Fight, Flight or … Embrace?

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the
(Serenity Prayer, Twelve Step Movement)

When it comes to dealing with suffering, injustice and oppression, there are three long, winding, well-trodden paths in Christian spirituality and praxis; each one grounded firmly in the Gospel message of Jesus, yet each in a certain tension with the other two.

One is marked by kenosis, self-emptying, and embracing the cross of suffering and pain for the greater good of one’s soul and that of others – see Philippians 2:6-11. The other is marked by denouncing injustice and oppression, working – with God’s blessing – to set prisoners free, to liberate those exploited and violated by the sins of brothers and sisters far and near – see Luke 4:36-46 and Matthew 25:36-46. Alongside these two is a third one: if the injustice and oppression suffered is too damaging to our very being we may, if possible, remove ourselves from the situation – see Matthew 10:11-15.

How can we accept the things we cannot change and pray for courage to change the things we can? When illness or disaster upsets our lives, do we feel powerless and paralyzed, or do we try to accept our lot with some grace and courage? When another’s behaviour puts our safety and physical well-being at serious risk, do we change what we can and remove ourselves? When our neighbours struggle to put food on the table, do we feel compelled to reach out and share our resources, to change what we can? Do we also encourage our neighbour to seek further help, or will we have the wisdom to know that our advice would be unappreciated?

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:17-18)

While Jesus turned over the money changers’ tables in the Temple, he did not flinch or try to run when condemned to death. While he said that the poor will always be with us, he did identify with the least of those in need. While Jesus advised not to push when we or our message are not received, he himself walked to his own death precisely because he and his message were rejected.

Certain forms of injustice are universally condemned; countless individuals work to alleviate hunger and poverty, violence and unemployment for millions of people around the globe. However, many situations are not clear-cut.  A person feels put down at work. He is ignored; he lacks praise and encouragement. Is he to endure this as his cross or is this a sign that it’s time to find another job? Would we still tell a woman to stay with her abusive husband and work to make it better? That advice has created generations of permanently soul-wounded women and children.

St. Augustine of Hippo is quoted as having said: “Pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you.” Contemporary schools in psychology, sociology and psychiatry place great value in being your true self, standing in your truth, and being integrated both inside and out.

What if outside circumstances make this goal nigh impossible to achieve? How do we know whether to work to make a situation better, to accept that change is impossible so instead use the situation to grow a deeper spiritual maturity, or to shake the dust off our feet and go elsewhere in order to come to full bloom?

Some perceive situations of injustice and willful ignorance within the Church; this can inflict a deep permanent wound in a person or even in an entire parish. What response most reflects God’s will – fight and protest, run and seek other spiritual wells from which to drink, or embrace the pain as one’s cross, hopefully leading to deeper union with the crucified Lord?

How does one define ecclesial injustice anyway? If a parish is deprived of the Eucharist on a regular basis (the only “right” Catholics have), does that constitute injustice? Is it an injustice when girls cannot be altar servers? If a pastor runs a parish like a military boot camp, does that constitute injustice? If women feel treated in inferior ways, does that constitute injustice? Is it an injustice when a gay couple is refused the church’s blessing on their union? If a married man or a woman feel called to ordained ministry but the church refuses them, does that constitute an injustice? Is injustice a subjective or objective experience?

Probably one of the most vexing examples lies in the gender disparity in the church. It is an undisputed fact that women’s fundamental human experiences – her wisdom and her ways of knowing, perceiving and living – are structurally invisible in church governance and teaching. While women form the bulk of the volunteer workforce in every parish around the globe, women’s voices and perspectives – theological, liturgical and spiritual – are simply not in the room when church leaders hammer out ecclesial documents on subjects which are binding for all Catholics, both women and men. A growing chorus of voices is denouncing this omission as a grave injustice, an insult to God’s image and likeness in women, Pope Francis included. Others, regarding this as part of the way God ordered male and female functions, perceive no injustice whatsoever.

Same situation, two diametrically opposed interpretations. The one group feels compelled by conscience to fight in rectifying the perceived wrong while the other group, equally in conscience, calls for submission to God’s way of ordering male/female functions and relations. Both groups are faith-filled Catholics who love the Church; both can support their basic positions from Scripture.

Which way to God’s will? What type of liberation did Jesus bring? Can liberation be defined objectively, outside of the particular circumstances of those who experience oppression and injustice? Do those who experience injustice have the prerogative to define what actions, behaviours and choices bring liberation? And if yes, what to make of liberating choices which challenge Church teaching?

If there is to be a liberating movement in Christ’s message regarding gender roles and relations, this movement needs to lead to fullness of life for both women and men. If Jesus came to redeem fallen humanity then now in Jesus “there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

In order to activate such a liberating movement each follower of Christ may well choose a different path: fight to rectify a wrong, leave for greener pastures, or embrace the cross and graft one’s pain to the crucified Lord.  If we look at the Scriptures, we might see that Jesus may validate each of these choices, provided he guide us: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6)

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as he did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that he will make all things right
if I surrender to his will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with him
forever in the next.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr

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Pain … is pain … is pain

Here I go again — aching with a cold, my head pounding and my nose acting like a leaky faucet. In bed, feeling sorry for myself, annoyed at my body for not letting me work on that never-ending list-to-do. Poor me …

While I’m feeling sorry for myself, though, others have to contend with much worse — the pain of cancer eating the body, the pain of fading vitality and memory, the pain a broken relationship, the pain of losing a job and livelihood, the pain of having a home destroyed by fire or flood, the pain of a drained bank account resulting in unpaid bills and disconnected utilities, the pain of abuse and exploitation, the pain of a child or sister gone missing. While I’m busy suffering my little pain in a warm bed, someone else is suffering big pain elsewhere in the danger zones of daily life.

Pain, medical experts say, is an important “house alarm system.” Pain alerts us to potential or real damage requiring attention and care. Without an intact pain alarm system, our bodies and minds would suffer significantly more   as we would ignore way more injuries than is good for us.

Compared to most others, my aches and pains have been truly minor, for now — touch wood. Yet comparing with others is not the most helpful thing to do. Because each of us suffers pain in unique ways whether minor or serious. What is serious for one may be minor for another, and vice versa. A friend tried to minimize her anxiety over an impending diagnosis by telling herself that people in poverty-stricken areas of the world are much worse off than she is. Instead of these thoughts alleviating her anxiety, however, she almost slipped into denying her legitimate feelings in a very unhealthy way.

Physical pain is the most acknowledged of all, and the easiest to explain even though hard to remedy at times. Anything other than physical pain, however, seems to become nebulous, both to ourselves and to other people. Friends who suffer depression all have stories of being misunderstood, not taken seriously and even ridiculed. The social stigma that comes with mental illness adds insult to injury. Those who have never had pets ridicule those heartbroken over a pet’s death. Spiritual and emotional pain caused by feeling excluded and dismissed in one’s church community is “just in our heads.” On that note, Barbara Parson’s article in this week’s Commonweal Magazine is hard-hitting.

Why is it so hard to recognize, legitimate and attend to non-physical pain, our own and that of others? Why do we, often unwittingly, relegate emotional, mental and spiritual pain to the realm of subjectivity, thereby subtly implying a label of invalidity and triviality? Just because I cannot physically see or feel pain, doesn’t mean it is less real. The fact of the matter is that if emotional, mental or spiritual pain is not adequately acknowledged and tended to, it will eventually manifest itself in physical pain. Mind, body and spirit are intricately connected, affecting one another’s functioning in ways we’re not even aware of.

Bees1I may have been spared much physical pain in my life so far (again, touch wood …), but I’ve had more than my share of emotional, spiritual and, yes, ecclesial pain … It’s much easier to groan about a common head-cold and feel sorry for myself in bed than to live with deep inner pain that remains so invisible to the outside yet stings the inside as acutely as a thousand bees. More on that soon …

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The Feminist Question

It was bound to come sooner or later. After my last post, where I speak heart-wrenchingly about Rome’s approach to the discussion of women, a friend queried in a private message: why are you hesitant to identify with the term feminist?

According to Webster’s dictionary, feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” I would add to that “as well as equal dignity and responsibilities.” Certainly, if the definition would end there, and if we all agree on what feminism is and is not, then no doubt I am a feminist, and a very committed one at that.

However, feminism didn’t invent the “equality for all” vision. I see the dictionary definition of feminism as integral to the witness and teaching of Jesus. If I am a feminist, it has found its inspiration and motivation in the person of Jesus long before I knew feminist theory and praxis. My feminism thus arises from my Christian discipleship and is guided by the same.

Now I already hear another question, a puzzlement, an objection. Yes, I wholeheartedly admit that various institutional expressions have scandalously contradicted Jesus’ teaching and his vision for a discipleship of equals, thus betraying the very One God sent to save us from the blindness and patriarchal madness that caused such a deplorable track record in the first place!  Most likely the Church’s failure to fully live Jesus’ radical message of equality and inclusion has contributed to the need for the feminist movement.

What I find fascinating, though, is that this flagrant betrayal of God’s messenger has in no way negated the soul-power and guiding potential of Jesus himself. What amazes me is that the heart and soul of this compromised Body of Christ, the Church, still pulsates with the potent memory of God’s own revolutionary dream of love and mercy, justice and equality for all, a dream as relevant and as sorely needed in our suffering world as ever before. What amazes me is that this radical love and JesusFeminist4bmercy still have the power today to overthrow notions of superiority, of hierarchy, of status and religious arrogance, even in the hallowed halls of the ecclesial patriarchal edifice, keeping religious careerists off balance and the institution on edge. That is why I think Pope Francis is a God-send — just in time. That is why the Church in every time and place must continually re-examine itself in order to re-align its teachings and practice with the Gospel message — Ecclesia semper reformanda est. While still needing much conversion on women’s issues I nevertheless see Pope Francis working hard to restore the vibrant soul-power of Jesus and the radical compassion of the Christian message. So I’m willing to cut him some slack on the “woman-question.”

The sad part though is that because of the institutional compromising of Jesus’ message, many feminists have given up on Christianity as a possible ally in their quest, thus throwing out the Jesus-baby with the smelly church bathwater. While I regret yet fully understand this abandonment, it is the revolutionary witness of Jesus that keeps me in the Church. It is his wild energy that keeps feeding my hope and my active contribution in my small corner of the planet to bringing about God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy for all.

Having said all this, I still prefer to be known as a Christian “tout court” (as the French say) rather than a feminist. I salute the quest for women’s equality and dignity, condemning with feminism every form of violence and abuse against women.  I salute the feminist connections between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the planet. I thus recognize feminism as in sync with the Biblical witness to the equality, mutuality and dignity of “male and female” as well as the beauty and integrity of creation. But modern usage of the term feminism itself has acquired a lot of politically charged overtones, to the point that multiple definitions now seem to operate. Using the term today tends to communicate a package of ideological goals, some of which feel compromising to my Christian commitment. Included in these are abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family life, family planning (why feminists swallowed the artificial hormones so readily instead of insisting on attacking the “fertility problem” where it belongs — with men, fertile always and everywhere — beats me), euthanasia (not sure about this last one). While open to greater understanding, I tend to lean towards more traditional points of view, still uncertain which way is truly forward. Time and thoughtful discernment (almost impossible in heated political debates) will tell which direction for each of these thorny and complex questions points to greater flourishing of humanity and all of creation.Feminism1

Precisely because the term feminism encompasses many different things today, the designation can be used in both affirming and constructive ways as well as judgmental, dismissive and disparaging ways, depending which group of people employs and interprets it. Frequently I find myself understanding more than one side of contentious issues while I see advocates on either side of a political divide turning a blind eye to opposing viewpoints in order to bolster their own or, worse, vilify those who disagree. In our zeal to be right, one-sided and simplistic arguments, dishonesty and misrepresentation, even in sophisticated and inconspicuous forms, creep in all too easily. In the end, however, these cannot stand in the light of day, no matter which side of a complex reality we come down on, and can even risk discrediting our argumentation . When it comes to tactics and errors, zeal for a cause can in fact turn us into an unflattering mirror image of our opponent, thereby running the risk of discrediting our own argument. A good dose of charity, respect and humility would greatly benefit advocates on both sides of today’s complex realities.

I would see such temptations as a manifestation of “original sin,” that subtle yet so present “objective disorder” to which we are all prone, esp. when zeal for a noble cause takes hold of us and we dismiss the need for self-criticism and humility: “Feminism without spirituality runs the risk of becoming what it rejects: an elitist ideology, arrogant, superficial and separatist, closed to everything but itself. Without a spiritual base that obligates it beyond itself, calls it out of itself for the sake of others, a pedagogical feminism turned in on itself can become just one more intellectual ghetto that the world doesn’t notice and doesn’t need.” ~ Joan D. Chittister, Heart of Flesh: Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men.

My liberation as a woman is grounded in the Gospel call to fullness of life: “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The witness and teaching of Jesus provides everything I need to guide my growth as a woman and to inspire me to do my little part in making the world a better place where it is easier for more people to be good, fulfilled and joyful; I see no need for additional labels. Meanwhile the door between my Christian spirituality and feminism is wide open, facilitating an ongoing process of critical reflection, evaluation and appropriation of the two. Most importantly in this process, however, is that my relationship with Jesus informs and sheds discerning light on my feminism, not the other way around. As a good feminist, I claim my experience and my voice as legitimate. As a good Christian, I seek the face of Christ in all women and men of good will, expecting the Holy Spirit to bring gifts through the “otherness” of all my sisters and brothers.

For further reading:
An interesting article appeared recently over at America Magazine: Feminist Case Against Abortion
Related site:  Feminists For Life

Radical, Gospel-inspired simple living is still embodied today by many courageous Christians: l’Arche founded by Jean Vanier, the Catholic Worker founded by Dorothy Day, and the Simple Way lead by Shane Claiborne — also see Red Letter Christians.

“We must each make a decision for ourselves on what works for our own lives.  Many will choose to leave behind the pain and rejection endured as a result of simply being a woman in religion that is embedded with structures that do not value women’s voices.  And, many will choose to stay and wade through the ongoing misogynistic practices in search for the nooks and crannies where one can find solace.  Both are feminist choices and every action contributes toward the ultimate objective of eradicating sexism and all oppression wherever they exist – including religion.” Thus says Catholic Gina Messina-Dysert in her TED-Talk on Feminism and Religion.

“If you feel deeply enough, you stay; not because you’re a masochist, but because it’s worth it. You’re struggling for the soul of something.” Thus says Elizabeth Johnson, one of my heroes in Catholic feminist discourse; several of her books grace my shelves. Here is a great article about her: Feminism in Faith

“Faith, religion, spirituality, cannot be subjected to sexist and misogynistic structures requiring women to renounce their freedom, their intelligence, their sexuality and capabilities to be part of them.” Words by Sr. Teresa Forcades, a medical doctor, theologian and Benedictine nun living at Montserrat, Spain, who has published a new book entitled The History of Feminist Theology. A short yet insightful interview with her can be found here.

Since I make reference to male fertility, I guess I should at least find a place where you can learn more about male contraceptive research —  click here.

There is a growing feminist movement in circles of Evangelical Christianity. Here is a recently launched initiative called The Junia Project with lots of solid reading in very accessible language.

Sarah Bessey wrote a great blog post on her integration of Christian discipleship and feminism.  Sarah’s words grace the image at the top of this blog post. She has also written a very engaging book with the title “Jesus Feminist.” Her words are a fitting ending to this challenging reflection:

Because I follow Jesus, I want to see God’s redemptive movement for women arch towards justice. God’s Kingdom tastes like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. My life should still bear the fruit of the Spirit out. ~ Sarah Bessey

If we want to live counter-culturally as disciples, we have to live our lives and seek mercy and do justice counter-culturally as well. It’s tempting to want to employ the same tactics and arguments or methods that have been used on us or others but that is a temptation we must resist.  I don’t believe that silencing and shaming and other tactics of the world will really bring about God’s redemptive movement for women. We are to be gentle as doves and cunning as serpents. ~ Sarah Bessey

God is light, there is no darkness in him, so when we participate in the life of Christ now, we are marked as the bringers of light. The Apostle John wrote, “Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.” ~ Sarah Bessey


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