Asking the wrong questions

Last week, a young woman was slashed in the throat in Queens. Apparently, she had offended her male attacker, by ignoring him when he tried to initiate a conversation.

“But why did she ignore him?” I am hoping you are not asking yourself. But I don’t know why I am bothering to hope that. We live in a nation where the burden of proof is on a woman when a man violently attacks her – she is guilty of her attack until proven innocent (which she couldn’t possibly be – otherwise he wouldn’t have attacked her.) In much the same way that any black man shot in by a white man in this country is guilty of his own death. We don’t blame *all* victims, just certain ones – just women who are victims of men, black men who are victims of white men, civilians who are victims of police officers… power confers immunity to blame, powerlessness confers moral suspicion.

But just in case the question is still bothering you, and just in case you didn’t know, women get to ignore men if they feel like it. Women are people, as much as any man, and have agency, and the right to choose who to speak to and when. Being alone is not the same as being available to and bound to recognize every man in the vicinity who exhibits an interest. Theoretically, anyway.

In practice, a woman is guilty from the moment she steps out the door. If she looks sexy, she is an offense; if she is not dressed for the male gaze, she is an offense. If she is young she is an offense, if she is old she is an offense. Her hair, the shape of her body, the color of her skin – no matter what it is, it is a provocation. And when a male speaks, from a seemingly innocuous, “Hello,” to a catcall of lewd appraisal, she has a choice – will she be guilty of responding, or guilty of not responding? Either can be dangerous. To speak can be viewed as having “encouraged” him, to not speak as “insulting” him (no matter how insulting his speech or gaze may have been.) Insult or encouragement: either is an invitation to sex, to violence, to both. And however the story ends, any injury to herself is only what she had coming to her.

But turning from our every woman to the particular child of God who was critically injured in Queens last week: why did she ignore him? Because she had the right to do so? Because she was afraid to respond – afraid to “encourage” him?

If she hadn’t ignored him, isn’t it possible, even likely that her attacker would have ended up cutting her anyway, that we would now be asking, “Why did she speak to him?” And even if not, do we want to be living in a world where we accept that ignoring a man is reason enough for him to land you in the hospital?

We have been asking the wrong questions for too long. Instead we should be asking, “Why did he think that her ignoring him entitled him to slash her with a blade?” We should wonder, “Why are so many men so emotionally fragile that even a perceived rejection from a woman he doesn’t even know is an invitation to violence?”

I was with my not yet 8 year old daughter when she received her first catcall, just a few weeks ago. A man drove by slowly, and called out, “Nice dress, sweetheart!” in a creepily appraising tone. She was confused, “Did we know him?” No. No we didn’t.

“Why did he call out to me then?” I thought quickly – I didn’t want to prejudice her against men. I’m sure parents of black children would prefer not to have to prejudice their children against police officers, either – but realistically, aren’t we obliged to have “the talk” with our children – to be honest with them about what people most endanger them? I sighed. I knew what I had to do.

“Some men think that they have the right to comment on the appearance or clothing of any girl or woman, whether they know each other or not.” I love the shocked look that comes on my daughter’s face when she encounters such rank injustice. “But! Mommy! That’s not right!” I smiled sadly, “No Bunny, it is not right. It is not right at all. That man needs to keep his opinions to himself. You wore that dress for yourself, not for him.”

Heaven help me. It was only the beginning of a long conversation about how her gender places her in our country and in the world – only the start of me saying to her, “Some men think that they have the right…”

Hat tip to Dr. Anthea Butler, who tweeted the link to this news story this morning.

Cooking for Friends

I love cooking for people! Last night, I made a big pot of chicken and rice soup – enough to feed both my family and one other, and still put some up in the freezer.  I had been meaning to make soup for weeks, but committing to this friend of my daughter’s and her family (They just had a baby! Mazel Tov, Sadie!  Mazel Tov, Rex and Cynthia!) gave me the extra push I needed to get to chopping and simmering and stirring.

There is something hypnotic about making soup.  It is slow work.  The ingredients have their order, the stirring has its rythmn, there is a slow bass beat of bubbles popping, together with the treble rattle of the pot lid.  And the smells… Spending time over my soup draws me back in time – and all too often my memory takes me places where I would just as soon not go.

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently posted on Facebook regarding funerals, and that took my mind back to my last visit with a parishioner who died about a year after I left the parish.  She had been fighting breast cancer for years, and that day – less than a week before the moving company came to whisk me off to North Carolina – that day was precious to both of us.  I believe that we both were fairly certain that we would not see one another again this side of the Second Coming.  And so I took the opportunity to tell her how much she meant to me:  what a tremendous witness her faith was to me, and what a beacon of love she was to others.  And she replied, “You really think so, Sarah?  I have always had my doubts about my witness, since I never cook for anyone.  [My mother-in-law] is always making casseroles for people who are sick, and [this friend] and [another friend], but I never do, and I just worry that I am not behaving like a Christian.”

This really struck a nerve with me.  I had not long before received an e-mail from someone who was angry at me, and who decided to illustrate how I “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk” with my failure to make a casserole for a family living 20 minutes away.  My first thought was to defensively point out that I was only a couple of days past having been on food assistance myself, having a 2 week old baby who screamed non-stop when not nursing something like 14 times a day, all the time preparing for my probationary elder’s interviews – a four hour ordeal that was immovably scheduled to take place when my daughter was less than a month old.  But an older and wiser pastor suggested that it was better for me not to respond.  As the pastor, it was not my job to make casseroles.  As the pastor on maternity leave, it was not my job to be available to the congregation for really anything.  Hence the word “leave.”  But it kept eating at me.  I called my Dad, and he said, “You have to let it go, Sweetie.”  But he couldn’t tell me how – he was an expert at having some parishioner or another angry at him, and inexpert at letting anything go.

And here was this dear woman, whose charitable heart knew no bounds, somehow receiving this same message that because she did not cook for others in need, she was not “walking the walk.”

I remember pulling out my Bible and reading about how we are all given different gifts.  “Can you imagine what would happen if every woman in this county showed up with a casserole when someone was in distress?  It would be more than the recipient could even freeze!  Why, we would just get sicker, trying to politely eat everything that was brought to us!”

“Maybe you’re right, Sarah,” she said with a laugh.  But she still sounded uncertain.  And maybe that is because I had yet to learn a better answer…

As I stirred the soup, I thought of what Rex had written in an e-mail in response to the hastily organized supper brigade: “I have to admit, I never experienced this kind of hospitality growing up and living in [urban center not in the South!]”

He didn’t say, “Wow, you guys are really good Christians!” – and rightly so – most of the other parents probably wouldn’t self identify as Christian.  Instead, he saw this response to their new baby as “Southern hospitality” – we were witnessing to our Southernness.

Here I am, for the second time in less than a month paraphrasing Matthew 5:43-48:

Do you cook food for your friends when they are sick or have a new baby or have a death in the family?  Every Southerner does that.  You are only proving that you are capable of conforming to cultural norms.  Do you wish to witness to your Christian faith?  Then consider:  how do you demonstrate your love for those who oppose you, who would seek to do you harm, who undermine cultural norms, or who have nothing in common with you?

And so I think that I am one step closer to learning how to “let it go,” as my father prayed that I might do.  I love cooking for my friends.  I do it because I like to do it – and because, when my daughter is out of the house or feeling cooperative, it is something that I now am able to do.  But I do not deceive myself that cooking for others is something that I do because I am a Christian – it is not something that is rooted in my life of prayer and worship, or in my study of the scriptures.  I am a Southern woman who likes cooking, and so I cook for my friends when they need someone to cook for them, and when I have the time and energy to do so.  When I am doing something because I am a Christian, it usually looks very different – often it looks weird and sometimes even dangerous – usually it involves transgressing cultural norms.  Not to knock cooking for our friends – it is very rewarding for everyone involved!  But doing it or not doing it doesn’t witness to much – except to whether we are living into the expectations encoded in the notion of Southern womanhood.

Liberte, egalite, sororite

There are some things about law enforcement in the United States that I continue to pray might change: the extent to which our officers are armed, the continued racial bias in traffic stops, the overuse of violent force in drug busts… But in their response to the allegations against (now former) IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the New York Police Department has shown us what police are for, and given me hope that the principles our nation claims to be built on are still alive in some quarters. There is no person whose power and connections places him above the law. A rich man does not have a right to treat a woman – any woman – however he pleases. Some well-connected men in France may now be whining about “American puritanical attitudes towards sex,” but that is an attempt to dodge the question: whether in fact there is still a de facto aristocracy in France, who can abuse the “peasantry” with impunity. A previously sheltered class of French men have reason to be nervous: it appears that there is a new revolution afoot in France, one that is once again energized by events across the Atlantic.

With many thanks to BBC World News (available in the mornings on my local public radio station, WUNC), for drawing my attention to these recent developments in France.