Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Usby Rebecca Ann Parker, Rita Nakashima Brock
An extraordinary personal and theological examination of what's wrong with the crucifixion
In an emotionally gripping and intellectually rich combination of memoir and theology, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker show how emphasizing Christ's obedience to God and sacrifice on the cross sanctions violence, exacerbates its effects, blesses silence about the abuse of
An extraordinary personal and theological examination of what's wrong with the crucifixion
In an emotionally gripping and intellectually rich combination of memoir and theology, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker show how emphasizing Christ's obedience to God and sacrifice on the cross sanctions violence, exacerbates its effects, blesses silence about the abuse of human beings, and hinders the process of recoverygiving the fullest and most powerful critique to date of the theology of atonement.
"Poignant and provocative. . . . Brock and Parker have written a book of both sorrow and hope, and a blueprint for deeper thinking about the things that matter most. . . . I will be reflecting on Proverbs of Ashes for many months to come." Rosemary Bray McNatt, UU World
"This book will anger some Christians and make others feel vindicated. . . . Parker and Brock unveil their own deep pain and suffering to build the book's backbone. They blend self disclosure with serious theology to underscore their outlook." Cecil S. Holmes, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Provocative. . . . The authors weave theological reflections with deeply moving personal accounts of abuse and trauma, including their own experiences." The Other Side
"[Readers] cannot help but be swayed by the book's searing passion and profoundly literary style (a remarkable achievement in a coauthored work). Brock and Parker have thrown down a gauntlet that cannot be ignored." Publishers Weekly
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Read an Excerpt
Away from the Fire
"Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' . . . For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?"
Luke 23: 28-31
"He killed her," Pat said, "With a kitchen knife. In front of three of their children. The baby was sleeping."
She turned and looked out the window, her face still as stone. Her hands gripped the mug of tea so tightly I thought the solid stoneware would crack in her hands. I followed my friend's gaze out the steamy kitchen windows. Gulls circled and cried above the salt marsh, across the slough that edged the main road of town. The rickety old docks, the gas station, and the gravel parking lot of the church looked weary in the dripping rain. It was typical weather for South Bend, Washington, a town that had grown up along the shores of Willapa Bay, a wide, shallow backwater of the Pacific Ocean. Oysters and timber had been its original economic base, but now the town was economically depressed, with many unemployed. It smelled, as it had for nearly a hundred years, of pulp mill smoke and rotting leavings from the sea.
The Methodist parsonage, Pat's home, was perched on the hillside next to the church. Behind the house, Douglas fir, cedar, and big leaf maples climbed the hill, crowded underneath with huckleberry, salmonberry, and sword fern. Against the forest, the bay, the tide flats, and the unceasing rain, the small community felt fragile.
I knew this land. It was home. I'd started life on the other side of this bay, where the Grays River flowed into a similar muddy harbor, and the big towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen stood. I knew the people-hardy, good-natured, plain. I knew that behind the glassed-in storm porches of the gray-and-white clapboard houses there were interior spaces warmed with sawdust-burning stoves, steaming cups of coffee, friendly conversation and laughter. As a child, I'd visited these homes with my father when he was making pastoral calls. In my heart, home would always be a place that smelled of coffee and wood smoke, a place where the entry way was crowded with tall rubber boots, dripping slickers, and plaid wool shirts.
I loved it when the men of the church would go out clam digging and come back, with sandy shovels and sloshing buckets, to clean the clams in the big back porch sink of our parsonage in Hoquiam. Their loud voices, happily shouting and teasing, made me feel safe. Life came in from out of doors with a rush of salty wind and rain, the clump of boots, and the clatter of clam shells pouring into the sink.
But I knew better than to think all the homes were friendly. There were interior spaces where children were molested and wives beaten, where voices spoke words that silenced, terrified, and controlled. This hadn't changed.
Pat and I had known each other since junior high. Now we were both United Methodist clergywomen. I'd come to visit her, driving three hours from the neighborhood parish I served in Seattle. Our conversations over tea were a ritual of friendship, and also part of our practice of ministry. Ministry is a lonely profession. By talking together, pouring our hearts out to each other, we eased the loneliness and gained insight into the work we'd chosen.
Pat had tried to help Anola Dole Reed, the woman whose murder she had just told me about. "When I got to South Bend, I discovered there weren't any social services for victims of domestic violence. The closest services were two or three hours away by car. That's too far for a woman who needs emergency shelter. I let it be known, quietly, that women in need of a safe space could come to my house."
Pat's choice made sense. It's an ancient principle: church property as sanctuary. When they are in trouble-homeless, hungry, injured in spirit or body-human beings look for haven. Despite religion's failures, people come to churches counting on hospitality for the frightened, harbor for the distressed, shelter for the unjustly persecuted and pursued. Anyone who serves as the minister of a church knows this. People show up on your doorstep expecting the church to be the church, the holy site where divine mercy and strength can be obtained and where human kindness can be counted on. Your job is to keep the sanctuary open and tend the sacred ground.
Pat cared about women who were being battered in their homes. She created a way to provide assistance for them. She turned back from the window and looked down into her tea. "It's just hard," she said, "not to be able to stop it. Almost every woman who's come here for refuge has gone back to her violent husband or boyfriend. She thinks it's her religious duty. I counsel her otherwise. I tell her it's her religious duty to protect her own life and take care of herself so she can protect her children. But my words and this shelter"-Pat gestured around the damp and slightly dilapidated parsonage-"are not enough."
"He killed her," she said, again, this time raising her face to mine and holding my gaze. I understood her sad, angry, and imploring eyes. We had to do something about this, somehow. We couldn't just sit here. Her gaze held questions. Were we destined to be nothing more than compassionate witnesses? Was ministry the art of standing by, while the world exposes its violent hands? Was our job simply to conduct the memorial services, comfort the grieving families, and pray for the children whose remaining parent was the murderer of their mother?
Pat had done more. She organized a drop-in support group for abused women. She knew that women needed resources to resist the violence in their lives.
Anola came to the group a few times. Pat offered her support and counsel. When Anola's husband assaulted her, the group gave her the courage to call the police. She was reluctant to press charges, but an activist prosecutor brought her husband to trial. Pat accompanied Anola to court and stood by her as she took the courageous step to testify against her husband. "He knocked me to the floor. He got on top of me and twisted my hand and kept telling me that I'd better start listening to him and do what he wants me to do," she said in court. Gordon James Reed was convicted, fined five hundred dollars, and sentenced to ten days in the county jail.
"While he was in jail, Anola got her ears pierced." Pat smiled broadly, remembering. "It was her act of defiance, a way of saying this is my body. He would never have let her do that. She was so pleased with herself. Then he got out of jail. She had to decide whether to let him come back and live at home with her and the kids."
"She let him come home, didn't she." I said with sadness. "Why?"
"She thought it would be the right thing, in God's eyes. In the church she went to, the intact family was celebrated as God's will; father, mother, and children were meant to be together in a loving home. Anola believed that because this configuration of family was the will of God, God would somehow make it all right. For her to break up the family would make her a bad person. Doing the will of God was more important than her personal safety. The possibility that faithfulness to God's will might mean pain and violence could even have been in its favor. A good woman would be willing to accept personal pain, and think only of the good of the family. You know, 'Your life is only valuable if it's given away' and 'This is your cross to bear.' She heard, just like you and I have, that Jesus didn't turn away from the cup of suffering when God asked him to drink it. She was trying to be a good Christian, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus."
Pat counseled Anola to embrace the sacredness of her own life and not to submit to abuse. But it was important to Anola to hold fast to the image of virtue that her church taught her. "I have been trying to hold our marriage together for seven years," she said at the assault trial, "with my head split open three or four times by him." Anola believed God expected her to risk being battered, like Jesus. Her husband reinforced the message, defending his actions saying, "I just kept trying to convince her that we had a marriage here and she had children and everything and that she was destroying it."
Anola allowed her husband back into her home, but she continued to struggle with her decision. She went to her home church pastor for counsel. He, like Pat, encouraged Anola to take care of herself and her children. She came home that evening and told Gordon Reed that she wanted him to leave. He went into a rage. He knocked her to the floor with the baby's high chair and began stabbing her.
Later that night her four-year-old daughter would tell police, "Mommy was bad so Daddy killed her." Her five-year-old son would tell what happened. "I got in the way. Daddy said, 'Get out of the way,' when I tried to stop him. Daddy said he was mad. He said Mommy was a bad woman. Daddy had a high chair and was hitting Mommy. She wasn't crying because she was bleeding. Then Daddy got the knife."
The daughter said, "We thought Mommy had spilled something on her. But she didn't. It was blood. Daddy bent the knife in Mommy's tummy then he went to get the sharp knife. Mommy only used it to cut bread. He stuck her with the big sharp knife. Mommy was on the floor in the kitchen."
"We was crying when Daddy was killing Mommy," the son said.
Gordon Reed stabbed Anola eighteen times using ten knives. The big kitchen knife was still lodged in her neck when the police found her body. He was sentenced to twenty years.
"Her mother came for the funeral," Pat said. "She insisted that Anola be buried wearing her prettiest earrings in her pierced ears. I think it was a way to say, 'My daughter isn't just a victim.' "
"Pat," I said, "the only way you could have helped Anola more is if the whole Christian tradition taught something other than self-sacrificing love. If it didn't preach that to be like Jesus we have to give up our lives in faithful obedience to the will of God."
"But," Pat said, "this is what the church teaches. And Anola Reed is dead. I know Gordon Reed is the one responsible. He killed her. But I can't escape the feeling that he wouldn't have had the chance if the church hadn't taught Anola that your life is only valuable if you give it away."
Not long after this conversation with Pat, I spoke at a conference on women's spirituality. I described how a woman's religious home can be a place where she is endangered rather than nurtured, put at risk rather than initiated into freedom and fullness of life. I suggested women need to construct alternative religious ideas that allow for women's lives to be resurrected from the scourges of violence and abuse.
Following the speech, a Lutheran clergywoman raised her hand and said, "On Sunday mornings I go to the church early to prepare the communion table. It is customary in my tradition for the pastor to stand at the table and offer silent prayers before the congregation arrives and the service begins. A few Sundays ago, just before I woke up, I dreamt I was standing at the table saying the preliminary prayers. Suddenly, the rectangular communion table turned into a stone coffin. The lid was open. I looked inside and saw the skeleton of my grandfather. I felt a surge of fear and revulsion and, at the same moment, a great rush of love.
"This is how I feel about the church. I love the church. It's my home and has been my family's home for generations. And I love the liturgy in all its beauty. At the same time, I feel something is dreadfully wrong. When I preside at the Eucharist, am I not reenacting images and ideas that tell people God wants them to sacrifice their lives? Am I right to do this? Does this give them life? Now when I pray in the church before the congregation arrives, I ask God to forgive me for performing the Eucharistic rite."
Pat and I were approaching a similar contradiction. How could we in good conscience continue to serve a church whose fundamental teachings contributed to the very violence we were seeking to prevent? At the same time, how could we walk away from the sanctuary, from the work of tending sacred ground, and providing ordinary places in the world that are doorways into divine presence, transcendent mercy, healing and hope? This was our chosen work, but clearly it demanded much more of us than repeating the old words and rituals, unexamined.
A few months after my visit with Pat, a quiet knock on the church office door interrupted my reading. Marking quickly the prayer I'd chosen for Sunday's service, I closed the Book of Worship and opened the door. A short, brown-faced woman stood on the threshold, bundled up against the chilly Seattle weather.
"Hello, pastor. I'm Lucia. I live down the block and walk by the church on my way to the bus." She gestured to indicate the direction. "I saw your name on the church sign. You are a woman priest. Maybe because you are a woman, you can understand my problem and help me."
"Of course, come in," I said. She sat down on the old sofa next to my bookcase with its load of theology texts bending the shelves. She smiled, an expression both warm and sad.
"I haven't talked to anyone about this for a while," she began, the smile fading, and sadness deepening in her eyes. "But I'm worried for my kids now. The problem is my husband. He beats me sometimes. Mostly he is a good man. But sometimes he becomes very angry and he hits me. He knocks me down. One time he broke my arm and I had to go to the hospital. But I didn't tell them how my arm got broken."
I nodded. She took a deep breath and went on. "I went to my priest twenty years ago. I've been trying to follow his advice. The priest said I should rejoice in my sufferings because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, 'Jesus suffered because he loved us.' He said, 'If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.' I've tried, but I'm not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?"
Lucia's deep black eyes searched my hazel ones. I wanted to look away, but couldn't. I wanted to speak, but my mouth wouldn't work. It felt stuffed with cotton. I couldn't get the words to form.
I was a liberal Christian. I didn't believe God demanded obedience or that Jesus' death on the cross brought about our salvation. I hadn't forgotten Anola Reed, though I thought of my theology as far from hers. But just that past Sunday I had preached a sermon on the willingness of love to suffer. I preached that Jesus' life revealed the nature of love and that love would save us. I'd said that love bears all things. Never breaks relationship. Keeps ties of connection to others even when they hurt you. Places the needs of the other before concern for the self.
In the stillness of that moment, I could see in Lucia's eyes that she knew the answer to her question, just as I did. If I answered Lucia's question truthfully, I would have to rethink my theology. More than that, I would have to face choices I was making in my own life. After a long pause, I found my voice.
"It isn't true," I said to her. "God does not want you to accept being beaten by your husband. God wants you to have your life, not to give it up. God wants you to protect your life and your children's lives."
Lucia's eyes danced. "I knew I was right!" she said. "But it helps to hear you say it. Now I know that I should do what I have been thinking about doing." She planned to take courses at the community college until she had a marketable skill. Then she would get a job and move herself and her children to a new home.
We stayed in touch as she took each step. Eventually, her husband sought help for himself. Lucia agreed to let him spend weekends with their children. "They got their father back," she said, "and I got my life back."
I was glad for Lucia, and watched her progress with a sense of appreciation for her struggle and her strength. She let go of a theology that didn't support her life, that kept her in bondage to violence. Perhaps, in a critical moment, I offered the words she needed to assist her along the way. But my journey to disenthrall myself from a theology of sacrifice would be longer. Suffering love would haunt me.
The spring I met Lucia, I got pregnant. It was my husband who had proposed that we start a family. We were both finished with graduate school, he was busy composing music, and I was settled in the parish. It seemed like the right time. We'd been trying for six months.
I knew I was pregnant the day after Easter. The double-blossom cherry was blooming. The spring rain filled the air with damp fragrance. I felt the life beginning inside of me as if it were an enormous gift. My heart was full of joy.
When I told my husband the news, the blood drained from his face. We were sitting across from one another at a favorite restaurant. I had taken his hands in mine to tell him. The formica tabletop expanded between us as he pulled back and let go of my hands. "I'm not ready to be a father," he said. "I can't do this. I'm not sure I want to stay with you. The only way I can imagine our marriage having a chance is for you to have an abortion." I felt his words as if they were a physical blow-swift, precise, unexpected.
"This is my decision to make," I said, claiming the only ground I could find to stand on.
During the next few weeks I considered my choices. The prospect of losing my marriage and becoming a single mother was overwhelming. I didn't think I could be a single mother and meet my responsibilities as the pastor of a church. I would have to give up my vocation and go on welfare. Worst of all, I couldn't face the shame of being abandoned by my husband. I was afraid I would kill myself. I did not believe that anyone around me would be compassionate or supportive. Years later, looking back, I would know that many of these assumptions were wrong. My family would not have hesitated to help me, had I asked. The church, too, would have stood by me. But, at the time, I withdrew.
I had learned to hide pain early in life. When I was three, four, and five the neighbor who lived around the corner from us had groomed me to trust him. Then he had molested me, orally raping me repeatedly. The anxiety, fear, and pain of that experience and the fierce bond I'd formed with the abuser were traumas I could not and did not tell. He terrified me with threats that silenced me. Living with hidden abuse in turn intensified my dependence on my parents' love and care. I needed them, but was too frightened to tell them why. I wanted still to be the sturdy and happy child that my parents adored. I couldn't ask for their help, so I tried to be like them. They were kind and generous people who put others first. I never saw them angry, upset, or frightened. To keep connected to my parents and the church that was the center of our family's life, I internalized my parents' way of being. It kept me close to them and protected me from terror.
I forgot the sexual abuse. I'd learned to excise part of myself to preserve relationship. It was what a good person did.
When I was in distress, I did not turn to my family or my church. In both places, I had learned that personal need had no place. The good person cares for others, but if she herself is hurt, frightened, confused, or in need, these weaknesses are to be nursed in private, covered over, or solved without bothering anyone else.
In late May, when the lilacs were heavy with purple blossoms, I allowed a doctor to remove from my body what would have become my only child. It was 1982. I was twenty-nine. The abortion was performed in safe, legal, medical conditions.
I chose abortion to save myself from shame, loss, and fears of suicide; to save a child from coming into the world without a father; to save a marriage; and to save the father from something he feared, something he said I could protect him from.
It was a willing sacrifice, I thought. An enactment of love for my husband and hope for our future. But the loss of my child cut deep. I kept the pain secret. Only two friends knew about the abortion. I told one and one guessed. I kept my experience hidden from my parents, brothers, and grandparents. I continued my public life as a parish minister, grateful for work. The daily tasks of church life were a mercy. There were hospital and house calls to make, meetings to attend. The midweek women's Bible study, choir practice, writing a column for the church newsletter-these tasks steadied me.
But our future did not unfold as I'd hoped. My husband and I didn't speak of the abortion. We tried to repair the rift in our marriage, but within a few months, he took an apartment across town. Years later I would piece together fragments of information about his childhood. How he had not been able to remember much of anything from the years when he was twelve and thirteen, except that his father, depressed and drunk, beat him with a belt for making mistakes in spelling and grammar on his English papers. How his mother sent him off to boarding school when he was fourteen to protect him from his father. How he was lonesome and homesick at boarding school. How a teacher singled him out for attention and then persuaded him to perform sexual acts. How the teacher was sending him letters still, fifteen years later, filled with sexual fantasies about my young husband. How my husband placed these frequent letters in the wastebasket, unopened.
These fragments didn't add up for me. I couldn't see our marriage in the context of longer histories of disrupted faith, distorted bonds, or sexual abuse. I only knew my present, growing anguish: my grief at losing him and my sense that a hole had opened inside me where life used to be. It would be a long time before I understood that I had bonded with a wounded young man because I myself was wounded in similar ways. I would have to remember the abuse that happened to me, face the sorrow and terror of it, and construct a new self, one not formed around the ideals of self-sacrificing goodness. But this task was one I would only be prepared to take on much later, when the accumulation of sorrow forced me to a deeper consideration of my history.
It was a sad time. I felt keenly the loss of the child whose beginning I had welcomed with joy. I was left with grief and shame, and hid these feelings from my family, friends, and religious community. During the day I did my job, but at night, I wrestled with anguish. I wanted to die. I was troubled that the choice to sacrifice came so easily. It was clear to me that in choosing the abortion I was choosing to make a sacrifice. The pregnancy was a blessing. Letting it go was a loss.
The gesture of sacrifice was familiar. I knew the rubrics of the ritual by heart: you cut away some part of yourself, then peace and security are restored, relationship is preserved, and shame is avoided.
I could have drawn you a picture of the steps. First I bow my head. I cast my eyes down to indicate my subservience to the other whose will or needs I am obeying. I close my mouth. I do not speak. Then I kneel. I offer my head, my hands, or expose my breast or thigh to the executioner's blade and wait, holding still. He swings, cuts. Then I rise, silently wrap the wound, and withdraw.
Clearly this ritual is a horror. Where did the executioner come from who appeared so readily in my imagination? What if my choice for an abortion was the performance of a ritual that I was trained to enact, not the exercise of genuine moral discernment? I began trying to understand why the gesture of sacrifice was so easy, so familiar to my body, so related to my sexuality, and so futile. Why did I know so well how to do it? Why did the women I knew as friends, counseled as parishioners, preached to in my congregation, know so well how to do it?
I recognized that Christianity had taught me that sacrifice is the way of life. I forgot the neighbor who raped me, but I could see that when theology presents Jesus' death as God's sacrifice of his beloved child for the sake of the world, it teaches that the highest love is sacrifice. To make sacrifice or to be sacrificed is virtuous and redemptive.
But what if this is not true? What if nothing, or very little, is saved? What if the consequence of sacrifice is simply pain, the diminishment of life, fragmentation of the soul, abasement, shame? What if the severing of life is merely destructive of life and is not the path of love, courage, trust, and faith? What if the performance of sacrifice is a ritual in which some human beings bear loss and others are protected from accountability or moral expectations?
My decision for an abortion was the best I could do in the circumstances. The moral position that would ask my husband to keep faith with the child he had fathered eluded me. I lacked trust that the larger community of family, religious community, and society, would care for a child abandoned by its father. I had little insight into the deeper sources of strain in our marriage, or into my isolation. I wanted the child, but I sacrificed the desires of my heart and let go of a life that I cherished.
I do not regret that I had this choice. I firmly believe there are circumstances in which abortion is the most ethical choice, and I am committed to keeping abortion safe and legal. In my circumstance, what I regret is that I lacked moral imagination and therefore moral freedom because I had so deeply internalized the spirituality of self-sacrifice. I didn't exercise much choice. I obeyed a ritual.
The consequence of the ritual was sorrow. Nothing was redeemed or saved. I felt bereft. I grieved the lost pregnancy and my husband's absence. I also grieved an older, pre-existing loss that I did not fully understand. The abortion made me aware of an interior vacuity-an absence of self-possession, of self-protection, of freedom. I was missing an internal space in my own body that was free from the imperative of self-sacrifice. I had no inner sanctuary.
In the midst of my questions, Lent arrived. In the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus tells his disciples, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again." (Luke 18:31-33) The gospel adds, "But they understood nothing about all these things . . . they did not grasp what was said." (Luke 18: 34)
My understanding of this gospel text had been shaped by Bach's cantatas, which I'd played many times as a cellist. One cantata begins with Jesus singing an aria announcing that he has set his face toward Jerusalem. "Don't go! Don't go!" the disciples respond, pleading with Jesus to avoid the dangerous path. But Jesus rebukes them. Then the cello and harpsichord sound out a lilting walk, almost a dance, and the aria of the exemplary believer is sung-an exquisite, joyful duet. One singer proclaims, "With willing feet, I follow thee." The other singer, representing Jesus, dances in harmonious joy. The final chorale is a prayer sung by the whole congregation, "Give us the strength to go with you to Jerusalem."
I had loved this music. When the disciples protested, imploring Jesus not to go, I felt their longing to see a loved one spared. I recognized their protest as a voice of love and I cheered them on. When Jesus responded that he must go, I felt the determination to face whatever had to be faced and I was moved by his strength. This felt like love too. When the exemplary believer sings her joyful duet with Jesus, pledging herself to follow him to Jerusalem and the cross, I wanted to be like her. If only my reluctance to bear suffering for the sake of love could likewise be overcome!
But now I questioned all of this. I didn't tell Lucia to bear suffering for the sake of love. She'd been told that by her priest and all it did was lead to many years of unabated harm. I grieved with Pat that Anola Reed had tried so hard to be a good Christian, and now she was dead. Hadn't Anola Reed, like Jesus, set her face toward Jerusalem? She had been mocked, scourged, and slain. Her young children were the witnesses at the foot of her cross. Their father, her crucifier. Though he was in jail, he still had custody of them. Killing their mother didn't disqualify him from maintaining his parental rights, just as God the Father wasn't denied his for sending his Son to the cross.
My desire to save my marriage had led me to sacrifice the life in my own body. The grief of this would not let me go.......
Meet the Author
Rita Nakashima Brock is a research associate at the Harvard Divinity School, and author of Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power. Rebecca Ann Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry at Graduate Theological Union, is an ordained United Methodist minister in dual fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association.
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