Saturday, February 22, 2014

Discernment (Judges 6:36-40)

     Then Gideon said to God, "If You will deliver Israel by my hand, as You said, I will put a piece of wool here on the threshing floor. If dew is only on the fleece, and all the ground is dry, I will know that You will deliver Israel by my strength as You said." And that is what happened. When he got up early in the morning, he squeezed the fleece and wrung dew out of it, filling a bowl with water. 
     Gideon then said to God, "Don't be angry with me; let me speak one more time. Please allow me to make one more test with the fleece. Let it remain dry, and the dew be all over the ground." That night God did as Gideon requested: only the fleece was dry, and dew was all over the ground.
Judges 6:36-40 HCSB

The camp fire cast low shadows into the surrounding darkness as embers breathe into the breeze. An eye cast heavenward catches the play of stars against the vast background of the cosmos. In the face of the onslaught of your enemies, in the overwhelming vastness of the universe you feel small. What is one person, one oppressed and hated person in the midst of the turmoil and struggle for dignity and self-identity? Small means forgettable, overlooked, insignificant, and worthless. We are forced to ask the question, "Who am I? And why would anyone, let alone God, seek me out?"

It would be a misstep to suggest that this is an experience shared across the queer community. But certainly some aspiring people have found themselves in this situation, queer or straight. Beaten before they can even make a contribution. Gideon doesn't quite fit this mode. Gideon has already had success. He has lead his people in attacking the very heart of those who would do them harm. His armed band sacked and tore down the altar to the god-concept which had flung their enemies at them for the purpose of removing them from the face of the earth. 

I would think that after such success that feelings of smallness would melt away. Maybe Gideon's behavior is driven by another insight: not feelings of insignificance, but rather feelings of aggrandizement. Gideon seems to understand that having victory is far from also having the backing of God. Self-aggrandizement is problematic on several levels, but becomes worse when we believe God is at the heart of such luck on our part. 

The photo by alpahdesigner suggests that pealing back of the ego leaves the subject more vibrant and alive. Note the outer layer appears in black and white, while what is underneath is in color. Gideon seems in tune with what lies beneath. Victory can be had from luck just as it can be had from the hand of God. Interestingly Gideon does what is actually forbidden, he test the Lord his God. Not once, but twice Gideon seeks to assure himself that leading the liberation of his people is a vision of God and not a vision of the ego. 

At issue here is the role of discernment in the lives of those who work toward equality. Not every battle is God's desire and not every good outcome can be laid at the feet of God. Sometimes people who are right loose, sometimes people who are wrong win. So Gideon seeks to discern is this God's vision for his people, or is this simply his own want to appear important and needed?

This portion of Gideon's story comes to a close as God moves in the midst of Gideon's discernment process. I encourage all people of faith who are discerning their place in the midst of the so called culture wars, or in the debates about who is in and who is out, or simply wondering how best to come out to family and friends to place your "fleece" out and see what God responds. You might find as in the photo above it is your ego needs speaking to you. Or you might find the glory and mystery of the Sacred responding to you. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Shivering (Judges 6:2-6)

Once more, Israel  did evil in the sight of Adoni and for seven years Adoni gave the people into the hands of the Midianites. They were so oppressive that the Israelites found refuge in the mountains, in caves and dens. Wherever the Israelites sowed crops, the Medianites, Amalekites, and other eastern tribes would arrive to attack them, pitching tents opposite them and destroying their crops as far as the outskirts of Gaza. They would leave nothing living, not sheep, oxen, or donkeys. They would come up with their livestock and their tents, swarming like locusts; they and their camels were beyond counting, invading the land and ravaging it. Midian so impoverished the Isrealites  that they cried out to Adoni for help.
Judges 6:2-6 HCSB

We start with families huddling in the secretive shadows of caves. Father's straining to hear the footsteps of those wanting to harm their wives and children. Mothers seeking to comfort their kids. Youth and children whimpering and wondering what they had done to deserve such hate and antagonism. It is a harsh reality of life in the Levant at the beginning of Iron Age heralded by a collapse of many societies around the Mediterranean. It was a world in which to eat or be eaten. Hiding in the caves it must have felt they were being eaten.

The above painting by Lopez is born out of such oppression of Mexican females seeking entrance into the USA. In spite of what you may think the oppression occurs while still south of the border. A description of the painting says that this print "addresses the murders of women and girls on the US-Mexican border" where more than 300 hundred young women and girls have been found either tortured or dead in and around the town of Juarez, Mexico. Too many females eaten up in a harsh patriarchic system.

Various elements of the print represent distinct feminine and funeral imagery of Mexico. Let us note the Virgin of Guadalupe in the background. In the interpretation of this print I have come across the Virgin is a symbol of motherhood. Possibly, and given some expressions of Mary the mother of Christ, the representation is of sorrowing motherhood, the mother in morning over the death of her child. For the purpose of engaging our text I would like to push this image a bit further and possibly beyond the intent of the Lopez. In some traditions of chrstianity Mary not only represents eternal motherhood, but also the femine aspect of God. She appears as a faint shadow, pink upon pink she hardly stands out, and in some ways is nondescript. Yet, there she is bringing the presence of God into a horrible scene of violence, oppression, and death. 

The same dynamic is at play in our text. For the moment let's suspend the opening formulaic sentence about the Israelite's doing evil in the sight of God. We'll return to it, but for now we can acknowledge that this is a recurring saying in the book of Judges and as such is an interpretation of the cause of oppression within the theology of the book's author. 

When we remove the introductory formula we encounter a scene out of the Pixar movie A Bugs Life. The plot of this movie is that a tribe of ants work all summer long to harvest food for themselves and also for a gang of grasshoppers which come through expecting to be fed or they will exterminate the ants. So too we find Israel exploited, running to caves and hiding as their enemies like "locust" destroy their crops, kill their animals, and leave their homes decimated. The psychological terror of genocide is ugly. Not only were food supplies destroyed, but the very source of their food was attacked and eviscerated. We are left only with huddling and scared families hiding in crevices and shadows. 

In the midst of these circumstances the Israelites cried out to God for help as does Lopez to some degree in her print. In a time when capitulating to what appeared as the stronger god/dess may have seem the more prudent course of action, those scared and shattered people clung to God to see them through.

One of the ways I approach the book of Judges is as a coming out narrative, and to be precise as a narrative of a very fumbled and at times disastrous coming out. Hence that formulaic opening - "once more"! Unfortunately for many a queer person leaving the closet also entails a behavior of "once more" leaving God. There's a sound reason for this - the church in all its inglorious vanity and pompous ignorance. Still we must confess our own lack of shrewdness if we cannot separate the God of life and wholeness from the very human and errant edifice of the church. 

Returning to Lopez's print, Our Lady of Guadalupe is herself a divine protest against European hegemony in the new world. Here among native peoples - tribes facing an onslaught of genocide as the early Israelites faced - God appears as the Mother of the oppressed and not the Father of the oppressor. So too in our text there is an implicit understanding that the hand of God is with Israel and not those who would spoil her. 

I tend to think that like Israel, God has set aside les-bi-gay-trans-intersex-asexul-queer people, not for the punishment, but for blessing. Like Israel we carry the mark of a covenant, a sexual covenant. Since same-gender loving typically does not lead to reproduction, God has used same-gender coupling to protest against the hegemony of reproduction as the sole mandate for sexual relations. And like Israel the mark of the covenant makes us a target.

As we come out and engage the world we do so with a mixture of courage and fear. With courage we make strides in Europe and North America, Australia and parts of South America. With fear we watch developments in Africa and Russia, some parts of the Middle East and some parts of Asia. The midst of our coming out is also our time to wrestle with God. To turn to the one who created us gay and ask for this One's help in staking our claims of personal-identity and self-determination beyond the traditional roles of sex, reproduction, and binary-gender expectations. 

There are times when hiding in caves will save our lives, I don't want those who are in threat of death to unnecessarily throw their lives away. As this story unfolds we will also find there are times when we will want to engage the world. Those times are marked by God's presence as the Israelite discovered, as Lopez explored with Our Lady, and as queer people experience in the face of a recalcitrant heteroarchy.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Liberators (Judges 5:6-8, 12-13, 20-22, 24-30)

In the days of Shamgar ben-Anath,
     in the days of Jael,
the crime-ridden travel routes lay desolate,
     and travelers took roundabout paths to avoid robbers.
Village life died a lonely death until you rose up,
     Deborah, the great mother of Israel.
When the people chose new gods,
     war came to the city gates.
But nether spear nor shield was found
    among the forty thousand in Israel.
- - - - - 
'Awake! Awake, Deborah!
     Rise up! Rise up! Break out in song!
Arise, Barak!
     Take your captive prisoner, ben-Abinoam!'
Then the survivors triumphed over the mighty.
     The people of Adoni were victorious over trained warriors.
- - - - - 
The very stars of the heavens fought;
     from their courses, they defied Sisera.
March on my soul!
     Be strong!
Next came the thunder of horses' hoofs,
     galloping, relentlessly galloping went the beautiful steeds.
- - - - - 
'But blessed be Jael among women, the wife of Heber the Kenite!
     Among all tent-dwelling women, she is most blessed!'
He (Sisera, the enemy's general) asked for water, she gave him milk.
     In a bowl fit for royalty, she brought him curds.
Her left hand had held the tent peg,
     her right hand the mallet.
She struck Sisera and crushed his head,
     shattering and splitting his skull.
He fell at her feet, dead before hitting the floor.
     At her feet he dropped, and where he dropped, there he fell dead.
Sisera's mother peered through the window,
     behind the lattice seh cried out,
'Why is his chariot so long in coming? 
     Why is there no sound of his chaiorts?'
The wisest of her attendance answered her - indeed, she repeated the attendant's words herself:
     'They are sharing the spoils: the women, one or two for every soldier;
     beautiful dyed and embroidered cloth for Sisera,
     and one scarf - no, two, and embroidered - for you!'
Judges 5:6-8, 12-13, 20-22, 24-30 

The Song of Deborah is considered by many to be among the oldest pieces of the Hebrew scriptures dating to 1300 - 1200 BCE. In a nutshell Deborah was a prophetess who "governed" Israel. Which probably means something like a cheiftess among the tribes. The set up is now familiar as the Israelites have compromised away their identity and they are oppressed and exploited by a stronger tribe east of the Jordan lead by the "general" or warlord Sisera. 

Deborah plans a military ambush that includes drawing Sisera and his army to Mount Tabor - a solitary volcanic cone in the valley of Jezreel. This would give the Israelites the high country. Barak the warlord of Israel did not initially want to take part in this action. He agrees to the plan, but only if Deborah is also present for the battle. Deborah agrees but then notes that the victory of the battle will go to a woman and not to Barak. You can read up on the prose narrative in chapter 4 of the book of Judges.

During the pitched battle a thunderstorm erupts flooding a dry wash in the area and in turn snaring Sisera's chariots in mud. Having the advantage of the high ground the Israelites forces sweep down and across Sisera's army and routes the enemy. Sisera takes off and makes it to what he probably thought was a neutral and safe encampment of Kenites. Moses wife was a Kenite, but the Kenites were not numbered among the tribes of Israel. Although the description here may indicate the Kenites were nomads. 

Thinking himself safe Sisera either falls asleep or at least is in a non-alert state and is attacked by the woman Jael who kills the fierce warlord by driving a tent peg through the temple of his scull. Meanwhile back at home Sisera's mother voices concerns about his delayed return only to have a maid assure her that her son is busy spoiling women, when in fact he has been spoiled by a woman.

The passage is most noted for its high profile of women. There is a play of presentation - Deborah the leader weary of her less brave general, Jael a non-combatant outsmarts the scared and running Sisera, and Sisera's mother who is oddly comforted by the thought that her son is spoiling women following a military victory. Of the three women the mother of Sisera gets my pity. 

As a female this woman is caught up in an oppressive patriarchy which typified life at the beginning of the Iron Age. Women were property of either their father or their husband, and in the case of war plunder for the victor. Yet, Sisera's mother, due to her station, enjoys the fruits of the system. At the end of the song we have the juxtaposition of a female being comforted by the thought that her son is out spoiling other females.

For me this is the insidious sinfulness of unjust systems - that even those being exploited come to believe the exploitation is a correct and right structuring of society. Most of the liberation movements of our time - Civil Rights, Feminism, Queer Rights, Liberation Theology protest the very structures of society while at the same time move to untangled the knotted thinking of those caught up in the benefits of those structures. Here we have in sacred scripture a sad lament of those caught up in such oppressive systems they forget they are victims and not victors.

What's more fascinating to me is that Deborah falls into a small and elite group of personalities in the Bible stories. She is one of the "singing women" of scripture. That is she is one of four women who have songs attached to their stories. She joins Mariam, the sister of Moses, who sang of the defeat of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds (traditionally translated as the Red Sea). Later these two will be joined by Hannah the mother of Samuel (the last Judge of Israel who anoints first Saul and then David as Israel's king). Finally when we look into the Greek Scriptures we find Mary the mother of Jesus lifting her voice in a song of praise. 

What these "singing women" have in common is a joy that God raises up the oppressed and throws down the oppressors and systems that benefit the oppressors. In their songs God actively pulls for the underdog and works to bring about a restructuring of culture so that those who were underneath are now free and of what held them down. These songs have been the boon of those working toward self-dignity and self-determination and a bane to those who's life and livelihood feed off the misery of others. 

Before we leave Deborah and Jael as heroes who inspire us in our own struggles there is one last piece that we should take note of.  This is a bit of a larger play between the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. The term we typically translate as "judge" can be translated with other words such as "champion," "liberator," and most importantly "savior." Christians have shied away from this last translation, saving the term for Jesus of Nazareth. 

Luke, it appears, drew heavily upon the saviors of the book of Judges to help understand and explain Jesus as savior. It is in Luke that we find Mary's song. It is also in Luke that we find the words spoken about Jael, "blessed among women," spoken about Mary. On the one hand this is a brilliant use of Old Testament themes to elucidate and explain New Testament events. On the other hand we have an affirmation that God's work is incarnated through humans to bring about both personal and societal transformation.

Through Deborah's song we find a lesson for people of faith - whether queer or straight. God is not satisfied with injustice and works through unlikely persons to bring about change toward liberation.