distressing disguise

I could sit and listen to stories forever. It is what I do for a living right now, in fact. Real live stories give me hope that we can really change. Recently, my husband and I sat with our friends Ryan and Amanda and celebrated the birth of their new son, shared a meal, engaged in some healthy debate and enjoyed stories from their time in Northern India. They will return there soon- returning “home” to the people to whom they have given their hearts.

They have both immersed themselves in medical education of various kinds because their experience has taught them that simple practical hands-on help is what is most needed there. Their friends haven’t been taught even the basic understanding of what we would consider common sense care, such as how to cleanse a wound to keep it from becoming infected. Ryan and Amanda have been trained to dress wounds, diagnose ailments, prescribe medications, replenish fluids and other basic things that can only be done by an MD here. The simple things they do are literally life-giving. It gets me to thinking of how very much each one of us here truly has to offer a hurting world.

But even more than all of that, what I see is that their compassion has a beautiful direction. They are ones who seem to have learned the elusive quality of “serving up”, that is, serving the poor as Christ Himself. Often my compassion does not match this. I feel angry at injustice but too often it feels like a demand that we get off our high horse and do more for the “downtrodden”, a word that implies “lesser”.

Ryan told a story of a young mother from the lowest caste. Her baby had at least four different skin ailments, including infections and infestations. The baby was also caked in dirt from head to toe. He felt his anger begin to burn at this child’s suffering and as he taught the mother how to bathe her child in gentian violet to clear up the infection he grumbled, “Here, this is your job”. He glanced at the mother and saw that she also was caked with dirt from head to toe. Those of the lowest caste believe that they are  unworthy, the least of the least, less than dirt. Why bother to live as someone you can never be?

He heard himself yelling at her. “You are worth more than this! You need to get some soap and bathe yourself, and bathe your baby. Brush your teeth. You are designed to be greater than this!” Later, he felt bad for losing his temper. He knew he shouldn’t have yelled at her. His anger was probably fueled in many ways by the ongoing frustration of dealing with a whole societal system that crushes people and the stubborn ignorance that is not easily dissuaded, especially by foreigners.

But a month later she returned to him. She and her baby were clean, teeth brushed, hair gleaming, clothes clean. She smiled broadly. Her baby’s skin was almost fully healed. And the smile, of course, told of a deeper healing. Truth, which at times comes in a way as searing as antiseptic to an open wound, had penetrated and won this woman’s heart. She was worthy.

Philip Yancey says, “We in the West are still learning the difference between acts of charity and the more difficult task of changing a person’s self-perception.” Acts of charity do display compassion. But changing self-perception comes from deep lived-out belief. Ryan probably won’t be packaging his method of dealing with this particular lady for books and seminars. But I think she may have gotten it because he truly believes that she, like those in her village, are Christ in His distressing disguise. He truly sees her that way. That kind of gaze upon another is healing.

I have felt this gaze in my own life. I have a mentor/friend who has had a profound effect on me. His belief in me literally changed the course of my life. I once asked him just how he did it; what magic did he use? It certainly felt extraordinary. “I believe,” was all he said.

Once again I am praying for eyes to see. For me, it is not too difficult to see Christ in a woman like the one in the story. But it is much harder for me to see Christ in those in my own culture, more specifically those whom I think are doing the dance of the Pharisees, because of the hurt they have wrought. Perhaps to grow eyes to see I must learn, as my friends surely have, to have enough faith to not look down, but up. In what new surprising way will my Christ present Himself to me this week?

"Pharisees" by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff 1912

"Pharisees" by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff 1912

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Showing 7 comments
  • Skip Newby

    Rest assured, He will. Looking up, that’s important for me to remember. Thanks.

  • Katherine E.

    I’m inspired. Thank you so much.

  • Michael Bridgman

    Hi Ellen, that’s quite a fascinating story in its own right. Listen, don’t take this the wrong way, but what’s with the latent phallogocentricism (the privileging of the masculine (phallus) in the construction of meaning) when you write that “Truth… had penetrated and won this woman’s heart” by way of the male agent? If truth is about penetration, then woman is constructed as intrinsically lacking in it, and so in need of man’s “good guidance” as passive receiver. To be sure, Christianity insists that there is a Logos, but the Wisdom theology of John’s Gospel connotates that the Logos is Dame Wisdom, who has made her locus Jesus of Nazareth, so whence phallogocentricism?

    Your description of the Dalit woman as “an open wound” in need of penetration and fluid secretions is also a bit alarming in light of the castration complex, which lies at the heart of male fears of women and female sexuality. As is well known, Sigmund Freud, inspired by the case of Little Hans, postulated that upon discovering his mother does not have a phallus like his own, comes to fear that his father has castrated her, and also has the power to castrate him. While it seems a small thing to all who are not about to lose their widdlers, in both Freud and Lacan the castration complex is of paramount importance to the construction of the symbolic order, and through it, civilization. Under this signifying principle, man is constructed as a “fullness” and “presence”, while woman is constructed as an “emptiness” or “lack”, unable to be symbolic in her own right, but only to bear the burden of the symbolic. If one wishes to know why women are often either systematically or unconsciously obstructed from key positions in relation to the symbolic under patriarchy, this is a good place to start. Of course, feminists like Barbara Creed have applied a sharp razor to Freud’s theory that woman terrifies because she is seen as castrated, instead reversing it to say that woman terrifies because she is seen as castrator. Looking to Freud’s own primary data, the origin of Little Han’s fear of castration and other related phobias begin to appear after his mother (not his father) threatens to have him castrated upon discovering his hand on his penis, a threat repeated by other women in other cases. From this, Creed postulates the figure of the “imaginary castrating mother” who initiates the castration complex, and to whom man is in “symbolic debt”. Where woman is feared or construed as castrated, Creed argues this is a wishful phantasy to divert her threat away from him by projecting its outcome back upon her. But if this is so, then it stands to reason that a new category is opened for woman’s relation to the symbolic: woman as fully symbolic, a status long overdue. What need, then, for shouting, salve, and penetration, when all the Dalit woman really needed to know was that she is not an open wound subordinate to the symbolic, but is symbolic in her own right?

    • ellenharoutunian

      Michael you’re so brilliant as always!!! I always learn from you. I will have to bring the word “phallogocentricism” to my vocabulary! (And perhaps also, “widdlers”, LOL.) I agree that to say “truth penetrated” is a phallogocentric statement. It would probably be much more accurate to say that truth penetrates *and* it envelopes. Or would you leave out the masculine all together? Just curious. Your point gives all the more reason to see God as both male and female and yet also transcending both. But I have never bought Freud’s Oedipal theories (nor Jung’s Electra complex) nor his symbolic order when it comes to understanding ourselves as male and female. Freud created those because of the horrifying stories of incest that he was hearing from his female clients (often the daughters of his esteemed colleagues) and he couldn’t face that they could be capable of such things. Hence, he felt there must be an elaborate psychological theory that would explain away these things, placing the blame on the victim herself. The theories flowed from there….on and on. It’s always ticked me off that he saw women as lacking (emptiness, etc.) But even without his theories, your question is still valid. I think that both man and woman (if this story had been a man I would have viewed him with the same need) are subordinate to the ultimate Reality, or Wisdom, for healing, identity and wholeness. Both are Eikon, equally and fully symbolic as Image of God. Again, the idea should have given the idea of both a penetrating and enveloping truth or wisdom.
      So here’s my question for you. Since Dame Wisdom made her locus Jesus of Nazareth obviously presented in a male body, is the expression of wisdom only to be understood in feminine terms?
      (And have you read “A Question of God” by Armand M. Nicholi? It compares the thinking of Freud with CS Lewis. Of course there’s also some things with which I would disagree when it comes to Lewis’ view of gender as well, but it’s a good read.)

  • Bonnie Hayslip

    This is a great write. Makes you take it to heart the things you said. Amen.

  • Michael Bridgman

    Thank you! I think if we are to take the Judeo-Christian, pre-Socratic, and Stoic doctrines of the Logos as immanent, enveloping, and pervasive throughout creation or nature, then we are standing squarely in the fields of the feminine by way of the maternal body and her debt to nature. The idea of truth as penetration, on the other hand, seems to be rooted in the signifying practices of patriarchal imperialism, which must ever be erecting, penetrating, conquering, expanding, dominating, and exploiting to maintain existence (a mode of symbolic rape of the feminine or feminized). This is, I think, one of the crucial underlying reasons for frequent conflicts between Jews, Christians, and philosophers and the agents of paternal law under Hellenistic empire over the nature of truth.

    Where the masculine principle comes into play in is the quest for and discovery of truth, which Plato said is like a deep indwelling erotic passion. After all, is it not true that both Wisdom and creation lends access to her mysteries to those who seek her and ask her? As Ben Witherington notes of schools of Jewish sages reading wisdom literature by way of citation of J.L. Creenshaw, “[b]ecause students almost without exception were males, wisdom was described as a beautiful bride, and folly as a harlot enticing young men to destruction. In this way the language became highly explosive, and the quest for Wisdom took on erotic dimensions.” (Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom p. 51) The intrinsic appeal of the quest for Wisdom to the male sage or philosopher, then, is obvious. Even so, woman too has a vested interest in the quest for Wisdom by way of her debt to nature, and so can be a remarkable sage or philosopher in her own right. So what do we make of Jesus’ human male gender, then? Having taken on the full extent of the human condition and the divine image, Jesus embodies dual roles that normally can be mediated only through divine-human communication. He is both Wisdom and sage, God and prophet, and in occupying both roles simultaneously, he shows us what it means to be truly human in relation to the divine. Of course, I can tell there’s a lot more to the story than that, but I will probably have to wait for a hypothetical master’s thesis down the line to do it justice.

    Now, as far a Freud goes, I don’t think his intention in founding the theory of the Oedipus/Electra complex (the latter term belonging to Jung) was to prove that these victims of incest were ‘asking for it’, but to explain the psychosexual factors underlying these abnormal behaviors. Why is it not only thinkable for a human being to have intercourse with his or her own offspring, but also for it to happen frequently enough that elaborate social defenses must be constructed against its occurrence? Indeed, our perennial repulsion and fascination with incest and the abjection this implies suggests that there was once a stage of psychological development when the idea of incest was among the undifferentiated. Little Hans indeed tries to solicit sexual pleasure from his mother on several occasions by way of advertisement of his penis, and has a clear fear and fascination with her sexuality. So too, it is not coincidental that his case studies documenting mothers or mother figures threatening their children with castration occurs in the bath tub, where children are likely to explore their bodies, perhaps even masturbate in an exhibitionist fashion to try and seduce her.

    So while I couldn’t tell you if there is a such thing as a full-scale Oedipus/Electra complex, I wouldn’t accuse Freud of manipulating his data. Anyway, his data on castration anxiety is good, and goes a long way toward explaining male fears of women and female sexuality. I should know, I’m a man, and I drive a lot of the women around me crazy for *avoiding* the gaze, which leaves them very confused about how exactly I relate and what that means about her. However, the problem isn’t her, but me, and once I realize she probably won’t bite, I tend to be alright. As my friend Meg observed one night when we were all drinking tea and coffee, and all the ladies simultaneously dropped to the floor to look for something, ‘Notice how all the guys looked down when we went under the table.’ It’s a psychological defense mechanism.

    Even if the Oedipal triangle bore no truth whatsoever upon which to construct the symbolic order (being Lacan’s term for the socio-linguistic), the relevance of castration fears to the construction of civilization could still be argued on the basis of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection and the symbolic. While God’s Logos definitely holds the genders to be equally symbolic, the nature and construction of society’s logos is quite another matter. For as every American knows, we can say “all men are created equal” until we’re blue in the face, and yet still drag our feet to implement it in society.

    I’ve only read the introduction of A Question of God by Armand M. Nicholi, although I will say that I am monumentally unimpressed with Freud’s approach to religion. C.S. Lewis writing is generally quite helpful, although his patriarchal bias at times leads him into some pretty lame views of gender. On your end, his opposition to women’s ordination encourages her subordination on account of a strictly masculine conception of deity. On my end, his defense of medieval chivalry is both helpful and obnoxious because it insists upon the kinds of essentialist definitions of masculinity I’ve had to struggle to defy. While chivalry was very good for the masculine gender, its approach toward women still assumed man’s functional supremacy, and it simply taught men a form of sublimation of their love-hate relationship toward her. Note, for example, the before-and-after parallelism and sado-masochism of one of chivalry’s central myths, the rescue of the damsel in distress. We often forget that the teaching of chivalry originated because knights were using their power to murder, rape, and pillage, and I think that element of cruelty always sort of lingers in the background. In an age that strives for equality between the genders, I believe we should strive to go beyond chivalry, making use of its imagery as a guide to the courageous self-overcoming of castration anxiety to achieve true rapport and a subject-to-subject gaze. This is, I think, the essence of the “gaze that heals” you spoke of earlier, as opposed to the subject-to-object gaze that literally or symbolically objectifies, dismembers, and mutilates the female body. For both genders, I think such a gaze would definitely be worth the effort.

    • ellenharoutunian

      I am going to make a “Michael Bridgeman rocks” T-shirt. 🙂 We still need to do coffee – I will connect with you via Facebook. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about Freud. I so agree about subject to subject gaze – it’s the gaze that heals, the essential I-Thou relationship in which both are Subjects (not a Subject over and Object). BTW, I read a bit by a theologian named James Nelson who comments on the damage caused by our projection onto God the values of the Phallic ideal of the patriarchy (hard, unchanging, lacking vulnerability and being all that you have described) despite the vulnerability and submission evident in the incarnation and crucifixion. He sees how that impacts male sexuality and spirituality as well and asks men to consider a theology that is also based in the “soft, wrinkled everyday” – coming to terms with the softness of God (and all that it implies) which had previously been determined to be “Not God” because of the association with femaleness. In accepting this reality, the movement towards a true I-Thou gaze is more possible.
      Thanks bro. 🙂

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