Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Samuel 25:36-44) transports me to a weekend meeting of Baptist Peacemakers 20 years ago in Raleigh, NC. Friday night was a meet and greet fellowship event at Pullen Baptist, and Saturday was workshops and worship at Shaw Divinity School. Friday night gave me a classic “DA Dotson” moment. We were mingling and munching, and I began talking with an older black woman. I found out she was from Africa; I don’t remember which country. She spoke with a thick colonial British accent. Or it might have been French; I can’t remember. What I do remember is catching myself midway through the conversation doing one of those terrible dumb-ass things, speaking a little louder and slower to her, like Americans are known to do when traveling abroad. I also confess to having had some condescending presumptions about her station in life and occupation, picturing her in some kind of domestic servitude role. The next day, when I went to a workshop comparing legal issues surrounding domestic violence on the international scale, I discovered that this very same woman was the workshop leader. She was something like the chief legal council to the General Secretary of the Organization for African Unity, I don’t remember exactly, but it was a powerful position. She had been a lawyer and then judge in her country, and then a member of Parliament before assuming her role in the Pan African organization. I suspect that she hadn’t ironed a stitch of clothing or folded laundry for any wealthy white family in all her life. I kept my mouth shut during the workshop, pondering how in the world I could have read and affirmed the truth of so many formative books and articles I had read by womanist theologians like Delores Williams and Katie Cannon and still operate out of such embarrassing deep seeded discrimination and prejudice.
The passage today, which is the conclusion of a dramatic peacemaking story with a heroic woman center stage, is filled to the brim with the same kind of presumption and discrimination taken for granted in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. After Abigail proves her mettle in negotiating a peaceful conclusion to a volatile situation on the verge of exploding, good King David suddenly has eyes for her and sends a courier with his marriage proposal. Her response tells the tale of the status of women in the day: I am your servant and am ready to wash the feet of my lord’s servants. She climbs on her donkey and heads to the wedding chapel to take her vows and commence her royal bootlicking duties, and as if that weren’t enough, the story concludes by telling us David was also married to Ahinoam of Jezreel, but that his other wife, Michal, had been traded off to one Paltie of Gallim by her father. It all speaks to the cultural status and expected roles for women in that day and time. They were property, and their property value was determined by capacity for child-bearing and servitude. Birthing babies and washing feet. They weren’t in line for the General Secretary position of the Organization for Middle Eastern Unity. For all those who want to lay claim to a biblical model of family values, it’s important to see how these values have evolved throughout history. From the Deuteronomic mandate that the Kings of Israel should not “acquire many wives” for themselves, we get to the first century, when monogamy was more of the mainstream norm among the people of faith. But even then, the one wife role was submission to her husband, as to the Lord, for the man was seen in the same god-like role that Christ played for the church. A benevolent and loving God, to be sure, but the meaning is still clear. Two centuries hence have demonstrated that gender roles and status and expectations are continuing to evolve, away from lord-servant dynamics toward mutuality and respect for the gifts and capacities each brings to a partnership. But my experience in Raleigh proved that the old patterns of discrimination and expectations of servitude for women, especially when race is added to the mix, is still something dumb-asses like me have to unpack and process.
One of the womanist scholars I had been reading back in the early 90s and have continued to read is Jacquelyn Grant. She presents an eloquent critique of the servanthood theology so prevalent among moderate and progressive wings of the church. For women of color who have endured centuries of prescribed servitude roles, washing feet and being, as Zora Neal Hurston said, the mules of the world, an emphasis on the suffering servant as our model is neither liberating nor good news. Grant argues that spiritualized language of servanthood can camouflage oppression and sacralize pain of servitude. This all reinforces for me the idea that Jesus was not instilling a lesson in humble service when he washed the disciples feet and mandated that they do the same for each other. He was instituting a radically new community, based on an egalitarian ethic of shared work and mutual respect and dignity. The beloved community would have no need of a servant class or a servanthood ethic, for all the work, including the dirty work of washing feet, would be equally shared. I think it is an ethic and a family value that Abigail and her sister wives would have appreciated.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.