Today’s Gospel is the beginning of what is often referred to as Mark’s “Little Apocalypse.” I have always struggled with its message and location in the narrative. I tend to agree with those scholars who say it was a later insert by the early church. It basically says the world is going to end soon. Since history has proved it wrong as a literal prediction I don’t see much point in dwelling on it. For that matter, since Obama got re-elected, I’ve decided not to worry anymore about the Mayan calendar’s predictions of a similar catastrophe next month.
Instead I want to reflect on something that’s real and has been the cause of catastrophe since it emerged at least 6000 years ago: Patriarchy. Literally, “Rule by the Fathers.” It is my reflection on Hannah’s story in I Samuel that has dared me to tread where probably no one with a Y chromosome should tread, especially if he lives with a wise, perceptive, and strong woman who can ably express her thoughts on this issue. My fear, and I ask your forgiveness in advance, is that I’m a lot like Hannah’s husband Elkanah, a nice guy who truly loves his wife but doesn’t always get the reality of her life. Hannah’s reality is that her barrenness is judged as being God’s punishment, bringing her the scorn of others. More importantly if her husband should die before her in this “traditional” biblical family with two wives, his sons by the other spouse would inherit everything and she would be dependent on their good will (or lack of it).
Confounded by her constant sorrow at her barrenness, Elkanah asks, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” when he should have said, “Hannah, YOU are more than ten sons to ME.” While I am uncomfortably aware that I might be equally inept today, my reflection has led me to be reminded at how destructive patriarchy’s continuing dominance is. Certainly all women are its victims, and in my view, so are all men. Let me give just one quick example.
The first expectation of patriarchy is having dominance over women, which is bad enough, and the second is to have sons, which is worse. Until science discovered that each of us is half of each of our parents, the only importance women had was as incubators. At the time of Hannah, the Hebrew people had no concept of an after life. One lived on in your children. So, in particular, with their limited biological knowledge, it was essential to have sons for life to carry on. On this point Hannah clearly agreed. She doesn’t pray for a daughter. A daughter wouldn’t have solved her plight. With her knowledge a daughter bore life but did not create life. It is also true that a daughter didn’t inherit anything either. She would still be destitute should Elkanah pre-decease her.
Patriarchy is grounded in devaluing the feminine gender. One might think our modern knowledge would have had some impact on this attitude and that patriarchy might be in decline, but not so. Science has become a tool of patriarchy. Through ultra scans and other tests, it is possible to determine the sex of a child in utero. Certainly throughout Asia, and I suspect widely in the Western world, this knowledge all too often leads to aborting girls. I’m pro-choice, but this is a horrific and truly immoral choice. One Indian Nobel Laureate believes 600,000 girls go missing every year in India alone. This is leading to greater and greater gender imbalance there. This imbalance is already creating numerous social ills, sex trafficking being only one.
When I was deciding where to emigrate after the 2004 presidential debacle in the US, New Zealand had a woman in each of its top government posts: Governor-General, Prime Minister and Speaker of the House, and a woman was CEO at one of its largest corporations, Telecom. I knew that New Zealand was the first country in the world to pass women’s suffrage and the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia had elected the first woman Diocesan bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion. As a proud father of two daughters, I thought I was coming to a country where patriarchy, if not yet dead, was in steep decline. I know. I’ve always been a little naïve. Today, the most prominent woman in politics I can think of is Paula Bennett, the Minister for Social Development, who has chosen to forget that in her past she has been supported by a generous social contract as the price of accepting power from men. She has chosen to play by patriarchy’s rules and poor women suffer. There are lots of other indicators that patriarchy is alive and well here. Just one would be our appalling domestic violence figures. Another is that our growing economic inequality hits women far harder than men. There are far too many women here who suffer on a level matching or surpassing Hannah’s.
And as troubled as I am about the situation here, it is worse where my daughters live. What became known as the “War on Women” by Republicans in the last election went far beyond disturbing when one candidate suggested that some rape is legitimate and another that it is God’s will. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I do take solace that women voted in droves and those Republicans and Romney with them paid a price. I think Hannah would be pleased. I know I am. I take solace that there is now a record 81 congresswomen in a House of 435 representatives (even if one of them is Michelle Bachman) and that 20 of our 100 senators are women; also a record. However, less than a 20% representation of women in congress is nothing to be proud of in a country where slightly more than 50% of the population is female. I should note that it is not hugely better here, but there has been progress: 34% of parliament is composed of women. But I think the world will be a better place when there is gender parity here and the US and everywhere. The best it is anywhere is in Sweden where 47% of its parliament is women.
You may have noticed that I am well into this sermon and haven’t mentioned religion’s role in patriarchy. You would be warranted in thinking the preacher has a blind spot. The church usually does where patriarchy is concerned, choosing to disregard the many who see religion at the root of patriarchy’s evil.
In truth, we know that patriarchy was long established before the great religions of today began to first glimmer. All the major religions and great philosophies can be traced back to a period between 800 and 200 BCE. The period has come to be called the Axial Age. It was a time of Socrates and Plato; Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Second Isaiah; Buddha, Lao Tze and Confucius. It was a time when Indian philosophy developed ideas of nonviolence, karma and asceticism and the Upanishads were written. Christianity and Islam, while coming after it, were the direct descendants and beneficiaries of this age of spiritual enlightenment. It has been called “The Great Leap of Being.” These spiritual teachers did not reinforce patriarchy’s love of power and dominance over others. They confronted it. Clearly in Jesus or Buddha there is no hint of the “us and them” that patriarchy promotes. In my view this was a highly progressive era in human history, however short-lived. For instance, after Constantine came to power in 313 CE and co-opted Christianity, patriarchy corrupted Jesus’ teachings and throughout Christendom today that corruption is still predominant. The church too often is patriarchy’s tool to maintain domination. It is much the same story with other faiths as well that have lost touch with their founders’ non-patriarchal vision. I think it can be argued that the great religions can be counted among patriarchy’s victims.
So where is our hope? Let me return to Hannah. One American theologian, Karla Suomala, wonders if the author of I Samuel was acutely aware of the injustice of a woman’s circumstances at that time? Is he giving voice through Hannah to the deep, systemic injustice that has caused untold suffering for women throughout history? She admits it may just be wishful thinking on her part, but thinks it is possible when we look to the next chapter at Hannah’s Song. It is more than a simple prayer of thanks for the birth of her son Samuel. It is a song of revolution where the bows of the mighty are broken and poor are raised up. She points to the pillars of injustice that must be pulled down. [i]
We may not live in an Axial Age, but there are many of us in all faiths and those with no faith who strongly agree with Hannah. We must not think we are powerless. God is within us. However, we must be more aware of how we ourselves have been shaped by patriarchy. We must become more aware of our complicity with it. We must claim our power to confront it and challenge it. We must hold fast to the insights born so long ago in that ancient age, that Hannah represents. We must speak first honestly to ourselves and then to those who would dismiss us, and care not for those who suffer at their hands. Let us stop the suffering. Let us sing a song of revolution: a song of liberation from patriarchy. Hannah knows the words.