Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    Rita Nakashima Brock is research associate at the Harvard Divinity School. Rebecca Ann Parker is president and professor of theology at Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California. They met in 1978 when they were students in a graduate theology seminar and their friendship matured over the years, gradually deepening "from an intellectual bond to an emotional bond strong enough hold words of pain and memory." In January 1982, they met one day in Berkeley, California to hear some lectures and at a coffee shop, their friendship took an important turn. For the first time, they began to share some of the critical issues of their lives. They write, "We spoke of our encounters with violence and its devastating effect on people. Both of us were struggling to rethink theology from our feminist perspectives. We wanted to speak to those who had been injured by violence, who were struggling to survive profound betrays and trauma. We wanted theology to offer healing. We were convinced Christianity could not promise healing for victims of intimate violence as long as its central image was a divine parent who required the death of his child…. We talked of writing a book together." A friend suggested that readers should be "cautioned as to what they will experience within those pages." She writes that she was "shocked, saddened, outraged, and sickened by what they described and I was a little angry at the women for some of the language they used." Nevertheless, the result is a story of shared courage and haunting theological reflection.

    The book is structured around three liturgical seasons of the Church year, Lent, Pentecost, and Epiphany. In Part One, Lent: A Season of Ashes, each author devotes a chapter to telling some of the pages of her life story, which were darkened by violence, and suffering. A neighbor sexually molested Rebecca at age three, four, and five. After she married and became pregnant, her husband threatened to leave her if she did not have an abortion. Rita, whose mother was Japanese, experienced the rejection and isolation of racism at school and the pain and humiliation of physical abuse at home, in the form of spanking, by her father from the time she was seven until she was in college. These personal experiences and similar experiences others shared with them, raised serious theological questions. Christianity taught that the death of Jesus was God’s sacrifice of his beloved child for the sake of the world and that sacrificial love is redemptive. Did that mean that this theological claim sanctions "intimate violence" as holy and salvific?

    In Part Two, Pentecost: A Season of Fire, they share what they discovered and learned by participating in communities where people found healing. Rebecca shares her story as 2.

    Minister of the Wallingford Presbyterian Church. She writes that her experience in that community "was in sharp contrast to the theology of self-sacrificing love I wrestled with. It wasn’t the willingness to bear pain, or carry the burdens of others that transformed life in the places where life had been harmed by violence. It was strong relationships among human beings who offered their presence to one another." Rita continues her story by sharing a time of her life when she was enrolled in a doctoral program in theology, was engaged as a social activist and involved in a relationship with a man she identifies as T.C. During that time she continued to struggle with "the theological implications of what I knew psychologically, personally and politically." She could not accept the traditional Christian presentation of Jesus as "the obedient son, accepting violence because his father wills it." She writes, "Defining love and relationship as obedience and sacrifice structures them in terms of power and abuse."

    Part Three, Epiphany; A Season of Illumination, they tell the stories of "the unexpected journeys" in their lives which led them to "discover love that exceeds our imaging." Rebecca’s journey at this stage of her life began with her acceptance of the offer to become president of the Starr King School for the Ministry, part of the Graduate Theological Union. The heart of the chapter involves her facing and dealing with her past with the help of a therapist, while continuing to wrestle with the implications of the way that traditional Christianity interprets the crucifixion of Jesus as a salvific gift. At this time of her life she and Rita decided that they "were going to find a way to say something about what saved life if we were convinced, as we were, that no one was saved by the execution of Jesus." Rita continues her story by sharing with the reader how she discovered her past – she was adopted – and dealt with the shock of her discovery of an unknown father.

    In the midst of their journeys, they found salvation in the Presence of God, mediated through the presence of other people. They discovered that salvation begins with the "courage of witnesses whose gaze is steady" and who do "neither flee in horror to hide their eyes, nor console with sweet words." It involves healing love which "touches the hidden wounds of violation, lances the places of stored trauma, restores glimpses of soul." Salvation also involves mourning "which deepens reverence for what is precious, what is already destroyed, what must be embraced with fierce determination, abiding faithfulness." They write, in conclusion, "Let us say that life shows us the face of God, only in fleeting glimpses, by the light of night fires, in dancing shadows, in departing ghosts, and in recollections of steady love. Let us say this in enough, enough for us to run with perseverance the race what is set before us, enough for us to stand against violence, enough for us to hold each other in benediction and blessing." Anyone who reads their story will receive a benediction and be blessed.

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