Sunday, April 7, 2013

Accusers or Defenders? Reflections on The Crucible

As I shared the other day, I reencountered two classic works of literature this past week. I already wrote about my thoughts on watching the 2011 film version ofJane Eyre. Today I want to explore my reaction to watching a production of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible.

I had not seen or read The Crucible since high school. I remembered the basic plot but had forgotten most of the details. I had not ever, to my recollection, seen it performed on stage. Although I knew of the connection between the play and the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692-93, I was not prepared for the strong reaction I experienced as I watched the performance of a local Christian high school. In the director's notes was written:
It is our hope that as we leave the theatre following the production, we will heed the lessons of history to search our own souls.
Watching this play, particularly after viewing Jane Eyre only days before and after reading Danielle's reflections on visiting a slave prison, certainly has caused me to search my soul.

The Salem Witch trials were conducted in one of the most religious communities in America. To cite the director's notes: “The Puritans believed God had chosen them to establish a model community for the rest of the Protestant world and envisioned themselves as a 'city on a hill.' Their leaders created a theocracy founded on biblical principles, whose purpose was to prevent any kind of disunity that might open them up to destruction.” When I read this, I immediately think that this remains the ideal of certain groups of Christians. God has established the United States to be a city on a hill to the world and as such we need to found our laws and culture on biblical principles. Although I do not agree that God has established the United States as a city on a hill, I am certainly inclined to support the idea that we should found our laws and cultural norms on biblical principles.

But then I consider the results of this in New England. I watched the performance of The Crucible with a deeply troubled soul. At times it pained me to see these “biblical principles” applied in such a way that innocent people were accused, condemned and many of them hung merely on the basis of suspicion and ungrounded accusations. Certainly the issues involved were more complex than simple religious fervor, but the insistence that they were doing the work of God as they tried, condemned and executed these people (mostly women, which is also significant, although some men were also accused and executed) for witchcraft makes me question the very principles which they sought to uphold. They believed they were upholding the teachings of Scripture, when in fact they were violating the very teaching of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Their own fervor blinded them to the travesty of their actions.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible at the time of the McCarthy trials, in which suspected Communists were accused and condemned publicly. He saw a distinct parallel between the two events. As I watched the play I saw parallels to our current society as well. Out of fear of perceived threats to the “biblical foundations” of society, out of insecurity and fear in light of cultural transformation and the economic difficulties we have been passing through for a few years now, I see a tendency among some to react with a similar witchhunt – looking for a group or groups of people whom we can blame for the “decline” of our country. The “illegal” immigrants are to blame, or the homosexual community with their “gay agenda.” We may not be able to put them on trial in a court of law anymore (thank God for that), but we still see them put on trial in the court of public opinion. We see our legislators in many states and in our national Congress, working too often to enact laws that restrict, exclude and punish those we blame for our issues, rather than looking for positive solutions that embrace the diverse mix of people that form our nation.

Where is the Church in all this? Are we, like the Puritan leaders of 1692, leading the witchhunt, seeking to accuse and condemn those we determine to be sinners? Or are we defending those unjustly accused, standing with them, affirming their dignity, worth and value as children of God against the voices that would cast them out? Will future generations look back on us as we now look back on the Salem witch trials?

I want to stand for those who are accused, condemned and outcast because they are different than the majority. I want to stand for those who do not have power, influence and privilege in our country. I don't have to affirm everything such people may or may not do. That is not the issue. The issue is that they are also children of God, uniquely created just as I am and worthy of full embrace as brothers and sisters. Jesus didn't exclude those who were on the fringes of society, the ones that the “righteous” people so readily condemned. No, he embraced them, ate with them, loved them, while directing his critique to those who considered themselves righteous. Do I care more about maintaining an outward appearance of righteousness, or do I care more about loving the real people God brings into my life?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Jane Eyre and Religious Abuse

I have reencountered two works of literature this week and both encounters have left me disturbed and reflective. The questions that they have raised dovetail with the issues raised by Danielle's post on visiting an old slave fort, as I wrote about the other day.

A few nights ago my wife and I watched the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. I do not aim to write a review of the movie here, but will say that my wife and I both found it enjoyable and well-done. I had not read the book in many years, so although I was familiar with the basic plot trajectory, many of the details had faded from my memory. I will not attempt a thorough explanation of the plot here so if you are unfamiliar with it, you may find it difficult to understand some of my comments.

As I watched, the role of religion in Jane's life struck me quite strongly. Jane is a strong-willed child, a girl who refuses to simply acquiesce to the expectations of those around her. This trait brings her much trouble. (And the feminist in me asks whether a boy demonstrating such behavior would have experienced the same response. Probably not. But we shall set aside examining the story from a specifically feminist perspective.) Sent off to a school for orphans, she enters a world that is disturbing in the manner and degree to which it seeks to crush the vitality of each girl sentenced there. This alone would be troubling, but more troubling still, this school, called the Lowood Institute, is run by a minister who believes that he operates it in a manner consistent with instilling godliness in its subjects. As such the girls there are deprived, abused and dehumanized, all while being preached to and indoctrinated with the Bible. Religion becomes a tool of oppression to Jane and the other girls of this prison.

Later, after a period of life in which she experiences happiness and love for the first time ever, Jane's world falls apart again and she flees the situation which is crumbling around her. Her flight brings her to a remote region where, facing death from exhaustion, she is taken in by another minister, Mr. St. John, and his two sisters Mary and Diana. In their home she experiences grace and kindness in the name of the Gospel. At this point my heart lifted, for I saw faith portrayed at least in some degree as it should be lived. Through their kindnesses and help Jane's well-being if not happiness is restored and she resumes life in new circumstances. However, her fortunes again change, this time for the better when she inherits a large sum of money. Because of their kindness to her Jane shares this inheritance with the St. John family, which allows Mr. St. John to fulfill his own desire of going abroad as a missionary. At this point the ugly side of religion shows itself again as he tries to persuade Jane to join him in his mission, not as a fellow laborer but as his wife. He insists that he knows what God has called her to and scorns her offer to travel and work alongside him as a sister but not as a wife.

This second abuse in the name of religion is not as severe on the surface as that given at the Lowood Institute, but it strikes me as abuse nonetheless. Although Mr. St. John is well-intentioned, by asserting his claim to know God's will for Jane and by expressing scorn for her when she offers an alternative demonstrate, he discounts her individuality, her wishes and her own relationship with God. As a man, he assumes that he knows what is best for her as a woman. As a pastor, he assumes that he has the spiritual insight and authority to tell her what she should do. But what gives him this right? And why can he not consider her viewpoint, her wishes and her desires? What he proposes strikes me as another form of imprisonment, likely far more benevolent than what she experienced at the Lowood Institute, but a form of bondage nonetheless since she would be pressed into it against her own will.

I recognize that Jane Eyre is a work of fiction and that there is far more to this story than the role that the Christian religion plays in her life. Nonetheless this particular aspect disturbs me, because it reminds me once again of how faith, religion and the Bible are too often used to abuse others rather than to liberate them and restore them to the fullness of their created humanity. Jane finds this restoration, but not specifically through the grace of Jesus Christ expressed through his children. Although Mr. St. John and his sisters do demonstrate this grace, Mr. St. John then contradicts it through asserting his own power and will over Jane.

I do not think this is what Jesus asks of us. I do not think he wants us to exert power and control over others, regardless of whether we think and believe that we are acting in their best interests. In most cases, we must earn the right to speak into the lives of others. (There may be at times a place for a prophetic word, but prophetic words in Scripture most often challenge the abuse of power, privilege and authority, which is not how we most often think of them in modern Western culture.) We should also consider carefully whether in our actions which we believe to be in the best interests of others we are truly affirming and upholding their dignity. Thankfully I think we have come a long way from the days of places such as Lowood Institution, but that doesn't mean we should not continue to examine our beliefs and our actions, lest in the effort to do good we actually do evil and destroy the image of God in another person.

I don't think Charlotte Brontë set out to write a critique of religion, but her novel certainly challenges me to think again about how I live out my faith. I would grieve to find when I stand before God that my well-intentioned actions were in fact abusive and destructive of human dignity, grieving God's heart. We can easily deceive ourselves, so we need to listen to the voices of others, both those who affirm us and those who critique us (both inside and outside the Church), seeking always to demonstrate the kindness and grace of God through our actions, rather than to exert power and domination over others in God's name.

In a future post I shall write about my other recent experience, this one with Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Legacy of Shame

Recently Danielle at From Two to One wrote a powerful article describing a visit she and her husband made to an old slave fort in the country of Ghana. I won't try to retell her story; you must read it yourself in her own words. Her tale has remained in my mind since I first read it, disturbing my efforts to ignore unpleasant truths. One detail that she shared sticks out particularly: that over the dungeon where the captured Africans were held, abused, tortured and dehumanized until they were sold and shipped away, the white masters of the fort and the territory had their chapel. Danielle writes:

As they [the white masters] sang worship songs to the Almighty God, the captives who had been beaten and raped and tortured shouted for mercy and rescue.

How, I ask myself, could people who call themselves by the name of Jesus Christ engage in such behavior? How could they so casually worship God while under their very feet were hundreds of humans whom they had abused, raped and tortured and whom they were going to sell into lives of slavery to serve the economic interests of other white Europeans?

I asked my wife this question and she gently reminded me that humans have a remarkable ability to justify their behavior, often by dehumanizing others. The white masters didn't feel any sense of guilt because to them the black Africans were not really fellow humans. They were fundamentally inferior, even inhuman. Therefore it was not immoral to treat them as beasts. Worse still, these people who considered themselves Christian in some sense of the word turned to the book of Christians, the Bible, for justification of their actions. This book which speaks of God's love for humanity, which describes the great lengths to which God has gone to restore humanity—all of humanity—to harmony with the divine as it was intended, was read in such a way as to support the dehumanization, abuse and degradation of people created by that same God.

The painful truth is that one can read the Bible in that manner.

In fact the Bible has often been used to justify the mistreatment of various groups of people throughout history. One can cite verses in which slavery appears to be normal and acceptable. One can cite verses in which God commands one group of people to annihilate entire cities and other groups of people. One can cite verses in which a woman who has been raped must marry her rapist. One can cite verses to argue that women are subordinate to men. The list could continue. What troubles me is that I so rarely hear anyone in my circles speak of how they are bothered by these verses or how they are interpreted to justify and support the exclusion or abuse of entire groups of people. In the past year I have found a growing number of voices who do speak openly of this, but I'm still not hearing it from the pulpit, at least not very often.

Instead I continue to hear voices that call for the submission of women as the biblical model. I hear voices that would have us deny equality to women, homosexuals, immigrants and other groups. These voices cite the Bible as their authority, often pointing to specific texts as support. How does one interact with a text that can be so freely used to support the subjugation of other members of God's creation? How is it that the message of redemption, liberation, restoration and renewal are so often drowned by the voices of exclusion and privilege? What am I to do with this book that has been used to condone some of the most inhumane behavior humans have committed?

I'm not sure we really have learned much since the time when the white British and Dutch masters ruled that slave fort in Ghana. Yes, we no longer buy and sell slaves openly as we did then, but we continue to tolerate slavery. We continue to use the Bible to justify our exclusion of women and others from full participation in society. We may not be just like those slave masters, but are we really so different? Am I really so different? How do I in my reading of the Bible and in living out my faith support either explicitly or implicitly the abuse of others? How do I need to think, read and act differently to stop participating in these acts of injustice?

I appreciate the many voices I have found that are speaking up openly and powerfully on these questions. Thank you Danielle, not only for this thought-provoking post but for your consistent advocacy for those who are marginalized, excluded, abused and cast off. If we are not to remain blissfully ignorant or complacent of the evils which our faith has been used to justify, we must learn to see, read and think differently. I would hate for my legacy to be looked at with the same scorn and shame that we now look back at those slave traders.