Friday, April 26, 2013

Notes from a Funeral: My Uncle Is Buried, I Think About Women

My uncle was buried on Wednesday. I spent the funeral thinking of women. Perhaps I should explain.

It all started with the statement, "Because I have a lesbian daughter." "Because I have a lesbian daughter, I intend to do everything in my power to see that she and other gay people receive the same rights I enjoy." That declaration came out of the mouth of a cousin of my cousin whose father's funeral we were attending. She was explaining why she had chosen to run for a Democratic seat in her state legislature last election, in a district 80% Republican--knowing she'd lose even as she ran for office. 

Because somebody had to do it. Somebody needed to put an alternative platform and its case in front of voters in her bible-belt GOP district. And so, she told those of us standing around the coffin with her uncle and my uncle in it, she made this choice to "take one for the team" because her daughter and other gay and lesbian people deserve a hearing even in the bible belt, even in a staunchly Republican stronghold like this woman's.

"My campaign? I went from women's church group to women's church group. I opened each session with the statement, 'I support gay marriage because I have a lesbian daughter and I want her to have the very same rights you and I have.' Gasps: 'But we can't let gays marry. That would destroy our own marriages. Gay marriage undermines real marriage.' 

And so I asked them, 'Can you explain to me how allowing my daughter to marry her partner would cheapen your marriage or take something from it?' And then they hemmed and hawed and said, 'Well, the bible says.'"

To repeat: this conversation took place during what people call the "visitation" in my part of the world, the pre-funeral gathering of family and friends in the presence of the body of the deceased, at which people usually swap sotto voce pleasantries and insincere promises to see each other on some happier occasion. "My lesbian daughter" is not usually one of the phrases one hears murmured at my family's funerals.

And so that made this conversation stand out. It prefaced the funeral itself in a way that made it impossible for me not to think about the courage and conviction of this cousin of a cousin who descends from that doughty missionary couple I mentioned in my first posting noting my uncle's death. She descends from the husband and wife who went from England to Jamaica to work among slaves, and who used the wife's inheritance to buy and free a number of slaves, causing these missionaries to be regarded as personae non gratae in Jamaica and spurring their decision to relocate and work among the Creeks in Georgia.

Where they again encountered trouble due to their refractory principles, when they refused to abandon the people to whom they were ministering when the federal and state governments sent the native peoples packing so that white settlers could claim their lands. My cousin's cousin has a healthy dose of her ancestors' strong consciences and commitment to human rights, and in her own time and place, is carrying on their legacy as she advocates for gay rights.

She's also an uncommonly bright and well-read woman, an accomplished one, as is her sister. They're a pair of interesting people I see only at family funerals, unfortunately--and to whom I always enjoy talking because of all they know, their sharp observations, their fascinating and detailed family stories.

So there was that conversation, and then there was the funeral. At which Steve and I sat beside these two sisters. And at which my own cousins, both Southern Baptist ministers, presided.

In the space of a few minutes, the ceremonies moved from my listening (and talking) to my cousin's cousins, the two sisters, about matters of conscience and conviction, to my listening (but in complete silence with no talking back) to my own cousins preach the gospel to all of us. And that's what provoked my thinking about women all during the service.

I wondered very specifically about what the two accomplished and high-minded women who, as far as I know, do not retain strong ties to the church of our ancestors, as I myself don't, thought about the sermons my cousins delivered. I wondered what they make of the heavily male-dominated religious tradition we both share, with its complete exclusion of women from ministry.

With its injunction to women to be obedient to their husbands, helpmates as the husband leads the family, makes decisions, goes out to work while the wife is expected, if at all possible, to remain at home and keep house for her husband and his children . . . . I somehow can't see my cousin's cousins buying any of that dogma, which rests so uneasily with "I intend to do everything in my power to see that my lesbian daughter has the same rights I enjoy."

The way in which the funeral service was structured (the way in which all services in my childhood religious tradition as well as in the Catholic tradition of my adult life are structured) gave me no choice except to ask these questions: two men standing before us to read the gospel that they possess in a way unique to them as ordained men, while the rest of us who don't have the gospel sit in meek submission listening and receiving. All the insightful stories and interesting talk prefacing the funeral had suddenly vanished. To be replaced by, well, this . . . .

This was listening time. It was receiving time. It was a time for women to obey St. Paul and be silent in church, as men preached.

I don't mean to single out my two cousins for special criticism here. They are representative, even exemplary, models of the kind of ministry their church encourages. If you took a book of paper dolls and cut out the one labeled Preacher Man, the doll you'd end up with in your hands would be very much like my two cousins: they're standard-issue preacher men, well-versed in the scriptures, polished in how they handle standard-issue pastoral challenges, and comfortably ensconced in their denomination, comfortable with its easy collapse of biblical principles to right-wing Republican ideology. 

Comfortable with its homophobia: one of these two preacher cousins and both of their wives signed a petition several years ago to place an initiative on the ballot prohibiting gay adoption in Arkansas. They signed a petition for an initiative that deliberately targeted gay and lesbian people in order to drive right-wing Republicans to the polls. They signed a petition that deliberately targeted me as their cousin, though they now want to smile and hug and tell me how much they love me when they see me at family funerals.

And let's be honest: little that standard-issue preacher men say is of any real interest to hear, once one has heard the same old, same old spiel that one hears over and over again anytime a preacher man of their religious tenor holds forth at a funeral, in a Sunday sermon, on television, etc. It's the same message repackaged in the very same words, per omnia saecula saeculorum, and it doesn't so much open avenues for thought and reflection as it totally forecloses all thought by confirming the givenness of the world around us and asking us to take that world for granted as the only possible world for Christians to imagine.

Particularly insofar as that world is structured to place men on top and women beneath them. Particularly insofar as it's a world in which men preach, command, and head families and women are preached to, commanded, and submit to their husbands as the head of the family. 

Something about this seems not quite right to me. Something about this seems screamingly wrong to me, and what's wrong about it all seemed to me to be in stark relief at my uncle's funeral. Women whose moral insights are far sharper than the conventional moral insights of preacher men who haven't had to think much about the complexities of making the gospel message they deliver critically pertinent to the world in which they live are permitted no say at all once the preaching and the praying begins, with the invocations of Father God and the songs to the Father in Heaven who sent His Son to save us all from sin.

Half the church sits in silence while the other half claims to be God. What struck me very strongly at my uncle's funeral is not merely how wrong--how insane--this arrangement and the theological system undergirding it are.

What struck me is also how much damage this arrangement (which is how most cultures in the world do business, so that patriarchal religion is merely aping the culture at large with its ideology of male entitlement and female subordination) damages us. How it damages the world in which we live. How it damages our religious institutions to shut out the interesting, accomplished, morally astute voices of women while letting the voices of less interesting, less accomplished, less morally astute men posture as God speaking to the rest of us who sit in meek submission and silence receiving God's words from God's phallic emissaries.

Who themselves have to be seriously damaged, don't they, by all the unexamined power and privilege that flows from the cushy arrangement they imagine God has made for them, which just happens to put them in a divine power seat designed only for someone possessing a phallus and using this equipment in a heterosexual way? Increasingly, I'm strongly convinced that many religious communities of the world have had it very wrong for a long time now, as they've inveighed against homosexuality as the premier evil of the world.

It's as if they've been entranced with a piddling sniffle while the body they're examining succumbs to a ravenous cancer they totally ignore as they try to stop the sniffle. One religious community after another today is convinced that no evil is greater than the evil of homosexuality, while the real evil of heterosexism with its malicious spawn of abuse and exploitation of women, with its arrogance and cruelty, its homophobia and its absurd pretense that the possession of a penis automatically places one in a divine power seat in which one has the right to claim to speak for God, goes totally unexamined.

This doesn't seem right. It seems downright dangerous. And it won't end until the claim of heterosexual men to be God speaking to the rest of us is challenged root and branch in culture after culture and religion after religion around the globe.

The graphic is Cima da Conegliano's "God the Father" (ca. 1515), from Wikimedia Commons.

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