Friday, June 19, 2015

In Tribute: Suzanne McCarthy, 1955-2015

In early 2008 I encountered Christian egalitarianism for the first time and embraced it with excitement and relief.  Finally, I could let go of my cognitive dissonance! I could believe in a God who hadn't arbitrarily consigned me to subordinate status; I could trust that I hadn't been created for subordination to a man while still somehow being his equal.

Naively I thought that any Christian who learned of this liberating new way of looking at Scripture would feel the same way I did.  Surely it would be a relief to them, too, to stop fighting against their better instincts the way I had had to fight mine.  Surely they would be happy to understand that God's ways were higher than the church's ways.  Surely they would be happy to see women set free.

And then, jarringly, upsettingly, I began to come across the counter-arguments.  The ones that said egalitarian Christians were in rebellion against God; that they were twisting the Scriptures because they didn't want to fulfill their God-given gender roles; that in their heart of hearts they loved the world and the world's culture too much to stand against it for Christ.  The Bible was plain and clear, they said.  How could I go against it?

Once I would have been willing to believe them, but the cage door was open and swinging, and I had found my way outside.  How could I go back in?  Dismayed, doubting myself, I looked for scholarly support for what I hoped, what I had to believe was somehow true, no matter what the accusations against it.  Men of God with credentials and letters after their names-- men like John Piper and Wayne Grudem-- were insisting that egalitarian scholarship regarding Greek words like "kephale" (translated "head" as in "the husband is the head of the wife") was mistaken and wrong-headed. I had no training in ancient languages.  Who should I believe?

It was then that I came across her blog-- or maybe I was directed there; I don't remember.

Suzanne McCarthy. Suzanne's Bookshelf.

Her bio simply said she was a woman living in Vancouver, Canada, but that she also blogged at Abecedaria, a scholarly site about language and letter systems.  As I used the blog search engine, it seemed that any topic on the complementarian/egalitarian debate that I typed in, she had addressed. As I read her words, I found myself encountering a singularly wise, compassionate, articulate scholar, who seemed to feel the same way I did about being consigned to female subordination.

For anything that Grudem or Piper said, Suzanne McCarthy had a strong answer, using facts and evidence from ancient language sources, showing how the words Paul and Peter used had been used by their historical and literary contempories.  For instance, here is an excerpt from one of her articles about how the word "kephale" ("head") was used by Philo of Alexandria:
The "head" is the virtuous person. I see no indication that this person has ruling authority. In another book, Philo gives an example of this kind of person, Philadelphus,
        "Ptolemy, surnamed Philadelphus, was the third in succession after Alexander, the monarch who subdued Egypt; and he was, in all virtues which can be displayed in government, the most excellent sovereign, not only of all those of his time, but of all that ever lived; so that even now, after the lapse of so many generations, his fame is still celebrated, as having left many instances and monuments of his magnanimity in the cities and districts of his kingdom, so that even now it is come to be a sort of proverbial expression to call excessive magnificence, and zeal, for honour and splendour in preparation, Philadelphian, from his name; (30) and, in a word, the whole family of the Ptolemies was exceedingly eminent and conspicuous above all other royal families, and among the Ptolemies, Philadelphus was the most illustrious; for all the rest put together scarcely did as many glorious and praiseworthy actions as this one king did by himself, being, as it were, the leader of the herd, and in a manner the head of all the kings." On Moses II:29 
Here "head" means "most illustrious" and simply cannot mean "authority over" since Philadelphus is head of the kings in his family who lived before him and followed him. He simply never had authority over the other kings in chronological succession with him. Was Philadelphus really the "ruling authority" over his own father? 
. . . Much still needs to be done to release men and women from a ruler - subject relationship, and allow them to enter into a relationship of hesed, which is "covenant love" and is simply called kindness, or lovingkindness in the King James Bible. The scriptures are so clear on the fact that hesed is the core value in relationships. [Emphasis added.]
At the time I first encountered her blog, Suzanne McCarthy's day job was teaching special-needs children.  Her gentle graciousness in imparting the wisdom she gained from these children seemed to shine a light into my soul:
The learning goals for the Down's syndrome child are to have her identify and express her choice or personal preference. The student also learns appropriate group behaviour and how to act as hostess and leader of the group. She plans, buys and prepares the food. She cleans up. She passes the food around and passes the pen for other students to record their choice. It is her event. 
Experiencing and expressing personal autonomy is essential to psychological health. These students are more than just trainable. We do not train even a child of the most limited ability as if she were anything less than fully human. She also has the experience of being the leader of the group. She controls the pace and responses. We each need the experience of functioning as a leader. We ask this for all of us, that we would also be able to experience and express choice in ways that are respectful of other people.
In a comment on her own post, Ms. McCarthy adds: "I thought that it was an important statement on authority/permission and the individual. We do not restrict even children to total submission."

To be human, she says, is to be able to make choices for oneself, to have personal agency.  Even those we might consider the least capable need the dignity of self-expression, the experience of autonomy, and a chance to try leadership.  Here is "do unto others" in a nutshell.  And here is the definitive answer to male headship, in a post where she never overtly mentions the topic.  If full humanity cannot be realized in a state of constant subordination, how can we Christians consign women to just such a state?

It seemed to me that I could hear Jesus saying, "I had Downs syndrome, and you helped me learn to make my own choices. I was a special needs child, and you gave me dignity. I had limited abilities, and you let me experience leadership. Inasmuch as you have done this to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me."

Later, Suzanne began blogging on BLT: Bible Literature Translation, and she, with the other members of that group, ended up inviting me to join.  To be honest, with my simple Bachelor of Arts, I have always had a bit of an inferiority complex about posting my stuff among the much more erudite offerings of my fellow members-- but Suzanne McCarthy made a special effort to make me feel valued as a contributor, however infrequently I posted.

In January 2014 Suzanne announced on BLT that she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  It was in the context of this that she shared her post There are Worse Things than Dying:
No matter what, the overwhelming trauma of living 30 years in complementarianism will not fade. The further away I get, the more I experience a normal, loving life, the more I realize that I lived those 30 years in severe physical and psychological pain and trauma. I will never be able to describe the absolute terror of living 30 years in a form of bondage that was supposedly willed on me, not by culture, not by my own stupidity, but by God when he created the world. That is what I believed. I tremble as I write this. It brings on nausea and shaking. It was completely terrible. But that is what Carson teaches, but he has never experienced the trauma himself. He wills it on the other sex. 
Not all women experience complementarianism the way I did. However, the reality is that not once, while I was in the situation, did I express my true feelings about this belief. How would anyone know what women caught in this web of suppression really think? In the situation, there was a kind of numbness that keeps one going. There is a way to live and not live, at the same time. That is what it was like.
I did not experience complementarianism in marriage like that, but I do know and have experienced how God's name is taken in vain when it is used as an instrument of power and control.  As I read her words, I was humbled and blessed by the transparency and openness with which Suzanne McCarthy wrote. Her writing was embued with the power of her mind and the beauty of her heart, and I have to say it has spoken to me as few others have in my life.

Perhaps it's also because she loved the wild places like I do, and could write about them like this:

I am looking out my window
at the mountain now
That we climbed last fall
To train for further climbs we said
But we didn’t really know.
From the summit
we gazed down
On straits and islands
To the west
On city to the south
And to the north
The serried ranks
Of mauve tinted peaks
Reached to infinity.
We lay spreadeagled
on the soft sand table
The very topmost leaf of land
From which everywhere
Is down
And the ravens dipped
Out of the wild blue sky
And the thrumming beat
of their broad wings
Echoed through our bones
And their black serrated spans
pinned us to the earth
Then we hurried down
Heels digging in the gravel
And promised to each other
That we would return next summer
With pencils and paper,
Sketchpad and notebook
And a day’s worth of food and water
But we never did.
The mountain came to me
And I lay myself down
Face to the moss carpet
That edges the creeks
You cross as you ascend
This is the return
To the earth before Adam and Eve
When we were children playing
In the land before time
I see the children playing
-- that I feel as if we were in some way kindred spirits, even though we never personally met.

I will miss you, Suzanne McCarthy.  One day in eternity, I hope to take your hand and tell you how much you have meant to me. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Good Stuff - April - May 2015

Here are some of the things I have found most interesting online since the beginning of April.*

On racial injustice:

How Western Media Would Cover Baltimore if it Happened Elsewhere [or rather, if it happened right where it did happen, but the USA were a third-world country]:
International leaders expressed concern over the rising tide of racism and state violence in America, especially concerning the treatment of ethnic minorities in the country and the corruption in state security forces around the country when handling cases of police brutality. The latest crisis is taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, a once-bustling city on the country’s Eastern Seaboard, where an unarmed man named Freddie Gray died from a severed spine while in police custody. 
Black Americans, a minority ethnic group, are killed by state security forces at a rate higher than the white majority population . . . 
The United Kingdom expressed concern over the troubling turn of events in America in the last several months. The country’s foreign ministry released a statement: “We call on the American regime to rein in the state security agents who have been brutalizing members of America’s ethnic minority groups. The equal application of the rule of law, as well as the respect for human rights of all citizens, black or white, is essential for a healthy democracy.” Britain has always maintained a keen interest in America, a former colony.
We're Dying Too by Andrea J. Ritchie at Colorlines:
In the popular imagination a victim of a police shooting is almost always that of a young black man. Media headlines, presidential speeches, and rally chants all paint a picture of police violence as a problem plaguing black communities, but really, we’re only talking about young men. This time, the life of the unarmed black person taken was a young woman’s.

Boyd is one of hundreds of black women killed by police whose name has not grabbed national headlines or galvanized national movements. Chicago alone has witnessed the killings of Frankie Perkins, who police choked to death because they erroneously believed that she had swallowed drugs; LaTanya Haggerty, whose cell phone was mistaken for a gun; and Angelique Styles, who police fatally shot after coming to her home to address a domestic dispute. . . 
Sadly, these stories are not unique—although each black woman killed was. There are literally countless others we’ll never know because there is no official data about the number of police killings being collected and because black women’s stories rarely gain media attention.
She Who the Son Sets Free: Black Womanist Resistance in Context by Eboni Marshall Turman at Divinity Magazine:
Because black women’s bodies sit at the intersection of racialized subjugation on the one hand and gendered subjugation on the other, their experiences and distinct contributions are not only marginalized and caricatured but often rendered fictitious, as if black women do not know for themselves that their stories are true. Womanist theology recognizes that black women “are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes … in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14, KJV).
On Christian Fundamentalism (and Recent Related Events):

Faith in the System, or Faith in Jesus? by Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk:
[T]he evangelical Christianity that I spent most of my adult life studying and teaching, is not, in the final analysis about Jesus, except insofar as Jesus is a part of the system. It is faith in the Bible that is more fundamental. It is believing in the system that is crucial. They are not just making a claim that reading the Bible aright leads to Jesus, it’s more than that. It is that the Bible is a divinely given systematic presentation of an entire worldview that must be believed in its entirety for one to be a faithful Christian (along with having “accepted” Jesus, of course). Indeed, beyond that, if we allow one crack in the wall of this system, society itself will become subject to moral decay, chaos, and ultimately destruction. . . 
When your faith is in a system, this system becomes your “platform.” 
Those who hold to it become the “party” of those defined by allegiance to the system. 
The party begins to function as a “political” entity. 
And the whole thing becomes a “partisan” affair in which faithfulness is defined as defending the system against all who suggest any other way.
Modesty is Causing Women to Stumble by PerfectNumber at Tell Me Why the World is Weird:
If you say something that causes a woman to stumble- to believe the lie that she's not good enough and she should feel shame because of her body- that's her own responsibility. Of course it's not your fault. Except that it totally is, and you have a responsibility to not contribute to a culture that heaps this kind of shame on your sisters in Christ. 
So the next time you want to make a comment on what women should or shouldn't wear, stop and think first. Will my words cause someone to stumble? (Your opinions on what's sexy are good and God-given, but they are meant to be shared only with your spouse, not the general public.) When in doubt, you can ask your mother or sister for their advice.
The Duggars: How Fundamentalist Teachings on Sexuality Create Predatory Behavior at Diary of an Autodidact:
[I]n the cases of all these cases of sexual assault within [Christian Fundamentalist] Patriarchy, we want to be able to dismiss them as outliers. Bad acts by bad people. Josh Duggar is a child molester, so we just keep him away from kids, and everything will be fine. 
And then we NEVER have to address the damage that our poisonous teachings on sexuality are causing. It is not an accident that we are attracting (and paying) narcissistic predators like Gothard and Phillips. And it is not an accident that there are problems with assault in Patriarchal families. At some point, one can't just blame bad luck for the lightning strikes. We have to admit we have been standing outside in the storm, holding a metal pole. We attract bad actors, and we make predatory acts by those who would not otherwise have been predators more likely. 
True, let's remove the bad actors, but let's not ignore the other source of poison: bad beliefs and teachings.
Weaponized Grace by Lewis at Commandments of Men:
In any setting - legal, cultural, religious - justice must first be established when people have been harmed or wronged. It's the ONLY way a victim can be the priority. The ONLY way. Once you figure out how justice shapes up, then, and only then, can you start talking about grace or mercy for the victimizer.  All of these people clamoring for "grace" to be immediately shown to Josh Duggar would feel entirely different were one of their daughters a victim of his crime. No matter what came out of their mouth, their heart would demand justice. Holding other people to standards by which you won't truly measure yourself is always ugly, and always lacking in genuine integrity.

People can hide behind the idea that his victims "forgave" him, but those of us who know the culture know they had a choice between "forgiveness" and being a familial AND religious outcast. They would be told, over and over again, how much of a sinner they are/were until they caved in and "forgave". In other words, "grace" would be weaponized against them.
On gender roles:

There Are No "Biblical Men" by Brandan Robertson at Revangelical:
As I have studied the cultural context surrounding the New Testament writings and early Christianity, it has become astoundingly clear to me that Dr. Rainey (and subsequently many other evangelicals) definition of masculinity is derived much more from the Greco-Roman culture than from any clear teachings of Christ. 
In the Greco-Roman world, there was an idealized version of manhood that all men were to aspire to become like. It is, for instance, a Platonic ideal that men should separate themselves from emotions and passions. It is from within the Greco-Roman culture men are seen as providers, leaders, and protectors of their families. But what of men who don’t have families? What of men who are deeply emotive and creative? According to the definition and logic of the culture of Ancient Rome and of many evangelicals today, they are seen to be less than masculine. . .

Any attempt to construct a Biblical model for masculinity proves to be an impossible task because even Christ himself, along with many other men in the New Testament, are constantly being called in to conflict with the predominate model of masculinity of their day. . . What we see demonstrated in the New Testament is a call to embrace the fullness of our unique identity in their Creator, whatever that may look like, rather than to conform to our cultures standards of manliness.
Here's What It Would Look Like If We Treated Our Sons Like We Treat Our Daughters by Lori Day at Everyday Feminism:
Logan is an active preschooler. 
As he runs through the house, you hear the tap-tap-tapping of his little shiny dress shoes on the hardwood floors. Occasionally, he slides in them and goes down on his bum, but he gets right back up again. 
Outside is a new swing set. He loves to try to run up the slide, but it’s tricky in those smooth-soled shoes. 
When he wears them to preschool, the teachers notice that it’s hard for him to run and climb like the girls, but they gush over how handsome he looks in them. . . .
Middle school! 
It’s a whole new world with different classrooms, different teachers, and kids who seem to have changed a lot over the summer. 
Sometimes he pretends to be dumb so girls will like him. 
Logan feels some pressure to conform. He wants to dress like the other boys in clothes that you and his father feel are a bit too clingy and revealing. 
He notices how hot and sexy all of the boys are on television and in the movies, and he wants to be hot and sexy too, so he rolls up the bottoms of his turquoise shorts to make them shorter, hoping not to receive a dress code violation. 
He has mastered the ability to look around nonchalantly as he walks down the hall, checking to be sure the girls are admiring his body.
Logan is now an adult in his final year of college, and beginning to interview for jobs after graduation. 
He always dresses well for his interviews, wearing a slimming outfit that makes him look both professional and attractive. 
As he navigates the city streets that he hopes will connect him to a future full of happiness and success, he passes by billboards and bus ads of men in G-strings with flawless, Photoshopped bodies. 
He barely notices them. 
As he mentally rehearses for an upcoming interview, he walks down the sidewalk, lost in thought. “Smile, baby!” a woman calls out to him. “You look more handsome when you smile.”

And finally, this beautiful mingling of sorrow and mercy that sounds a note of hope through it all:

Reading the Bible With a Red Pen by Esther Emery at SheLoves Magazine:
Now, I read the Bible and all over the thin and crinkling pages I see the madness. I see the hatred, the nationalism, the patriarchy, the appalling injustices. I see Jael, who invited her enemy into her tent and nailed his head to the ground with a tent pin. I see Saul, who lost God’s favor for failing to annihilate his enemy down to the last child and head of cattle. I see the language of homophobia, misogyny and violence … woven right into the fabric of redemption. 
I see God’s story of love and liberation, woven tighter than I ever dreamed with the reality of suffering. God’s threads, tied into our threads. God’s eyes, on the darkest places of the heart. No life unredeemable. No hatred or oppression invisible. No suffering too unspeakable to be given voice. . . 
I don’t like this, but I think it’s true. We are all threaded into this earthly world, tied right into this history of bloodshed and domination. When are we the ones who are sinned against? And when are we the sinners? We can’t always tell. This fabric is woven tighter than we thought. . . 
Though I might know and love compassion—and I do—yet still I have given my voice to the mob, sometimes by choosing silence. Yet still I have given my arms to stones that kill. I have been wrong as well as right. The Bible cries out to my heart to seek redemption, transformation, and holy hope.

The next time I read the Bible I will read it like food instead of words. I will drink it like salty water. I will feed the thirst of my soul with it, even with this brutally rendered portrait of a broken world, confessing itself at every turn in need of redemption.

*Where there is emphasis in any quote, it appears in the original.