Jeremiah and Horizontal Hostility

June 25, 2017

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 94

 

I’ve been reading Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, a profoundly challenging and eye-opening text about the need for sustained resistance to capitalism, industrialism, and climate change (the authors specifically name the need for an end to “civilization,” which doesn’t mean an end to humanity, as I might’ve first assumed, but an end to a particular way of living predicated upon endless growth, a way of living which is destructive to life). I would absolutely recommend the book: it’s incisive and brutally straightforward. It names truths that most of us fear but need to name.

I’m writing on the reading from the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 25 (yes, I’m behind), and when I look at the first reading, the struggle for cohesion on the left is the first thing that comes to mind.

 

Jeremiah said:
“I hear the whisperings of many:
‘Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!’
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him.’

 

In college, I was a budding activist/organizer. I was involved in the movement to divest my school from fossil fuels, turned out to protests against police brutality, organized for greater accountability and transparency in the school’s bureaucracy, led trainings about people of faith in political movements, stuff like that. And I witnessed the vicious backstabbing and pettiness that pervades left-leaning spaces on college campuses in the U.S. Interpersonal nastiness comes in. Someone decides that someone else is bourgie and fake and decides to talk about them behind their back. Someone decides that their old friends aren’t cool enough and that they’d prefer to smoke with the radder, edgier people. All kinds of ridiculous stuff comes up.

Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet names horizontal hostility[1] for what it is: toxic and destructive. It brings movements down. I’d never heard the term before, but when I read it, I thought, yes! This is the problem!

As Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet also names, youth-driven political movements are too-often short-sighted and hot-headed. That’s what I was witnessing in college, of course. We were all riled up with idealism and fervor, trying to figure out how best to do this “activism” thing. Even those of us who claimed to be sophisticated had gaping blind spots (especially frustrating for me was the normative secularism of leftist spaces, which were often flatly hostile toward religion despite their vague commitments to standing against religious persecution).

So I read the first reading and thought, yes! Jeremiah is talking about horizontal hostility! His former friends/comrades are turning against him. Maybe they once shared (or still share) the same noble ideals, but the group is breaking up. Infighting is taking over and they’re trying to call out and bring down the member whom they’ve labeled “problematic.”

I used to think that the right had invented the left’s nasty “call-out culture,” but that was naïve. The left is full of it. The real problem is that while the religious right is open about its religiosity, the left isn’t. The left holds certain ideas as articles of faith. People who question get excommunicated. People manipulate those ideals to target those they don’t like (like Jeremiah’s former friends watching for any misstep). Left-leaning groups are no more exempt from things like reification of personal/individual purity, hero worship, or groupthink than any other culture, but when you’re in those groups, this issues are harder to name because of the ways we understand “secularism” and “religion” on the right and left. So while many college leftists don’t want to talk about religion (and ostracize religious people), they replicate many of its most toxic elements.

Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet presents a better explanation of horizontal hostility than I can, and other writers have surely explored more fully how to combat it. The passage from Jeremiah gives me a bit of comfort, though. I too often feel caught between my faith and my politics, with no real community on either side. People don’t know what to do with me: I’m not Catholic enough for the Catholics but not radical enough for the radicals. I think that people who give me a hard time are wrong. Obviously I think I’m “just”; I’m a young idealist, aren’t I? I think I’m firmly in the right, so it’s tempting to be soothed when Jeremiah goes on to say:

 

But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion:
my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.
In their failure they will be put to utter shame,
to lasting, unforgettable confusion.

 

But… is lasting, unforgettable confusion a good outcome for anyone? Of course not! I want my former friends to see the error of their ways, apologize, and make alliances with me, not for God my protector to wreak vengeance upon them. I don’t think my “enemies” (those with similar or shared political goals with whom I quarrel) are evil, per se, I just think they’re… wrong? Maybe this passage would be better applied to the global elites, someone I can more justly name as an enemy, not to the former friends who try to trip me up? Because in the end, a lot of the left-leaning people with whom I’ve fought have more in common with me than not. But I don’t think that the passage refers to the faceless evils of power and oppression. It names Jeremiah’s former friends. It refers to horizontal hostility. And it names vengeance.

Vengeance is a problem. Wouldn’t reconciliation be better?

I don’t know how to deal with the LORD’s vengeance. It seems that Jeremiah is saying that his former comrades should be excommunicated and sent to suffer, just like they were trying to do to Jeremiah. And how is that sustainable? How is that any way to build a movement? Maybe this is just his wishful thinking, his certainty that he is right, his idealism and pride reassuring him that the LORD will back him up.

The end of the passage does give me hope, though, the kind of hope that I can cling to without guilt or confusion. This is good stuff. This is something I already understand, as much as any of us can understand it. This is what the authors of the book I’m reading name. This is what I hope to live, the rescue of life from power:

 

Sing to the LORD,
praise the LORD,
for he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the wicked!”

 

This makes me take a deep breath and say, hey, okay, maybe God isn’t really a partisan in our petty squabbles, after all? Or if and when she is invested in our interpersonal disputes, she’s really trying to get us to focus on the bigger picture?

 

 

[1] Quoting Denise Thompson, the book states: “Horizontal hostility can involve bullying into submission someone who is no more privileged in the hierarchy of male supremacist social relations than the bully herself. It can involve attempts to destroy the good reputation of someone who has no more access to the upper levels of power than the one who is spreading the scandal. It can involve holding someone responsible for one’s own oppression, even though she too is oppressed. It can involve envious demands that another woman stop using her own abilities, because the success of someone no better placed than you yourself “makes” you feel inadequate and worthless. Or it can involve attempts to silence criticism by attacking the one perceived to be doing the criticising. In general terms, it involves misperceptions of the source of domination, locating it with women who are not behaving oppressively.”

Advertisements

This is my body, which will be given up for you.

June 18, 2017

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
Lectionary: 167

 

Corpus Christi (the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ) is a liturgical solemnity in the Roman Rite. This actually means that one Sunday every year is designated “Corpus Christi Sunday” and dedicated to reflection on the Catholic teaching that the bread and wine presented during the mass literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This idea that Jesus Christ is literally present in the Eucharist (known as “transubstantiation”) is one of the biggest sticking points between Catholics and Protestants.

I have my issues with the way that we Catholics usually talk about the Eucharist. It’s not that I take issue with transubstantiation, persay, though there are certainly pros and cons to our unusually solemn approach to the Eucharist (non-Catholics – and Catholics who aren’t in the Church’s good graces – are not permitted to receive the sacrament, but that’s a different argument). My qualms are a little more basic: I think it’s messed up that only men are permitted to administer the sacrament. Only priests are permitted to act in persona Christi or “in the person of Christ,” and since Jesus was male, well…

But! Women are valid!, the sexists whine. Women are endowed with the fullness of human dignity, just as men are! We’re not sexists! We believe that women are just as important as men. Women and men are simply prescribed distinct roles. A woman’s role is no better or worse than a man’s, but it is different. Women are mothers, childbearers, wives, etc, with all the traditional connotations assigned to those roles. And this – this is beautiful. (Insert some Pope Francis quote about woman’s beautiful feminine contributions to the church.) Men are the heads of household – and they are priests (never mind the dissonance of homoerotic bride of Christ stuff)! These feminine and masculine roles complement each other. If men and women fulfill their roles, a beautiful harmony will reign over the family, the church, and society!

Make no mistake: This is definitionally sexist. To say that one’s social role is determined by one’s biology is the definition of sexism. You cannot be a feminist and profess complementarianism (the idea about separate but equally important roles for men and women). It boggles the mind that there are women out there trying to redefine feminism as a movement that makes room for this sexist nonsense.

(You want to be a stay-at-home mom? It makes you feel – dare I say it – empowered? That’s fine! Go right ahead! The problem lies in claiming that personal feelings of “empowerment”=liberation for women. They don’t. Feminism is a movement advocating that women can take on any social roles without restriction on the basis of our femaleness. It’s a movement for the liberation of women.)

I digress. The Church is sexist. “Feminism” is mainstream now, so people co-opt it. What else is new?

Back to Corpus Christi Sunday. At every mass, the priest lifts the host and says those words that every Catholic child learns by heart but never says:

Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.

At that moment, Catholics believe that Jesus literally enters our midst.

Corpus Christi Sunday is a celebration of this miraculous moment. It’s a celebration of the tenet that Christ is literally and truly here with us, in body and in blood. I mean this in a gross, fleshy, sweaty, bloody, literal, human way. Jesus in our midst. Jesus in this room. That’s a beautiful thing.

But God, I ask, what the hell do men know about giving up their bodies? Every time I set in a room and watch a white man raise the host to the ceiling, I think about Jesus, a man who was brutally murdered by the Roman Empire. Jesus was the lowest of the low. Jesus was on death row. Jesus knew what it means to literally give up one’s body – unwillingly.

And what do most men know about giving up their bodies?

Women, we who are bruised and beaten and raped and subjugated and given up, we know.

In our bodies, Jesus is physically present in this room. Christ is present in our femaleness, in our gray hairs, saggy breasts, hairy legs, stretched skin, scarred wrists, calloused feet, wide hips, tanned skin, clipped nails, forced smiles. We are the least of God’s people. We know what it is to suffer. And Christ is in us. We know too much about acting in the person of Christ.

So Corpus Christi Sunday rings false for me. Yeah, yeah, I know that Christ is here with us. I see her everyday. And I know that a woman could be up on that altar acting officially in persona Christi, bringing Christ literally into our midst. I know that a woman should be up on that altar. I’m waiting.

Greed is the weed that strangles the garden

June 11, 2017

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Lectionary: 164

 

Walking over to the public library, I saw a panhandler’s discarded cardboard sign tucked behind a drainage pipe: Greed is the weed that strangles the garden, it said in bold sharpie. I repeated that to myself as I walked. Greed is the weed that strangles the garden. Greed is the weed that strangles the garden. It’s hot outside, mid-June in this city where I’ve only been living for a few days, and the trees and grassy spaces are a vivid, supersaturated green. Even the weeds are green. Greed is the weed that strangles the garden.

In this week’s first reading, Moses and the Lord are on Mount Sinai together in one of those foggy, dreamlike, transcendent conversations that are most often set on mountaintops. Moses says to God, “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.”

Isn’t it strange that Moses invites the Lord down into the company of his people? It’s a wheedling, eager invitation; I think of Moses as the nerdy kid trying to invite the unbearably elegant upperclassman to his party.

Why would Moses need to invite God? Surely God can just decide to show up whenever she feels like it. But I love his invitation for two reasons. For one, it’s an endearingly human impulse (Moses, too, wants the cool kids to come to his birthday party). But it’s also sweet to humanize God like this. I imagine God as the newcomer at school hanging back, waiting for an invitation to join the fray.

I’m also struck by Moses’s comment about the “stiff-necked people” (presumably he’s including himself in that number?). I love how that’s the condemnation he chooses. Not something about how they’re adulterers or thieves or liars but just that they are stiff-necked. They look down their noses. They don’t incline their heads to listen or turn to the side to help a stranger. Their eyes are focused straight ahead, looking toward their own goals. They never bend to the needs of the other.

Greed is the weed that strangles the garden. A stiff-necked people is greedy, self-righteous, selfish. A stiff-necked people does not bend to see the beggar at the roadside with a cardboard sign. A stiff-necked people walks past the beggar (with his duffel bag and mangy dog) and so perhaps fails to notice that God has already come into their midst. Maybe God’s just sitting by the edge of the hot summer road, waiting to be invited into their company.

Summer & renewed commitment

I graduated from my fancy liberal arts college last week. This gives me some space to settle down, breathe, panic, and think about what I’m going to prioritize for the next few months (/years) of my life.

I just started reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. My dad bought it for me as a graduation present. He accidentally ordered the large print edition from Amazon, which is okay, of course, but it’s strange because I’m not used to it and it tricks me into thinking I’ve read much more than I actually have. I mention the book because the first few pages (all I’ve read so far) introduce a character who used to write a blog. That reminded me of this blog and all my hesitant, aborted attempts to commit to it. (You know how many posts I’ve written here and then deleted? So many.) The post about the Annunciation that I’ve had up since March is the only thing that’s survived for any length of time, probably because I wrote it right before I collapsed into (thankfully) the last major social crisis of my undergraduate experience. After that, spring (and everything else) unravelled almost overnight. Now I’m here, sitting on the futon at home, and it’s essentially summer. Outside is fresh and green and vivid. I can hear birds and the cars on the lower road.

My summer job at an environmental organization starts next week. That’ll be my main commitment, of course, but I’ll also be learning to cook, preparing to start divinity school in the fall, justifying my life decisions to myself, reading, and (hopefully) writing. To encourage myself to write, I’ve decided to commit to this blog. I’ll return to writing weekly feminist Catholic reflections on the lectionary (I say “return” because I did this last summer but deleted all of it afterward) and also write at least one other post per week. Most of my other work will probably be about theology, interfaith, and feminism, of course, but I also write (and need to write) about writing, environmental justice, and how my life is falling apart. I just need to think out loud. And send the thoughts out into the void, hoping vaguely that someone will agree with me.

I post this here to mark my commitment. Here goes.

I hate the Annunciation (and an introduction)

I hate the Annunciation.

Is that offensively reductive? I don’t care. Are my critiques illegitimate if they’re not nuanced and measured enough? Someone’s going to read this and go cry about how I’m theologically illiterate/not actually Catholic/whatever. I don’t care.

Here’s what I’ve learned from a couple classes about the scriptures as literature at my fancy liberal arts college: Nobody thinks they’re qualified to do anything. One of my profs told me that he thinks divinity schools paralyze their students. They’re told that they’ll never have adequate knowledge of Greek or Hebrew to fully comprehend the text, it’s impossible to know the authors’ intentions, scripture is impossibly layered and full, they’ll never be able to read the centuries (millennia) of prior exegesis, and ultimately, they’ll never know enough to contribute anything worthwhile. That pisses me off.

What’s the point of Vatican II if my own literary and theological education, the tools that are supposed to help me comprehend the text, make me too scared to know the text? What does that imply about the people who don’t have the right tools? What about all the laypeople? What about the illiterate – and that word should be weighted with the understanding that illiteracy is tied to racism, sexism, ableism, classism, etc. Literacy doesn’t equal intelligence. Literacy sure as hell doesn’t equal closeness to God.

The “hermeneutical privilege of the poor” is a concept from liberation theology. It basically says that when the poor read and interpret scripture, their understanding of the text should be considered more valid than the interpretations preferred by those in power. (Who are “the poor”? Roughly, I read “the poor” as “those who lack material and social privilege in this world.”) The poor read from a perspective that is closer to the text. This notion is imperfect, obviously, but I think it approaches a better understanding of who and what the scriptures are for.

I’m a highly educated white woman from the United States, which affords me significant privilege. That said, I’m still scared to talk about this stuff. Misogyny in the Catholic Church is a big deal. Internalized misogyny is also a big deal. This post (and this blog) represents an attempt to relearn and reinterpret text without panicking. I won’t edit rigorously – if I did, I’d never put anything online. I won’t research fastidiously – if I did, I’d never put anything online. I will simply read and respond as a woman, a feminist, a Catholic, whatever – I will respond as I am.

If I profess a reading of text that’s rooted in a politics of liberation, it’s gross and hypocritical to call my own reading invalid. My reading is valid. It’s less about ranking hermeneutics than about saying, hey, I can do hermeneutics, you can do hermeneutics, we can all do this shit! Who cares about pulpits or PhDs?

Anyway: I hate the Annunciation. The story makes me deeply uncomfortable because it’s such a crucial part of the Catholic canon. The Church has read Mary into a pure and submissive corner for millennia and I can’t read her out of that corner without thinking about the Annunciation. Realistically, though, the text is straight-up sexist. Full stop. I won’t try to twist it around to say something that it doesn’t say. I’ll just do some rough exegetical shit: I’ll go line-by-line and talk about why it’s sexist and how it reads in the 21st century.

(I’m using the KJV online. No, I don’t own my own Bible. I’m Catholic.)

Luke 1:26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,

I’m starting in the middle of the story, of course. “The sixth month”=the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. It’s artificial to chop up the chapter like this, but that said, this intro demonstrates that we’re meant to read Mary’s pregnancy in the context of her cousin’s pregnancy. Just as the narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus later become entwined, we should understand Mary’s pregnancy as entwined with her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

Without doing a close reading of Elizabeth’s story in the first part of Luke 1, it’s worth pointing out the main character is actually her husband, Zacharias. Gabriel announces to him that Elizabeth will bear a child. His fear and disbelief have consequences – the angel strikes him dumb for panicking and asking perfectly reasonable questions.

The reader doesn’t get access to Elizabeth’s fear or disbelief, though. When Zacharias’s vision causes a disruption at the Temple, Elizabeth is entirely absent. She finally appears at the end of the passage and says, “Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.”

  • Elizabeth uses the language of a woman who has been fucked, impregnated – she’s a woman who has been acted upon. The Lord “dealt with me.” “He looked at me.” She is an object, the one upon whom the sexual and generative act is performed.
  • How does the Lord act through Zacharias? What role has God played in the coupling of Zacharias and Elizabeth and the conception of John? Elizabeth talks as though God, not her husband, is responsible for her pregnancy.
  • Elizabeth knows that the Lord has “dealt with her”; what has Zacharias told her about his experience in the Temple? What hasn’t he told her?
  • Elizabeth believes that she has conceived “to take away [her] reproach among men.” This sounds like she’s more concerned with the social implications of barrenness and pregnancy than with the birth of her child. The angel didn’t say anything to Zacharias about “reproach among men.” Did Zacharias lie to his wife? Is this just Elizabeth’s interpretation? If so, she doesn’t seem focused on the “right stuff” about “John’s greatness in the sight of the Lord.”

Essentially, Elizabeth’s pregnancy is an earlier proof of God’s ability to miraculously bring forth children from women who should be childless. We should also compare Mary to Elizabeth and Zacharias and pay attention to how her responses line up…

27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

  • Notice the word order here. A virgin, espoused to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, she’s a virgin, by the way, in case you forgot… and her name was Mary.
  • Joseph’s lineage comes before Mary’s name: This is our first of many reminders that lineage and parentage are very, very important in this passage. We don’t learn anything about Mary’s lineage here.

28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

  • “I’m not like other girls!!” (There are probably memes about this.)

29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

  • We’re inside Mary’s mind here, which is lovely. I love reading her thought process. It’s endearing; the text doesn’t say that she’s afraid or overwhelmed, just that she’s puzzling over the proper etiquette for addressing an angel.
  • When she saw him, she was troubled at his saying. Why do the senses cross here?

30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God.

  • Why has Mary found favor with God? We don’t know.
  • Should one who hast not found favor with God feel fear?

31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.

  • Gabriel doesn’t ask. He says, “thou shalt conceive in thy womb.”
  • Yeah, yeah, God knew she’d say yes because she was conceived without original sin, right? But that’s later theological twisting (the whole Immaculate Conception thing comes from Jerome). It’s not relevant here. Let’s stick to what the text actually says.
  • Gabriel doesn’t ask. He says, “thou shalt conceive in thy womb.”

This verse is the crux of the chapter – and the crux of my discomfort. Behold, the angel says. Behold the thing that shall happen to you. Behold what shall be done to you. Behold (hold) the child in your womb for nine months.

This is either a prophecy or a command. What’s the difference, though? Does it matter? If a prophecy foretells one’s future actions, does one still have free will? Who knows? The whole point is that no one knows. Personally, though, I know how I would feel if an angel appeared and told me what would happen to me. I know how I feel when people write my future for me (“when you get married, when you have kids, when you’re a mother…”). What is the difference between socialization and prophecy?

If we were to read this passage as an interaction between two modern humans, there would be no question. This isn’t consensual. Systems of oppression don’t have single origins (you can’t point to a date and place and say, that’s where it all started!), but this a narrative inextricably entwined with rape culture, notions about women as wombs and vessels, etc. This is one of those old, ugly myths that haunt us whether we know it or not.

It’s an ugly and awful thing to unpack and I won’t follow it to its inevitable conclusion except to say: Mary reads as a rape victim.

32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:

33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

  • The child will have two noble fathers: God and David. These verses emphasize that both lineages are crucial in his formation and destiny.
  • What about Mary’s lineage? What mark will she leave on her child?

34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

  • That’s it? That’s all she has to say?
  • This is a reasonable question, of course, but Zacharias also asked reasonable questions. He didn’t fare so well. Why isn’t Mary struck dumb? The angel simply knows her inner goodness, I assume?

35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

  • “The power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” Sex, power, gender, dominance, etc.

36 And, behold, thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.

  • Neatly ties back to the beginning. Also provides necessary backstory – we already know this, but Mary doesn’t. It’s sweet that the angel offers her proof – it’s like he’s trying to wheedle or convince her. Why, though? He already told her what will happen. Maybe he’s trying to assuage her doubts? Maybe he’s offering her comfort in Elizabeth – here’s someone who will go through this crazy experience with you?

38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

  • Gabriel does not ask for this response. Mary just… signs on to the whole package.
  • Unlike Elizabeth, Mary isn’t preoccupied with the social consequences that she will face as a single mother. She just says yes. Her response is oriented toward the world beyond, not toward the world in front of her.
  • What happens after the angel departs?

I hate the Annunciation because it makes me acutely aware of how the world and the Church read me. When I read the text, I read a world in which I don’t fit. I read that I should aspire to be like Mary, the perfect vessel. I should aspire to consent with just as much trust, faith, and disregard for consequences (like utter social ostracization, the loss of my honor and family standing, death in childbirth…). This is one of the foundational myths of the Madonna/whore binary and I don’t know how to read my way out of it.

The Annunciation leaves me empty (that was a bad joke!). It’s the foundational myth of womanhood in a Christian/culturally Christian context and there’s nothing to be redeemed from that. How do we hold this feast day? How do we doublethink our way out of this feast day? How do we “other girls” read this story? How do we read ourselves as “other girls” who aren’t like Mary but should be?