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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Give Wings to the Mind and Heart | March 24, 2024 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton




There is, perhaps, no woman, whether she have borne children,

or merely be potentially a child-bearer, who could look down upon a battlefield

covered with slain, but the thought would rise in her,

“So many mothers’ sons! So many young bodies brought into the world

to lie there! So many months of weariness and pain while bones

and muscles were shaped within!

So many hours of anguish and struggle that breath might be!

So many baby mouths drawing life at women’s breasts; -

all this, that men might lie with glazed eyeballs, and swollen faces,

and fixed, blue, unclosed mouths, and great limbs tossed –

this, that an acre of ground might be manured with human flesh,

that next year’s grass or poppies or karoo bushes may spring up greener

and redder, where they have lain, or that the sand of a plain may have

a glint of white bones!”

And we cry, “Without an inexorable cause, this must not be!”

No woman who is a woman says of a human body, “It is nothing!”

 

The opening words are from Olive Schreiner. Howard Thurman compiled a number of her writings in the book, A Track to the Water’s Edge: The Olive Schreiner Reader. In the introduction to that book Thurman writes:

 

There is a timeless effectiveness [in Schreiner’s writings] which goes straight to the aspirations, feeling tones, and dreams of the human spirit. Many of the selections have nourished my spirit in strange and defiant ways.

May the reader find here and there that which speaks to his condition and 

gives wings to his mind and heart.

 

Thurman was deeply inspired by Schreiner and so am I. Her words speak directly to the experience of Maryam (Maria) and of every mother…potential mother…indeed every person that has experienced the tender feelings of care for another human being…every person that deeply values another person.

 

I admit that I wanted to focus on the experience of the mother of Jesus on this Palm Sunday because I identify so strongly with her and because it is something that is usually not the focus of the Triumphant Entry and the events of the week following. Still, I want to recognize that each person can have these feelings. In talking with my three-year-old grandson recently, he mentioned that he looked forward to one day having a child. He pointed to his belly and said that the child would come from here. I debated for a moment whether or not I should break the news to him. I finally decided to tell him that only women could actually carry the child in their bodies. He looked at me with shock in his eyes and began to cry bitterly. He said, “But I wanted to have a baby!” I was able to calm him down by explaining that he could indeed have a child but that he would be the father and not the mother. Of course, the urge to value the growing of a child…the birth of a child is human. Even the idea of gender is now called into question, I know, and I think that is good. It broadens our view of humanity and strips away the categories that have been so harmful and oppressive. Olive Schreiner rebelled against those categories and I think this is part of what drew Thurman to her writings. She points out in the opening quote that this waste of human life in the context of a war must not be! How much more would she be outraged at the killing of women and children in Gaza…in Sudan? And imagine the outrage of the mother of Jesus!

 

Through this consideration of Mary and of Olive Schreiner, I was led to the writings of Dorothee Soelle, a German mystic and activist. In her book, The Silent Cry, I was reminded of this idea that God’s voice is being silenced in our time. She writes:

 

It is a mystical name for God, whose divine power is not grounded in domination and commandment. It is a name that everyone can use, everyone who misses the “silent cry” that has often become inaudible among us.

 

Soelle was a pacifist who understood political and cultural realities. She vehemently opposed the Vietnam War, as well as, all domination and exploitation. She coined the term christofascism to describe this domination. This domination and violent oppression is not the sole possession of Christianity of course, but so much terror has been visited upon so many people in the name of Christianity, it is not to be ignored. I think of the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria who was murdered by a fanatical Christian mob in the year 415… christofascists to be sure. Although we have no direct words written by her, Leconte de Lisle was said to write something that may be close to her words. In response to Bishop Cyril’s declaration: “Your gods are reduced to dust at the feet of the victorious Christ” she may have said:

 

You’re mistaken, Cyril. They live in my heart.

Not as you see them – clad in transient forms,

Subject to human passions even in heaven…

But as sublime minds have seen them

In the starry expanse that has no dwellings;

Forces of the universe, interior virtues,

Harmonious union of earth and heaven…

Such are my Gods!

 

She was brutally murdered because of these mystical beliefs…an example of christofascism if I have ever seen one. As Soelle says, the divine power of God is not grounded in domination and commandment. This is quite a revelation! Is this where we can focus our efforts? Soelle quotes a German philosopher, Theodor Adorno:

 

As far as possible, we ought to live as we believe we should live

in a liberated world, in the form of our own existence, with all the

unavoidable contradictions and conflicts that result from this…

Such endeavor is by necessity condemned to fail and to meet opposition,

yet there is no option but to work through this opposition to the bitter end.

The most important form that this will take today is resistance.

 

If we are living in a liberated world, then we must cling to hope of this liberation…of the Easter message coming at the end of this week. This is not easy…there are unavoidable contradictions and conflicts. We will fail and meet opposition…just as Jesus of Nazareth did. But we need to keep going…to work through this opposition. We need to resist! And there is much to resist. In 1947, Adorno helped coin the term culture industry, which was described as our popular culture being a factory producing standardized cultural goods—films, radio programmes, magazines, etc.—that are used to manipulate mass society into passivity. Imagine what Adorno would think of today’s social media. It is indeed a factory…that is used to manipulate mass society into passivity.

 

And this is the message of Holy Week. The realization that like Jesus of Nazareth, we can stand up to the domination of these forces…the same forces that Jesus encountered in the wilderness…the temptation of fame and fortune…of individualism and, in the words of Dorothee Soelle, globalization. She wrote:

 

We live in a standardized, globalized economic order of technocracy that demands and achieves total disposition over space, time, and creation. Its engine runs on, driven by the coercion to produce more and confirmed by technological success of unimaginable proportions. And this engine is programmed for ever more speed, productivity, consumption, and profit, for about twenty percent of humankind. In all history, this program is more efficient and more brutal than comparable empires and their towers of Babel. Within this super-engine, human beings are not only “alienated” from what they might become, as Karl Marx observed, but they are also addicted and dependent as never before.

 

And of course, we know that the “collateral damage” of this process is not only the poor and oppressed (the other 80% of humanity) but our precious Earth herself. We are, it seems, at least in part, being manipulated into passivity…into inaction. As Rumi tells us, Don’t go back to sleep! He is telling us that we must not limit ourselves, but believe in a liberated world. Indeed…

 

Why when God’s world is so big

did you fall asleep in a prison

of all places?




 

 

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