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Proverbs of Ashes

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This is an unusual book, combining memoir with theology. Both authors contribute their life stories, which for the most part do not intersect. The authors argue that the traditional Western Christian focus on Jesus’ suffering on the cross has resulted in a too easy acceptance of suffering, and in particular, has encouraged women to remain in abusive relationships.

Parker relates the story of Anola Reed, who was counseled by a a fellow Methodist minister, who tried to help her escape from an abusive relationship. Instead, Reed remained with her husband, considering it her religious duty to keep the family together. Eventually, her husband killed her. Parker then writes of a woman she herself counseled, named Lucia. She had been repeatedly beaten by her husband, and had years before been told by a priest, “If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.” Parker told Lucia that she need not accept her husband’s beatings. Lucia left her husband.

Brock was born in Japan, of a Japanese mother and American GI father. She grew up in Kansas as a Christian, though she was aware of Buddhist relatives. When Brock’s mother left for the United States with her husband, Brock’s grandfather said to her, “In his country, people are Christians. Your family want you to know that, if you decide to become a Christian, it will be all right. We will still love you, and you will still be our daughter.” Would that Judaism, Christianity and Islam had such a liberal attitude. I’m afraid, however, that the dominant position of the three Abrahamic religions in the world is in part based on their intolerance of out-conversion.

Brock grew up with a Christianity that was dour and pious, until she became close to a family who put fun into fundamentalism. They never convinced her, however, of the literal truth of the Bible and creationism, and it being the 1960’s, she opted for a version of Christianity which emphasized social justice. I can relate to this experience myself, as my own Orthodox Jewish background was mostly a serious of don’ts–“don’t eat unkosher, don’t ride on the Sabbath” until I met Hasidic Jews who combined a number of spiritual do’s with the don’ts. They even convinced me of creationism for a while, before I broke away from them.

Parker discusses controversial episodes in her ministry, such as the split when her church decided to publically welcome gays, and a quarter of the members resigned. Parker is extremely revealing about painful episodes. She writes of being sexually abuse as a child by a neighbor. She writes of aborting the only child she would have had under pressure from a husband who changed his mind about having children. He threatened to leave her if she kept the pregnancy. Not surprisingly, the marriage failed anyway. She went to Seattle’s Lake Union at night to drown herself, but happened upon a club of amateur astronomers who had set up their telescopes at lakeside. She ended up viewing Jupiter and going home.

Parker found a second husband, but their relationship, joyous at first, foundered when she moved to Berkeley to head the Starr King School for the Ministry, while her husband continued to be based in Seattle. Recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse came to the surface as her second marriage came to an end. When a relationship with a third man became rocky, Parker attempted suicide, cutting her wrist until she heard an inner voice say, “Stop.” By the end of the her narrative, she has healed somewhat, but retains deep wounds.

Brocks’s later narrative has a happier thrust when she discovers loving relatives she never knew existed. They retained photos of her from before she left Japan. She writes, “I like to think God might be like this: a presence whom we have never seen–perhaps do not know exists–but who has loved us from the beginning.” Her relationships with men, while not as disastrous as Parker’s, have their ups and down, with the narrative ending on a down note.

Amidst their personal stories, the authors discuss theological problems of suffering as presented in the Bible, especially in the stories of Jesus and Job. They compare to child abuse the doctrine that God required his son to suffer and die as a human sacrifice, and therefore reject it as a true portrayal of God.

Brock, who is now a director of a new initiative called Faith Voices for the Common Good, and Parker come to what is perhaps a feminist version of liberation theology. They conclude that women should not patiently suffer at the hand of men in expectation of reward in heaven, but should take inspiration from the prophets who sought justice in this world. As a Jewish-American whose ancestors were persecuted for what they supposedly did to Jesus, I see the Christian focus on Jesus suffering and death as being at the heart of much of the suffering inflicted by Christians. Rather, it is the many positive aspects of Jesus life, his non-violence and concern for justice, which are worth of study and imitation.

I note that the submission of women to violent men is not just an issue in Christianity; the Somali-Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been threatened with death as a result of her allegedly blasphemous charges that Islam condones violence against women, and even an Islamic service held in Manhattan came under threats of violence because it was led by a woman.

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