The whole truth, and nothing but the truth

Trigger alert

“What is Truth?”

The irony of these words was likely not lost on the early Christians, the first readers of the Gospels. The Roman Pilate asks this question of Jesus, the one who had said of himself, “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” The truth that Christians proclaim is not a truth that we have reached philosophically, by asking the right questions in the right order – Christ was foolishness to the Greeks (and the Romans, their inheritors.) Truth is not (for Christians) a matter of “what?” but of “who?”

If “none is good but God alone,” it is also true that “none is trustworthy but God alone.”

Consider the above to be the scriptural / theological preamble to my revisiting of the DSK case.  For more than a month, I have been intending to follow up on my earlier post, in order to focus more on the subsequent trial by media of Nafissatou Diallo, the woman who said that Strauss-Kahn assaulted her while she was at work.  (Though it is also true that I avoided blogging for awhile, because I didn’t know if I could bring myself to write about it.)

A friend of mine recently wrote an excellent post about state executions, entitled “I am Lawrence Brewer.” Inspired by her post, I would like to myself claim, “I am Nafissatou Diallo.”

The truth is, only God knows the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what happens when any two persons are alone together.  We may have forensic evidence, we may make a best effort, we may surmise, but we cannot know.  But our desire to know – our desire to discover the truth of events that we were not present for – often masks a more disturbing reality – we do not even know the truth of events that involve us directly.  Or, to take the focus off of ourselves for a moment (phew!): Mr. Strauss-Kahn and Ms. Diallo do not themselves know the whole truth about what happened in that room.  (And, as William Saletan points out in Slate, no matter what DSK may say, the prosecutors do not claim to know for certain what happened in that room either.  He was let go for lack of clear evidence, not for exculpatory evidence.)

Too often, men who rape women do not see what they have done as wrong, as violent, or as non-consensual.  There are some individuals for whom an absolute overpowering of a woman against her will is a turn-on, but I believe that sexual assault is so widespread because there are far too many men who do not have a robust conception of what constitutes “consent” or a lack thereof.

Too often, women who have been raped cannot tell the truth about it (or even remember the truth about it), in part because they fear they will not be believed, and in part because they do not wish to believe it themselves:  they do not wish to believe that they can be so easily overpowered or coerced, they do not wish to believe that any man (or this particular man) would do so, they do not wish to believe that they could forget any number of details of the attack (failing to record a mental impression of the event is common for trauma victims)…

And they do not wish to open themselves up to the Monday morning quarterbacks:  “If you had not been alone with him… If you had not been dressed so suggestively… if you had not let him [kiss, touch, fondle] you first… If you had not been out at that time [or in that neighborhood, or with that crowd of people]… If you had not been so [naive, stupid, confident, old, young, pretty, ugly, skinny, fat, drunk, drugged, frigid, loose]… If you had only done what [my friend who avoided a similar rape because she had more cleverness/quickness/faith in God than you]… Then you would not have been in this situation.”

Would that be the situation when someone utterly disregarded my repeated “NO!,” my physical struggle, my back bleeding against the flagstones?  I suppose that had to be my fault.  Not his?

Which is how, following being raped myself (the first time), I told a different version of it to almost every person I met.  And in the first versions, it was consensual.  Which (along with my Dad’s promise that he would kill a guy who ever did that to me, which I was all too scared he would follow through on) is a good bit of what kept me from reporting it.  I knew I wasn’t a credible witness.  I had snuck out of my house, was drinking underage, and had told a couple of friends the next morning that the sex was consensual.

I wonder what he thought of what happened?  I cannot know, since he took his life just a couple of years later.  It was years before I could feel sorry that he had done that to himself. Forgive me, Lord, for having celebrated his death.  I do not do so now.  You continue to unfold to me what it means that you are love, and that love is therefore the sum total of what is true.

I am Nafissatou Diallo – for I understand that I am lost, and that I do not speak the truth with any consistency.  And I am Dominique Strauss-Kahn – for I understand that I am blind to my own selfish domination of others – that it is done by corporations and governments on my behalf makes it no less intimate a violence for those who are held down as they struggle.  (I am the very model of a modern cow of Bashan.) None is good but God alone.

For more of my thoughts on honesty, you may wish to see these related posts:

On Acts 5 (Guest entry for Will Grady’s Advent Blog, 2007)

I’m Sorry and I’m Sorry, Part 2

Cultural Anthropology

Jesus Land, again

Since having read Jesus Land and posted about it – twice – there have been a couple of interesting developments.  The professor who asked me to read and comment on the book, Dr. Amy Laura Hall, forwarded on my entries to two other professors that I also have great respect for – Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter.  And I read Dr. Carter’s own blog entry on the subject.  And my family’s adoption profile went live at the agency we have been working with.

The last development might not seem particularly relevant, unless you have read the book – which is, in addition to all of the other things I wrote about, a story about cross-racial adoption.

Oh, did I neglect to mention race in my first two entries?  Yep, I did.

Puzzling out that one – why I had focused on the fundamentalism thread, and not even touched on the race thread – had been troubling me ever since reading Carter’s own insightful essay on the book.  Of course, there is lots that I didn’t comment on in the book, and that I still won’t touch on in this third post – I would have to write eight or ten or more entries! – but race was such a big part of the book that failing to mention it is almost like writing a review of Huck Finn and not mentioning that Jim was a runaway slave.  Scheeres, in writing the book, was carrying on a project of her brother David’s – which was explicitly an account of growing up black in a family of white fundamentalists.

As I drew nearer to the time when birthfamilies might be contacting me and my husband to discern if we were a good match, it became more clear to me what was going on.  I couldn’t talk about it because it was hitting too close to home.  Reading about a family that singled out their adopted children – their adopted children of another race – for stricter punishment – for physical abuse – was horrifying to me.  About a month after having discussed with the social worker how offensive we had found the very question of whether we could love an adopted child as much as our biological child, here I was reading about parents that could feel self-righteous, even downright martyrly – for having adopted an African American child, even as they beat that child, then washed their hands of him when he ended up in reform school.  Some of the saddest parts of the book for me were when the teenaged David looked forward eagerly to reuniting with his parents, as his sister hid from him their parents’ ugly feelings – they didn’t consider him part of the family any more.  How could they?! Adoption is forever!  You don’t tell a child you are their mother and then take it back!  It made me ill.

Julia later remembered that her parents had desired to adopt a particular white child – and when she was not available but a young African American boy was, they took him because of Christian guilt – they would be bad Christians to say no.  What of myself and my husband?  Were we open to children of other races only because we felt there was only one right answer – only one Christian thing to do?  Were we worried about how Christian (or not) we would appear to our friends if we showed up at church with a white baby?  Were we using the life of a flesh and blood child to make a point about ourselves to the world around?

But when I thought back on the many late night conversations with my husband, I was reassured – there was one right answer for us because of our upbringing in desegregated schools, and because of our personal convictions, our own ideas about humanity and God’s grace and the cultural construction of race, about giving space for any child we have – biological or adopted – to be different from ourselves (and are! and they will be!), and about love driving us to learn about whatever we need to learn about to care for the child God gives us.

I am not blind to the realities of the world around us.  Okay, I am.  Yes, I am.  But my husband and I believe that that which we do not ourselves experience still exists – in this case different treatment for people who look differently from ourselves.  And we will do our best to prepare our next child to face the world that will not embrace them as we ourselves embrace them.  We are doing the same already for our white daughter – the world has myriad nefarious ways for undermining a person’s belief in God’s love for them – they may not be old enough or young enough or pretty enough or the right gender or stoic enough or expressive enough or smart enough – or have the right color skin, the right texture of hair, the right shaped eyes.  And all of these things have very real consequences.  We must raise children who can exist in the world – but at the same time own that they are not of it.

So no matter who the baby ends up looking like (looking at the statistics at our agency, even with our openness to adopting a child of any heritage, we have about a 50% chance of ending up with a child whose birthparents both self-identify as white) we will definitely be reading the Bible, going to church, and… watching Dinosaur Train.  “…we’re all creatures!  All dinosaurs have different features!”

By their fruits you shall know them

When I was a seminary student, Dr. David Steinmetz shed light on the practice of executing heretics. If you really believe in hell, he said, and if you believe that people who believe incorrectly will go there, then if someone is leading people astray, then aren’t you justified in ending that person’s earthly life, in order to save countless people’s eternal lives? If the wages of sin are (eternal) death, then the stakes are high, and the use of battle language in a more than metaphorical way is justified.

This perspective unsettled a number of my peers. They believed in hell, and yet were convinced that Lutherans executing Mennonites, or Presbyterians executing Quakers, etc etc, was unconscionable. Were there certain doctrines that they were not taking seriously enough? Maybe there were certain doctrines that were once taken too seriously. But how far could you take it? If a very convincing atheist were turning erstwhile Christians against the church and God, would they kill them? No, not even the atheist, even though they felt such beliefs led straight to hell. But Steinmetz had them wondering, at least for a few days, if they weren’t perhaps being inconsistent. A straight line could be drawn between certain beliefs – beliefs my classmates held – and certain actions – actions they were sure were not “What Jesus Would Do.”

Dr. J. Kameron Carter has argued persuasively that we ought to be suspicious of a theology that allows – or perhaps even requires, if practiced consistently – actions that are clearly repugnant and counter to the message of the Gospel. His particular concern is racism/slavery/genocide as practiced by devout individuals with the blessing of the church, beginning in the late middle ages, but he can find plenty of other examples of problematic theology being revealed in problematic practice. If pressed to encapsulate his theological project in a single verse of scripture, I would make the case for Matthew 7:16 – “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Full passage here, with parallels here and here.)

I thought about Dr. Carter a lot as I read the second half of Jesus Land. (See my review of Part One of that book here.)  Escuela Caribe is a sufficient critique of a certain brand of evangelicalism. It cannot be written off as the nightmare of a single crazy individual, as they seemed to have no problem finding “Christian” staff to keep the place going. The abuse and dehumanization was seemingly endless. The staff did all they could to “break down” the miscreant students, and to discourage community. Instead, they cultivated an atmosphere of dishonesty and mistrust — a competitive, rather than cooperative system. They justified all of this because they were, in their minds, saving the souls of the teenagers who were sent to them. But instead, they were turning them from Christ, and damaging their ability to form healthy relationships with other people.

Julia Scheeres was not in the business of writing a theological critique of her time at this school in the Dominican Republic. However, I found myself asking, What was wrong with the theology of those who founded and ran the school that allowed them to treat these teenagers so abysmally? Was it their emphasis on individual salvation – on Christianity as an individual decision for Christ rather than a community practice? Or was it a failure in their understanding of love – that loving entails knowing another, understanding another – and that means first listening to and attending to the other? Did they view forgiveness as conditional on our repentance, as opposed to something that is freely available to all? Perhaps all of these things and more.

Scheeres writes in the epilogue of a return visit she made to the school:
“‘What’s the most important lesson you learned at Escuela Caribe?’ one of [the staff] asked me with a smug smile.
“‘Not to trust people,’ I answered without hesitation.”

What’s the most important lesson that others will learn from us?

While there are many who bemoan that Christians are still so divided (and I have been known to be among them), the seemingly small details that divide us are not always indifferent matters. There are some beliefs that make all the difference in the fruit that we bear – the witness that we bear in the world.