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Injustice as Denial of the Other

Begin caveat… It’s quite jolting to be writing this blog in the shadow of the recent verdict given down by the grand jury in Ferguson. To be honest, until recently, I haven’t paid much attention. It’s not because I lack empathy or an ability to deal with the reality of the situation. I could blame it on the fact that I am in graduate school. (fragment) When getting a Master’s in Social Justice you are inundated on a daily basis with the oppression and injustice experienced by others throughout human history. With that said, reading it in a textbook, watching it through a documentary or talking about it in a discussion is NOT the same as experiencing inequality and subjugation first hand. However, these mediums have made me entirely more aware of how I react to each one of these instances of injustice. This is not a blog on Ferguson. I won’t be sharing my opinion on the grand jury’s ruling or the different reactions expressed by the parties involved. I simply want to make it clear that writing a blog on injustice, like the one that follows, is intensified when there is such unrest and anger being felt by almost everyone in our country, regardless of which side is believed to be telling the truth… End caveat…

I’ve recently done a careful reading on the second and third chapters of Genesis and the relationship they have with each other. I’ve read them countless times before. God made humans, humans were made in the image of God, God told humans what was forbidden, humans ate the forbiddenness, humanity falls into sin. God banishes humanity from the Garden, humanity is cursed to struggle and yearn its way through life and thus, this is the relationship that Christ is sent out to redeem.

My interpretation of this story is reminiscent of the simple flannel graph exhibited in Sunday school. The cause for humanity’s banishment from the presence of God was their disobedience to God’s command. Humans were deemed sinful purely because of the denial of their relationship with God, sinful even in a desire to usurp God. This is how the Christian Church has understood the “fall of man” as evidenced in the documents of the early Church and in the creeds that we confess communally with one another. However, as of late, I can’t help but wonder if there was more to this banishment than just humanity’s denial of God. That is, there exists a large part of me, deep within my soul that suspects there exists more to our separation from God than just our refusal to acknowledge His sovereignty.

It is fascinating to read both Genesis 2 and 3 together as one. In Genesis 1 the story of creation’s evolution is told through an overarching, picturesque composition. There are seven days of creation, including the day of rest. Each day is unique in a very specific way. Each aspect of creation has its own day and every creation and day is deemed to be good in the eyes of God. God is pleased with what he has done. There is a rhythm and a flow that has been established by the Creator. It is this very ebb and flow of life that humanity will eventually disrupt in the third chapter.

However, before we get to that point we must wade through the brilliance of Genesis 2. In this chapter of Genesis the depth of the rhythm and flow that God has created is fully realized. Its profundity emanates in the form of the way the writers talk about the relationship between Adam and Eve, man and woman, human and human. In Genesis 2:18 God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” In this context, in light of the entirety of Genesis 1, the word good here has a more profound meaning. Throughout the creation narrative the writers of Genesis said that God’s approval of his work came in the form of, “And God saw that it was good.” God’s endorsement came when he thought it was good enough; when he thought nothing more could be added to its value. Thus, the word good is carrying the weight of the creator’s support. In Genesis, for God to utter that something is good is to say that he is behind it.

Therefore, in an attempt to complete the creation of Adam, God set out to find a comparable match. It is written in Genesis 2:19-20 that God and Adam wade through all the animals of the air, land and sea without any success. God brought all candidates to Adam to “see what he would name them.” It’s as if God is waiting for Adam to have a certain reaction, waiting for him to find his “helper,” waiting for him to shout, “This is it!” It is then that God puts Adam into a deep sleep and creates woman. After awaking Adam from his slumber and in the same form that he brought the animals before Adam, God “brought her to the man.”

What happens next is what God had been searching for in Genesis 2:19-20. Adam proclaims, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” Imagine the elation that Adam must have felt, and the relief that overwhelmed his soul. Finally, there was an equal. The creation of humankind, the creation of the world is complete in the formation and existence of woman. The place of women can never be negated nor subdued. This is the being that brings life into the world; the being that bears the Son of Man, the being that brings forth the One who carries our salvation.

What follows below is the crux of my entire blog and the hinge upon which the rest of this entry depends. It is imperative that we correctly understand Eve’s role as the “suitable helper.” In no way does this mean that man is better than woman. It does not mean that woman was never created to lead, explore, invent or discover. It does not mean that women cannot be prophetic and it does not mean that women are less than men. In fact, it means the complete opposite. In the Hebrew language, the language of the Old Testament, the words used to convey “helpmate” actually attempted to express the reality of women as an equal “power or strength for the man, who would in every way correspond to him, or even be his equal.” Eve is fully and completely equal to Adam because of who created her. The words Adam uses to describe Eve should not be whispered and we cannot let them get lost in the modern day arguments of gender roles. In his declaration Adam is saying, there is no difference between us. She is mine and I am hers. What she carries, I will carry. His words are a poetic proclamation of thankfulness and gratitude for the reality that Eve brings. Adam is not complete until Eve is present.

In the beginning of this entry I stated that I believe there was more to the banishment and sinfulness of humanity than just their denial of God himself. It is in the later half of Genesis 3, in the conversation between God and humanity that this “more” is found. After Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit it is written that they hear God walking through the garden. Out of fear they hide in the bushes, away from God’s all knowing presence. God calls out to Adam, “Where are you?” Adam responds, “I heard you were in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” God brilliantly retorts, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

Now, remember the words that Adam just got done using to describe Eve, “She is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” In this moment between God’s question and his answer Adam had a choice to make. That is, he is left with asking, “Should I own up to my part in the act, or should I try and evade my mistake and place the blame on Eve?” Having made his choice Adam answers God, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Think about the gravity of what is happening here. The man who just one chapter before shouted in exaltation about his excitement and elation for the creation of Eve blames her for his mistake. Hell, he blames God for putting her there with him.

I cannot even begin to imagine what Eve felt in that moment when Adam denied her. I cannot imagine the heartache and destruction that overtook her emotions and her spirit. The man who she shares flesh with, the person whom she is united as one with, and the person she will bear children with just threw her under the proverbial bus. In that moment Eve became a means to an end for Adam. She became his way out, his scapegoat. She no longer existed to him as a human, but as something that had become unnecessary. Adam denied his need for her in favor of a false protection of himself. Thus, in Adam’s denial of Eve humanity was banished from God’s presence. God denied man because he denied woman.

Regardless of the literal or metaphorical position one might take in regards to the creation account in Genesis, this rendering of the relationship between Genesis 2 and 3 forces us to see that how we treat each other matters. It matters all the way up to the things we say about each other. The words we use and the actions we partake in can destroy the souls of others instantaneously. The disposition by which we interact with the other on a daily basis not only has an effect on the relationship we have with other people, but on the relationship we have with God. The two are not mutually exclusive. There is not your relationship with God and then your relationship with humankind. What you believe about God and how you interact with God is seen in the way that you treat other people. Injustice comes in the moment we decided to deny the reality of the equality found in the other; when we think that their worthiness is found in their servicing of our needs.

-R. David Freedman, “Woman, a Power Equal to a Man,” Biblical Archaeology Review 9 1983: 56-58.

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Grenades of Peace

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” How many times in life have we found ourselves bandaging the wounds of others not out of love and self-sacrifice, but out of the fear of our own demise? How many times have we stood on the outskirts of injustice, watching the lies and schema of society trample the oppressed and downtrodden?

There is a clear and definitive paradigm shift occurring within both the Church and secular society around us. The fight for Justice is not a new desire of human enterprise; it has been around since the beginning of time. Since the moment humanity actualized its capacity to commit injustices towards one another, we have tried to combat its reality. For many, justice is found in and through the democratic action of the American court system. When there is an evil committed by one person against another, or one group of people against another group, cries of justice spring forth. It is then that the court system occasionally steps in and attempts to hash out an acceptable counteraction that edifies the dignity of the offended party, while maintaining an anchored obedience to the laws and rules of the Land.

The American desire and pursuit of justice is a banner that our government and its citizens wave with an incessant repetition. Almost everything that is branded by America is said to bask in the glory of our “wholesome and irrefutable” relationship with justice. That is, America justifies the entirety of its actions in the world through our self-defined pursuit of justice. This “way of justice” colors all of our wars, legislations, promises, programs, occupations and invasions. However, the reality of this paradigm is that it doesn’t go far enough, it doesn’t throw a spoke into the wheel of injustice. Instead, it only serves to bandage the wounds of those it oppresses.

The spoke that Bonhoeffer is speaking about in the quote above manifests itself in the reality of God. That is to say, the only possible way for justice to actually destroy and reorient injustice and oppression is through the Grace and Peace of Christ. The antithesis to oppression and condemnation is a self-denying love and unconditional forgiveness towards those in whom we find strife or disagreement. In another way, the only antidote to the realistic wounds of those downtrodden is a way of living that redefines social norms into an intentional, loving community of people. This loving community of people realizes that in the bearing of one another’s burdens, in the lobbing of grenades of peace, God manifests true and everlasting Justice.

God’s everlasting justice is dependent fully upon his revelation for its effectiveness. Justice is an aspect of God that, if removed from who He is, ceases to exist or be possible. This reality illuminates the brilliance of the Sermon on the Mount. In this set of teachings Christ implores his disciples, as well as non-disciples, into a way of life where Justice is the means by which communities thrive. Justice overcomes injustice in places where the inhabitants understand that He is the source of overcoming oppression because his way of life necessitates such an occurrence. To live the way that Christ calls us, can do nothing else other than invoke justice. This is reason for which Jesus begins his most extensive teaching with The Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the peacemakers, etc.”

Again, it is here, in this realm, that I think Bonhoeffer would locate the spoke that destroys the wheels of injustice. To love your neighbor as yourself, unconditionally and without merit disrupts the solidified establishments that are merit based. It decrees merits as useless. If merits are belittled, what purpose does that merit-oriented establishment have? To be a peacemaker destroys establishments that are dependent upon violence and subjugation. In the promotion of peace you exhibit a definitive “no” to enterprises that feed on the spoils of war and violence. Peace calls out the man who hits his wife. It illuminates the person who slits the throats of others with the use of language. To mourn with others means to give dignity and edification to the oppressed. To weep with the outcasted calls out the person who says, “They just aren’t willing to work hard enough.”

To be brutally honest, Justice is not possible apart from the way of God because it is here, under this paradigm, that all humanity is fully held accountable for their actions. The injustice that is exhibited everyday doesn’t start with the large corporations and governments. Instead, it starts within the heart of every person on earth. Jesus once said, “Are you so dull? Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?… What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil comes.” How we interact with others doesn’t only affect the other, it has a profound impact on how we grow and exist as individuals.

I am arguing that in order for Justice to reign we must be throwers of peace. We must throw grenades of peace that shatter oppressive establishments. We must change the way we live by understanding that injustice comes from the selfishness of humanity and cannot always be masked in the existence of monopolies or governments. Our lives must be dictated by another paradigm. What does this look like by the way of a historically rooted example?

During the second world war, in the small French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, André and Magda Tromcé risked their lives to protect aliened and outcasted Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation of France. André Trocmé spent his life as a Protestant Minister throughout France. He was a devout pacifist who believed that the life Christ orchestrates necessitates that Christians align themselves with the peace-oriented reality that Christ exhibits in Holy Scripture. In fact, it was his pacifistic sympathies that sent Trocmé and his wife to Le Chambon in the first place. His devotion to peace was problematic for the French Protestant Church, so they exiled him.

In 1938 André and his wife founded the Collège Lycée International Cévenol in Le Chambon. The thrust of this school was initially to provide a place for the town locals to prepare themselves for higher academia. However, when the war broke out and the town began to experience an influx of Jewish refugees from surrounding areas, Trocmé began to feel God calling him to something greater. As the casualties of war increased Tromcé became more bold in his alignment with peace. He began preaching sermons to his congregation demanding that their cathedrals of worship become a shelter for the people of the Bible. Within this calling, during the war and amongst great opposition, Trocmé harbored Jewish refugees within his parish and throughout the homes of his congregants in Le Chambon. When confronted by Nazi supporting French officials as to whether he was hiding Jews Trocmé brilliantly responded, “We don’t know what a Jew is. We only know men.” It is said that between 1940 and 1945 Trocmé, his wife and the village of Le Chambon harbored an estimated 3,500 Jewish refugees.

This is what it looks like to throw grenades of peace within historical space and time. It is to stand before the powers that be and defend the rights of the oppressed; regardless of the threat of death. Trocmé did not water down the teachings of Jesus so that they would fit nicely into his little French way of life. The ways of the world were not the means by which his reality was informed. This doesn’t mean that he was removed and unconcerned with the plight of the downtrodden. In all honesty, his adherence to the reality that Christ puts forth led him in no other direction than to the place of the oppressed and forgotten. For Trocmé, there was no other way to be a human. Where injustice exists is the place that Christ leads us to, because it is a place He desires to dwell.

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Ramblings on Raising a Daughter as a Christ-Follower and Feminist

I recently gave birth to my first child, a daughter. This event has changed my life in many ways. One of which is what I notice in the news and media. A few recent events I took particular notice to include Beyonce’s VMA performance and the subsequent reactions, the release of the Ray Rice and Janay Palmer video and reactions to her marrying him, Jennifer Lawrence’s response to her nude photos being leaked on the internet, and Emma Watson’s speech for the UN regarding feminism and the HeforShe campaign. All of these events are tied to feminism and women’s rights. As a woman, this was all important to me before the birth of my daughter, but knowing I will help to raise a new woman in society causes me to think even more about events such as these.

In addition to all the hopes new moms have for their children, I hope that my daughter is flagged as having leadership potential rather than being called bossy; I hope that my daughter is complemented not only on her sharp appearance but also on her intelligence, ingenuity, and strength; I hope that my daughter never desires to give up sports for fear of losing femininity and that she is never intimidated by the weight room in a gym; I hope that my daughter understands that her dad is just as important in raising her as I am; I hope that my daughter will not be afraid of her sexuality because of how the church presents (or doesn’t) the topic of sex and sexuality; I hope that my daughter does not think she has to give up any education or employment for her family but also that it is ok if she makes those choices for herself; I hope that my daughter understands that being a feminist does not mean being a man-hater; and I hope that my daughter comes to realize that her father being the spiritual leader of our household does not mean that her father thinks I am lesser than he.

Some find it difficult to reconcile being a Christ-follower and a feminist.I think the terms feminism and spiritual leadership have become so emotionally charged that people don’t always take the time to consider the actual concepts very carefully. In our home, my opinion matters when important decisions are made. I share my thoughts, my husband shares his, and we process together. At times, my husband defers to my opinion on something. Other times, he considers both of our opinions and makes a final decision. Spiritual leadership here means my husband is who will ultimately be responsible to God for our family. He will be responsible whether we agree, he defers to me, or we disagree and he makes a choice counter to what I think is best. Feminism is the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Could my husband abuse his position in our home in a way that would be oppressive to me? Of course, but his position does not mean that by definition.

We, as a society, reinforce or combat feminism in things as simple as the way we speak to our children and the choices we make in the home. Some families with stay-at-home moms only emphasize the same for their daughters, rather than professional trajectories. Boys are often not encouraged to develop things like cooking skills. We often compliment girls on physical appearance and boys on accomplishments. Most often, none of this is done with the intention of sexism, but it still occurs and can subtly perpetuate stereotypes. It is important that we identify valued characteristics and encourage all of them in our children of both sexes. Obviously, each person is not gifted in all areas, but a child’s sex should not define which characteristics they are encouraged to develop.

My daughter will grow up watching how my husband and I work together to consider decisions in our family. She’ll see me crossfit and weight lift and know that I hold a PhD in a field that uses applied statistics and computer programming. She’ll see me plan and prepare meals for our family, but also see how my husband helps with cleaning and cooking and other aspects of managing our home. Will we always get it right? Of course not, but awareness of sexism will help to assuage its effects. We’ll continue to learn as our daughter learns.

I hope that by the time my daughter enters the adult world, the media is filled with fewer incidences of gender inequality, but that won’t be true until those of us already participating in society stop perpetuating gender stereotypes and exploitation of women both inside and outside our homes. I also hope that when my daughter is older it will be normal to hear people say they are feminists and Christians.

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