Being A Disturber of the Peace: A Reflection on Female Power and Powerlessness in the Anglican Church!

Taking Offence at Jesus!
July 26, 2023
The Sound of Sheer Silence!
August 2, 2023
Taking Offence at Jesus!
July 26, 2023
The Sound of Sheer Silence!
August 2, 2023

A Talk for St Francis College, Brisbane for a Workshop on:

‘Breaking the Stained-Glass Ceiling: Women in the Church Past and Present.’

27 July 2023

In exploring this topic:  being a disturber of the peace – a reflection on female power and powerlessness, I ended up visiting the works of Arundhati Roy, Indian author and polemicist; Vaclav Havel, author, playwright and Czech president, Paulo Freire and his work on teaching and oppression, Catholic feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson and Jewish philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt; to name a few of my sources. Hopefully, this gives you an idea of the places, thinking and wisdom I have drawn on and I hope I can weave them into a different sort of understanding, and bring some different ideas into the mix.   Let me begin with Arundhati Roy.  She said:

The trouble is, that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.  And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.  There’s no innocence.  Either way, you’re accountable.

So I hope you will hold onto that challenge as I walk through this Reflection. The idea of being a ‘Disturber of the Peace’ comes from Vaclav Havel, the author and playwright who found himself as the last Czech president after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 and then was the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic from 1993-2003. He died in 2011.

Havel wrote about the experience of finding himself to be a disturber of peace by simply being alive, and more importantly, by being ‘awake’ as a human being, accepting he thought differently to the people in power in his country where all aspects of life were controlled by others.  He talked about how easy it is for people to choose deliberately to ignore and look away from their circumstances, always tempted to maintain the status quo, live an easier life without complications, following the authoritarian regime’s unwritten ground rules and behaving in a way so not to have to ask questions.

Havel knew from his own experience, authoritarian leaders silence, restrict and control civil society in an evolving process that becomes harsher and more restrictive over time.   

Such a process is always normalised so people no longer notice, nor want to confront the limits imposed on their thinking, behaviour and speech.  He knew there were always people willing to live like this, who choose to shut down their critical faculties.  Hannah Arendt talked about this in her book on ‘Eichman in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil’.

The reality for such individuals, is they can’t imagine living any other way and giving in and giving up means instead they collude with those in power who maintain absolute control through their citizens’ submission to being silenced, who reflect an unwillingness to be at risk. 

As I reread Havel’s writings about living in a communist authoritarian regime, I thought about the lessons he had learned and their relevance for our conversation, for women in the Church. 

I looked again at the experience of power and powerlessness, critiqued by Hannah Arendt in The Banality of Evil, and remembered we are deliberately created by God, and understand we too disturb the peace.

I asked myself:  Whose peace are we, as women, disturbing by our presence? Who defines peace?  When and where do we genuinely share peace?  How does this emerge from female power and powerlessness?

My proposition is this, by our existence as women, we disturb our brothers’ peace, living as we do in a patriarchal, often sexist, androcentric and occasionally, misogynistic world.  It is a world fully reflected in our Church, which has established, colluded and interpreted the world, our society and theology in its own image.  Women disturb its peace as we challenge the status quo, the definitions and the unwritten ground rules.  

When we see this, like Havel, we know something has to change.   Rosemary Radford Ruether described women in God’s creation as celebrating the ‘full humanity of women, and it is of the Holy, as it reflects the true relation to the divine’, as with all God’s diverse humanity.

However, the goal of including women equally and equitably, the liberating goal of all the woman theologies is not reached by simply integrating women into a society and a church where patriarchal structures, androcentric theory and privileging prevail as the norm.  This ‘add woman and stir’ recipe isn’t working, it has never worked and will not work while women are taught to disregard their gifts to try to fit into the male defined world.  (Johnson, E. 2008)

Let’s be clear, any unease at ‘being disturbers of the peace’ is not and cannot be relieved by trying to fit in, to find acceptable ways of not disturbing the peace of the other, by limiting our power, dimming our capacity or refusing to challenge systems and structures which constrain our presence.

In his often-quoted commencement speech at Kenyon College in the US in 2005, the late American novelist David Foster Wallace offered the parable of two young fish swimming past an older fish, who says to them: ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’   The two continue on their way and then one asks the other: ‘What the hell is water?’  

The point of the fish story reminds us the most obvious, important realities are often the ones hardest to see and talk about, summing up the notion of privilege very succinctly. 

Vaclav Havel goes on to suggest: ‘the profound crisis of human identity brought on by living within a lie, a crisis which in turn makes such a life possible, possesses a moral dimension as well; it appears, among other things, as a deep moral crisis in society.’ 

Havel argues that someone who has been seduced by the world’s value system, whose identity is absorbed into the system of privilege, and who has no benefit in being truly alive, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than their own personal survival, is a de-moralised person. The system depends on this de-moralisation, the system deepens it, and is in fact a projection of it into society.

However, living within the true life as women seek to do, and more broadly, as wider humanity’s revolt against an enforced position of a dead end life, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility.  In other words, it is clearly a moral act, not only because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not self-serving.   The reality we all know, is the risk may bring rewards in the form of a general improvement in the situation or, it may not. (Havel, 1979:49)   

In this critique, we need to think about our Church’s approach to this privileged reality of being seen as a lesser object, separated out by male headship, the male gaze; of thinking through the experience of female martyrdom, surplus powerlessness, along God’s Way, in its interpretation in the world, and Jesus’ own profound refusal to give way to the threats of violence as a disturber of the peace.  

Instead, we find our place, standing alongside Jesus in witness to God’s truth, where all are created equal in God’s kingdom.

This is how women have had to live in the Church, nurturing their sense of agency in bringing about change for themselves individually and collectively and just as importantly, for men too in the fullness of humanity.   This is not simply a struggle by women for women, but the struggle for all humanity, with women supported and enabled by women and men as we see how important it is for humanity, for our faith and our Church to be and do this differently as God’s way.  Richard Rohr talks about this paradox as the third way, a new way in celebrating and honouring the diversity of God’s creation.

Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1993:21, 52-57) points to another critical piece of thinking for this reflection.  He describes our fear of the freedom of having agency and equality, which results in our collusion in the oppression, because critical thinking is frequently thought to be anarchical, so leading to disorder which is seen as unacceptable.  He highlights the belief which gives rise to such a conclusion: that it is better for victims of injustice not to recognise themselves as such. 

Freire goes onto argue men and women rarely admit their fear of freedom openly, rather hiding it, often unconsciously, by presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. They confuse freedom with their preference to maintain the status quo.   Freire argues it is only those who truly enter the reality of oppression to know it better, who are then better able to transform it.  Such people don’t seek to become owners of the truth, or its history, or to be the liberator of the oppressed, but because they have listened and engaged, they commit to fighting at the side of those who are struggling to become part of the visible and acknowledged history; and in our faith, equally part of God’s kingdom. 

The struggle for humanisation, for recognition as being created equally in God’s creation, for overcoming alienation and de-moralisation, is only possible because de-humanisation is an historical fact. It is the result of an unjust order generating violence in the oppressors which in turn, de-humanises and de-moralises the oppressed.  This, then, is the great human and divine task for the oppressed alongside Jesus: to liberate not only themselves but also the oppressors as well.  

If we use the word ‘oppressors’ in our discussion as meaning ‘patriarchal, androcentric, privileged men’ in our Church, who oppress, exploit, and abuse by virtue of their power; eventually such oppressors discover they cannot find in this oppressive power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.  Only power springing from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.

Martin Luther King came to the same conclusion in his letter from Birmingham Gaol:

We know through painful experience freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed…Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.   

King recognised and understood this point about which Jesus spoke and taught, in his good news to those who are oppressed, outcast, blind and imprisoned.

For women in the church, whose voices, stories, theology, culture, history and language have been continuously oppressed, removed, denied and made invisible, it has seemed recently, we have made profound progress. Women can now be ordained in many faith traditions, hold positions of authority; and, we have the first Anglican female Archbishop in Australia. However, the numbers of female bishops have reduced and the number of men opposed to female leadership in the church appears once again to be increasing. Everywhere instead, it seems progress for women is in retreat.

So, what does the experience of power and powerlessness look like and feel like to women in the church today?

We are born, uniquely created by God in God’s image, yet we understand as women, the other half the human race, we are birthed as ‘disturbers of the peace’ in this world simply because of our gender.  Yet being God’s creation is our first and true, holy identity.  

Our presence, identity and character of ‘disturbing the peace’ becomes visible within the male realm, as we are born again, truly alive, seen, known and knowing, in God’s kingdom, as this understanding becomes real for women.  We realise then, we can’t serve two masters and as Arundhati Roy said: ‘once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it.’

We know from research and experience, when no hope is left, despair becomes the cradle for all responses including our sense of powerlessness, which grows and corrupts over time. 

Over time, things we might previously have rejected, we accept when we think we have no choice.  We unconsciously adapt our behaviours to live the world’s reality as people who are powerless.  As women who are powerless.   We no longer see possibilities and opportunities. 

When it becomes surplus powerlessness, so overwhelming with nothing to lose, it drives people to riot and destroy, both themselves and those around them.   We see this in race and religious riots, in refugee camps, in prisons, in oppressed peoples governed by dictatorships and oligarchies, imposed by powerful, cruel and vindictive punishments and death; driven by greed and systemic corruption, poverty, and abuse.  This is the challenge of surplus powerlessness and it is the reckoning that comes when the oppressor cannot change.  

It has been interesting to look at the woman’s movement which became more visible in the mid 20th century to challenge the continuing patriarchal cultural, social, economic and political structures enshrining this way of thinking and living.  Simone de Beauvoir wrote about this in 1949 in The Second Sex.  She pointed out women were unused to joining with other women to change the world.  Women were identified by the men with whom they shared their lives: their fathers, husbands and brothers and the male church, by the rules men had given them, knowing of course, God was male!  God could be nothing less.

In today’s Church, women continue to change the way they respond to power and powerlessness; and it is now collectively, faithfully made visible, by women together across race, language and culture.

My own experience of working with women clergy from around the world in Rome, provides this truth of faithful women’s lives: where the same experiences are told across the Anglican church from the US, Canada, UK, Europe, Turkiye, Africa, Asia and East Asia, Pakistan, South America, the South Pacific, Australia and NZ.   They continue to experience sexual harassment, patriarchy, bullying, misogyny, abuse, sexism, racism, poverty, limited access to education, constraints, discrimination and silencing.  It is profoundly disturbing to hear women in the church tell the same stories about their powerlessness across diverse cultures and societies.  

Jesus’ message to the powerless, the voiceless, oppressed and de-humanized, still resounds as strongly as it did 2,000 years ago and women are still fully engaged with God’s message of love, hope and peace irrespective of the oppression placed over them. 

Nevertheless, in this country, huge wounds were opened in the Church through the appalling mistreatment and grotesque institutional response to abuse of children; the denial of God’s liberating justice to slavery, to first nations peoples around the world including in Australia; the treatment of people identifying as LGBTQI+; and women refusing to be silenced and made invisible. Julia Gillard’s explosive speech to the Australian parliament 10 years ago about the misogynistic, sexist, patriarchal, and appalling hate speech of men in and out of the church all around her exploded the myth of compliant, peaceful, obedient, powerless women. 

The madness generated by female powerlessness is confronting and dangerous for everyone.  The continued awakening of women and their ongoing challenge in the Church to take their rightful, just, place, is still dangerous for them.

Power is now being shaped, defined and held differently.  New generations of women are emerging who will not accept the language, stories, myths, biblical examples, parables, behaviours and norms of even 20 years ago in our Church, society or in our culture, thank goodness. 

Power is being held by women irrespective of any male permission.  It is demanded by women who, in refusing to be conformed to male expectations, are pushing back and continuing to disturb the peace for everyone around them. 

But let us be under no illusion, such work remains sacrificial, risky, frightening and not always successful as pointed out by Havel, Freire, Arendt and Roy.  There is no guarantee except from God.  In the meantime, non-violent activism determined to be recognised as fully woman and fully in the divine, is the hallmark of our Church’s disturbers of the peace, as is its determination to do this Jesus’ way with God’s power from the margins.   I’ll end with another quote from Arundhati Roy, who spoke at the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre in 2004 in a speech called ‘Confronting Empire’.  She said:

Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe.

Bibliography

Arendt, H. 1963, 1992.  Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil.  New York, Penguin Books.

Arendt, H. 2003.  Responsibility and Judgement.  New York, Schocken Books.

De Beauvoir, S. 1949.  The Second Sex. Paris, France.

Freire P. 1993.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed. England, Penguin Books.

Havel, V. 1978.  The Power of the Powerless.  London, Penguin Random House UK

Havel, V.  1991.   Disturbing the Peace.  London, Vintage.

Hegel, G. 1967. Phenomenology of the Mind.  NY

Johnson, E. A. 2008.  Quest for the Living God.  Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God.  New York, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

King, N.K. 1991.  A Testament of Hope.  The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.  New York, Harper San Francisco.

Roy, A., 2002.  the algebra of infinite justice.  London, HarperCollinsPublishers.

Roy, A. 2004.  The chequebook & the cruise missile. London, Harper Perennial, p.xii-xiii

Volf, M. 2006, 2011.  The End of Memory.  Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.  Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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