Breath of the Spirit: The Patriarchy of Our Past?
Recently, we have come to realize some of our national and religious heroes weren’t perfect – in fact far from it – and many people seem to struggle with how to remember them. We tend to want to either “cancel” them for their sins or deny that they had any. Today’s reflection, though, asks us to hold those two aspects of our own tradition in a creative tension. Can we acknowledge the hurtful aspects of our tradition without losing its sacred call for wholeness?
Sunday, July 17, 2022: the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
The Patriarchy of our Past?
A reflection by Marianne Seggerman
What to make of the first reading? On the face of it, it is a tract highlighting the virtue of hospitality, where Abraham bends over backwards to offer three men food and drink. Note he has Sarah and “his” servants do all the work. What is “his” reward for this munificence? A son. Not a child – a son. Sarah may have already delivered 5 daughters to her husband – but none of them counted. Why was it such a reward to have a child – but only if the child happened to be male? The family was the central social unit and Abraham was a man of some wealth, so it boiled down to keeping the family intact to have an issue to inherit – the property, the position and all the rest. A daughter on the other hand would need a dowry and then move to her husband’s family – a drain on the family fortune. Why am I not lauding Abraham’s generosity and instead harping on the inequity of it all? Bear with me.
I am supposed to glean spiritual inspiration from the second reading and convey it to you, gentle readers. Alas, I cannot. Paul’s misogyny, perfectly acceptable in his time (and, it seems, perhaps our own) so revolted me that I would bow out from reading from any of his letters when the Dignity chapter I belonged to held services. So, it should come as no surprise that, if anything, I am irritated with the excerpt from Colossians. He begins with, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” God may have called out to Paul on the road to Damascus – but Paul could just have easily not answered God’s call and lived out his days in Tarsus. What Paul got in exchange for his suffering – and which he mentions in more than one letter – is respect (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:11). Paul received the privilege and power given to religious leaders – a right explicitly denied to women in several of the Pauline letters (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-13).
The Gospel is short – but how revolutionary and far thinking. Not only do women receive spiritual guidance directly from Jesus (instead of filtered through the male relative controlling their lives) but attending to their spiritual needs is deemed more important than [merely?] focusing on their duties. What we know about the life of Jesus is limited by what was written down and accepted as the canon – so there is a lot we don’t know; like the reaction of the religious leaders to Jesus’s attitude towards women. I can’t see his belief that women could control their own relationship with the Divine going over too well with the Pharisees and Sadducees – even though there is nothing in their Scriptures that specifically mandates such inequality. In fact, even today this remains an issue. About 20 years ago, I lived in Israel for 3 months as part of an extended business trip – and on several occasions took a trip from south of Jaffa where we were staying to Jerusalem. I visited the Old City and went to the Western Wall. I was shocked to discover that the men’s section took up 2/3 to 3/4 of the space – and the women were crowded into what was left. On top of that, women trying to pray at their tiny part of the wall have met with severe resistance. If women in Jerusalem are attacked today for trying to pray at this sacred site, I can’t image things were more accepting 2 centuries ago. Yet, Jesus surrounded himself with women in key roles. There was of course Mary Magdalene – the canard about her being a prostitute was dreamed up by a Pope who could not conceive of a woman in public in any other role. Women were present at the Last Supper – who else would have prepared served and possibly shared in the meal? It’s the image by Da Vinci a millennium and a half later that only showed men. Among the disciples, women were the only witnesses we know of who followed Jesus’ entire passion and death on Golgotha. And women were the first to learn of, and proclaim, Jesus’ resurrection.
All of this is to suggest that Christianity has both a subversive and radical feminism (i.e., the belief that women are fully human) as well as a committed and poisonous patriarchy baked into its traditions. How are we to celebrate the former without perpetuating the latter? Even more so, how are we to recognize and claim equal dignity not only for women, but for all persons regardless of how they experience their sexuality and gender?
Addendum: About 8 decades ago a girl was born in New Jersey to Polish (read: maybe Catholic) parents. She would grow up to marry a man with a Scottish last name and under her married name build a domestic empire - cookbooks, entertaining, and all-around domestic arts. Were her parents prescient when they named her Martha? I wonder.
Marianne Seggerman joined the chapter of Dignity New Haven around 30 years ago. That chapter is no longer, alas, but she continues to attend the biannual conference. In her day job she is a computer programmer living (and for the moment working) in Westport, Connecticut. She is in a long-term relationship with a person raised Jewish who converted to the Mormon faith.