Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Voices of the Daughters of God

It has long been a dream of mine to read the stories of outcast women in scripture with outcast women in our society to see what we could learn together. I was first introduced to difficult texts that portrayed the abuse of women at Campbell University by my Old Testament professor, Dr. Kathy Lopez. As we read Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror, my eyes were opened to the painful parts of our scripture. Dr. Portier-Young, Old Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, challenged to think about how I could read these texts with marginalized people in our society. She introduced me to Bob Ekblad’s Reading the Bible with the Damned, through which I was summoned to value biblical interpretation by people from all areas of society. When I found out that I had been placed at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women for the summer, I eagerly hoped I would be able to read these texts with these imprisoned women. My supervisor, Rev. Proctor, graciously agreed to help me make it happen. On June 9, I started an eight week study (that I am writing as we go) called “The God who sees and hears us is God with us: Reflections on Marginalized Women in Scripture.” We have studied the stories of Hagar, Jepthah’s daughter and the mourning women, and Tamar. In the weeks to come, we will reflect on the unnamed concubine, the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the bent over woman, and the woman who anointed Jesus. We will pause to listen to the stories of these women and recover their voices since many of them have been silenced by the text. We will seek to discover how God saw them, heard them, and was present with them in the midst of their suffering, abuse, and marginalization.

From the very beginning of this study, we covenanted together to stay on task in order to be respectful of the time we have together; to hold all of our conversations in confidence; to treat one another with respect, gentleness, and loving care; and to honor all voices and perspectives by withholding judgment. We have sought to make our group a safe space for all, and I think we have succeeded in doing so. Surprisingly, we have even stayed on topic and not ventured into the land of gossip, which happens frequently in many of the Bible studies at the prison. The women have been interested in the text and how it connects to their lives. They were open on the first day to talk about the power of human actions in relationship to the story of Hagar. During the second session, the discussion of how Jepthah’s unfaithful vow led to the sacrifice of his daughter led to the women sharing about how the church has helped to perpetuate their abuse, instead of stopping it. The third week when we talked about the rape of Tamar by her very own brother, the women shared their personal stories of abuse and rape and how they could relate to Tamar. One woman told us of how she just barely avoided being raped by hiding in a closet. Like I had imagined, these texts brought up painful experiences for these women in their own lives. When I asked what they thought about Absalom killing Amnon for raping their sister Tamar, one woman told me she thought Amnon got what he deserved and that people like him should be killed. I asked her if she thought that we should go get everyone who had ever raped anyone right now and take them all down to Central Prison and execute them. She hesitated to answer, but you could tell she probably didn’t think it was a bad idea. I just sat there in silence for awhile, not really knowing how to respond. When I finally spoke, I told her that I meant what I had said at the very beginning of the Bible study – that we would really honor everyone’s voice. The women laughed after hearing my response. I think they laughed because they saw me not knowing how to respond and because they were relieved and maybe even surprised that I really meant that we would honor everyone’s voice. I think they also laughed because of the irony of the situation. Here they are sitting in prison, talking about how people should be executed for their crimes. I did tell this woman that while I thought that abusers should be punished, I did not think they should be executed.

Another woman spoke up and asked me what did I think would be sufficient punishment. She told me that her abuse had greatly affected her whole life, and while she admitted that she knows we shouldn’t kill people, she wasn’t ready to “go there” yet. Her pain is still too overwhelming. I told her that I honored her voice and the pain from which she spoke but that I didn’t think that continuing the cycle of violence was the answer. Not all of the women agreed with the perspectives of these two women. When one woman (the same one who said Amnon got what he deserved) voiced that she thought God allowed her to be raped and that she even deserved it because of the situation she put herself in, another woman spoke up and told her that nothing she could ever do would make her deserve to be raped. I told her that it was one thing to speak of how God helps you through difficult situations but that God did not allow her to be raped. We talked again about the messes humans make because of the actions that they choose. Indeed, this woman’s thought that God would allow her to be raped is evidence of the ways we as the church have read scripture unfaithfully and perpetuated the cycle of abuse.

I am grateful that in our study we could create a space where these women could speak honestly to one another and affirm God’s love and care for each of them and God’s desire for them to be whole. It is my hope that through our study, we will continue learn something about God’s faithful presence with us in every season of our lives, even those seasons of devastation, loneliness, and pain. It is my desire that through the recovering of the voices of women in scripture, these women will continue to discover their value and worth as daughters of God.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just read your comment/article, & I see you are doing a very diligent work for our Lord & Saviour!
Just lost my spouse 14 months ago, & have learned dramatically, exactly how difficult the journey is, with grief & despair.
God Bless your work, & my prayers will be for you tonight !
Sincerely yours in Christ alone,
Sheila Joyce Gibbs