Thursday, April 10, 2008

Texts of Terror

If crying is the first prophetic utterance (as lifted up by Chung Hyun Kyung's statement during her controversial opening address, and spirit-invoking dance, at the 7th Assembly of the WCC), then TEXTS OF TERROR's poignant, gut-wrenching portraits of women as victims offer us a hearing of those "cries."

In Texts of Terror1, Phyllis Trible sets out to tell sad stories as she "hears" them. Indeed, she offers us tales of terror. She comments: "Belonging to the sacred scriptures of synagogue and church, these narratives yield four portraits of suffering in ancient Israel: Hagar, the slave used, abused, and rejected; Tamar, the princess raped, murdered, and dismembered; and the daughter of Jephthah, a virgin slain and sacrificed. Choice and chance inspire my telling these particular tales: hearing a black woman describe herself as a daughter of Hagar outside the covenant; seeing an abused woman on the streets of New York with a sign, 'My name is Tamar'; reading news reports of the dismembered body of a woman found in a trash can; attending worship services in memory of nameless women; and wrestling with the silence, absence, and opposition of God. All these experiences and others have led me to a land of terror from whose bourn no traveler returns unscarred" (p.1,2)

We are invited to a journey that is solitary, painful and intense. In joining this venture, we, the readers, assume its risks; we are challenged to hear not just the cries within the text but also those in front of it.

Hagar's story conjures images of oppression in three very familiar forms: race, class, and sex. As symbol of the oppressed woman of color, Hagar becomes many things to many people. "She is the faithful domestic helper exploited, the black woman used by the white male and abused by the white female of the ruling class, the migrant worker without legal recourse, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced woman with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others( (pp.27,28).2

The tragic story of Tamar occurs within the circle of male power of a supposedly God-ordained monarchy, David's, a system that was supposed to protect her (a time that was supposed to be better than when "leaders were lacking in Israel"). Sibblings Absalom and Tamar were a handsome pair in the land but now the sister dwells desolate. The narrator has more to say on the subject though, switching from Absalom to his offspring. "There were born to Absalom three sons and one daughter; her name was Tamar." Strikingly, the anonymity of all the sons highlights the name of the lone female child. In her Absalom has created a living memorial for his sister. A further note enhances the poignancy of his act. Tamar, the daughter of Absalom, "became a woman beautiful to behold." From aunt to niece have passed name and beauty so that rape and desolation have not the final words in the story of Tamar (p.55).3

The story of the unnamed woman in Judges 19 reminds us that violence and vengeance are not just characteristics of a distant, pre-Christian past; they infect the community of the so called elect to this day. Woman as object is still captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered. To take to heart this ancient story, to listen to the cries of the unnamed woman, then, is to confess its present reality, to admit that today the only form of resistance left countless of unnamed women is their cry. Do we hear them? Usually it is the one who has ears who takes forever to hear.

Trible adds that the story is alive and all is not well: " Beyond confession we must take counsel to say, 'Never again.' Yet this counsel is itself ineffectual unless we direct our hearts to that most uncompromising of all biblical commands, speaking the words not to others but to ourselves: Repent. Repent"(p.87).

The fourth tale is equally disturbing: Jephthah is praised; his daughter forgotten. Unfaith becomes faith. Thus has scripture and tradition violated the ancient story (108). So to this day, heroes of faith are male; wives and children live under the shadows of husbands and fathers; and the world on the whole finds identity in its connection to male power. And yet that story endures to this day for us to recover and appropriate; the story endures, like the other three tragic stories, because of women's cries.

The postscipt reports an extraordinary development. Whereas the female who has never known a man is typically numbered among the unremembered, in the case of the daughter of Jephthah the usual does not happen. "Although he had not known a man, nevertheless she became a tradition in Israel." In a dramatic way this sentence alters, though it does not eliminate, the finality of Jepthah's faithless vow. The alteration comes through the faithfulness of the women of Israel, as the next line explains. "From year to year the daughters of Israel went to mourn for the daughter of Jepthah the Gileadite, four days in the year." The unnamed virgin child becomes a tradition in Israel because the women with whom she chose to spend her last days have not let her pass into oblivion. They have established a testimony: activities of mourning reiterated yearly in a special place. This they have done in remembrance of her. The narrative postcript then shifts the focus of the story from vow to victim, from death to life, from oblivion to remembrance. Remarkably, this saga of faithlessness and sacrifice mitigates, though it does not dispel, its own tragedy through the mourning of women (p.106-107).

Four stories. Four tragic tales from the ancient past. Yet four stories that ring true to this day. If these stories and the images they conjure fail to drive us to tears, to righteous indignation, and then to collective action, then there is very little hope left.

1 Texts of Terror:Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia:Fortress Press, 1984), 128pp.

2 These images remind me of the over seven million Filipino migrant workers, most of whom are women. Only two million of them are recognized by the government as legal, the rest are illegal. Most of them are stripped of their passports the moment they get to their destinations. Many of them are forced into prostitution. Many bear the pain of leaving families behind to seek greener pastures, only to find a worse situation abroad. Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan are just two of these women. I am also reminded of our ancestors who were called "injuns,""niggers," and "brainless brown monkeys" by the white colonizers. In the beginning, only the white folk were called Filipinos. Then there was my mother, the most selfless woman I've known. From childhood, being the eldest in a brood of ten, to adulthood she served and served and served family and church, church and family. She didn’t even get the chance to experience the respite her children’s graduation promised. She died at 49.

3 This narrative strikes a sensitive chord for me. I know of so many mothers whose lives of hardship, of sacrifice is empowered by the dream that their daughters and sons, one day, would experience something better. And, again, I remember my mother. My parents dreamt of having four children, two girls and two boys, Alpha, Omega, Genesis and Revelation. My parents were very poor but very bright. It was actually stupid to dream of becoming pastors then. They did. God gave them Genesis, Revelation and then Alpha. Alpha's birth was very difficult. It triggered my mother's congenital heart condition. There were also complications. Having to leave the hospital early (due to financial difficulties) aggravated her condition. Omega was to remain a dream, the sister, my partner, who never was. Nanay never got to meet Omega, Genesis' daughter--so named in memory of a sister, a mother's dream for her children.

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