R. Nakashima Brock and R. Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, (Boston, Beacon Press: 2002)..*
This is a very beautiful book. It is a personal and theological pilgrimage that wends its way between poetry and story, between terror and love. Alternating voice by chapter, two respected senior women in the field of Christian religion do autobiographical theology, drawing us into the narratives of their personal development as well as into their struggle to find theological and spiritual meaning in the fragmentation of their lives.
Rebecca Ann Parker’s account of her professional advancement from minister to teacher to president of a theological seminary is woven into the tale of her dawning awareness of the paralyzing place of violence in the lives of others and, eventually, to its place in her own life. As the story progresses, Rebecca becomes conscious of her own sexual abuse as a child and its devastating emotional and spiritual effects.
Rita Nakashima Brock’s account of her professional advancement from political activist to faculty person and professional theologian is woven into the tale of her experience of racism as a Japanese American woman. As the story progesses, Rita lives through her early Japanese family, her southern white adopted family, her Christian evangelical family, and finally rediscovers her Hispanic family.
I cannot say more because the tale is not only beautifully told, it is also suspenseful — one waits for the ending — except to note that, for both women, the story also includes their attempts to establish meaningful relationships with significant others.
And then, there is the tale of their wrestlings with Christian theology and spirituality. Rebecca, confronting the situation of an abused woman who commits suicide, realizes that this woman had been told, “If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.” Seeing the results of this theology of self sacrifice, Rebecca concludes that it is repugnant and just plain wrong. She courageously follows the imagery one step further and quotes Abelard, “Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child? How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything … still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world” (p. 30). Using these insights, Rebecca preaches a series of sermons on violence and the conspiracy of silence that covers and permits violence. Her audiences are resistant but her courage prevails and slowly they open themselves up to the violence in their own lives.
Rita participates in Christianity the way Japanese participate in Buddhism — ritually, communally, and not theologically. For her, “Jesus was dead — a strange, fierce white man. I did not want to get to know him better …” (p. 64). In college, Rita discovers Job who “indicted God as a bully.” She also discovers feminism and decides that solidarity with the victims is more important than a theology which glorifies suffering. Combining these insights, Rita realizes that “defining love and relationship as obedience and sacrifice structures them in the terms of power and abuse” (p. 156). In theology, she pushes this to its logical conclusion: “When the Christian tradition represents Jesus’ death … as necessary to the divine plan for salvation, and as obediently accepted by Jesus the Son out of love for God the Father, God is made into a child abuser or a bystander to violence against his own child … I thought of this system as cosmic child abuse” (p. 157).
Confronted by their own stories of suffering and their own rejection of the theology of obedience and self-sacrifice which is so central to Christian teaching, where do these two senior women in Christian religion find salvation? This is the central intellectual question of the book. It is the warp of the weave, while the personal and professional tales are the woof.
Part Three, Epiphany, is meant to show the answer. As one might expect from two people whose professional lives embody the helping professions, Rebecca and Rita teach that “steady witness” is a source of salvation and healing. Being there, listening, helping an other as much as one can — these are the sources of salvation. Acknowledging the pain that cannot be erased or silenced, mourning the past that cannot be denied or changed, and loving those whom one can, as fully as one can — these are the moments of steady witness.
And, there are “moments of grace in a life broken by violence” (p. 242). There are moments when we realize that “[t]o know that the presence of God endures through violence is to know that life holds more than its destruction” (p. 250). For Rebecca this happens when she realizes that, even in the moment of abuse, there was a “force-field of presence” that encompassed both her abuser and herself (p. 210). For Rita this occurs when she knows that she has “a glimpse of life so much larger” than herself, that “no matter what happened, a discernable, enlivening, creative presence underlying all things embraced me and wished me well’ (p. 233).
The white boys think Rita has a special oriental knowledge of sex. The white girls think she is different. No one understands the diffident Japanese culture which demands that she refuse first invitations because, in American culture, the first invitation is also the last. Her parents want her to be an honorary white person. And, no one discusses her alienness with her, which results in her doubting herself. I read this description of racism in Rita’s life and I thought: I am not a woman and not an Asian but I know this sense of alienness.
When I was ten, “boys” were rough and tough. They played ball aggressively. They fought and punched each other. They competed; they were active physically. They went in for scouting and rode bikes at breakneck speed. — I was always the last one chosen for the team and, had the teacher not been there, I wouldn’t have been chosen at all. I never got a bloody nose, though I do remember being so proud that I broke my wrist in seventh grade in a gym class. I walked home alone and did not join the group that threw chestnuts at the girls. And I too had a wall of invisible friends who played alone with me in the bushes around our house — a powerful boa constrictor who took care of me, avenged me, and gave me status.
When I grew older, I found out that “boys” kissed girls and touched them in places. They danced wildly. They made money and built institutions, verily empires, stepping over, and on, others without thinking twice about it. They schemed and even consciously lied. They also went to gyms and built muscles, “working out” they called it. They followed sports and memorized sports statistics. And, they drove cars fast and they spent money freely. — I never managed to kiss girls gracefully, much less touch them in certain places. I never did learn to dance. I still have no idea how one makes money and I find it difficult to be tough enough to build an empire. I drive my car “like a tank”; so says my twenty-something son. My wife tried to teach me her aggressive game of tennis, the only result of which was that her game deteriorated rapidly. At 62, gyms still paralyze me; I go for my health but I don’t look at the other men. And, of course, no one ever talked to be about my alienation from white male culture, not as a child, not as a young person, and not as an adult.
When I left the world of Jewish parochial education intent on retaining my Jewish patterns of life, I found that I lived in a non-Jewish world that was sometimes hostile and sometimes just ignorant. It took the university which is my home a long time to realize that they need to make dietary arrangements for me when I am invited to have dinner with members of central administration. There are still “outsider moments”: Do I cancel eight classes in the semester on which the Jewish holidays fall during the week, especially if there are — and there always are — a fair percentage of non-Jewish students in those classes? Do I speak out in defense of the State of Israel (even though I don’t agree with all of its policies) in the anti-Israel environment that is often part of the university world? What do I do when Jews for Jesus and other evangelical efforts aimed at Jews come to campus? Or when African American students, whom I otherwise respect, bring blatantly antisemitic speakers to campus? To be sure, I am a full professor, tenured and experienced; but what of our younger Jewish colleagues who feel even less comfortable exercising their Jewishness in public? And, of course, no one talks to us about our alienation from the slightly to seriously anti-Jewish nature of the culture in which we live and work.
Rebecca writes that her parents listened to the revelation of her abuse respectfully. They listened and believed, but their emotional response was subdued. “They didn’t throw their arms around me in comfort, sympathy, and protection” (p. 186). I read this and I thought: I was not abused but I know this feeling too. How often I longed for my parents not to listen but to take me in their arms and comfort me. How lonely those childhood and teenage years were. And I remember the time my father really did embrace me. He knew he was dying and I went to see him. He consciously held me, for a long time. That was when I decided quite consciously that I would hug my boys whenever I could, that I would bless them whenever possible. And, have I done that enough? Or, have I, too, listened respectfully but failed to throw my arms around them in comfort, sympathy, and protection?
Rebecca and Rita have dared to write powerfully about Jesus as an abused child and about God as a child abuser (though one could have included Mary and the apostles as bystanders). And they have courageously noted that the theology and imagery of the cross has been cultivated by a paternalistic church for its own purposes to the detriment of Christian women through the ages. As one who has reached the same conclusion about God and put it into print after examining God, the Jewish people, and the shoah, I have not be warmly received by my community. You have probably noticed this about yourselves already. People, perhaps including ourselves, want God to be good, to be morally incorruptible. We want God to be above evil, beyond it. Freud was right: we project an omnibenevolent God because we need to. A God capable of evil, in whose image we are made, is not an idea that many others will want to share.
Finally, as time passes and you look back on what you have written, you will wonder, ‘did I write that,’ ‘where did I get the guts to write that.’ Be reassured; the truth does set you free.
A Word of Critical Response
Steady witness is surely necessary; without it, life is hardly worth living. Moments of grace, of all-encompassing love, are also necessary; otherwise we would forget our rootedness in the river of life. But anger — ongoing anger — is also necessary. Anger is not, as I see it, a stage one goes through and then goes beyond. Rather, anger has a way of coming back to haunt us; the repressed always returns. A sudden memory, a death, or a situation of helplessness can set off anger. Even contemporary political events can bring it back from the depths. In the aftermath of the WTC attack, survivors of the shoah (and, I suspect, of child abuse) have had a hard time because, for them, the attack has reopened the wounds of their own victimization and helplessness. Anger surges in them, even more than in the rest of us. Healing is fragile. The scar tissue of our wounds is easily broken and the infection of anger is recurrent, like yeast or prostatic infections. One does not cure anger, not even through steady witness and moments of grace. Rather, one must learn to live with anger, the way one learns to live with high blood pressure. We must, therefore, learn to place our anger in the web of prayer and ritual.
I regret that I did not take more time in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest to develop the image of seriatim, of living life in alternating moves. The metaphor of sailing was most à propos. One simply cannot sail into the wind; the sails cease to function when one turns a sailboat windward. To sail into the wind, one must “tack” first in one direction and then in the other. To progress windward, one must zigzag forward. And so it is with life. To heal, one must tack into anger and, then, tack into love. To be restored to life, one must “zig” into anger and, then, “zag” into social action. To be renewed, one must think and pray rage and, then, one must think and pray love. Protest — theological and liturgical — is as much a part of the spiritual life as love and devotion, as witness and grace.
This is a book of great beauty and courage. Dreams and poetry are woven well with social action and religious reflection. The vivid personalities in the personal and professional tales help us to see truth — about humans, about Christian teaching, and about God.