Sunday, October 11, 2009

The importance of we insignificants

At Stillwater Meeting this morning, there were a flurry--if you can have a "flurry" in a Quaker meeting --of messages about the importance a small, seemingly insignificant person can have in carrying out God's will for the world. I find it interesting that so many of us were on the same thought trajectory in this meeting and cannot help but wonder--and believe--that God was speaking through his people, and that these thoughts were the the thoughts of the Holy Spirit as it filled our room with its palpable presence.

The messages went well into the afterthoughts section following meeting for worhsip, so I did not speak my thoughts, which felt as if they were a message too, and which were on the same theme. I have been reading Bob Dixon's two-volume work on sexism, classism and racism in (primarily English) children's literature, written in the 1970s. He documents outrageous examples of racism in books still in print in England at the time (I hope they are out of print by now), such as the story of the black doll who is disliked and rejected because of his black face until, at the end, as a reward for helping a sprite, his face is washed pink in the rain and then all the other toys and his owner decide they like the new, "attractive," him. In the section on sexism, Dixon discusses a recurring theme in girls' literature, which could be summed up as "punishment of the tomboy." In many books, a lively, assertive, active girl--a tomboy--disobeys adults who tell her not to do something physical and as result, has a terrible accident which lays her up for months or years in bed and/or a wheelchair, until she learns the lessons of docility and sweet acceptance of her lot. As Dixon puts it about yet another of this type of girl's book, "Yes, you guessed it. The wheelchair for her."

While it's appalling the ways in which stereotypes were (and are) taught and reinforced, I thought DIxon was partially wrong when he also blamed "religion"--in the vast majority of these cases the religion he has in mind must have been Christianity--for reinforcing sex, class and racial hierarchies. He places this blame offhandedly or incidentally--he's not really concerned at all with religion, but seems to add it as an afterthought--and he reminded me that it's true that Christianity has often been twisted to support an unjust status quo. As Dixon puts it, religion can reinforce the notion that everyone must stay in his or her supposedly God-given place, and not challenge an unfair manmade social system that assigns certain groups of people second-class status.

A cursory glance at the Bible shows that in God's kingdom of ordering and assigning of tasks there is no second-class based on race, class or sex. The Bible is replete with stories of the lowly--the second-class citizens in the eyes of the world--being selected as the chosen ones. For example, the "weaker" sex rises to the occasion in the stories of Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, Abigail, Esther, and Mary Magdalene, just to name the few that pop to mind almost instantly. Joseph is sold into slavery (definitely a step into a lower class) before he saves Egypt and then Israel from mass starvation. Jesus is explicitly the son of a nobody. Peter and Andrew are fishermen. Finally, the story Acts, of course, shows the breakdown of an ethnic stereotype that reserved the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for bona fide Jews. Every human, the early apostles discover, can be touched by God's spirit. We learn there is no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek in the kingdom of God. Hierarchy is erased. People will, obviously, stay male or female and keep their ethnicities, but these will no longer be used to assign places higher or lower in the status hierarchy. How has this message gotten so messed up????

We can help dispel the false constructions of Christianity used to uphold privilege and oppression by building churches and meetings that continue to enact the Biblical stories of equality, simplicity, integrity and inclusion. As the many messages in Meeting for Worship expressed, we insignificant people need to keep on keeping on --like the Hobbits in the Lord of Rings (one example used in a message), the small bird threatened by a hawk (another example) even when we are discouraged and don' t want our tasks, and don't think it's possible to succeed with all the darkness in the world crushing down on us. Blogs such as the one on Quakers and social class, and books like the recent--I'm taking a stab at the title-- Fit for Friends, not for Friendship, can keep us focused on the ways classism and racism can infect our communities. We can continue to spread messages of compassion, love, joy, equality, kindness and mutual support. We can continue to assert that these are the true messages of the Bible. OK, this is terribly preachy--I cringe on rereading it and of course, these are just my thoughts, not what anyone "should" do or would even want to do, and to me they seem so obvious I wonder why I am writing this !!! but then I think of all the ways religion has been and can be distorted to beat people down--but OK. I'll stop. :)

Slightly off topic, but one question: My sense is that very little sexism infects the Society of Friends. Am I wrong about this?


Hystery said...

The communities that wrote the many books that today make up the bible lived in what would today strike us as unacceptably and profoundly sexist societies. Sadly, they often used the differences between the cultural roles and rights of men and women to provide metaphorical instruction on the relationship between their conception of the Divine and "his" children. Likewise, in the first and second centuries, those communities interpreting the emerging Christian tradition(s) were also deeply immersed in societies that would strike us as grossly unfair with their servitude and slavery and their very rigid constructs of gender and sexuality. It is little wonder that a message of spiritual and perhaps even practical equality between men and women would start getting lost as inspiration (d)evolved into institutionalism. We can already begin to see this unfortunate erosion of a message of equality in the deutero-Pauline epistles. The situation then continues to develop as the message of equality is tattered by its encounters by Romans and Greeks, Vikings and Celts, Gauls, Byzantines and Magyars.

Throughout the Christian centuries, the Church constructed a system of unrelenting misogyny despite this earlier message of equality and if we were to confuse Christ with the Church, we might be completely discouraged.

I am encouraged by Friends witness for equality and I cannot say that Friends knowingly practice sexism but clearly there is still a great deal of unexamined sexism in our meetings and in our personal relationships. For those who live in a larger world that constantly tests our abilities to hear the good message, we do not have the luxury of over-confidence.

Diane said...

Hi Hystery,

Yes, it is too bad that the dominant cultures distorted things. As for sexism in the Society of Friends, I have to say things seem better there than in the wider world, but the minute we begin patting ourselves on the back ... that's the end. I have seen classism and racism quite starkly in Quakers, but not so much sexism, and maybe I am blind to it. It must be there, as it must seep in from the larger society.

Ted M. Gossard said...

When God's Spirit is at work all disntinctions break down so that we are open to whatever God is doing or saying through anyone. I do see this at the church we're a part of, and it is modeled well for us in our pastors Jack and Sharon Brown, who are married. I wouldn't necessarily put them in that order, either, but it is revolutionary enough that a "Bible believing" church and denomination ordains women pastors.