Candles Burned at the Holy Sepulchre

“Prayer is an assault on the prevailing apathy with which we consistently and increasingly protect ourselves against hurt and disappointment until we finally reach the stage where nothing can touch us any more. … The moderate feelings of our day-to-day existence can scarcely be of any help here. We need to be stirred up by more extreme emotions: we need a prayer that embodies these feelings, that does not suppress them in any way but activates them against the gradual dominance of apathy.” (Johann Baptist Metz, The Courage to Pray.)

In a 2003 article titled “Violence, Mourning, and Politics” (Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4 (1), later published in Precarious Life (Verso, 2004)),  gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler asks about the role of public mourning in the production of national identity.  On the one hand, mourning is a necessary, inescapable facet of our humanity: we are, by virtue of being human, vulnerable to one another.  Others make us who we are.  In Butler’s words, “each of us is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies—as a site of desire and physical vulnerability, as a site of a publicity at once assertive and exposed.”  (Theologians such as Catherine Mowry LaCugna, who herself follows John Macmurray — to mention only one among many strands of thought — likewise argue for a social openness of the person.)  Vulnerability — not individualism — is at the heart of what it means to be human.  Our bodies place us at the risk of touch, loss, and violence — at the risk of suffering violence, and at the risk of being instruments of violence: “Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine.”

From this fundamental and inescapable exposure, Butler argues for a recovery of grief as a resource for public ethics — refusing to suppress grief, consciously allowing ourselves to stay exposed to the pain of grief, and in that exposure, opening ourselves to the grief of those we would prefer to forget.

Butler’s move here mirrors the suggestion of many contemporary theologians that we must recover the place of lament in our theology–Metz calls us back to the memoria passionis, warning us against too facile a move to the Resurrection (hope that is not aware of the depths of human suffering is not hope–it is blithe optimism);  LaCugna calls for a recovery of lament as “a form of praise in which God is rightfully held accountable to God’s promises: to comfort the widow, heal the afflicted. … the context within which one might make the most trenchant and most solemn and most insistent protest against every form of inequity or inequality, whether this is experiences as coming from the hands of God or from the hands of someone else” (God for Us, 341).

Yet Bulter’s analysis challenges me as a theologian because she presses beyond the dangers of repressing mourning — and they are real — to the dangers of public mourning, of ritualized public lament.  In the obituary, our culture’s preeminent form of public mourning, Butler warns that we are presented with neat lives — lives made respectable, tidy, mournable.  But what of the lives that cannot be rendered so neatly mournable, who cannot be pressed into the mold of Normal American Lives — what of those killed in our military efforts abroad, whose lives exceed the boundaries of the obituary genre?  We must continue to mourn the lives of those who are easily presented as “mournable,”

[b]ut we have to consider how the norm governing who will be a grievable human is circumscribed and produced in these acts of permissible and celebrated public grieving, how they sometimes operate in tandem with a prohibition on the public grieving of others’ lives… (Butler, 25).

How can lives which cannot be rendered “recognizably mournable” still be recognized as human?  I will say more at some point about the difficulty this poses for the Christian enfolding of all suffering into the experience of the cross, and the loss of recognition this imposes on the suffering of those who are not Christian…

But at this point, these questions surface for me in response to the recent media coverage of the heart-wrenching suicides of young gay men.  I firmly believe that religious communities must seriously interrogate the message sent by teachings on sexuality.  Michael O’Loughlin at America Magazine demonstrates this rather powerfully.  I would prefer that O’Loughlin had not made use of the “we” and “they” language that ignores the LGBT people among the religious “we,” and I would prefer that O’Loughlin have included perhaps the most disturbing message sent by Roman Catholic documents on sexuality–if you are physically attacked, you are to blame:

But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase (“On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” quoted also in “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons“).

Even so, O’Loughlin rather powerfully makes the point that the messages sent by religious bodies to young people are not always, or even often, messages of hope.  (In what is now old-but-illustrative news, amidst a “rash of suicides” of gay high school students in Minnesota, a basically anti-religious sex-advice columnist creates a YouTube channel to assure young glbt people that they can live beautiful, human, joy-and-sorrow-filled lives, and encourage them in hope; while the archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul uses an anonymous donation to mail a DVD arguing that marriage equality poses a “threat to society” to every Catholic in the archdiocese. Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?)

Yet the extensive publicity given these deaths of young, white (with the exception of Raymond Chase), middle-class gay men — deaths which, I will admit, have caused me nights of tears and nausea — and the hundreds of videos reaching out to young gay and lesbian people make me nervous.  It makes me nervous that those of us who see the double bind our churches and our nation place upon lgbt people — love, but do not love; exist, but do not exist — have used the form our mourning has taken to be constituted as a community who ignore other griefs, griefs which do not fit neatly into this new obituary form.  These deaths are tragic.  They must be mourned.  Social and religious homophobia must be countered…

…but young, smiling gay men are not the only young people bullied.  And so I end, really, not with a conclusion, but with a question: how can our lament be expansive?  How can we fight — in no uncertain or compromising terms — the messages of hate received by lgbt people in our churches and our society without thereby ignoring the young straight people driven to despair? How can these “more extreme emotions” that interrupt our apathy, our prayer that stirs us to action, be driven not by the media focus of the day but by something more expansive?

I wish I thought there were an easy answer here — the solidarity of the Body of Christ, the solidarity of the Eucharist — but I can think of no identity former that is not simultaneously exclusive.  Not even lament.

10 thoughts

  1. Damn, Bridget. I really love this sentence: “It makes me nervous that those of us who see the double bind our churches and our nation place upon lgbt people […] have used the form our mourning has taken to be constituted as a community who ignore other griefs”. I can’t quite wrap my words around how I’m trying to summarize/paraphrase this, but – in short – I get it. A (public) form of mourning does not a community make; what is it that makes these lives more ‘worthy’ than others – ‘worthy’ of public outcry and grief, etc. Thanks for posting this.

  2. What an interesting and moving post, Bridget–and one that I found to speak to my situation in particular. I have found the recent “It gets better” discussions to be incredibly moving and also somewhat alienating; for context, I am straight (um, except for Emma Thompson), and was also bullied to the point of suicidal ideation as a child. (Not that that was the only thing going on. It never is, right?) So I feel compelled to spread this message–“It gets better; don’t kill yourself; no, really!”–remembering the time(s) in my life when this was, literally, a life-or-death issue–and at the same time, somewhat stifled by the emphasis on the struggles of glbt children and teens. But at the same time, I desperately don’t want to undermine the struggles that glbt teens DO face, which I know to be worse than anything I ran up against (Goodness, that’s a horrifying thought.)

    What I guess I’m saying is: yes.

  3. Lauren and Mary, thanks so much for your comments.

    Mary — yes, this is exactly what I am trying to get at… I’m really relieved to hear that this post resonated a bit with your own experience (I was concerned that I never quite got at the point I was trying to make) — and so, so sad that you have had such an experience. I understand the impulse, too, to say, “I know that such an experience is worse than what I ran up against,” but I suppose that I hope for an expanded kind of solidarity such that we don’t have to feel obliged to engage in that kind of ordering of griefs. I think part of what I find so compelling in Butler’s analysis in this article is that she’s arguing against an ordering of griefs — and there are so many ways that could happen, either ignoring the particular vulnerability of one group or focusing so fiercely on that particular vulnerability that we somehow send the message that others aren’t as worthy of care and consideration.

    My heart goes out to you, basically. And I hope — and maybe this can only actually be an eschatological hope — for a form of solidarity that is able to take robust account of these differences without adding suffering upon suffering by creating such a hierarchy of griefs.

  4. Ladies:

    “The Kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”

    I am struck by the brevity and force of this saying; here we have poetry of the highest order. & the fact that the woman *takes* the leaven & mixes it in her dough certainly suggests a good deal of control in the process. this parable is so joyful and accepting of women that i am inclined to think that at least occasionally Jesus may have said, “The Kingdom of God is like a woman who took leaven and…” (maybe one of the extant versions records this variant).

    As a poet, what worries me most about contemporary life is its lack of joy and discomfort with beauty. The body has become a battlefield and sex almost incomprehensible, so fierce and difficult are the arguments surrounding it.

    Writing of course is meant to be beautiful. While I applaud any extended and disciplined discussion, I have to ask: have any of you studied (or written) poetry? Could it be that Jesus was a poet, and this was one of the reasons his sermons were so popular? Why then is poetry so unpopular today (and nearly absent from the academy, MFAs notwithstanding)? Theological considerations aside, could it be that you, as women, are the voice of the Muse? RT

    1. Hi, Music & Meaning —

      Thanks for your comment. I’m a bit unclear as to why you chose this particular post to comment upon, as what you’ve said above seems a bit out of step with the issue under consideration… and speaking only for myself, I’d reject any sort of Romantic essentialist connection between women and “the Muse.” That being said, I think all of us advocate a variety of forms and genres as theological sources — as is better illustrated in other posts on this blog. Is writing meant to be beautiful? Sometimes — but not if that beauty covers over reality or comes to serve as analgesic.

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