The Witnessing World: Widening Our Scope

2018 March 30
by First U Bklyn


Good Friday, 30 March 2019


The Rev. Dr. Kelly Murphy Mason, Community Minister

First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, NY

Each year, this Unitarian congregational society holds its annual Commemorative Communion service on the evening of Good Friday. It is the long-standing custom of this church, but an admittedly unorthodox one in the Christian liturgical tradition. According to most calendars, our communion is held a day late. Usually, Maundy Thursday commemorates ‘The Last Supper’ Jesus shared with his apostles. By the following day, those men gathered around the table have all since dispersed from the scene of his condemnation and crucifixion. So the people left at the foot of the cross are his female disciples, the ones who supported Jesus’ ministries outside and around Jerusalem. Good Friday marks the day those women witnessed, first-hand, his agonizing death. This year, their role in religious history seems especially important to commemorate, and our communion rite seems altogether aptly timed. Today, we stand with the women and bear witness.

Last spring, none of us here in Brooklyn could have anticipated the outpouring occasioned by the #MeToo movement that emerged this past fall. It was overdue, certainly, the onslaught of disclosures by women about the extent, the regularity, and the severity of their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Women across the socioeconomic spectrum found this historic moment gave them opportunity, finally, to voice how just frequently they are subjected to misogynistic treatment and sexual violence. The #MeToo hashtag flooded social media with women’s personal accounts. News coverage of unconscionable misconduct, abuse, and widespread exposed the predatory patterns of powerful men across a range of industries, and several lost careers and reputations in consequence.

Although these accounts may not have resulted in much legal action, relentless reports about sexual predation seem to have actually shifted the tenor and content of our national discourse around gender justice. In December 2017, Time Magazine named as its “Person of The Year” an entire assemblage of women, profiled at some length in its double-issue called The Silence Breakers, scores and scores of women. “It became a hasthtag, a movement, a reckoning, but it began,” the editor-in-chief of that magazine explained, “as great social change nearly always does, with individual acts of courage.”

What each woman featured in the issue of the magazine finally got was acknowledgment, a public witnessing of a painfully privatized reality. What each learned in bravely speaking out was what women everywhere had known for millennia: that too often, witnessing was routinely, casually, cruelly denied them because of their sex. In patriarchal societies, the testimony of women is suspect, if not altogether inadmissible. While women could know any numbers of horrors, they could not speak of them openly – they certainly could not expect people to care about what they said. Here in America, the 2016 election of a president who had acknowledged repeatedly assaulting women seemed to suggest that the plight of women would not interrupt politics as usual. In our national arena, as in the Gospel of Mark, there would be nameless “women looking on from a distance”, unable to effect substantive change in the course of events.

But with something drastically different happened with the #MeToo movement – nameless women suddenly and spontaneously decided to name themselves. Some had a certain public stature, others lacked it. Some violated legal settlements that sold their actual stories to various bidders, guaranteeing their so-called “non-disclosure” by putting a purchase price on the truth. These negotiations effectively removed women as witnesses altogether, leveraging financial disparity against basic justice. Suddenly open secrets were spoken aloud. Elder women ignored arbitrary statutes of limitations and testified to crimes that were decades old. Girls in their teens and younger spoke out against older men who had abused them with relative impunity. Women of all ages began to reckon with the human toll of having been targeted nearly the entirety of their lives. That toll astounded them; in retrospect, I believe it astounded us all. Aren’t we still reeling, even now?

As a community of faith, we have a special obligation to confront gender injustice. For too long, established religions had been wielded repressive forces against women, alternately silencing and shaming them, pushing them to the margins of communal life. Very often, their role in human history has been hidden or erased. As author Barbara Kingsolver observed in her 2018 opinion piece in The Guardian, “Religious faiths that subordinate women flourish on every continent.” So those women gathered near the cross are not lost on me – Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome, and Mary Magdalene, so notoriously maligned in church history as a rehabilitated prostitute. When I think about those women’s unyielding insistence on bearing witness to the suffering – the passion – of Jesus crucified, I am amazed. What I see in these female disciples and the very “many other women” mentioned in Mark’s gospel is a bravery that speaks to the audaciousness of their religious movement.

Those women witnessed to Jesus (in no small part) because Jesus witnessed to them. They “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee”, Mark reported. All throughout his public ministries, Jesus engaged women in matters of the spirit; he conversed with adulterous wives, ill and unclean women, and commercial sex workers. He loved Mary and Martha every bit as much as he loved their brother. The social and political implications of his postures in first-century Palestine cannot be understated. It’s often said that women were the earliest Christians because Salome and both Marys discovered the empty tomb. In essence, women were the midwives to the origin story of Christianity. The proclaimed the good news of the resurrection of one who had been left for dead.

In her back-page essay in Time, “How Are We Still Here?”, author Gillian Flynn notes the scandal involved in women raising their voices, even today. “Women have shrill voices for a reason,” she writes: “to sound the alarm…. The Internet is toxic with…body shaming, rape culture, and revenge porn… Threats to women abound. We are underrepresented everywhere [in America], underpaid by everyone, and underestimated all over. We are not the People,” she concludes; “we are the subjects of the Patriarchy.” In a particularly stark sentence, she states: “We are simply a form of livestock.” Every woman who’s been likened to an animal, be it a fox, a cow, or something far more profane, feels the eerie resonance of that statement. The assaults on them can be physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional – but they are always, definitely, spiritual.

One of the key figures in the #MeToo movement, artist and activist Rose McGowan, persisted in bringing her assailant, a powerful Hollywood producer, to public disgrace. In a recent interview about his attack of her, she said: “My body and my spirit were stolen – that’s theft.” Today, she insists, “We’re in it. But we need to keep fighting,” she insisted. “I had this realization… I thought, Oh my God – this is the first time in history women are being believed… It’s really, really important.” At long last, women have claim to a wider witnessing world. As a pastoral psychotherapist in practice for over a decade now, I have learned from my extensive clinical work with survivors of sexual abuse that what can be most damaging to them is being disbelieved – of being demeaned and dismissed by others. The trauma for them is compounded by having their own individual reality called into question.

Those of you who are well acquainted with the Gospel of Mark will recall that it actually has two different endings, the shorter version and the longer. In the shorter version, the women who went to anoint the body of Jesus found it missing. “So they went out and fled from the tomb,” Mark writes, “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” They were afraid – with good reason. Those women had stood by the cross and watched the crucifixion together. But the story we tend to tell today is the longer version, in which Mary Magdalene tells the disciples who are “mourning and weeping” that she herself saw Jesus risen from the dead – and still, they refuse to believe her.

On this Good Friday, my prayer and my hope for this congregation, all you good people of faith, is that you come here year after year because you are committed to the very longest version, the truest gospel, the one – actually – which has not yet been written, in which women declare what they themselves have known – in mind, body, and soul – and are finally believed. Yes, believed first, and then helped to heal. It is with heavy heart that I admit to you my knowledge of my complicity with systems that silenced women and delayed their healing. Within our own denomination, within our ordained Unitarian Universalist ministry, and indeed, within our UU congregations, I have known of and participated those “whisper networks” that women have devised out of dire necessity. But whispering is not witnessing. Whispering is not witnessing, and I have not personally done what Jesus directed his followers to do in the gospels: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light,” Jesus taught, “and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

There will come a time – and it will be soon, I hope, very soon – when I myself will tell the truth, the whole truth, about how women have been and are being treated within our faith communities, at such a volume and in such a way that it will be heard, so that I can get right with my God, with my sisters in faith, and the dictates of my conscience. Here and now, I renounce any religion that perpetuates the silencing and marginalizing and subjugating of women, both women at a distance and women very near to us, women who are named and women who shall remain nameless. I encourage each of you to do the same, men and women. Our male allies, especially, men and boys, have a duty, a sacred obligation, to confront gender injustice anywhere. What I want us to commemorate this Good Friday in the communion of the courageous – the brave, the very bravest. May we all be counted in their number. May we not stay stuck here. May we all rise up and speak out in a way that brings more abundant life into our world today.

Unless we speak honestly and openly about scope of women’s suffering, we will never get the full recognition of women’s rights as human rights. We need to widen our scope, understanding that we curtail our own humanity whenever we allow women to be objectified and dehumanized. This business of disbelieving women is the business of discounting their worth. All the women’s liberation theologies – feminist, womanist, mujerista – teach us to take women’s experience seriously. Make no mistake: oppressions are interlocking across class and race and continent, whether it’s the gendercide underway in Asia, the disappeared women in Latin America, the hundreds of girls kidnapped in Africa, the rash of intimate partner violence against women in Europe, or the international multibillion-dollar trade in human trafficking worldwide. All these phenomena are perpetuated through the ongoing silencing, erasure, and subjugation of women. 

Any collusion will male domination and toxic masculinity, sexism and misogyny, will diminish the dignity of us all. The originator of the #MeToo tagline, African-American activist Tarana Burke, was recognized in Time as one of the earliest Silence Breakers in her work advocating for survivors of sexual abuse, primarily with women of color. In her fierce amplification of #MeToo, she has insisted: “You have to use your privilege to serve other people”. We all have to these days! Opting out is not an option for people of faith. This is no time for the shorter version of the Gospel; it is time for the longest version, the one we might yet write in the end, before too long.

It is Good Friday. We are here. We stand with those named and nameless women by the cross, and we watch. We are watching now and like the women themselves, we will not look away. We will witness to one another “in spirit and truth”, as Jesus says in the Christian testament. That will be our truest worship. That will be what makes this day holy.

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