March 18, 2012
By Sylvia Klauser (printed with permission)
When the Russian cosmonauts came back from their first trip to the moon, everyone wanted to know whether they had seen God. Being Communist and all, they were expected to say no. After a long while of skirting the issues, Jury Gagarin finally looked at the mob of reporters and said: “Yes, we saw God. She is black!”
What would the bible look like if women had written it? What stories would we read today if women had been the editors of the words of God as we know it now? What would the church landscape look like if women where popes and priests?
I don’t know whether it is sane to ask these questions, even on a Sunday
Let me set something straight: we are created male and female, that’s what makes the world go round, and that’s pretty much were the contrasting and comparing should end. Even for me as a woman.
I cannot look at the world, the word of God, or at my own life with any body else’s eyes but my own, not a woman’s eyes, nor a man’s, only with my own eyes. My family background, gender, education, social location, economic status, life philosophy, religious attitudes, spiritual inclinations, sexual preferences, or ethnic origins are mine alone.
From within that location, I read and interpret the bible, I make sense of my life, live with and among the people of my church, I engage my work and society around me. And so it is for each of you as well. Each woman and man sees their life through their unique sets of circumstances. The same is true for all of us: our life and view point is the planet around which our ego orbits. Or to say the same thing with the words of Tolstoy: everyone is I. As important as my life is to me, in the same intensity and urgency is it for each one of you all – and everyone else in the world.
I might appear to be just another Caucasian woman like every other Caucasian woman in this room, and until we tell you our story, you would think “o, coupl’a white women South TX, all the same, white, bible belt church ladies”. Not so. The only thing we really have in common is our set of chromosomes. We all have the XX chromosome, but other than that, we’re different.
What does this all have to do with the topic of reading the bible from the margins of women’s experiences?
Well, I really can’t say because I can only tell you from my experience – and that is not an experience from the margins, for the most part. I don’t believe I’m marginalized, most of the time. However, there are times when I feel out of place or different.
I might be marginalized in the church were male dominance is evidently still practiced.
I read some research recently that I still only get paid 85 cents per dollar that my male counterparts get, so I’m discriminated against there. I feel weirdly out of place in the church where the focus is still on marriage and procreation, where I, as a single person, don’t find a place easily. I feel condescension from men and women alike when I don’t fit their picture of femininity or womanliness. I feel estranged from lesbian friends because I don’t appreciate their advances and coercions, since I’m straight like an arrow. I feel put out by men who see me as an object for their pedestal or as a uterus for their future children. Those are inconveniences I learned to live with, but I don’t consider them marginalization.
Marginalization implies a center somewhere from which a margin is established. If women are at the margins, who is at the center? If any type of Ísms – age ism, sex ism, femin ism, voyer ism, race ism, Chauvin ism to name but a few, is at the margin, who is left in the center?
Marginalized is synonymous with relegated, which is defined as sidelined, demoted, downgraded, disregarded, banished, ostracized. When I think of marginalized women I see Latin farmer women, African AIDS girls, Asian child brides, and sex slaves, or female children of all races who are exploited and abused and treated like disposable parts in a society that always misuses the weakest. But even as a fellow woman, I can’t speak for those marginalized women because my social location is entirely different.
Nevertheless, my privileged status requires me that I use my ‘relative’ power to create a platform so that those truly marginalized women can speak and are heard by the world. Our post modern societies don’t have clear cut boundaries anymore so we could say ‘this is the center and these are the marginalized’. We all find ourselves marginalized and center people at times.
How do we know that? We interact and talk and use and we are changed in interactions with one another. In her book shared wisdom, Pamela Cooper White calls it ‘the intersubjective’ space, the space between subjects, where we learn from and with one another. In that space, that interactive room between me and another person, I inter-act with others and the engagement between us shapes us both. To say women are marginalized all the depends on where one stands and how one uses that inter-subjective space.
If I as a woman act like I’m marginalized, if I let you marginalize me, then I will be marginalized. I am not saying that marginalization is a choice at times, but when I feel pushed to the edge, I have a choice to make: do I stay there and become the victim, or do I challenge you who tries to sideline me.
No doubt, in times of the bible, and well into the mid to late 20th century, the world was a male dominated place. Society was well structured, the family was clearly organized between ‘in the house work’ (for women) and out of the housework (for men). In many predominantly patriarchal societies, this pattern still hold true. But today we have women who go out to work and fathers who stay at home with the kids. We have both parents working from home, or we have the classical division of labor. Post-modern life is not clear cut any longer, and the church must adjust to that reality.
All that said, however, adventurous women never stayed in their place, a place that was ordained for them by men. That is what marginalization is, keeping people in ‘their place’ – according to what , or according to whose measure exactly?
In our readings for today, little is mentioned of those adventurous women who challenged the system (another way to say marginalized). There is no mention of Judith, a well-to-do widow of means, who only wanted to remain ‘spiritual at the end of her life’ but got involved in the struggle and freed the (marginalized) Israelites by beheading the ruler Holofernes.
There is no mention of Deborah, a prophet, judge and poet who didn’t see anything marginal about being the only woman judge in the OT. She even had her own palm tree named after her, that’s how famous she was. Incidentally, she was not allowed to sit in the gate with the men when decisions were made in those days, so, she got herself a palm tree office.
There is no mention of Rahab, who ran a little establishment in the redlight district inside the wall of Jericho, didn’t care about being ostracized and marginalized by the elitist Jews. She was instrumental in the fall of Jericho.
There is not mention of Mary Magdala didn’t even flinch when Judas gave her a hard time for wasting precious oil on the feet of her beloved savior.
Many Mennonite women in our more recent history didn’t care about what their men folk thought the place of women was, they became missionaries when they couldn’t be preachers. They went abroad to preach and teach while men dug theological holes to keep them from speaking up and in their places.
The acceptance of the label “marginalized” presupposes that I as a woman accept it. Women that you don’t hear about have likely accepted their fate on the margins and eke out a living in that small space.
On the other hand, those women you will hear about, or hear from, have made the margins their soap box from which they challenge the perceived notions at the center that tries to keep them at the margins.
Think about it? Who are the women who have initiated change, inside the church walls or outside of them? Give me a couple of names.
The quiet in the land will hardly get a hearing if we keep hanging out in the margins of society. Yes, that pun is intended. And that brings me to a few characteristics of people at the margins. there has to be some semblance of insight and processing before one can reflect on their place on the margins.
Women at the margins who speak out have accepted themselves as works of art; the see grace working in their lives as I read in Eph. 2:10. We at the margins are alive and well by the grace and the decree of God that we are worth it, that we are a piece of art that is to be heard and accepted.
A few things of importance come to my mind when I think about women on the margins.
First, there has to be self-differentiation to actually see and experience and taste and suffer from that sense of not-belonging. I make a choice and take a stand and speak up only when I know who I am and what I am not can. When I don’t know who I am, I cannot make an informed choice. When I do not know my boundaries as a woman, anyone can just walk into my life and tell me who or what they want me to be. And I have no say so?
Self-differentiation takes vigilance about churchy guilt trips that keep us from developing healthy ego strength. That is not the same as egotism. Ego strength gives a young woman the strength to stand up to pressures about looks and weight and premature sexual engagement.
Secondly, being at the margins also calls for self-organization. We see that principle at work in many of the small women’s workshops that produce things for our TTV stores. The women’s bean project for instance, grew out of the struggle to escape domestic violence. From the margins of physical, mental, sexual and often emotional abuse, these women moved into shelters and then needed to make money somehow; so beans came in handy and became their voices and their means to make ends meet.
It takes courage, and backbone, and stamina to organize your own life, rather than let your life be run by Daddy or a man or someone else important in your life. It’s a solitary road sometimes, to organize yourself.
A third important step to get out of the margins is self-authoring of ones life.
This is a tough one for Christian people, especially the pious, withdrawn, and otherworld focused variety. We believe more in life after death than in life before death. So what goes on down here really isn’t that important. Really?
Self authoring for a woman is an essential step towards full personhood and moves away from the margins.
My life cannot be lived by anyone else but myself. Your life cannot be lived by anyone else by yourself. But how do we teach those steps to young women (and men, for that matter) so they learn to speak up for themselves?
Self authoring needs initiative by Yourself to read scripture on your own, to listen to the still small voice of the holy spirit that might guide you away from conventions towards a life of service and adventure.
But we can piddle away all those selfs by doing the conventional thing that the church wants – even if that goes against your own convictions of your calling.
All these selfs – self differentiation, self- organization, and self-authoring are essential for a woman’s development. And they are not opposed to the bible’s teaching. To give yourself and your life to God, you must know first who you are. But that calling might go against what the church requires you to do to be part of the In-crowd.
Has anyone watched GCB, on Sunday nights? I don’t know whether I am repulsed or fascinated. It is a brilliant example when self-differentiation, self –authoring and self-organization clash with established in-crowd behavior. It is bloody hard work to be your own person in a crowd when everyone seeks to make you ‘one of us’.
Let me encourage you, by way of conclusion, to read a couple of books or watch some movies that talk about speaking up from the margins. Ira Wagler wrote a book called Growing up Amish. Talk about being marginalized and ostracized!!! This man left the Amish three times, only to find out that he doesn’t fit after all. And in the process he learned to speak up for himself and find his own way.
Another idea is the movie Quincenera, the story of a fourteen-year-old Mexican girl in L.A. who finds herself pregnant. She has to decide to grow up and keep her baby or go against her evangelical, pious father.
I encourage us all to be true to yourself and your calling by God even if that puts you on the margins sometimes. But in our times, here in the US or in Europe, we’re not really at the margins only; we are also at the center, marginalizing others. We are never just either or, we are created and saints/sinners, we are wounded and bound, as well as graceful works of art – all at the same time. We can only become fully human in the inter-actions with others who will inevitably shape and form who we are….and vice versa. Amen.