Friday, March 21, 2008

Manly Men, Homophobic Churches, and the Washing of Feet

Christians of late have invested a great deal of time and energy in making sure that men be men and women be women. The largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptists, have considered the issue central enough to the core of Christian belief to create a confessional statement (a highly unusual step for Baptists, who believe in the independence of each church) requiring good Baptists to profess the subordination of women.

Catholics influenced by neo-conservative political ideas are also making much these days of the “complementarity” of men and women—which is to say, the “natural” subordination of women to men. For many such Catholics, the “theology of the body” of the late John Paul II, which elevates this purported natural complementarity to a quasi-mystical level, has become a rallying cry for men to be men and women to be women.

Theology-of-the-body Catholics see in the Holy Family a perennial example of right and proper male-female relationships. Joseph guards and defends, goes out to labor and bring home resources for the family. Mary stays home and nurtures their child, keeps the home fires burning. Joseph is all man—outwardly turned, scanning the horizon for threats to his woman and his son, standing in the breach between the cozy household and the external world of competition and conflict.

Mary is woman par excellence—inwardly turned, forever tidying the household, making it cheerful for her man and her child, finding utter significance in cooking, cleaning, and nurturing. And so should every Christian household be, theology-of-the-body Catholics maintain. And so should every man and every woman be.

Obviously, these politically driven theological interpretations of the roles of men and women have much to do with resistance to the rise of women’s rights, one of the most significant global political developments of the twentieth century. Many men have chosen to regard this development as so threatening, so portentous with maleficent possibility for their lives and roles, that, as they seek to stand athwart history and shout “stop!”, they simultaneously attempt to freeze male-female roles for all time.

For such men, many of whom have not previously had much invested in church-going or in churchy matters, the churches and what they preach have suddenly become all-important. It has become imperative that the churches be made to teach the subordination of women to men, the need for men to be real men and women to be real women. Neo-conservative reasoning sees tremendous significance in the churches' role here, the role of holding the gender line. For neo-conservative thinkers, allow the churches to transgress that line, and all hell will ensue. The future of civilization hinges on keeping men and women in their proper places, in using scripture and tradition to assure that men remain men and women remain women.

Unfortunately, the scriptures are forever subversive, when we try to use them to freeze history. The Jewish and Christian scriptures are far slyer than we like to imagine in very many respects. This is proven true when we try to force them to support our preconceived notions of what it means to be male and female. When we try to mine scripture for perpetual law about how proper men should behave and how proper women should comport themselves, the scriptures prove refractory indeed.

The scriptures begin, after all, with that breathtaking image of the Creator as a mother bird spreading her wings over the vast untamed cosmic nothingness, to brood it into being. The divine Mother, the Mater, brings matter into existence, in the first creation account of Genesis. All has its beginning in the womb of the divine.

This image is echoed by the prophets, who speak of God as a mother hen grieving for her flock to be gathered beneath her wings. Jesus himself uses the image in speaking of Jerusalem, identifying himself as one who would gather the city beneath his wings as a biddy her chicks, though the inhabitants of the city refuse to respond to his invitation.

For Christians today who wish to hinge all revelation on the need for men to be real men and women to be real women, the scriptures and the tradition of the churches will always disappoint, since they refuse to be beaten into submission. Scripture and tradition slip and slide from our grasp, when we try to shape them to fit our pet theories about social arrangements, and subordinate them to our need to stand astride history and shout stop.

A case in point: last night, churches around the world staged a liturgical celebration that commemorates the last supper. The gospel stories of this event begin with a striking symbol of Jesus’s choice to be a servant of all. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches and preaches in a kind of point-counterpoint style, alternately speaking the lesson he wishes to impart, and acting it out in symbolic deeds.

To illustrate to his followers what he means when he calls on them to become servants, at the final supper prefiguring his death, he takes water and kneels before each disciple, washing the disciple’s feet. This symbolic act had rich resonance in the culture of the ancient Near East.

It was an act normally relegated to slaves, to the lowest of the low. It was an act preferably undertaken by a female slave or female family member in households of substance. In bending to the floor to wash and dry the feet of the apostles, Jesus takes on “the” female posture, the posture of submission, of obedience, of humility, of self-abasement.

His doing so shocks the disciples. John’s gospel—which prefigures the footwashing of the last supper with the story of Lazarus’s sister Mary washing Jesus’s feet with her hair—has Peter blustering in protest at Jesus’s choice so to abase himself, to take on the role of a slave, of a woman, in order to illustrate what it means to be his follower. In John’s gospel, one cannot read the story of Jesus’s washing his disciples’ feet at the last supper without linking that story to the story of Mary washing the feet of Jesus: in kneeling before his followers at the last supper, Jesus adopts the posture of Mary, sister of Lazarus, kneeling before him in the house of Lazarus, to wash his feet.

Why do these stories, which are so central to the remembrance of the ritual that is at the very heart of Christian worship—the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper—appear to have so little import for Christians who are intent to freeze for all times the roles of men and women, of men as dominator and women as the dominated, in Christian thought and practice? They do so, I would propose, because we have chosen to forget the anthropological, sociological significance of the act of footwashing in the culture in which Jesus lived.

Though Christian iconography is replete with symbols that, if looked at dispassionately, would make it abundantly clear to us that Jesus’s washing of his followers’ feet is a gender-bending, gender-subverting symbol, we choose not to look, not to see.

It is easier for us to take our cultural presuppositions, our cultural givens, about what it means to be a real man and a real woman, and impose these on scripture and tradition, than vice versa.

In doing so, however, we lose the right to claim that we are defending tradition or the pure interpretation of scripture. And, unfortunately, that is a claim that is dear to the heart of Christians who live under the influence of neo-conservative political ideologies today. These Christians have practically developed a cottage industry around the claim that they are the unique defenders of an embattled orthodoxy that is being whittled away by modernity and secularity.

If their most central tenets do not hold water when examined in light of scripture and tradition, what will these neo-conservative defenders of orthodoxy do? When their political penchants have allied them with leaders whose social and economic platforms can hardly be justified in light of scripture and tradition, where will they turn for political heroes, as critical examination of the disconnects continues to show a large gap between neo-conservative politics and traditional Christian belief?

It seems to be back to the drawing board today for the religious right, if it really does want to take scripture and tradition seriously . . . .

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