Discussion of Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James (Part Three)
Here I will be responding to Chapters 2 and 3 of Malestrom: “Patriarchy Matters” and “The Father Wound” respectively. Some of what I say may not make sense unless you’ve read the book’s Introduction and Chapter 1 and my responses to those in Parts One and Two of this series.
I couldn’t agree more with the main thesis of Chapter 2: “Patriarchy Matters”: “Illusions of superiority and inferiority have no place in the kingdom of God.” (73) In this chapter James deconstructs the Genesis story of Abraham especially as it is interpreted by traditionalists-complementarians. She skillfully shows how, in fact, Abraham began a departure from patriarchy even if he did not complete it. He broke a taboo by leaving father and striking out on his own and by circumcising his sons and servants as a sign that they were under God’s authority within a special covenant (not one of human devising) and by being willing to obey God by sacrificing his first born son.
Personally, I think James is stretching a bit to interpret the Abraham narrative this way, but that doesn’t really matter. I agree with her overall point that the kingdom of God, as eventually fully revealed by Jesus, is an “upside down” kingdom without human rulers. It is true community without hierarchy. I would even go so far as to say with Moltmann that, the absolute goal of God for himself and his people is community—God with them and they with God in a fellowship without power or dominance. Why else would Jesus have called his disciples “friends?” Our ultimate calling is to become friends of God in a fellowship where God is also our friend.
Unfortunately, we are not yet there—and won’t be until Jesus returns. But the church is supposed to be the community that embodies the values of that eschatological community. Therefore, to the extent possible, the church should be a fellowship of equals without power-over or domination. All leadership should be servant-leadership accountable to everyone. Decisions should be by consensus and not by “majority rule” or by a coterie of super-spiritual people. Again, of course, that vision doesn’t always work in a world where the church itself is corrupted by the dominant culture of power over. But it is a vision to strive toward and a critical principle for recalling the church to its kingdom goal whenever leaders become domineering.
I admit that I really don’t “get” James’ discussion of circumcision. In Chapter 2 she attempts to explain it as an anti-patriarchal event and mark. I admit that I have a quarrel with circumcision; I think a boy or man should decide for himself when/if he wants to be circumcised. We know it can have certain health advantages insofar as the male does not clean himself properly when not circumcised. But why not teach boys this instead of assuming they won’t do it? Also teach them the health advantages of being circumcised and, in religious contexts where it has spiritual significance, teach that. Then let them decide to have it done. To me it is a violent act when done without the person’s consent. In a way, then, circumcision itself is patriarchal because it is a permanent mutilation of a person’s body without their consent—an act of domination.
Now…on to Chapter 3 “The Father Wound.” I’m not going to say much about this chapter as I find nothing particularly challenging about it. It’s a gloss on the Genesis story of Judah, one of Jacob’s sons, who overcame his “father wound” to shine when he offered to take his brother Benjamin’s place. I’m glad James recognizes this very dangerous and potentially damaging challenge boys and men face—needing acknowledgment by a father yet also needing to become a men in their own rights. I know the meaning of “father wound” very personally. So do millions of boys and men. There’s nothing quite like it and I say that without in any way diminishing other relational “wounds” people suffer. I believe, as James seems to, that boys need fathers and boys who have fathers need their blessing. Too many boys grow up without fathers and too many how have fathers never really receive their blessing. Many of these boys grow up to repeat the error by abandoning their sons and daughters or by failing to bless them.
James predictably traces the “father wound” phenomenon back to patriarchy. I’m not as sure about that. A father can be very egalitarian, even submissive to his wife, and still fail to bless his son(s).
James quotes Richard Rohr and agrees that “The father wound lies at the bottom of much crime, militarism, competitive greed, pathological need for leaders and family instability.” She asks “Who knows how many father wounds are underneath today’s violent headlines?” (78) Indeed. Who knows? Who cares? Who’s studying the matter?
This points up my complaint that contemporary society neglects boys. Who is really paying attention to this societal problem—missing and neglectful fathers? As a whole our society has decided that boys don’t really need fathers. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in favor of shaming single mothers doing their best to raise boys alone. However, I do think a single mother of a boy (or two married mothers raising a boy) needs to find a father figure for him. He needs that. It could be a pastor or youth pastor or coach or uncle or friend, but he needs a father figure especially as he approaches adolescence. Unfortunately for too many boys it’s unacceptable to say such things in public because society interprets that as anti-woman. It isn’t; it’s pro-boy. And, in the end, everyone benefits if boys grow up to be good men without father wounds from missing or neglectful fathers.