Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Marine Reservist Assaults Orthodox Priest: Patriarchal Religion's Enabling of Male Fear and Rage

A story making the rounds of the internet today raises significant questions about what happens when we permit groups who read sacred texts as incitements to fear and rage to prevail politically and culturally.

Tampa police are reporting that on Monday evening, Marine reservist Lance Cpl. Jasen D. Bruce attacked a Greek Orthodox priest, Rev. Alexios Marakis, with a tire iron. Father Marakis’s crime? It appears he made the mistake of stopping to ask Bruce for directions when he was lost.

According to police reports, Bruce assumed that he was dealing with an Islamic terrorist and went on the attack. The Tampa Bay Online account to which I’ve just linked contains some details about the attack that I haven’t seen in other media reports. These seem important to me, and I wonder why theyre being overlooked by other media outlets.

According to the Tampa Bay Online account, Bruce alleges that Father Marakis propositioned him in English—a language he speaks with difficulty—and grabbed his genitals, and then ran off shouting “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic—a language he doesn’t speak at all. The local story also notes that Lance Cpl. Bruce has a history of previous assaults. In 2007, he was accused of assaulting a tow-truck driver when his Jaguar was about to be towed. Bruce told police on this occasion that the truck driver had grabbed him to prevent his getting into his car.

What attracts my attention here is the conflation of two imaginary affronts on the part of Father Marakis that, in Bruce’s view, excuse his behavior: Bruce alleges both that Marakis propositioned and groped him, and that he shouted a slogan that American Islamophobes now associate with religiously based terrorism. This story demonstrates the accuracy of what English historian H.R. Trevor-Roper calls “the interchangeability of victims.”

In his classic study The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1967), Trevor-Roper notes that those convicted of the capital crime of witchcraft in early modern Europe were often executed wearing a star of David. He concludes that the particularity of social victims—the particular offense for which a stigmatized group is excluded from the social mainstream and/or eradicated altogether—does not matter so much as does its susceptibility to victimization at a given place and time.

Societies with a ravenous need to construct enemies and to target victims invariably look for certain characteristics as they demonize and attack minority groups. They look for groups that are easy to stigmatize, groups susceptible to scapegoating mechanisms, groups instrumentally useful to those who need easy targets to demonstrate to the rest of society that they remain in control and on top. They also look for groups around which the society has woven a text of threat, of dirt, of intrusion.

As anthropologist Mary Douglas notes (Purity and Danger [1966]), social organisms frequently construe themselves as bodies, as organisms akin to the human body with its orifices through which impure substances may pass into and pollute the body. At times of social crisis—for example, at times of economic stress—it is not uncommon for social groups to become convinced that the body politic is under threat, that menacing, dirty forces are seeking to invade the social group through vulnerable orifices and wreak havoc from within.

Throughout much of Christian history, Jews were cast in the role of the dirty, deceptive, immoral insider group infecting the healthy body of Christendom, and repeated attempts were made to scapegoat, expel, and/or destroy the perceived threat of Jews living in Christian nations. With the dawn of modernity and the social and economic changes that occurred in that monumental cultural shift, women attracted the attention of many church leaders—women as threat, women as evil pollutants needing to be curbed and marginalized—and the witch craze swept through Christian nations.

And today the gays. And Islamic people. What changes over the course of history is not the phenomenon of scapegoating and victimization. Nor does the text of demonization vary: it is invariably about dirty, immoral outsiders threatening to invade and infect the body politic, who need to be vanquished and then destroyed. What shifts is the particularity of, the identity of, the group targeted at any given time and place.

And so a Marine reservist in Florida, Lance Cpl. Jasen D. Bruce, finds it thinkable—he finds it possible—to take a tire iron and bash a Greek Orthodox priest asking for directions in a strange land. And he expects to be excused for this inexcusable action by trotting out the tired old gay panic defense—he grabbed my genitals and propositioned me—and adding an Islamophobic twist to that widespread cultural narrative of defamation. He alleges that a Christian priest who doesn’t even speak Arabic shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he was running from his attacker.

Something’s wrong with this story. And what’s wrong is perhaps not so transparent as it ought to be for many groups in American culture today. What’s wrong is not merely the atrocious, unwarranted attack on a stranger, the violation of codes of hospitality that are central to the religious traditions from which the demonization of gay and Islamic strangers itself also flows as a perversion of that tradition and its foundational texts.

What’s wrong is the totally unmerited privilege our society continues to accord to men, simply because they are men. What’s wrong in this story is the power and social dominance we continue unthinkingly to provide human beings who happen to possess a penis, solely because they happen to have a penis.

What's wrong about this story is the permission we give men who are all about fear and rage to justify their fear and rage on the flimsiest possible grounds. And how we find ever new ways to excuse the bashing of threatening Others by men whose fear and rage get out of control. And, above all, how we even vindicate such men after they have taken their tire iron to the head of yet another despised Other.

And I dont expect any of this to change significantly anytime soon, as long as key Christian leaders continue to have free rein to tell us that the gospel message is all about gender and the divinely ordained dominance of women by men. With their devilish distortions of the biblical text, the patriarchal leaders of many churches seem to me to be far more part of the problem than of the solution.