As my mom often told it, she was ten or eleven years when she first began losing her religion.
It wasn’t that Mom was faithless; she was, indeed, built to believe, as evidenced by her lifelong search for a place to express her deeply felt faith.
It was, rather, that she didn’t—couldn’t possibly—believe a woman’s sole path to heaven was being called there by her husband. That she could envision believing herself worthy of welcome in every single room of buildings of worship, instead of being prohibited from entering many for her audacity to not be born a man.
By the time she could talk about all this with me, I was myself ten or eleven to her thirty-ish years of age.
She’d left her religion an eternity ago, by my reckoning, and it had been—naturally, for things that have happened eternities ago!—a clean break.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve slowly come to embrace liberation theology. This embrace has only been accelerated as I’ve (independently) studied public and global health.
The more I embrace liberation theology, the more I think about how religion is often used, politically, in my native United States as a way to diminish and oppress people—to make them believe they’re less implicitly worthy than they are, and thus condition them to expect and accept far, far less than they ought. This is the exact opposite of what my like-named faith means to me, but my globally significant branch of this faith is often invisible to USian people whose primary exposure to religion is its being forcefully brandished to wound and suppress under the guise of salvation.
This has been on my mind a lot the last couple of weeks. I’ve found myself thinking about my faith, and how my faith has been informed by my mom’s thirst for liberation. Mom was so passionate about liberation in so many ways, I can sometimes forget that
she came upon this passion by growing up with only the sense there must be something like this thing she couldn’t quite name, somewhere out there.
A few days ago, I looked for books on people leaving her particular childhood religion.
I found a couple, but started with one in particular. With each page of this book I read, I went, “Wait, what?! That wasn’t just my mom? That was her people?!”
There was so much in this book I read that was so, so very eery to me. This beautifully written book helped me see that it was much, much easier for my mom to leave the religion than for it to leave her.
So: With each page I read, I found myself more and more amused that I’d ever, after exiting childhood, thought my mom could simply break clean
from something that shaped her, as a woman, from her very first day in the world.
My husband is Black.
Early on in our relationship, he tried to explain to me the difference between racism and Racism. To sum it up much more neatly than can possibly do it justice,
Little-r racism is what individual people act out, blatantly, in their individual day-to-day lives. Big-r Racism is what institutions do to more subtly but persistently crush people and grind them down, day after day after day, without there being a single actor to whom one can point as the wrongdoer.
The difference seemed pretty semantic to me, until I saw what flowed from Trayvon Martin’s murder. Until I saw what flowed from Michael Brown’s murder.
How killers walked free, thanks to systems structured to enable—no, virtually ensure—that outcome.
The initial acts, in each case, flowed from racism; the horror that followed, from Racism.
Similarly, I’m coming to see, there’s misogyny and Misogyny.
I’ve seen some stark examples of misogyny from people of my mom’s first religion. But those are insignificant in a couple of ways:
First: Far more troubling to me is the Misogyny built into the religion from its founding. At an institutional level, it categorically, emphatically constrains women’s permitted activities, all without a single individual visibly, blatantly—or should I say, with physical violence?—acting to constrain any individual woman.
Second: Far greater are the examples of kindness and compassion I’ve seen evidenced from some people of this religion. While a few of its members have treated me as less than fully (hu)man based on my gender, I know better than to confuse their misogyny with the destructive Misogyny that likely informs it.
What I’m saying—not just here, but in conversations with my young sons—is that one ought strive not confuse the religion’s built-in, institutionalized Misogyny with misogyny flowing from all its adherents. To do so would be, itself, another form of flattening and diminishing the beautiful, powerful humanity of many people for whom this religion is only one piece of their identity, and not one that holds them from treating other individuals with dignity, and respect.
In the United States, it can be hard to find words to express ideas like this. A very “with us or against us” mentality—one that boils whole people down to sums of their perceived-worst parts—pervaded life long before George W. Bush uttered like words in September 2001.
Big-m Misogyny certainly informs much little-m misogyny, enabling adherents to see—and, on a day-to-day basis treat—women as less than men.
But it doesn’t mean that all those ensnared in systems of Misogyny (who isn’t?!) are misogynist, or that those within such systems
are to be feared, hated, or scorned.
I briefly mentioned “public health” above. It’s not as much an aside as it might, from this post so far, appear.
After reading Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power a few years back, I was impressed how clearly and straightforwardly Farmer addressed phenomena for which I not only did not have words but could not imagine finding them.
Naturally, this meant I read no more of his work and forgot about him until, a few months back, a reference in another book made me think: “Isn’t that the guy who wrote that one book that so moved me?” After I’d validated it was, I bought a copy of every book I could find in which he’d substantively participated.
This meant that I recently read Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity, a book by Alicia Ely Yamin for which Farmer wrote the foreword.
I read with interest until reaching, on page 201, a passage that sent me back in time:
given certain conditions or internalized experiences of disempowerment, some people may not perceive their disability or impairment to be as great as it objectively is. For example, numerous studies comparing clinically observed with self-reported ill-health among women have found that women tend to “take for granted” even quite profound levels of fatigue, which are actually evidence of anemia. Therefore, a credible rights (or capabilities) theory requires some objective account of how both biological and social conditions impede certain people from effectively enjoying their rights to health, as well as other rights.
That passage launched me right back in time, to the childhood in which I wished I’d been born a boy.
While my brother has long teased me for that wish, my public health reading—and this one, most particularly—has made clear how that longing sprang from a very specific context, which included a religion that hadn’t left my mom despite her leaving it … in name, at any rate.
Over and over again, I’d complain how unfair it was my mom didn’t usually expect my brother to do chores. “Chores are women’s work,” she’d explain. “They’re not really for boys.”
This, too, is addressed point-blank in Yamin’s book. “Internalized domination,” writes Yamin, “causes people to assimilate a view of themselves as inferior to others. It is this invisible power that can be the most insidious way to prevent people from taking social action to challenge injustice, in health and beyond.”
It was my own internal domination that led me, for so many years, to take for granted my very own “quite profound levels of fatigue.”
So: My mom spent all the years I knew her fighting domination. And yet, for all she could identify external domination, her especially religion-cultivated belief that women were build to nurture and support men was a form of internal domination she experienced as nature to her dying breath, having long before her death passed it on to me … though it took me reading on public and global health to identify it,
and to thank goodness for how these readings are helping me to understand pathologies of power,
and to disentangle little-first-letter wrongs with the much broader big-first-letter oppressions
to which they are often tied.
As I listen to my own almost-eleven-year-old son snoring, right now, I’m awed that my mom knew, at his age, that she was worth so much despite so many external indications she was worth so little.
With Yamin’s book at my knee, I’m grateful for my mom’s examples of fighting those dominations she could identify, and how her passion for fighting them (eventually, with the right confluence of readings and a pandemic dramatically reducing my time spent in a car) is part of my own path to a greater liberation.
Humans can seldom actually make a clean break from what we’ve tried to leave, it turns out; our forebears’ pasts shape us in ways we can see as well as many ways we can’t.
This too-hot, A/C-less very early morning, I see that my pursuit of liberation is, far from being a break from my personal history,
an extension of struggles my mom, at great personal cost, began—
knowing she was worth more than she could even know,
so that I can be here, knowing
I am we are
worth more than we can even know.