Tuesday, December 22, 2009

reflection for 22 December 2009

As usual, it has been way too long since I last posted, but I did just finish my papers for the end of the semester, and I’ve been up to my neck in work.  The readings today are the story of Hannah, mother of Samuel, bringing her baby to the temple to dedicate him to God (1 Sam1:24-28); the Canticle of Hannah, which is a song that follows the dedication of Samuel to God (1 Sam 2:1-8); and then Mary’s Magnificat (LK 1:46-56), which of course is attributed to her after Elizabeth acknowledges her blessedness.  Each of them is a great reading, and together they are a great combination.  I am currently working on a book review of a new book on contextual theology (An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective by Stephen Bevans, SVD) for a Catholic publication, and a great deal of it has been discussing how theology always comes from a particular context, rather than assuming that the theology of upper-middle-class white male celibates (like myself) is the normative theology and everyone from other situations is somehow derivative from that norm.  The only people we hear from in today’s readings are poor Middle Eastern women – not only no degrees in theology, but can’t read or write, have no public voice, but by God, they are doing theology!  Their theology is unbelievably important for a person in my situation, because it is too easy to think that the concerns of my world are everyone’s concerns, that everyone encounters these texts the way I do.  As I mentioned in my last post, “Apocalyptic never makes sense to people who are tenured.”  That is, for people whose life is comfortable, literature written when people are under attack and their world is exploding is a curiosity at best, something to be leisurely pondered.  I can easily spiritualize this Christmas season because a person in my context can afford to do so.  “Christ being born in your heart” is a nice reminder of the call to inner conversion, and it isn’t WRONG, but re-read the Magnificat and see how much of it isn’t about spiritualized concerns, but about the situation of the poor and the marginal, like Mary herself would have been as a woman, a non-elite Palestinian, a person living under foreign occupation, an unwed mother.  The God of Hannah and Mary’s Canticles is not only a God who touches hearts but who demands justice, who crushes unjust forces that would trample the poor.  While we talk about the coming of the reign of God at Christmas, both Canticles make clear that this God is already active, already demanding and bringing justice for those who are chewed up by the powerful – this is who God always is.  One of my papers this semester was on torture in Latin American dictatorships as a ritual that created a particular kind of collective memory: there is only one story in this country, and it is the story of the regime, and any alternative stories get silenced by torture.  What a revolutionary thing to here have a vision of reality that is not only given by poor women, but that offers a completely different vision of reality – a reality in which the poor are saved from the nightmare of oppression, where the narrative of the unchallenged power of the proud is dismantled.  That alternative story is just about always subaltern, below the surface of the dominant narrative, like a termite invisibly chewing away at the foundations of the structure from within, but for people who themselves get chewed up by society’s script of how the world works, an alternative story says: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.  ANOTHER REALITY IS POSSIBLE.  In a world in which 70% of the world’s poor are still women, in which women still do 80% of the work and still own 1% of the property, the fact that today’s readings give voice to poor nonwhite women is still not to be taken for granted, even though we likely don’t a second’s notice to the speakers, let alone the actual content, subversive as it is. (*As a side note, during the dictatorships I mentioned above, the Magnificat was at times ripped out of Bibles by the regimes because it inspired images of another world, of the powers being overthrown.  Words continue to offer us the means to depiction of reality, and thus to alternative depiction of reality!*)  What a thing it is when, whether in our parishes or on their own, people come together to read the texts of our collective story from our individual backgrounds: some professionally educated in the task, most not, but all taking part in enriching the community by sharing the varied perspectives of their lives in conversation with the Biblical world as it speaks to them: male, female, African, Latin American, Asian, refugees, migrants, even white upper-middle-class celibate doctoral students.  As it so happens, last week a volunteer who lives near us and who works at a clinic at a Franciscan parish called me and asked if I spoke French: A woman from French-speaking Africa had just come into the clinic and the usual interpreter was not available.  I went over, talked to this woman a bit, and helped her through her meeting with the doctor: very simple, a reminder of how much help my French needs, but it worked.  She is a recent immigrant from Niger, her son recently died, so she is staying with the one person she knows, another woman from her hometown who has been here for a while.  Those two women have some stories to tell, let me assure you, and I plan to keep in touch with them, especially to help the first woman learn some English so she can make this place home.  How would they read today's readings?  Certainly not the same way I do, but certainly not wrongly compared to my "scholarly" reading.  What world do those two Palestinian village women from a long time ago inspire for those African women living over a barbershop in the old Italian district in Syracuse?  And what do all four of them say to me as I celebrate the coming of Jesus, who bears the reign of God in his midst?

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