Saturday, 19 April 2014

Holy Saturday & brutal Empires: where are we?

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

It is yesterday's cry, but it echoes through today. 'Holy Saturday', this 'in-between' day which, if we put ourselves in the place of those who went through it for the first time, was no kind of 'in-between' but simply 'the day after'. The loss, the grief, the trauma fresh and raw of what they have so recently witnessed. And the future, if anything, full of fear, anxiety... and emptiness.

Jesus' question - just before he died - was 'where is God?'. It is a fair one, for all of us, on days like today. But there is the parallel question too: 'where are we?'.

The dominant story of Jesus' death tells of the disciples - male - who betray him, deny him, abandon him. A community, broken, which breaks up, fragments, disperses, dissolves.

At the edges of the dominant story, submerged, overlooked, is a counter-story. Of a handful of women, who stay, and wait, and watch - albeit from a distance. Who, after the death, take the body down from the cross and lay it to rest, do for it what needs to be done, before Friday sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath prevent any further activity.

There are parallels - I don't want to claim any more than that - with the excavative work of Jewish feminist theologian Melissa Raphael's reflections on the Holocaust (The Female Face of God at Auschwitz). The mainstream of post-holocaust theology, she argues, has shied away from finding any 'place' for God in Auschwitz - rightly rejecting the ancient tradition of biblical and rabbinic Judaism which 'saw suffering as the divine punishment for Israel's transgression or disobedience', but going further, speaking of God's 'hiddenness' in Auschwitz, as divine mystery, as a deferral to human freedom, or, most radically, as morally complicit by 'turning a blind eye to Jewry's abuse'. God did not protect or save his people, so God either 'turned his face away' from Auschwitz or (as in Elie Wiesel's most well-known work, Night) God died there.

But for Raphael, these theological traditions fail for being patriarchal through and through - even in their most radical 'protest' form: 'the classical attribute[s] of omnipotence and mercy [are] still predicated of God and the protester is angry that God chose to refrain from its exercise.' In evidence-driven modernity especially, the 'dissonance' in a story of a God 'who promises protection and then, empirically, fails to deliver it' leads to one conclusion: 'God can no longer be trusted'. If, as in Psalm 22, God is 'one who abandons us and is silent in the face of our suffering,' says Raphael, then 'there can be little to experientially distinguish this God's silence from his non-existence.' It is with the 'Who?' as much as with the 'Where?' of God in Auschwitz that Raphael is concerned: 'what is to be distrusted is not God but a particular model or figure of God'; 'God's silence in Auschwitz was the silence of an omnipotent God-king who was never there in the first place, but was one who reigned in the minds of those who required divine sanction for their own hierarchical rule'.

Into the silence left behind with the disappearance of this patriarchal 'god', Raphael painstakingly retrieves echoes of a ‘counter-tradition’ from within Judaism, and a ‘counter-testimony’ from AuschwitzIn contrast to an ‘interventionist’ God, with power over life and death, who, for some reason, absents himself from Auschwitz, Raphael seeks to uncover a God who is first and foremost present. ‘Presence, a keeping watch, is a function of love. A present God paces back and forth, circling the object of her concern; an absent God seems to have walked away’. Judaism has traditionally named the immanence of God ‘Shekhinah’ – and this is the name Raphael seeks to rediscover as being most faithful to the God who did not forsake the Jews of Auschwitz: Shekhinah is ‘the real presence of a suffering God’ – not, as in Christian tradition, incarnate in a human individual, but with, among, even as the assembled community of Jewish men and women. The ‘power’ of God in Auschwitz, Raphael argues, was not in God’s ability to stop the destruction of relationship – what a theology of ‘covenant’ affirms, however, is ‘the infinite flow of God’s power’ to renew relationship. Furthermore, it is in the embodied relationships of the people of Israel that this ‘transformatory power’ of love ‘makes itself felt in the world’ – paradigmatically in the act of welcome, ‘the one seeing and opening to the other’.

Raphael retrieves and uncovers, however, not just a largely overlooked theological tradition, but also the largely overlooked stories of courageous, persistent physical care by women and among women in the camps of Auschwitz. The Holocaust attempted – so often successfully – to isolate human beings from each other, and desecrate their personhood to the point of erasing it, through the destruction of the gas chambers and the mud and filth of the camps. One woman, Olga Lengyel, recalled the ‘struggle to overcome the disgust we felt for our companions, and for ourselves’. But struggle they did: with defiance, longing for liberation, love and the most basic practicality, the testimonies of many women in Auschwitz describe how moments of touch, wiping, and washing – even the barest, most ineffective gestures towards genuine washing – became moments of restoration of relationship and personhood, whether for the living, the dying, or the dead.

In that place where Jewish women’s personhood ‘was getting ever less perceptible’, so too, consequently, was the presence of God. ‘Shekhinah did not hide her face,’ rather, it was hidden by ‘the holocaustal assault’ itself; when human faces were hidden behind ‘the accretion of filth’, so too was God ‘de-faced’. And yet, in the similarly barely perceptible – because not powerfully dramatic or explicitly ‘religious’ – ‘ordinary’ actions of women, in the midst of the ‘wholly non-ordinary’ conditions of Auschwitz – in the simple, emblematic action of ‘wiping filth from a face’ – God’s face too was made visible to those with eyes to see it:

when a woman lifted up her cast down face to the summons of her mother, daughter, sister, or friend it caught the reflected light of the Shekhinah on its upturned surface, reflecting the glory or kavod of God’s face back into the world – even a world which was, for them, over, and a world which, become Auschwitz, had turned God away at the gates. … Rabbinic midrash compares the Shekhinah or divine presence to light, to what shines. ‘Washed’ by ersatz coffee, urine, brackish water or love alone, the reflective face lit God’s way into, through and out of, Auschwitz.[1]

Melissa Raphael is doing Jewish, not Christian, theology; her focus is Auschwitz, not Golgotha. I find myself wanting to share her reflections and her un/earthed stories primarily for their own sake, wary of repeating, in even a small way, Auschwitz’s evil of turning human beings into ‘functionaries’ rather than ‘subjects’, ‘means’ rather than ‘ends’. But reading Raphael as a Christian has been revelatory for me: the testimonies of the Jewish women of Auschwitz shed new light on the face of the God we share; their stories open up the possibility of recognising God’s presence where God is seemingly nowhere to be seen. When those around me are singing of the Father who ‘turns his face away’ unable to look at the one who bears ‘my sin upon His shoulders’, from my guts I agree with Raphael’s verdict: this God – and the theologies that make so much of both His omnipotent ‘power to protect’ and human ‘free will’ – ‘can no longer be trusted’.

And  Raphael prompts me, as a Christian, to search the witness of the gospels for, and bring to light, the counter-story of the crucifixion: those women who wait, and watch, and who do the little they can, with care and tenderness, for the dead body of Jesus. Included among them, too, are the woman who, days before, extravagantly anointed Jesus - who Jesus himself said 'anointed me beforehand for my burial'. And also Joseph of Arimathea, quiet ally of these women, who appeals to Pilate for the body, and gives his newly-cut tomb for the burial.

Melissa Raphael dares us to perceive the ‘crucial link between God’s being made present and the seeing and touching of faces and bodies that have been made unseeable and untouchable’; she challenges us to read ‘the religio-ethical response’ of ‘staying by the side of the other’, as itself ‘the essence of presence’. Might we also dare to imagine that, in the small, faithful fragment of loving community which accompanies the body of Christ from cross to tomb – a community of women and men who embody their love in purposeful, socially dangerous, physical care – there is incarnated the abiding presence of God?

I am helped a little further along this path by another feminist theologian, this time a Quaker, Rachel Muers, who, in her careful deconstruction of our cultural fascination with 'the power of speech' and the 'war of words' which silences the weaker and more marginal voices, instead calls our attention to 'the strength of listening'. Building on the work of Nelle Morton among feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s, Muers suggests that listening, rather than being a response to prior speaking, is actually itself prior to speech: if an environment of attentive listening is created, it can 'hear to speech' the as yet unheard:
women ... were enabled to tell their stories and describe their experiences by the prior and continuing presence of the listening group. As Morton saw it, the speech that emerged as a result of the “hearing to speech” was genuinely new; stories and insights were articulated in ways that the women in question had not previously found to be possible. This speech was only able to come about in the context of a “depth hearing.” Women described being “heard to their own stories,” being heard “all the way down” to the point at which utterance became possible. The whole process drew Morton to speculate about what could have been involved in “a hearing that is more than acute listening. A hearing that is a direct transitive verb, that evokes speech – new speech that has never been spoken before.”[2]
Might we be able to say, then, that the women who watch and wait near Jesus' cross, are also listening - in fact, hearing him to speech in his cry of God-forsakenness? Might we even dare to say that the silence of God at Golgotha is the silence not of an absent patriarchal saviour, but of a present, hearing God, embodied in those women?

This is, in case you missed it, deeply political stuff. In the face of a brutal Empire that dehumanises, marginalises and finally disposes of its troublemakers, its 'abnormal' and 'deficient' ones, its 'human waste' - these faithful women witness (they see, so they can tell), hear (enable the voice of protest to be heard) and care (do what they can, physically, to rehumanise, against the system).

They also, critically, return. After the Sabbath day of rest, as soon as they can they return to the tomb, carrying spices prepared to anoint the body, to finish the 'last rites' for their loved one who has died. Undeterred by the apparently immovable stone sealing the tomb, they return anyway, wondering among themselves who they will find to shift it for them, but not paralysed by that not-knowing. And whatever they encounter there, mysterious and inexplicable though it may be, causes them to return again - to the city, where it has all just been happening; or (in some versions) to Galilee, where it all began. The message they go with is the injunction to 'go and see' - and, before long, emerges even more clearly as an injunction to enter the fray just as Jesus did, to live life in the midst of, but against the grain of, the Empire, and to engage others in that process of penitential, transformative engagement.

The women remind me of the work on mourning by the Jewish philosopher Gillian Rose, who reacts against what she calls 'aberrated mourning' or 'melancholy' in the face of suffering, brokenness and loss. While on the one hand, Rose rejects simplistic attempts to 'make sense', which fail to take the time to mourn and shut down questioning in efforts to regain 'security' (e.g. the 'heroic soldier', 'good versus evil' and 'redemptive violence' narratives), she also recoils against the tendency - particularly among many postmodern thinkers - to 'keep the wound open' in a passive melancholy without end. Instead, she proposes the self-reflective, active work of what she calls 'inaugurated mourning' which, as one of her commentators puts it, 'gives voice to suffering, creating a space for stories to be told and listened to - a space in which pain is acknowledged', but leads always towards a questioning, an attempting to understand - a 'contextualisation, towards a consideration of the broad social, political and historical processes that have influenced present circumstances', and a returning, a re-entering the fray - 'a being-in-the-world that is embedded both in local community and in wider social structures' - rediscovering one's agency, however risky that might be.[3]

What Rose describes, and names elsewhere as the work of dwelling in the 'broken middle', is hardly a triumphant resurrection narrative. But then, I'm not entirely sure the gospels offer us one of those either. What the Christian church offers us is an Easter season - 7 whole weeks of it, longer than Lent - to begin to grapple with what the absence and elusive-but-transformative presence of the risen Jesus means for us, and for the world. I am left wondering - a good Holy Saturday practice - whether Rose's 'broken middle' may be the space within which we are invited to do our grappling...

[1] Melissa Raphael, Female Face of God, pp.105-6. 
[2] Rachel Muers, Keeping God's Silence, p.50
[3] Kate Schick, Gillian Rose: A Good-Enough Justice, pp.46-51

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