Thursday, December 29, 2011

Male-female - the axis of power, the place of good

Kurk Gayle of BLT has asked me:
would you speculate with me, then, where the strict and precise and dogmatic separation of the sexes along the lines of such categories comes from? Isn't it from people who want to maintain categories that allow them more power than the "other"?
Well, yes - I would speculate. What is that knowledge of good and evil that was promised from the eating of that tree?  First to his second question, the one that leads to an answer: is it that categorization represents power and also leads to the abuse of that power?

I was recently at a service of nine lessons and carols. The design of the service includes the idea that the lessons should be read by representatives of the whole community, from the least to the greatest. In this it follows the instruction in Psalm 49:1-3 and it breathes the fullness of the body, high and low, rich and poor, one with another, these words themselves being part of the Advent Responsory  from the traditional service on Advent 1. Category and hierarchy are not evil in themselves. We need every level of growing responsibility in a healthy community. So it is today that laundry and housekeeping are shared in my two-person household as we prepare for the arrival of our adult children (a phrase I understand is now in OED).

There are, however, to get to the first part of the question, many of the male gender who fail to share responsibility or who imagine that the responsibilities are separated by person completely. Perhaps they would not sort their wife's clothes from the dryer, but might deign to sort their own. Or perhaps not at all: the man might say to the woman, I work 6 days a week and I bought you these expensive labour-saving devices, now you do your part! (I overheard these very words in front of one of the first microwaves in Toronto c 1974). It must be important. If I say I was not impressed, but I remembered the conversation for nearly 40 years, it was the male attitude that did not impress me.

The division of labour between the sexes goes back more than 40 years, of course. What I was hearing was a remnant of a prior age. While I used to blame everything on Queen Victoria, I think the tendency to focus blame on one age is misguided. The blame lies in every age, our own not excluded. Youthful zeal will not fix the tension between category of responsibility and abdication. Nor will it fix its opposite: the tendency of the responsibility of one to create incompetence in the other. I seldom cook, though I can and I gave my wife her first lessons in cooking c 1968, but now she is so competent and organized that unless I have to, I confine myself to cleaning up - a task I know how to do. Nor will youthful zeal fix the exploitation of a power imbalance.

Division of labour is a small thing. The dislocation of desire is larger as is the failure to see and respond to honour or even more specifically, the failure to allow the full growth of mutual independence, so that mutual interdependence can be healthy rather than dislocated. While this is a 'spirit' issue, it is clearly mediated by our human mechanisms and we study the failures of these mechanisms in those who are mentally ill or damaged in one way or another. None of this is sin or evil in itself, but it shows the work of God (John 9:3). Some of us are blind or deaf to some things, others deaf or blind in other ways. But the sickness can become the norm in a social order. (The pathetic nature of pride, avarice, and desire is well portrayed in Jane Austen's Persuasion, to give an example in the English tradition.)

This good of sex is so distorted. C.S.Lewis notes (in The Great Divorce, I think) that the greater gift is subject to the greater distortion. So honour sought with respect to sex and marriage, results in murder of daughter or wife if social norms are violated. Pleasure sought results in preference for the male, as if the woman is incapable of pleasure, and results in infanticide and selective abortion of the female. Male seems to prefer the obvious. It will prove to be to his own destruction.

There is no avoiding difference, of which male and female is among the more obvious. Differing gifts and capacities result in a power imbalance. The dependency of the woman during pregnancy and child rearing and her generally weaker frame and musculature has resulted in the male again dominating for pleasure and for property.

Co-operation seems rare. I wonder if some of the laws that seem against the woman are really against the male (the stronger partner), since he is at times so much more in need of correction, and so blind to his own self-absorption.  So, I surmise, the sign of circumcision is in the flesh (בָּשַׂר) of the male. In this sign the Gospel (בָּשַׂר) is prefigured. The Gospel allows the fleshly creature in its mortal body, to know life through the Spirit, and that abundantly. This is a good to be sought that should not lead to dishonour, but it seems to have led there, if the shame of Christendom is to be seen.  But dishonour is not just evident among those going by the name of Christian. However little they seem to have ears, they are no more deaf or blind than any other human group, even if they should know better.

But how does one get to 'know better'.  I have used a word I avoid.  I dislike 'better' for the world was created 'good' and the good is sufficient. So how can one find the good?

Personally, my own flesh learned the destruction of its desire through the death of Jesus, a circumcision of my self in obedience to that death, a place of good. I expected nothing in return, just relief through death of the destruction that I knew in myself. I was very surprised at the growth that became evident to me.  As I have often written elsewhere, I sensed and knew maturing and healing, sight and hearing, of all sorts.  I have since referred without ceasing all things to the invisible all-hearing Instructor. I especially reveal to the one who gave Torah, every trouble I discover, and every delight - though I am quicker with trouble! Somehow, I muddle through, for even my sight and my maturing is in part.  Still, I have loved the path of learning, especially the intoxicating fullness of the Psalms which I continue to study. In every way they have taught me how to call and how to hear the Heavenly Voice, never far distant from anyone.

This good is sufficient. It is what was called very good in that first Day. Even in my current straits, a treatment via hormone therapy and radiation for cancer, I continue in this good, with all my fears and joys and feelings. One day the chariots of fire will come for me. And in that one day I will live, then and now. It is not different from the first day (Genesis 2:4) as George Herbert noted: there is but one and that one ever (Easter).

So even if there are, to quote Kurk again, 'people who want to maintain categories that allow them more power than the "other"', I trust it is possible not to do this regardless of social custom, for I have learned otherwise. Perhaps I will help a few who might come in contact with me and through me with the one who Teaches.  I cannot 'solve' the presenting problem, nor it seems, will any particular organization of government, on its own.  I remain grateful as I have acknowledged before to those like Kurk and Suzanne who face the issues head on - for they too will help others as they have helped me in my Day.  The direct questioning of culture is important since so much of it is self-serving and self-perpetuating in spite of its destructive aspects, particularly to the female.


  1. Thinking of you during your treatment.

  2. Thank you Bob for your thoughtfulness! I read your post with attention to each developed paragraph, each sentence, to every word. Thank you for the repeated emphasis on "culture" and on "social custom" as the culprit we are all complicit in. There's really no way around that, is there? Who and what do we judge as responsible or as so irresponsible? My father, who like you in some ways is undergoing treatment, is now like you in his thoughtfulness. Last night he phoned me to say, "I'm sorry" again, apologizing for a verbal abuse he thought he'd committed against me, once again, when I was visiting him and Mom. I am touched profoundly by the changes. These differences within one person both puzzle me and give me hope for societal changes. Of course, history is full of God's graces manifest in feminism and feminisms. And I am grateful. I know the f-word I'm using here is loaded, but until the customs and ethics are not so differently marked "male" and "female" I'll keep using it. Be well. I'm with Suzanne in thinking of you during your treatment and your recovery.