Squinting at Justice

A view from a scenic overlook

One of the luxuries of summer at the Women’s Center is having some additional time to sit back and reflect on why we do what we do, with an eye towards making the connections between our mission statement and our program more articulate for students and members of the wider community. What motivates the project, or mission, of the Women’s Center? When the Women’s Center achieves its pre-eminent objective, what will it have achieved? Of the various ways that question could be answered, perhaps the best is that a vision of comprehensive gender justice will have come to fully inform our understanding of good human life, our continuing strivings for the developed life of the church, and our anticipations of God’s realm of justice and peace. That is another way of saying that the task of the Women’s Center is to “write the vision” of full justice in matters of gender, large and clear enough that people can catch it, and brightly enough that they are inspired to pass it on. Saying that, however, also discloses the perilous nature of this project, or mission. Because writing any vision, especially a vision of justice to be sought and achieved, is always perilous; writing a vision of gender justice in particular is doubly perilous; and whether anyone in the Women’s Center is in a position to do so is open to question over and over again.

The problem of blurry vision
There is always a problem with articulating a vision of the desirable future. That problem stems from the mismatch between the people we are, with the knowledge we have, based on a knowable world that is far from good and just, and the reality of that other, fully different, world. It is a mistake to label the gulf between this world and that one “unbridgeable.” The bridge between those worlds is transformation itself. But the effects of transformation are holistic, affecting our desires and preferences, the very categories of our knowledge, our social arrangements, everything. For that reason, the present is never the best place to catch the vision of the good world in all its clarity and precision. We don’t get good reception, we might say, on this side of the bridge. At best we have approximations, of unmeasurable degrees of blurriness.

Worse, however, once we latch on to that distorted image, we can quickly cast it in stone. What first strikes us as a grandiose, almost unimaginably utopian vision of realized justice hardens over time into shackles of injustice around the ankles of the pilgrim community, making it harder and harder to move down the road of transformation. The people called to live into a world of harmonious justice and peace are also called to move past the impediments to that justice and peace as transformation in the direction of that justice and peace reveals them to be impediments. We, however, often prefer to enshrine our first, dim intuitions of beckoning justice as timeless, unalterable commands. For this reason, there is always a perilous and potentially treacherous balance to be struck between articulating a clear and attractive vision, and leaving room for the maturation and transformation of that vision.

The special problem of gender
If articulating any vision is problematic, articulating a vision of change that involves gender is especially so. The special problem that besets gender justice arises from the extraordinarily close, constitutive, and confounded relationship gender has to us and to the realities we are capable of perceiving as delightful enough to want to run towards. Gender is a basic category of human identity and human relationship, and it is everywhere; none of our social arrangements fail to incorporate it, none of our meanings lie outside of it. As a consequence, our definitions of concepts like “justice” and “equality” always already incorporate concrete understandings of the gendered way things are, always already incorporate our “blind spots” — with respect to what it means to be a real person, for instance, and how gender plays into that — and our visceral understandings of normality — with respect to what constitutes “violence,” for instance, in contrast to ordinary enforcement of normal standards of deferential behavior. Our very imaginations of what would be good, pleasant, desirable, are formed in and by a world of existing gender arrangements, and the desires of our hearts are saturated with their colors. A vision of gender justice painted in truer colors can easily seem pale, or garish, alongside the familiar injustices we have learned to long for.

The precarious position of the present
The Women’s Center and its staff are aware of these problems, and aware that we are not exempt from them. So we are also aware that whatever concrete vision we have of comprehensive gender justice is partial, provisional, open to examination and question, and liable to change and continuing articulation. The most certain elements of the vision we have are negative ones: gender justice won’t include violence against women and girls, will be incompatible with rape and sexual abuse, will not sacralize the silencing of women’s critical insights or the sidelining of women’s gifts and talents. Gender justice would not forget to remember the history of women’s participation in and contribution to human society, including the society of the church. Comprehensive gender justice would not walk hand in hand with the implicit knowledge that “man” is the normal standard for humanity, and “woman” needs to be considered only in exceptional circumstances. But such negative criteria leave open for discernment and development the ways real life could take shape to give positive expression to the world without those particular forms of suffering. So much remains to be seen.

But for that very reason, we believe, the project and mission of the Women’s Center that is the struggle to imagine and envision the concrete character of gender justice contributes to the ongoing project and mission of living into the Reign of Heaven. Because the challenges of vision are not, ultimately, unique to the Women’s Center or to the project of gender justice. They are problems core to the social, political, and economic mission of the church as a whole. We hope and trust that our lives and our work are moving in the direction of that just and peaceful world promised in scripture. But as we move, we learn, and change. We notice old sufferings as new problems, recognize hitherto marginalized people — sometimes, ourselves — as centrally important for an understanding of justice, and so come to realize that standards of justice we once thought expansive are still inadequate, even as we must acknowledge that the emerging standards are not yet fully clear.

So we are in the position of squinting at the justice we long to see: trying to make out the shape of something a little too distant to see clearly, while trying to move in its general direction. Of course we look forward to the time when we no longer see as through a glass, dimly and blurrily, but with perfect clarity. But in the meantime, it helps to know that from time to time we arrive at something like a scenic overlook, when the view becomes momentarily clear, even breathtaking. Then, the project, or mission, of the Women’s Center is to point, and shout, so that everyone can see what we see.

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Space for Life

Women of the LPTS Class of 2009 are invited to a celebration in their honor on Friday, May 8, 2009 in the Women's Center

Women of the LPTS Class of 2009 are invited to a celebration in their honor on Friday, May 8, 2009 in the Women's Center

The mission statement of the Women’s Center at LPTS includes the effort to “provide a safe space to discuss and hear one another’s stories.” We become especially aware of that spatial dimension of the mission when we plan an event in the Women’s Center’s still-more-new-than-not space (WE LOVE IT!!). We can organize talks, discussions, meetings, celebrations like the one this afternoon, for women graduates, and these events can take place because we have a place for them to take place in.

But the physical space (WE LOVE IT!) of the Women’s Center is only part of the story. A room, or a program, is not automatically a context for discussing and hearing one another’s stories. That context includes what we might want to call interpersonal space, a space that we have to build between two or three or more people. That space consists of history, of relationship. It can open, or close, in response to our mutual activities; it can expand with our listening, care, attention, or contract with neglect. It supports its own language, a language that recognizes the personal meanings that attach to words, expressions, gestures, responses. In that space, in the relational space created between friends, co-workers, classmates, we can hear one another’s stories and tell our own.

Perhaps all change does happen through conversation, as my church newsletter reminds me from time to time. If so, that change has something to do with the change in the world — the interpersonal space that constitutes the world in which people actually live — that takes place in the very act of conversation. Or, at least, that can take place there, if we build the place for it to take place in between ourselves in that conversation. We don’t always.

According to our mission statement, the Women’s Center at LPTS “exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and for the building of community locally, nationally and globally.” It sounds big. It is big, and we are small. But the interpersonal, relational space we are building — between friends, colleagues, classmates — including the remarkable classmates of the Class of 2009 — is large, and growing larger. And it is in that new space that this vision, and this mission, really take place.

Hope and Vision

The ancients used stars for navigation

The ancients used stars for navigation

Another word or two, now, on the substance of last night’s Evening with the Stars.

It should probably not be surprising that so many of the offerings, musical and oratorial, sounded notes of hope and vision. Hope and vision are qualities we like to associate with the Women’s Center, that we hope others also associate with the Women’s Center, and that we heard last night people do over and over associate with the Women’s Center.

Still, I have my theories. And one is that there is, indeed, a new mood of hope and a new sense of genuine possibility moving in our context. Johanna Bos, in her opening remarks, referred to the congratulations, smiles, and hopeful blessings communicated to her by strangers-become-well-wishers as she returned to the US after a sojourn in Europe, on November 5. It feels like something is happening.

Another (theory, this is) is that we partisans of the Women’s Center actually know what we’re doing, and do a reasonably good job of communicating it. We know that the mission of the Women’s Center (“the equality and dignity of all women, including in religious professions”) is a utopian one, in the best sense of that word, in that it is a call to the prophetic imagination and the hopefulness that energizes it, and we know that all the practical work we do is about communicating the imaginative possibilities of new worlds beyond the conventional, sadly-gender-bound one in which we find ourselves.

On that reading, it is no surprise that Johanna cites Emmanuel Levinas’ formulation “infinite possibilities,” once again, as the horizon towards which the Women’s Center leans. It is no surprise that perspicacious students talk about becoming carriers of the vision, or stretching out like “ribbons in the wind of hope.” [We will try to post some of those remarks here, as they become available. “Why a Women’s Center,” Heather Thiessen]

But I don’t have a theory, really, to account for the precise commentary on that utopian vision provided by the evening’s music. There was Cheri Harper’s and Christine Coy-Fohr’s hilarious send-up of the Femmebot 50’s show tune “I Enjoy Being a Girl” — in case we were in doubt about what we were trying to get beyond. There was Jorge Gonzales’ moving acoustic cover of Brett Dennen’s “Heaven” — in case we needed some images of what we were trying to imagine. There were Loren Townsend’s jazz/blues improvisations, reminding us — if we were paying attention — that there’s always more than one way to play any score. And there was Jorge’s and Claudio Carvalhaes’ duet, of a song Claudio introduced simply as “a love song,” in Portuguese, or Spanish, or both — not languages I know, except for maybe a few words: mi corazon, porque, no se. All I know is that the refrain brought tears to my eyes. Why? I don’t know.

But I have a theory. Because there was another word in it I think I know: La feliz. Happiness.

I could be wrong. But maybe every profound meditation on happiness has the power to bring tears of joy and longing to our eyes. Because as Adorno said, “all happiness is a pledge of what has not yet been . . .”* — the pole star of the infinite possibilities, the direction of the tell-tale ribbons, fluttering on the wind of hope.

[* Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1995), 352.]