Category Archives: Silencing

A recent cultural shock…

I have spent the last week in S. Florida on a business trip.  My whole Chicago office (five people) went to Ft. Lauderdale to meet with our team members there (15 people).  I have been aware in past meetings of the cultural gaps between these groups, so I made a point to note them as they occurred this week.  I have struggled trying to synthesize this material in order to present it in a some cohesive fashion.  But I realize that the cultural differences and resulting culture shock have left me mute.  I don’t know how to wrap my head around them, therefore I will simply list them here.

  1. No mention of Trayvon Martin.  In the week leading up to the closing arguments and verdict on the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, not one of the Florida residents discussed the case with us–even though the trial was showing 24/7  on the lobby monitors.  This case has been of particular interest over the past year with the Chicago group, and we’ve spent hours over lunches, breaks, etc. talking about racism, what constitutes justice, etc.  It has impacted our lives.  But even after the closing arguments were made, not a single word was mentioned of the case by any of my Florida colleagues.
  2. There is a bizarre combination of machismo and hyperfeminity in the S. Florida office.  The men’s interests were either ‘gay’ (focus on bodies, musicals, and trash talk gossip) or machismo (motorcycles, sea runners, muscles, etc.).  The women wore full make up, mini skirt suits raised up to there and cut down to there, and platform five inch heels: they hobbled awkwardly from meeting to meeting.  The Chicago group wanted to talk politics, reform, ecology, poverty, postcolonialism, consumerism,  philosophy, and religion.  The Chicago women wore slacks, flat shoes, minimal make up: and our feminist hackles were raised over women who hobbled themselves for fashion.
  3.  There was an utter lack of sensitivity to colonialist discourse.  Our boss was downplaying the possibility of any raises or additional perks this year, and said as a means of making her point:  “You know, the natives in third world countries are happy to get a t-shirt.  They don’t expect more than a t-shirt.  They get a t-shirt and think that’s pretty cool.  You need to think like those third world people.”  And later we listened to a presentation about ‘smart tribes’, creature/critter mentality, idea monkeys, and the need for dom/sub swapping (dominant/submissive swapping roles).  The entire Chicago team sat there with mouths agape.  One colleague from Columbia was jokingly referred to as ‘the Drug Lord’.  The Florida team laughed heartily: apparently this is an ongoing joke.
  4. TV: this ice breaker left me cold.  In one of the ice breaker exercises, we were asked to name what guilty pleasure TV show we watched.  The S. Florida team named various reality TV shows.  The Chicago team responded with confusion: “I don’t watch much besides the news and sports”; “I don’t own a TV”; “I have kids… I don’t have time for TV”; “I have a TV but I made my own rabbit ears and they don’t work very well…”; and “It has been years since I sat down and watched TV.”   To which one of our S. Florida colleagues replied, “If you don’t have TV, what do you watch?”  We were speechless. Finally one of the young women from the Chicago group said “I don’t watch anything. I do things–I go out, participate in community theater, I read.”
  5. Reading.  The comment about Chicagoans reading resulted in a certain form of defensiveness from the S. Florida group.  Our boss said “Folk here read. We have readers in our group. But then we go and watch the movie made about the book.”  And once again, the Chicago group just gaped.
  6. Guns.  For the evening entertainment, the S. Florida group discussed the possibility of going to a realistic police training firing range where you can load a video feed of the streets of your home town, and shoot at people. “It is SO cool!”  The Chicago team refused.
  7. Materialism. The focus on acquisition of goods was overwhelming. Waste was viewed as the ultimate luxury. Our boss bragged about having thrown a corporate party with a budget of half a million dollars. “We found this really cute candy store in Manhattan.  It was perfect. The CEO said “Make it happen” so we rented it for the event.  The owner was concerned about his goods, so the CEO just bought out the store to put the owner at ease.  Then we could eat all the candy we wanted.”   The Chicago group were once again nothing short of stunned at the opulence and waste, especially in light of the layoffs we’d been through and the intention with which we strive to not be consumers (wearing second hand clothes, recycling, reusing, etc.).

So I write all this to say that I’ve not experienced that kind of culture shock in a while.

But no… that’s not true.

I was down in Southern Illinois for the 4th of July and we attended the fireworks at the county airport.  We parked our little car on the grassy lot, and were quickly surrounded by large four-door over-sized pickup trucks: guys sitting in the back in lawn chairs, drinking beer, spitting tobacco, throwing fire crackers and smoke bombs off the tailgate, Toby Keith blaring offensive lyrics from ginormous speakers.  I felt in a foreign land.

And now I don’t know how to go on.   There is much disparity in these states we call ‘United”.

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First world problems…

A new found friend has taken up the mantle of victim advocate in Gender Based Violence (GBV) in the capital city of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  She is wielding the weapons at her disposal against patriarchal traditions which are both native to her land and imposed from certain Western ideals.  As such, she is actively on the web setting up groups for discussion, message boards, etc. and is posting images of women who have suffered unimaginable brutality.  She’s emailed and discussed curriculum options for weekend seminars, and requested resources. She recently emailed me privately some photos: they are graphic and haunting–including fresh wounds from axes and bush knives, burns from hot irons, broken bones and bruises from beatings, amputations, and even images of a woman being burned to death and a beheading.

I am honored to be trusted with such images–honored and deeply humbled.

And traumatized.

Since receiving the photos I’ve not been able to sleep.  Days have passed and the images dog me, sneaking up when I least expect it. It isn’t that the level of violence is new to me: I witnessed ravages as such as a child growing up among the poor and prostitutes in the capital. I grew up not knowing that wounds weren’t normal–that amputations weren’t just a matter of course.  Rape was a real possibility (even if I’d gotten the logistics confused as a child).  I understood scars as women’s history written large on their bodies.    Yet as an adult, with feminist-educated eyes and a wealth of theological study behind me, the images sting anew: the status of women hasn’t changed much in 30 years.

And my initial response is silence.  I cannot bear the weight of these images alone, yet cannot share them–I don’t wish this sort of haunting upon anyone, especially those who for whom Western media has cushioned such blows (we don’t show dead bodies on TV or in our newspapers, they are censored out of our common news sources).  We witness domestic violence through movies–comforted that it is merely makeup we are viewing, and not real wounds.

I go talk to my therapist.  And I find I don’t care to introduce such atrocities to her psyche either.  I pour my heart out in frustration, but hold the pictures close to my proverbial chest.

I tell my best friend of them, and of the impossibility of sharing their burden.  He listens, pained at my frustration.  He allows me to hold them at a distance.  And finally, he offers to see them.  “I’m willing.”  And tears begin to flow freely.  And I consider it.

But I can’t help thinking back to my friend in PNG and the life-risking work she is doing on behalf of the women there.  How can I tell her that because of her pictures, I’ve been traumatized? That her emails have sent me to therapy?  That while she lives and breathes this atmosphere of violence, I spend $150 to talk to a therapist? That I fret because I’ve lost 3 nights of sleep? That I feel utterly inadequate and ridiculous?

Yet I live and work in this world: surrounded by high rises, wealth, and opulence.

Damn my first world problems and first world solutions. Damn them.




When it is hard to be ‘Christian’…

There are days when it is hard to claim the moniker ‘Christian’.  Last week I experienced this in a very acute fashion: a woman was accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea, and a crowd beat her and burned her to death.  Such violence is deplorable under any circumstance, but the fact remains that the outrage levied against this woman was fueled in part by norms and traditions taught by Christian missionaries: that is, that indigenous religious expressions are suspect and a work of  ‘Satan’.  The animistic traditions indigenous to PNG certainly bore their own share of violence, but the outrage and form of vigilante justice evidenced in this crowd of 50 onlookers is reinforced  by rhetoric of ‘spiritual warfare’ and such, common to Evangelical-speak.  And I cringe that the teachings of Jesus could ever be carried so far as to commit such heinous acts.

And yet I am aware of a long history of such crimes in the name of the Christian tradition (see for instance, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, etc.).  It is just hard to understand in the 21st century. Or so we think.

While people in Papua New Guinea were deemed ‘savage’  as the world looked on in horror while 50 people stood and watched a woman burn to death, last Tuesday we ‘civilized people’ in the United States watched by the millions as murder-suspect Dorner burned to death.  So much for ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  It seems Dorner required no trial–thus no attempt at stopping the fire or rescuing him was made.  Instead, it was urgent that ‘the threat be removed’.  How expedient we can be when brown skin is involved.

There are days when it is hard to claim the moniker ‘American’.

I have to confess I’m just grieved over both situations.  And at a loss.

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Beat me, bore me… never ignore me…

One fateful Sunday lunch during high school, my adolescent wilfulness and rebellion had tried the patience of my mother to the point of exhaustion.  I was flippant and irritable, and wanted more than anything to NOT be at the family table for dinner.  Anything would be better than sitting there with my folks.  In spite of all my angst, however, I knew that my parents demanded propriety:  I asked to be excused.  My mother, frustrated beyond recognition, cut her eyes at me and pronounced “You may leave the table when you have said the following ten times aloud: Beat me, bore me, but never ignore me.”  A subsequent marathon-length battle of wills ensued:  neither of us was willing to give in.  We sat there staring at each other for hours.  Dinner plates got cold and crusty.  My dad and brother had long left the table and were no doubt indulging in the Sunday-afternoon-after-church nap. Yet we sat.  Finally, I mumbled out the phrase the tenth time and fled the scene.

Of course sitting there like that didn’t break my spirit; if anything it escalated my anger exponentially.  But I knew better than outright disobedience.   In my adult years, I can look back on that incident and laugh and tease my mom about the battle for power/control.  But as a teenager, I was livid.

Now as an adult, I’m amused at how often that phrase comes to mind: particularly in moments wherein someone is wrongly lording their power over me.  I thought about it during this incident.  And more recently, in response to a woman in my local congregation who loves to be on committees and loves to manipulate herself into control.  I swear she wins by filibuster, as we are all too sick of her to keep arguing.  She wields her ill-gained power like a sharp knife and possesses an amazing ability to cut your throat without you realizing it.  She smiles, nodding in feigned comprehension and agreement, as you continue your narrative, and watches the life-force eek from the wound she inflicted.  Finally you collapse.  She’s left standing, and deems that you were too weak anyway… she is merely thinning the herd.

I can do little about folks willing to manipulate and connive their way into positions of power.  But I can sure as hell pay enough attention to flee when I see the flash of the knife.

The Silencing Effect of ‘Good News’…

Evangelicals are, by definition, supposed to be bearers of ‘Good News’.

When I was little (prior to New Guinea, so I’d have been maybe 5 or 6), there were some neighbor boys in E. St. Louis who would come and terrorize me and my brother.  Dad had built us a ‘fort’ on on the back of our property in the woods, and these boys would often just show up.  They were older than either me or Bill at the time: I believe Tiger was 16 and Jeff was 11.  We complained to dad about their presence and said they were ‘mean’ to us, but he reminded us they came from a ‘broken home’ and that we should try to include them.  Well… that shut the two of us up from ever feeling free to complain about them.  They stashed porn in the fort, and my brother and I would burn it or hide it because we were afraid.  And once, while I was alone with them, they exposed themselves to me.  (My brother was in school and I wasn’t, so I must have been pretty small).  I came into the house crying, and dad asked what was wrong.  I told him they were being ‘mean’ again, and he said, “well… remember… they aren’t from a Christian home… so try to be nice and ‘turn the other cheek’.”  We stopped playing in the fort altogether.  And nothing more was ever said about it.

When I was 19 I took a job across the state and worked for an inner city mission, holding summer camps for youth.  There was a man who volunteered who was 32.  As young girls are wont to do, I found him attractive, and I’m sure I acted like a 19 year old in my behavior to him.  One evening, late in the summer, he asked me to go for a walk with him.  We hiked up a trail in the woods–and there he became quite ‘handsie’ with me.  I was uncomfortable. No guy had ever acted that way with me before.  Danny complained “haven’t you ever had a boyfriend before?” I said nothing as I was too ashamed to admit that I was inexperienced in these matters.  I can’t imagine how it could have been fun for him, as I know it had to have been like kissing a brick wall.  But I endured and said nothing.

That weekend, dad and mom came to visit.  While alone with dad, I pointed Danny out and said “He’s not been very nice to me.”  Dad shrugged and said “well… you know how to handle yourself.”  So I was silent, feeling judged for not having been more resistant… for letting things go as far as they had… etc.

I spent the next month pretty much terrorized by Danny who would show up at my cabin late at night and want to fool around.  Suddenly I felt like there was no ground to say ‘no’.  There was no support. I’d already let things go shamelessly too far with him, and I was to blame because I’d not stopped it the first night.  After about a month of this, I quit the job, packed up and returned home, only to have my dad and mom talk to me about making commitments and not quiting.  “People at the mission were counting on you, Donna.  Those  kids were counting on you.”

And I’ve never talked to my folks about that either.

I went back to my small conservative Christian college my for my junior year after this experience with Danny feeling pretty miserable.  While I was too ashamed to tell my parents about it, I was even more afraid of how the college administration might react: I knew plenty of gals who got kicked out of school because of similar things.  I felt like I’d done something really wrong, but couldn’t tell a soul–couldn’t confess my ‘sins’.  (The bizarre thing was–I’d really not done much of anything–just didn’t resist his advances–yet I carried around an amazing amount of guilt.)

I bear a weight of ‘guilt’ these days, not for having had the experiences I’ve had, but rather for not being more honest with my parents.  And yet I also do not think it is worth the bother at this point in our lives or in my relationship with them.  I don’t feel known at all by my family–these things which were so big, and so formative to me will remain unspoken.  And at the same time, I don’t see any ‘good’ coming from sharing it with them–it would only foster an-already-too-late sense of guilt in them.  And they don’t need that, and neither do I.

The events with Danny were very formative to my relationship with Mark (who I was eventually engaged to). Once things progressed as they did with Danny, there seemed no reason for them to not do so with Mark (I know that makes no logical sense, but somehow it worked that way).  Enduring Danny left me stupidly willing to endure a lot of other things from men.  At any rate, even though I knew things were terribly wrong in my relationship to Mark, I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, and I found myself in that crazy cycle of guilt again.

When Mark and I broke up, I walked away having come to the conclusion that if everything is sin, nothing is sin.

It was this experience, coupled with the unintended silencing of the holiness tradition, that made me really begin questioning the whole ‘Wesleyan’ agenda.  I felt a real and certain need for this to be known, and couldn’t risk talking about it with anyone.  Five years passed before I ever told anyone.  That was the head-space I was in when I entered Seminary: I had learned the ‘Good News’ functioned to silenced the bad, but never quite ‘eradicate’ it.