November 22, 2004
Family as idol

Jennifer's recent post linking to an article on gender-selective technology started me on a train of thought, or perhaps continued one that started a long time ago. Not so much about the technology, but the motive to favor boy children so heavily to begin with.

When I read about sexism, it's the intra-family kind that I find the most painful. Denying women positions of power in government or business is annoying, but few of us, male or female, are going to reach those positions anyway, so it doesn't quite cut to the heart. But stories about parents aborting or postnatally killing female babies, burning wives for money, or killing female relatives over points of honor seem to represent a much graver -- and more baffling -- evil. (And they can't be written off as entirely foreign either. One of the more horrifying scenes in Morte d'Arthur features brother knights finding their mother in flagrante delicto and promptly chopping off her head.)

I can understand the importance of family cohesion in these societies, and of family honor. Defending "the family" by killing its members, however, is the weird part. I can only grasp it, vaguely, if I think of clans not so much as family as I know family -- as a group of related people who look after each other -- but as a metaphysical concept, like a nation. Just as the U.S. sacrifices its citizens to the executioner and on the battlefield for the sake of preserving itself, so individual family members are sacrifices to The Family.

The other interesting thing about this is that it assumes that relations between families are at best competitive and at worst hostile. For instance, the article Jennifer links says Indians prefer sons because "they were seen as breadwinners and the source of support during old age." I read this over and over back in college when I was studying Chinese culture also. A daughter you went to the trouble and expense of raising, and then you sent her off to some other family that benefited from the fruits of your labors. It's a zero-sum game: the other family's gain is your loss. The idea that this might expand your family by connecting you to another one, and sharing grandchildren with them, is apparently unthinkable. Clan boundaries are absolute.

The same goes for honor killings. Probably the weirdest thing about those is the idea that killing your daughter or sister will somehow save face, like the neighbors are saying, "You know, I thought less of you when your daughter got raped. But now that you've killed her, I know you're OK!" This only makes sense if "honor" is more like criminal street cred -- you need to establish how tough you are, how uncompromising, how ready to commit violence against anyone or anything in order to stay in control. You're not seeking your neighbors' affection, but their fear.

Indeed, it seems to me that a lot of the hostility towards women and sex in these societies stems from their role in crossing familial boundaries. From the clan's point of view, it would be much better if its people could reproduce by mitosis, and expand the family without any contact with another one. But sexual reproduction essentially forces people to seek out strangers. The only other option is inbreeding, whose consequences are far worse.

This is all very strange to the modern West, where family identity is so weak. I find it helpful in reading the Bible though, because the societies it describes are closer to places like India than like our own. When Jesus denigrated blood ties but preached against divorce, he was reversing the general attitude of the time, which would have been that marriage was endable but blood was forever. Moreover, when the Church described itself as a family under one Father, I think it was saying more than it was a place where people love each other and share their possessions. It became the metaphysical identity that replaced clan, and became the new thing worth dying for (but not worth killing for!).

I often think that the fact that we moderns don't intuitively understand this leads to some trouble in interpreting the practices of the early Church. The understanding of God as Father looks childish and male-chauvinist, the esteem for celibacy looks body-hating, unless you see them as replacements for clan idolatry. And that's also why I don't buy interpretations of Jesus as a total anti-institutionalist, who meant to replace formal connections with personal and emotive ones (or with no connections). Only in our modern society are family relations merely personal and emotive. Jesus' statement that his followers were his true brothers and sisters wouldn't have been taken as sentimental, but radical.

Posted by Camassia at November 22, 2004 10:44 AM | TrackBack

Jesus' disciples were shocked when Jesus talked with the woman at the well. Mary Magdaline was probably helping out Jesus' ministry financially and was, in fact, the first person commissioned to spread the Good News of His resurrection. Jesus treated women as human beings.

Something happened after He ascended. I don't know when. But Mary was slandered. Try finding something in the Bible that says she was a prostitute or the woman caught in adultery!

I forget the name, but Paul mentioned one of the women leaders of the early church. As a result, most translators improperly translate her name as masculine, just so they don't list a female church leader!

Posted by: Rob on November 22, 2004 02:21 PM

I think you're thinking of Junia, whom Paul greets as an apostle. For a long time this was interpreted as some kind of masculine name, but recently some scholars have said, basically, it looks like a woman's name because it is a woman's name. (I know this story because Telford named his daughter Junia in her honor...)

I agree there's no scriptural evidence behind Mary Magdelene's "redeemed prostitute" story, though I think it's a bit of an exaggeration to call it a slander. If anything, having a shady background to repent of seemed to give you a certain cachet in the ancient Church (think of Matthew and Paul). It didn't stop her from being revered as a saint, at least.

Posted by: Camassia on November 22, 2004 03:45 PM

I think the traditional reasons for desiring sons are not only economic but spiritual. It's the son who embodies the "spirit" of the family. Only he can perform the most important religious rites. Only he can achieve something highly valued, beyond the biological. Traditionally, women just produce the family's bodies. It's the males who advance its spirit.

I've been helped to "get" this by psychologist James Hillman's distinction between "spirit" and "soul" (see his essay "Peaks and Vales" or his book-length manifesto "ReVisioning Psychology"), words that have been conflated in our culture but that do not mean the same thing. Soul is the middle term between body and spirit. It's the realm of dreams, fantasy and imagery, therefore also of sin (and redemption). In contrast to the "peak" and "white light" imagery of pure spirituality, soul imagery has to do with valley and shadow and figure and mist. And "spirit" is consistently referred to in male language and imagery, while "soul" is almost universally regarded as feminine.

This is, obviously, the world seen through male eyes. To the man pursuing spiritual perfection, woman is the temptation who pulls him "down" -- to earth, to the body, to desire and sin. And woman gets blamed for man's response, and regarded as the treacherous, tempting embodiment of all that dirty, "lower" stuff.

All the pure (and purified, reformed) monotheistic and spiritual religions are mistrustful of soul phenomena. Judaism and Islam don't allow images, Zen Buddhism tells you not to get involved in your fantasies or dreams while meditating. Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Tibetan Buddhism with their eich iconography are less afraid of the soul -- and they all have powerful female spiritual presences.

Jesus simply saw the (actually genderless) spirit in women as well as men. And he was creating a family in the spirit, contra the usual one of body and soul. I think that now that we don't see the world through only male eyes any more, we will come to see the spirit as genderless and the whole drama of biology, gender and engendering (and family) as a soul phenomenon borne equally (if differently) by both sexes, if this makes any sense. People won't have to become androgynous for it not to matter which sex a priest is. And I think that, more and more, it won't matter, because neither sex will be regarded as more or less biological, higher or lower (an absurd idea, when you think about it).

Posted by: amba on November 27, 2004 07:54 PM
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