Thursday, July 18, 2013

Anthea Butler's Essay Responding to Zimmerman Verdict Elicits Outcry: God or god?

Several days ago, I pointed readers to Anthea Butler's latest essay at Religion Dispatches, which responds to the George Zimmerman verdict by asking how we continue talking about God in light of the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdict. Butler argues (compellingly, to my mind) that the loving, liberating God of biblical testimony and Judaeo-Christian faith is distinct from the maleficent, racist white god constructed by generations of white males who need a god made in their own image to bless a world they've built to serve their own interests at the expense of targeted others.

Anthea Butler's thesis--that there's a difference between the god many conservative Christians worship and the God of Judaeo-Christian biblical testimony--has elicited a fierce outcry from those same conservative Christians and from their fellow travelers of the political right. Cavan Sieczkowski surveys the reaction at Huffington Post yesterday. As she states, 

The post [i.e., Anthea Buter's Religion Dispatches article] received vehement criticism from conservative bloggers and Internet trolls alike. Josiah Ryan, editor-in-chief of Campus Reform, the first site to report on Butler's post, dubbed her remarks "hateful" and "designed to hurt" while speaking with Fox News.

On the same day that Sieczkowski published her Huffington Post overview of the fierce reaction against Butler's essay by folks from the religious and political right, Michael Sean Winters wrote for National Catholic Reporter

The article is dripping with hatred and does little in the way of enlightening anybody, which is, one would think, what we look for from the professorate. Professor Butler's writings are the best evidence I have seen so far as to why we need to revise tenure systems.

And isn't it interesting that Winters, who persistently claims to be a garden-variety "lefty," echoes the very same tags--the very same slurs--that people from the hard right use as they seek to place Butler's critique of what she sees as false faith and false theology beyond the pale: Butler is hateful. Her argument deserves no real attention as a compelling intellectual critique. It's delegitimated because she herself is defective, a hateful black woman saying hateful things about white men.

As I noted when I highlighted Butler's theologically powerful article, what she says in her essay is exactly the same thing I said in my initial two postings (and here) about the George Zimmerman verdict: "Jesus still seems dead to me when the powerful continue to trample on the lives of the powerless, and do so with impunity." I illustrated those two postings with pictures of the dead body of Christ lying prone and lifeless in the tomb for a reason: as my response to Anthea Butler's essay concludes, the shooting of Trayvon Martin followed by George Zimmerman's acquittal of any crime in that shooting leaves people of faith 

trying to figure out where the hell God is and what it means to talk about God's goodness in a world in which a teenaged boy can go to a convenience store at night, end up lying dead on a sidewalk, and then implicitly be tried for his own murder in a trial that makes a mockery of the most elemental moral principles necessary for the continuance of a humane society. 

As Anthea Butler told Huffington Post when they asked her to respond to her right-wing critics,

First of all they don't understand it's between small "g" god and big "G" God. Big "G" God is the deity. Little "g" is different kinds of gods. Anyone who reads Religion Dispatches knows this. ... But this was especially touchy for [conservative Christians] because I hit on some things that are kind of true.

As Willie James Jennings underscores in his own reflection on Butler's essay, also published by Religion Dispatches, Butler is echoing the mentor her own article cites, William R. Jones in his seminal book Is God a White Racist?, in asking a profound theological question about the meaning of God in the world in which we live and move and have our being--in asking a question about the meaning of God from "inside of faith, not against faith."

Jennings adds,

Christians follow an ancient Jewish gesture in asking God Why? We follow in the extraordinary legacy of a people who question God, our complaint rising together with our praise, both of which press God to answer for the continuing loss of black life and the seemingly unrelenting hostility against our bodies. 

Anthea Butler's theological critique is, it goes without saying, deeply offensive to believers who choose to identify the God of biblical revelation with white supremacy and male entitlement. That there are believers galore who fit precisely into that category--who whether explicitly or implicitly equate God uncritically with powerful heterosexual white males--goes without saying. It's a given in this conversation.

We wouldn't even need to be having it otherwise. Nor would something like the deeply painful parabolic events--the dark and extremely uncomfortable epiphany--of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman have happened in a culture that has not made this theological transmogrification of the God of Judaeo-Christian biblical revelation into the god of powerful heterosexual white men.

As Mary Daly observed presciently as long ago as 1973 in her book Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973), "If God is male, then male is God" (p. 19). And as Celie tells Shug in Alice Walker's The Color Purple (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), "Ain’t no way to read the bible and not think God white," because the bible has been throughout history "the white folks' white bible," and when white folks quote their white bible, God turns into a white judge with a long white beard who is incapable of hearing any words a black mouth--especially the mouth of a black woman--utters (pp. 199-204).

But as Shug responds, it was God who wrote the bible, and the God who emerges from the pages of that document is something rather different from the god who emerges from the testimony of white males--though the power of that particular segment of the population to control the meaning of everything in the world around us is undeniable, and the struggle to encounter the God of biblical revelation is therefore a struggle against those who attempt to control the meaning of everything in the world.

These are conversations many people in our culture have been having since 1973, when Mary Daly wrote Beyond God the Father, and since 1982, when Alice Walker published The Color Purple. Why is it, I wonder, that some groups within the Christian churches are only now discovering this unsettling conversation? And why do those who don't want the conversation to take place imagine that they can stop it by by slinging around sorry, disrespectful charges that people who want to have the conversation and are qualified to carry it forward are "dripping with hatred" and don't even deserve to enjoy the academic positions they've worked hard to secure?

My conclusion: people like Michael Sean Winters don't want conversations like this to continue because they have a great deal invested in that same false image of God (white, male, and heterosexist) that folks like Anthea Butler, Mary Daly, and Alice Walker ask us to critique. This is not the first time that Michael Sean Winters has mounted a very personal dismissive attack on Anthea Butler--or, for that matter, on other women who have dared (and here) to criticize his pals (and bosses) at the USCCB. Winters's attacks on the women he selects for this kind of exceedingly disrespectful excoriation is more than a little misogynistic (and, in the case of his persistent attacks on Anthea Butler, it smacks strongly of racism), and it's hardly to the credit of National Catholic Reporter that this prestigious American Catholic journal keeps giving him a bully pulpit for mounting these dismissive personal attacks that do not attempt to engage the serious issues raised by women he smears as hate-mongers or stupid.

As I said in my posting about Anthea Butler's essay, for a religion in which principles of incarnation and sacramental representation play a foundational role, there's no getting around the way in which our own lives and words attest to or obscure the divine presence in the world in which we live. People are leaving the churches, including the Catholic church, in droves today, and they're leaving for a reason.

Michael Sean Winters writes repeatedly about his anguish at the fact that people choose to walk away from the Catholic church. I wonder why he seems unable to understand that one of the primary reasons many of us can't do enough to distance ourselves from his church is that we've come to recognize that the God the church itself has proclaimed to us is not in any shape, form, or fashion the god people like Winters keep waving in front of our noses, as they tell us that we're hateful or venal or stupid when we ask about the discrepancy between the God of biblical revelation and the god that men enthralled with power and privilege offer to us.

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