Rethinking (Women’s) Power | 12 October 2014

First, let me thank you for the fact that during these first two weeks of the “Difficult Passages” series you have allowed two white men to tell you all about the subordination of women.  As ironic as it is, we need to be reminded that this issue belongs to all of us and that men have their own work to do in making sure that gender equality and justice are available for all people.  So thank you for allowing me to do some of my own important work.

When Joel and I were first talking about this difficult passages series, he told me that there were a large number of scripture passages named by the congregation that were either directly about or have been used by some to subjugate women.  He said that he would be very narrowly focusing his sermon on Ephesians 5:22-24, the one passage that was named the most, so he said it might be nice for me to cast a wide net and preach about a number of the other difficult passages.  I think that in the world of ministry teams, this is what they refer to as hazing. 

As someone who has had to spend a lot of my spiritual journey wrestling with how to approach difficult passages, I feel like I ought to be able to articulate the perfect hermeneutical key for helping people understand what to do when the Bible makes us squirm, when the various texts seem so distant from anything resembling good news.  But there isn’t one magic way to interpret scripture as a whole.  The passages that make us squirm require us to think and respond in different ways, drawing from all of our available resources of moral discernment.  Sometimes they require us to hold together opposing viewpoints.  Sometimes they require us to give up the notion that we have it all figured out. 

So I considered keeping in line with the series so far and writing three different sermons with three different interpretations for each of the approximately 12 other difficult scriptures that were named, but I’m pretty sure no one has time for 36 sermons this morning.  I decided instead that I would avoid being forced to commit myself to one method of interpretation in a different way: by focusing on an entirely different scripture passage.   Ok, so maybe this is cheating a little, but an important tool for Biblical interpretation, especially when dealing with broad based issues, is allowing scripture to interpret scripture.  The Bible speaks with many voices, in many genres, and in many different contexts.  What holds it together is that it is the story and stories of people wrestling with what it means to live in response to God. 

No one wants to deny that the Bible says things and condones things that we find to be indefensible, but if we get so bogged down by particularities, we might miss how those voices fit into the broader story of what it means to live in response to God.  So instead of picking apart each of the scriptures that were read earlier, I want to dive into a different story that I think helps us understand something important about those difficult passages. 

2nd Samuel 21 tells the story of Rizpah.  In all actuality, Rizpah is a minor character in this story, but her actions stand at its center and even sway the heart of the king, so her importance should not be ignored.  The story begins with famine.   King David asks God why the famine persists, and God tells him it is because of the bloodguilt Saul incurred from the Gibeonites.  David then goes to the Gibeonites to see what he must do.  The Gibeonites tell him that they don’t want money and they, themselves, don’t have the right to put anyone to death.  But David tells them that he will do whatever needs to be done, so the Gibeonites decide that they require seven of Saul’s sons to be killed.  David replies, simply, “I will hand them over.” 

There are many details in this passage that remain vague, but a number of scholars believe that this story actually shows David’s political shrewdness.  A divine oracle given only to David conveniently blames the famine on David’s predecessor, Saul, yet the bloodguilt that is referenced has no obvious correlation in the rest of scripture.  Instead of asking God what can be done to make things right, David goes straight to the Gibeonites, then seems to encourage them in their demands.  When they say they do not have the right to put anyone to death, David’s response seems to be, “You don’t worry about that, just name your price.”  With this bit of political maneuvering, David is able to both appease a potential enemy and cut down those who might claim a right to the throne through Saul’s lineage.  In verse 7, we see David sparing one of Saul’s descendants, but we know from other texts that this grandson of Saul was physically disabled, and thus probably posed no real threat to David’s reign.  While we might never know the real motivations behind these actions, what seems to be obvious is the lack of concern for the value of human life and the unfettered acceptance of a system of perpetual violence.

This is where Rizpah enters the story, for she was the mother of two of those sons of Saul that were not spared.  Rizpah enters into this narrative in a way that sets her up to be just another pawn in a man’s game of war and violence.  She is a woman, a concubine of the deposed king, and, by midway through this passage, a mother with possibly no surviving males to support or protect her. 

But something unexpected happens, and I want to read the text itself to let it paint you a picture.  Starting in verse 9 (printed in bulletins):

[David] gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the LORD.  The seven of them perished together.  They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.  Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day or the wild animals by night. 

Rizpah does what any mother would do: she mourns. For about six months, she refuses to leave the bodies of her sons and her relatives, and she uses all her energy to guard whatever remaining dignity their bodies might have.  The text itself gives only the barest picture of her response, but the way it describes her spreading out the sackcloth on the rock makes me think that Rizpah is doing something very deliberate here.  The sackcloth, a symbol of grief and mourning, is not just for her, but for all the land, for all the people.  Rizpah’s public display of grief is a reminder of the fact that the world is wracked by violence and indifference to human dignity.  Her agony disrupts the notion that everything is as it should be, that the status quo is the only viable option.  The relentless devotion of an inconsolable mother reminds the people that the murder of her sons is more than just another piece of collateral damage in a never-ending cycle of vengeance. 

Rizpah’s name means something like “glowing coal”, and I can almost see the passion and anguish burning inside of her, appearing quietly subdued yet fiercely capable of igniting the world around her. 

But Rizpah’s grief is not the end of the story.  Starting at verse 11:

When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa.  He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled.  They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded.  After that, God heeded supplications for the land. 

Rizpah’s vigil has caught David’s attention and the heart of the king seems to have been moved, in fact it almost seems to have shamed David into action.  Not only does he move to provide a proper burial for Rizpah’s sons and relatives, he also goes out of his way to do the same for the remains of both Saul and Jonathan.  In the quest for power, it is as if David has forgotten the depths of his relationship to Jonathan, a man who David is said to have loved more than his own life.   In a way, it’s as if the sheer humanity of the grieving mother is what was needed to shake David from his royal consciousness that treated people, even dear friends, as though they were merely political currency. 

I know some of you are probably thinking that I’ve accidently wandered into next week’s sermon when we will be looking at difficult verses about violence and wrath, but I wanted to look at this passage alongside the passages that were read earlier about women’s subjugation because I think Rizpah’s story teaches us something important about power that has a direct connection to her role as a woman. 

Too often we conceive of power as something that can be possessed, as something that ought to be balanced by moving around a sort of fixed notion of power as substance.  We think that when I have more power, you have less, as if power is some kind of innate characteristic.  But this way of understanding power often completely obscures the relational aspect of power. It is not that one person necessarily has more power than another as if power is some static category that can be objectively quantified.  Instead, French philosopher Michel Foucault wants us to see that a better way of understanding power is to see it as a constant flow and relation of force.  Power is always constituted and maintained within ever shifting relationships that create and recreate as they continue to shift and change.  

I know it’s probably not every Sunday that you get to hear French social philosophy and I know this is a really subtle paradigm shift, but stay with me. The most important part of this shift in thinking about power as relational is that it helps us realize that no one is ever truly powerless.   By refusing to think of power only as something one person or group holds over another, we can become empowered to realize our own sense of agency even within situations of domination.

Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas describes Foucault’s thoughts on power this way:  “Power relations are not imposed upon people from above.  They emerge from below.  They are part of a mosaic of the way people interact with one another as families, lovers, workers, and so on.  The types of relationships individuals form in their complex web of interactions with others shape the types of institutions and structures that emerge in society.” 

What Douglas wants us to see is that Foucault’s relational concept of power places the origin of power in the sphere of intimate and interpersonal relationships rather than abstract ideas and institutions.  Power operates everywhere, but it always moves from the bottom up. 

What I see in Rizpah, then, is a recognition and a reclamation of this bottom-up kind of power that is produced in and through her role as a grieving mother.  So many of the commentaries I looked at this week wanted to talk about Rizpah in terms of the powerlessness of her situation in comparison to the dominating power of the nation expressed through David.  Indeed, no one wants to diminish the reality of the way David operates out of abstract notions of dominating power, yet Rizpah reminds us that, in the end, this story was not about nameless victims in some eternal and inevitable struggle for power; this story is inextricably about the murder of someone’s children.

When power rises to the level of the abstract, the domination that results always relies on the creation of an unquestioned sense of normalcy.  We tell ourselves that this is just the way things are.  Rizpah’s vigil and grief disrupt this status quo by insisting that we cannot and must not be numb to the violence of our society.  In a world where we often hardly bat an eye when our children are being sacrificed at the whims of the state, perhaps we need a mother’s grief to wake us up to the dehumanizing effects of violence.  This is not just the way things are or the way things have to be. 

There is power in Rizpah’s grief.  Indeed, because she enters the story fundamentally rooted in her role as mother, she connects us back to the deepest parts of our humanity.   David, in his role as king, displaces the responsibilities for his actions on the abstract notion of duty to the state, yet Rizpah’s unceasing passion and cries for justice and dignity use a force more powerful than violence to get David to see the blood on his own hands.   There is power in Rizpah’s grief.

And so how does Rizpah’s story help us to interpret the difficult passages about women’s subjugation? 

When I put together the reader’s theater after reading and re-reading the difficult passages you had named, I wanted to put the verses together in a way that expressed a sense of the extensiveness of the difficulty that they present us with.  Sure, some of these passages probably were never meant to create the systems of domination and abuse that they have.  Yet others are hard to hear no matter how much theological wrestling we do.  When they are put together like this, it is hard to ignore the way they call women into silence, submission, and shame.  Thankfully, they are not typically held together in this way, yet for too long the reality they create has persisted. 

Silence, submission, and shame.

Rather than spending hours trying to pick apart the various passages in the hopes of putting them back together in some coherent and life-giving way, I wanted to spend some time this morning thinking about what it means to resist, to resist oppression and domination and subjugation in all its myriad forms. 

The things Rizpah teaches us about power helps us to see what it means to resist.  If we think about power as a possession that some have while others do not, our options become limited and we often get trapped into thinking that the only way to get or maintain power is to violently take it.  In many ways, this is the way David operates.  But a relational understanding of power helps us to see that we are never powerless because power is always constituted and created in the ways we relate to one another.  Power moves from the bottom-up. 

I have no doubt that, in a lot of ways, Rizpah lived in a society that called women to silence, submission, and shame, yet Rizpah was still able to resist the numbness of this dominating system.  Rizpah’s resistance is so powerful because it connects us back to the deepest and most intimate parts of our humanity.   A mother’s grief exposes the senseless violence of the system simply by refusing to accept it and move on. 

And the heart of a king was moved. 

Let me close with both inspiration and challenge. 

First, inspiration: This past week, we found out that an immensely powerful woman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban because she advocated for education for girls, was awarded the prize for her continued advocacy despite the danger to herself.  In a speech to the U.N. she said, “The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.”  Malala resists the silence, submission, and shame with everything she has and refuses to think of her power only in terms of violent force. 

And now, a challenge: Across this country there is a disturbingly growing number of grieving mothers crying out for dignity and justice for their children.   From Ferguson, MO to Beavercreek, OH to Sanford, FL, and any number of other locations where these incidents do not get as much press, Black men are becoming victims to senseless violence.  Mothers, fathers, friends, sisters, and brothers are taking to the streets and becoming the Rizpah’s of our generation as they keep vigil in hopes that justice will be done.  They remind us that these are not just pieces of collateral damage in some faceless conflict.  They remind us that this is not the way things ought to be. 

So will we hear them?  Will we join them in their vigil even after the news vans have left?  Will we look into the faces of these men and see their humanity?  Will we allow our hearts to be moved toward action?  Will we be woken from any numbness we might feel? 

How will we resist?

My wish for you my friends is:
– That we would know that we are never completely powerless.
– That we would use all of our available resources, however limited, to resist oppression in any form.
– That we would listen to the voices of those who grieve and allow them to connect us to the depths of our humanity.
– And, finally, that we would see ourselves as glowing coals, quietly and passionately igniting the world around us.



Sermon Response by Tracey Lehman:

Mark asked me to respond to his sermon from the perspective of a mother who advocates for her children with disabilities.  Being a parent involves advocating for your children.  We all do that with our children, whether or not they have disabilities.  When your kids do have a disability or additional challenges, the advocating becomes more intense and it can last a lifetime.  All of a sudden, you’re presenting your child to different doctors and surgeons, therapists, teachers, and other professionals.  They all have their ideas and agendas and opinions.  We have to collect these ideas, assimilate them, and decide which ones are valid and which ones fit into our lives and what we determine to be meaningful.  This was a big area of growth for me; I used to avoid voicing my opinion.  But once I became responsible for a typical child and then for children with disabilities, I needed to do what Jeff and I knew was best for our family. 

A spiritual director once said to me, in a larger context, be true to yourself.  Trust that voice within.  And being a mother has helped make that a practical reality.  Being a mother of a boy with Down syndrome opened the door to considering adopting another boy with Down syndrome.   Like Rizpah,  who, while guarding her sons’ bodies against the elements must have experienced feelings of fear, anger, sorrow, discouragement, love, fatigue,  and powerlessness, for many of us, taking care of our children has turned out differently than we expected.  That means we end up doing things differently–not just with the individuals, but as a family.  If your child has medical or behavioral challenges, there are many extra appointments and activities, and it becomes difficult to do the things that used to seem simple—going to the library, joining children’s groups, going to see fireworks, finding a babysitter, going on a playdate, getting a haircut, going to church events,  eating supper, attending school.  It becomes frustrating and tiring and seemingly not worth the effort to do the less-necessary things.  Yet, many things are worth the effort because, as parents, we want our kids to be part of society.  And society misses out if people with disabilities are not included in all aspects of life.  We risk becoming rigid and stuck in our ways and unappreciative of the diversity of human nature.  We lose the chance to learn from people who have been viewed as powerless but who have perhaps found their power or spiritual strength in what we view as weakness. 

Lest I sound sanctimonious, in my role as mother, I find myself running through Rizpah’s many emotions on a daily basis.  And it has become my potential spiritual treasure trove because I have so many opportunities to confront my issues and to discover where my true needs lie.  Something I can learn if I choose to in these situations, is that everyone will be better off if I let go of expectations and permit emotions to come and go.  I try to remember that it can be a gift to be around someone who is fully in the moment–someone who is truly aware–and paying attention to everything, even if it means we have to remove the sliding closet doors because that person who is so attentive has observed how to take them off the track and will do so at every opportunity.  I can learn something from a person who doesn’t hold onto grudges, who doesn’t perseverate on what people might think about him or on what might happen in the future.  And when someone continually resists me because he has a mind of his own, I can try to remember that it truly is a gift when someone is emotionally open and authentic all the time.  

One of my roles in advocating for my children is to encourage awareness and education in the area of inclusion.  People with disabilities say that the biggest barrier they encounter is people’s attitudes.  Our biggest challenge right now is working with the schools to ensure that our kids are learning at their own level alongside their typical peers in regular education.   As a mother who is not viewed as a professional, I often feel there is an imbalance of power at our rather large meetings.   My general plan is to do what I can to non-threateningly bring balance to the situation.  Author Kathie Snow, whose son has cerebral palsy, says that “true, long-lasting power doesn’t come from “winning.”  It comes from creating win-win situations in which you generously and wisely help others feel successful.  Maintain dignity and good manners, and no matter what happens, continue to build relationships.“ That’s all easier said than done, and compromise is part of the package, but I’ve found that adopting a more-relational approach is worth the effort. 

Some people view parents of children with disabilities as parents who must be especially suited to the role, and they may say or think, I could never do that.  I think it’s more accurate to say that none of us were especially prepared, and some may be more capable of handling things than others, at least initially.  The journey may have difficult challenges, but it also has rewards.  A well-known poem about having a disabled child,  “Welcome to Holland,” compares having a child with a disability to planning a vacation to Italy and then finding out that your plane has landed in Holland.  The author says, “if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.”  So we draw strength from the love we have for our children and from our faith in the belief that they will be happy and that they will have a place in the world.