times also through women’s relationships and networks of support. This is such good news it ought to be on a Sunday! The reading from Luke is so rich in prophecy, in affirmations of women’s prophetic, leading, teaching and sacramental role in each other’s lives and in the lives of significant male members (Jesus and John though unborn) as well. So much richness here that writing once a year I could never find it all, and I hope each person finds even more in the readings than I can say. But let’s make a beginning.

The first reading (Zeph 3:!4-18A gives away that what is coming is unusually good news “shout for joy” and that this is specifically for women “daughter of Zion”. Even this begins a bubbling up of joy. Women we are not invisible in this Feast, we are valued by God and the silencing, dismissal of our needs and attacking us as “vain” for wanting for ourselves the basic dignity and consideration that we extend to others has been dismissed by God. God is onside with us. We “have no further misfortune to fear” and God sings joyfully because of us. This is a profoundly healing thought, the idea of being so beloved by God that we are not only vindicated but the cause of joyful singing. Here we reclaim our birthright since the opening of Genesis to be part of God’s creation, made in God’s image and assessed as “good”.

But if God is singing for joy, then we know that more good news is in store so we move on to the next reading. Once again the canticle (ie like a psalm but not in psalms) from Isaiah prophesies good things “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation”. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament we see the drawing of water as “women’s work” and the well as a place of meeting and socialising for women (well maybe we don’t see the latter in the text so much and are indebted to historians for reconstructing the world around the text for us). So that nexus of women’s social life and relationships, the well becomes symbolically a place of “salvation” a sacramental place, a place where the truth of God is joyfully encountered. Among us is the Holy one of Israel. The ancient promises of God are fulfilled in the mysterious depths of women’s flesh, the womb.

This is NOT to return to a view of womanhood as solely being fulfilled in motherhood. Clarissa Pinkola Estes has written about “wild mothers”, the way older women sometimes support, mentor and teach younger women, the way younger women find their own role models and need more than one. Even this is only a fraction of the whole truth. The patriarchal promise that can only be fulfilled in the male body of Jesus may come into the world through the female body of Mary, but if that is all that matters then why the Visitation? Why does Jesus also need the “Auntie” or “Wild mother” Elizabeth in his life? Why does John leap for joy at the voice of Mary? The voice is about more than flesh, it is about opinion and agency. The canticle goes on to bid us to sing praise to God for “his” glorious achievement. Well that seems only fair, in the context of the first reading where God was singing on account of us. The glorious achievement here seems to be a nurturing and reciprocal relationship with us who are lovingly created and affirmed. This will be shown in the gospel to have world-changing, radical possibilities – unseating the unjustly powerful and bringing in a new reign of God.

The other first reading (which I am going to treat as a second reading as I think the Visitation ought to be a Sunday) gives instructions on the “good life”. Even though usually I am feeling a bit like saying “give me a break” when I have these long and complicated responsibilities placed on me, by allowing the other readings and the feast-day to contextualise it, it takes on a non-oppressive meaning. In fact the God who has celebrated and affirmed my existance and our relationship in the first reading and psalm has every right to ask for this respectful reciprocation of that gift. The instructions in this reading are really a call to be authentic, to honour who we are as God’s beloved and as sacramental, priestly people. We are called to be sincere, loving, committed, critical, resilient, courageously forgiving and compassionate. We are called to be “more than” those who oppress us, not to cooperate with oppression but also not to retaliate with bitterness and hatred. We are called to be humble in ourselves too, not to put ourselves down but to see our good like our imperfections within a context of God’s love and God’s call and the shared dignity and humanity of others also.

This reading, within a context of good news for “daughters” and the gospel that is coming is for me a powerful call to remain in the imperfect church and to trust in God’s ability and desire to find me there and sustain me. The grace of God in actual fact cannot be stopped or blocked by patriarchy but we must continue to bless even those who have not blessed us. We are called to a holy partnership with God where we pour out love to the world. I turn to the gospel to see what possibilities for transformation this call may hold.

In the gospel, Mary is not wise in her own estimation, that is she is not complete outside of her ability to reach out to others. Her good news needs to be reflected by Elizabeth’s good news. She has a need to support and be supported, to be in a community where each can rejoice in the other being blessed. Each has a relationship with a husband that in some Christian circles would be assumed to be the most appropriate arena of rejoicing. But each is part of a larger network of support, each needs also the ministry of women in her sacramental life (and don’t we all?). Mary, pregnant though she is goes on a journey that would possibly be dangerous and certainly be difficult. There is something in Elizabeth’s company that calls to her, something precious in the relationship or some need she sees in Elizabeth and responds to.

The great prophet John hears the voice of Mary, who is about to offer one of the great prophecies of liberation and hope. John recognises in this voice the same call that is already whispering into his baby heart the potential for a committed spirit-filled life. He leaps for joy! Elizabeth recognises this leap and knows what it means. Mary’s preaching will shake the church and the world. Elizabeth says that Mary is “blessed” for hearing and heeding the call of God. She recognises Mary’s priesthood. Elizabeth and John become church to accept Mary’s priesthood as Mary both literally and sacramentally carries Christ into their lives. Mary preaches her joy and hope in a God who reverses oppression and liberates. There are strong forces in a world where Mary’s people have been colonised by the brutal Roman army, she lives in a patriarchal society with limited opportunities. But her hope is in God’s power to be greater than the powers of the world.

Mary aligns herself with a utopian view of radical justice and voices her commitment to God’s power to bring this about. She grounds this vision in faith history. Then she stays with Elizabeth for three months. The relationship of sacrament is about more than words. She is there for practical support and shared affection. Faith and ministry are not about a ritual once a week but are about companioning and loving our fellow humans on the journey.

My heart like unborn baby John leaps for joy at the good news of the Visitation. I want to shout it aloud and sing it, this dignity and hope in the reality of God’s call to me as daughter and sister. My response needs to be loving and faithful to the dream of transformative justice. My spiritual hunger is filled with this good thing. I can look to the unofficial priests, when the official church leaves my pastoral needs unmet. No wonder these readings mentioned singing and joy so many times!