On the Trinity and the newspaper

Yesterday was the feast of the Most Holy Trinity. How did I mark it? I wrote my usual piece for the church bulletin at St Cuthbert’s and I led the children’s liturgy–a lot less ‘usual’ and a whole lot more nerve-wracking. More on that later. Late in the afternoon, after the rain dashed our hopes of a walk to the park, I caved to the 12-year-old’s plea for ‘another James Bond movie.’

UnknownIt may have been watching Goldfinger that made me alert to the three articles in one newspaper (the New York Times) this morning, all touching on the situation of women in the contemporary Western world. I was slightly shocked by the behaviour of our favourite spy towards women–obviously it has been a while since I watched the Sean Connery films. Fortunately, two of the articles today suggest that the reason I find his behaviour inappropriate is that things have changed for women, not only in the US, but also, finally, in France. Denis Baupin was forced to resign from his post as the Assembly’s vice-president because of his persistent sexual harassment of female colleagues. Big firms in the US have come a long way on these issues, but the less obvious discrimination against women continues: the pay gap and the obstacles to advancement on Wall Street. Unfortunately, the vehicle for changing the rules about sexual conduct may not be much use to women in addressing the other structural issues, as firms make arbitration the rule and prohibit employees from being involved in class-action lawsuits.

23BOOKZEISLER1-master180The article about women on Wall Street makes Jennifer Senior’s review of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler, all the more pertinent. Zeisler denunciates the cheapening of feminism, arguing that ‘feminist’ has lost its meaning and its power. Now any woman can be a feminist, and the only goals she has to embrace are ‘to seize [her] power and tap into [her] inner warrior.’ I won’t rehearse Jennifer Senior’s good work here: her review is worth reading. In short, the difficulty with the book is that the real issues, to which Zeisler often refers, get very, very short shrift. And why? Because, perhaps, the boring issues like the wage gap, especially as it affects workers in the lower tax brackets, don’t sell books.

My interest in this trinity of articles in this morning’s New York Times doesn’t require all the details from each of the articles. Some of us women have benefited enormously from those who resisted the James Bond approach to relations between the sexes; some of us have found our way into spheres of work and influence that would never have been open to us 30 or 40 years ago. I know I am one of those women. I worry because the playing field onto which I have emerged, somewhat uncertainly, still operates by a set of rules that haven’t changed too much since women weren’t allowed to play. This affects me deeply, as a caregiver and someone who believes strongly that there are more important things in the world than career advancement. But it affects many, many more women who have to play by those rules in order to survive, and women who cannot play by those rules, and so are excluded.

Things have changed. Things haven’t changed nearly enough. Unfortunately, as long as we are ruled as a culture (and here I am thinking of culture both in the US and the UK) by the need for comfort and stability, and driven by the desire for luxury and entertainment, nothing will change very much. The problem feminists face is a part of the bigger problem we face in the world: sin. Sexual harassment can be fought; women can win, because sexual harassment doesn’t really increase the profit margin. (Note that one broker mentioned in the article about women’s struggles on  Wall Street was promoted, despite having such a bad record on sexual harassment that he wasn’t allowed to have a female administrative assistant: he must have been really profitable.) But equal pay, family leave, and improved wages for those earning the least are difficult, costly.

It all seems pretty dismal: I guess that’s why books addressing poverty and discrimination in specific and concrete detail, don’t sell. Whatever sort of oppression we might be fighting, the odds are against us. The wisest thing I’ve ever found in Judith Butler’s writings (not to be a feminist name-dropper) is the observation that real change comes when we are able to resist the urge to fight back when we have been hurt. (See her Frames of War; I reviewed it for Modern Theology a while back.) I think I have heard that somewhere before. Fighting back seems like the only way to get anywhere; it is refreshing to find someone whose work has shaped critical gender theory for more than twenty years saying something different.

TrinityNow, maybe you’re wondering what the Trinity and the whole business of feminism have in common. No, I am not going to go in the direction of feminist theology. Yesterday, in that terrifying experience of trying to say something to children about the Trinity, a beautiful thing happened. There we were, talking about the Glory be, and listening to the gospel (John 16:12-15), and trying to make sense of it all (without actually using the word Trinity, which seemed extraneous), and the children somehow managed it. Why don’t we hear ‘Son’ in the gospel, we wondered. Because Jesus is the Son, and he’s speaking, offered one of the children. We wondered how God was present with us now. ‘In our hearts,’ offered another child; and ‘by the Spirit,’ said a third. But the best of all was in their free drawing time. One of the girls came up to show me her drawing afterward. Below the text of the Glory be, she had drawn a circle with a series of arrows to indicate the circle’s direction. ‘Because it continues,’ she explained.

So it does: this business of God’s involvement with our world, with all it suffers from the sin of men and women, continues. Because we women and men have that same Spirit living us, the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead; and so we stay in the game, despite the odds, offering our suffering as a part of the struggle.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Note: yesterday, in other years, would have been the memorial of St Rita of Cascia, who might make an excellent patroness for Catholic feminism, insofar as there is such a thing…

 

 

 

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Thinking about Genesis 3 & 4

Over at thinking coram Deo, I reflected a bit on the first Mass reading, and beyond it. I reproduce it here, in case anyone’s interested.

Genesis 4: 1-8 (RSV)

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

*           *         *

This is going to be a bit wide of the mark, I fear–not really a commentary on the verses at hand. But the thing has been pressing on me for some time, and this passage from Genesis 4 (which continues for another 7 verses in the first reading for today) calls it immediately to mind. That is, we don’t usually interpret this tragic episode in relation to what precedes it in Genesis 3. Yes, it’s the beginning of sin, and it’s amazing how quickly a little stolen fruit leads to fratricide. But it also–I believe–should be read in light of Genesis 3: 16. 

To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

My thinking about this one verse began several years ago on Christmas Eve. I was listening to the Advent Lessons & Carols service broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, and noticed that in the reading of Genesis 3, this verse was omitted. Maybe it was just a mistake on the part of the reader, though I doubt it. At the time, I wondered. Surely it can’t have been left out because it is Not Nice. Maybe it was something to do with the institution of patriarchy–maybe we don’t want to think about the imbalance of power that generally obtains in relationships between men and women (which seems to have been confirmed over the weekend, if what I’ve heard about the newly-released film is true). 

Whatever the reason for the elision of verse 16 that year, I am glad for it. Although I never did come up with a satisfactory guess about the rationale for leaving it out, I did begin to think in a new way about the first part of the curse–the business about childbearing. Yes, it hurts. I can testify to that, having had four children (even had one without the epidural). But I don’t think that’s what this part of the verse is about. In the first place, the emotional pain of  pregnancy loss seems to me to be greater than the physical pain of labor. And then there are the things that go wrong: congenital defects of the heart or other organs, genetic disorders, infant deaths. About pregnancy loss or the death of an infant, I have no first-hand experience. But I know what it’s like to have something big go wrong–or, better, to have something very small go awry (one little extra chromosome) with global effects. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: things go wrong. 

Not for a few years did I realize (probably only as my children grew) that there was still more pain to be had in the bearing of children. Not only do they give us pain as they come into the world, they continue to cause pain (as well as joy, of course) as they grow and change. Not all of the heartbreak involved in raising children is quite as dramatic as the story of Cain and Abel. But there it is. Genesis doesn’t say much about how Eve’s birth experience is. We do,  however, hear about this tragedy. Having two sons myself, I can’t imagine anything much worse than one of them murdering the other in cold blood. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: we go wrong, and badly wrong.

For a while, I wanted to write a book about the pain of childbearing, broadened to include stories of pregnancy loss and more. The trouble was that there wasn’t really an “up” side to it. I’m looking again at a verse that’s not particularly encouraging to begin with, and saying, but really, it’s much worse than that. Hardly the makings of a best-seller, there. 

As always, though, there is much more to it than this thin slice of the story tells us. There are small hints in Genesis 3 and 4 that God will make it right: “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and he clothed them” (3: 21). And Eve has another son, Seth, whom she regards as being given to her by God (4: 25), and the writer notes that “At that time [people] began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26).  In the midst of the pain, it is difficult to see how even this (whatever particular this is so vexing or agonizing) cannot fall outside of the delightful arrangement that is the work of the Wisdom of God (Wisdom 8: 1). Yet there is nothing, not even this terrible outworking of the curse, that can escape the truth: “in Him all things hold together.” All things. Most days I fall very short of believing that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. 

Deo gratias.