Among reformed Christians (a term which includes Presbyterians, Calvinists, Lutherans, and many others who do not formally use those labels) this is the week in which Reformation Day is celebrated. For it was on October 31, 1517 – the eve of All Saints’ Day – that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses, “for the purpose of eliciting the truth,” to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg.
It was no coincidence that Luther chose the eve of All Saints’ Day to post his theses on the church door, for this was the evening the Wittenberg church reserved for the display of its collection of saints’ holy relics. Veneration of these relics was supposed to add to one’s accumulated merit in heaven and decrease one’s projected time in purgatory.
As you no doubt know, the heart of the Reformation was the discovery, by Luther and others, of the meaning of the grace of God: justification by faith alone. Burdened by constant doubt about the adequacy of his own legalistic religious observances for salvation, Luther began to look more closely at the Scriptures. It was finally through his reading of Galatians that he experienced liberation from his agonizing fear of his own imperfections before God. And why? Because he realized, as Paul wrote to the Romans, that “apart from the law the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…For we hold that a person is justified by faith [alone] apart from the works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:21-24, 29).
Now this is a message so amazingly wonderful that we could well focus on it every Sunday and every weekday of the year, and not just on or near Reformation Day at the end of October! As the eminent preacher Robert Capon once put it, we have been “raised up” by God like paralyzed persons who have been placed on an upward-bound escalator. What he meant by this metaphor (as Luther had earlier discovered) is that our transport from death to life is God’s doing, not ours; and once re reach the top, all that God requires of us is that, using the various languages, resources, and talents we have been given, we say “Thank you God – thank you for the ride up.” Or as Paul put it in his letter to the Ephesians, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient…But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:1-2, 4-5).
I have to confess that this hopeful message about God’s sovereignty is one which I (and, I suspect, all of you) very much need to hear at this time. In my own predominantly Dutch-Calvinist, conservation, middle-class community it has been easy in the past for Reformation Day services to degenerate into an exercise in communal self-congratulation, as if to say “Look how clever we were (and still are), to have one-upped those corrupt, medieval Catholics by getting rid of that unbiblical notion of salvation by works. No wonder God has blessed us so richly!” But this year, I have noticed, the mood in church and college chapel is much more subdued – and I hardly need to remind you why.
We are in the midst of what many economists say might become a “double-dip” recession; we are plagued in America by government misconduct, waste, and mismanagement; as a nation we also face rising crime rates, enduring tensions in race and gender relations, a crumbling infrastructure, a rising federal deficit, and an educational system which ranks close to the bottom among industrial nations in terms of its capacity to prepare young people for college and for the work world. And at the same time that we tolerate half a million abortions per year we allow some thirty-four million people to be without any health insurance whatsoever. The combined effect on the national psyche of all these problems is simply overwhelming, enough to paralyze the most seasoned adult reformer, let alone an audience of college students still on the threshold of adulthood. If ever we needed a communal “lift up” from a sovereign God, that time is now.
In the midst of all this – as if we were not jaded enough already – we were treated this fall to the sad spectacle of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Clarence Thomas. Because in my professional life I am both a cross-cultural psychologist and a gender studies scholar, I had students, colleagues, and others asking me what I thought about the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill episode (one hesitates to use the term “affair”) which recently pre-empted the nation’s soap operas in an unprecedented weekend of media sleaze. My inquirers often seemed to be looking for a neat and clear response from me, but in fact I had no neat conclusions to offer. Because the entire process was such a three-ring circus of political self-interest mixed with ill-disguised racism and sexism, and because no clear conclusions were drawn about the truth of either party’s testimony, I suspect that no neat conclusions are possible. So let me instead share some reflections on this episode, taking it as a classic example of our continuing need for national reformation – specifically reformation in race and gender relations.
To begin with, stakes in the outcome of the hearings were obviously very high for everyone involved. The Republicans hoped that they finally had a Supreme Court nominee who would be confirmed, however narrowly, by a Democrat-controlled Congress: conservative, but black; a member of the elite, but one who, with the help of the parochial school nuns who first drilled him in his three R’s, had arguably pulled himself up by his bootstraps from impoverished beginnings. The Democrats, having unearthed and publicized Anita Hill’s story of sexual harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas, thought they had assembled the ultimate set of trump cards against his confirmation: not a white, but a black woman confronting a black man with charges of sexual impropriety – indeed, a Republican black woman who had supported the court nomination of a previous conservative male (Robert Bork) and who had such an exemplary history (staunch Baptist, respected law school professor, straight-arrow reputation) that it was difficult to see either psychopathology or calculated personal motives behind her decision to testify against her former employer.
But of course it is precisely because of all the above that Thomas’ final, close-call confirmation turned out to be such a Pyrrhic victory of Republicans, while at the same time the Democrats’ attempt to cast themselves as the guardians of gender justice backfired in their faces. Both sides were too politically clever by half, each deftly trying to push the exact combination of racial, sexual, and character-assassination buttons that would tip the confirmation vote in its favor.
In the end, the blatancy of both parties’ willingness to sacrifice people and principles to political expediency was more than the American people could take. Already so cynical about the corruption of representative government that barely half of all those eligible voted in the 1988 presidential election (and only a dismal thirty-six percent in the 1990 mid-term elections), grass-roots viewers of the Hill vs. Thomas spectacle seem simply to have had their worst suspicions confirmed. Although they dispute whether it was Professor Hill or Judge Thomas who may have lied, observers of the hearings seem agreed on one point: the American political process is more and more for the benefit of politicians alone. To many, it seems now even to be beyond redemption.
The above analysis was made with all the dubious wisdom of hindsight a week after the Senate hearings ended. But my feelings during the confirmation process itself were not nearly so detached. As it turned out, my own schedule made it almost impossible for me to view the actual Hill vs. Thomas sequence. I spent most of the weekend travelling to an invited lectureship, giving the requisite talks (ironically, on the topic of gender relations in church and society), and then travelling home.
Yet even if I had been able to watch the hearings, I’m not sure I could have brought myself to do so. Like almost every other woman in the world I have experienced my share of sexual harassment: flashers on the street and in the subway, lewd remarks emanating from construction sites, persistent and unwanted attempts at seduction from male college or graduate school peers. But so far, I have not faced the dilemma that Anita Hill and many other women are now patiently trying to explain to a somewhat thick-headed male establishment – namely, that of having to decide whether the gain that might come from resisting or exposing a harasser is worth the cost of having one’s work atmosphere poisoned at the risk of losing one’s job.
Nevertheless, I experience vicarious pain whenever I hear about a sexually-assaulted woman publicly treated as guilty until proven innocent. In fact, I’ve never even mustered enough courage to watch “The Accused,” a graphic but reportedly well-done film about just such an occurrence. Consequently, I disliked the prospect of watching Anita Hill being grilled by a Senate committee made up entirely of white males, and was relieved when circumstances prevented me from doing so.
What I was able to read in the papers and see on the newscasts made me feel only marginally better. Anita Hill’s legal training and her impeccably-straight lifestyle did enable her to face her inquisitors with equanimity and give a clear, consistent testimony. But, I kept wondering, what if she’d been the least bit deficient on either of those counts? For example, what if instead of being a never-married women, she, like Thomas, had been divorced? If the average rape trial is anything to go by, it is likely that such a fact would have been used to discredit her testimony even further. All of this brings to mind an old feminist saying to the effect that we’ll know we’ve achieved gender justice when a mediocre woman can get as far in life as a mediocre man. That Anita Hill had to have such an impeccable past in order maybe to be believed by some of the people who staged this media circus indicates just how far we haven’t come.
But there’s yet another complication to this sad and all-too-American tale. The feminist saying I just quoted is true only within a limited context, for it is patently color blind. It fails to take into account the fact that the white males who run America have always felt more threatened by black men than by black women, and thus have granted the latter relatively more room to maneuver. For decades there have been more black female than black male college graduates; likewise, while blacks as a group have less earning power than whites, black women’s average earnings come closer to their white counterparts’ than black mens’.
Today approximately twenty-five percent of the black male populace between twenty and twenty-nine years of age is either in prison, on parole, or on probation. All of this goes some way towards explaining why most black women haven’t wanted to be identified as feminists. Inasmuch as they see feminism forcing them to choose between race and sex solidarity, and inasmuch as they see black men becoming an endangered species, most black women have chosen loyalty to their race over loyalty to their sex. It is not that they are blind to the realities of black male sexism; in the words of one black woman writer, it is simply that for black women “to leave the side of their men is to leave the side of an oppressed, as well as an oppressive, group.”
Thus for Anita Hill to take a public stand against Clarence Thomas was, among other things, to make it seem that she was declaring herself a woman first and a black second. And that, I suspect, is a difficult position for any black woman to be placed in, the accolades of white feminists notwithstanding. It also may be why both black and white journalists are still arguing about whether to cast Hill as the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment, or simply as a dirty bird who has dirtied her own nest. But I myself regard her more as the first of these than the second, notwithstanding any memory distortions that may have affected her testimony or that of Clarence Thomas.
I say this in part because Hill’s testimony has prompted so many mainstream women journalists to share their own long-suppressed (and often harrowing) experiences of sexual harassment. The silence is finally being broken. Indeed, long-time writer on gender issues though I am, this is the first time I have ever put anything on paper about my own experiences of harassment.
As Senator Edward Kennedy put it in his October 25 speech at Harvard (and, as he himself indirectly admitted, he has plenty of reasons from his own past to take this lesson to heart): “Some of the anger of recent days reflects the pain of a new idea being born—the idea of an America where the majority who are women are truly and finally equal citizens” (New York Times, October 26, 1991). In a decade when as many as one in six college women report having experienced date rape, we can only hope that Kennedy’s words represent a sincere desire for change (both personally and nationally), rather than merely an attempt at political damage-control for the sake of retaining his Senate seat.
It is both tempting and easy for Christians to conclude that the fiasco of the Thomas hearings is the end result of rampant secularization in our society – which in many ways it surely is. But depravity being as total as it is (another solid Reformed doctrine), those who confess Christ are not exempt from any of the above. For example, as you no doubt know, statistics for reported date-rape are not much different in Christian colleges than they are on secular campuses. Moreover, even as I wrote these words, my own denomination (the Christian Reformed Church) was in the process of distributing its Synodical Report of Physical, Psychological and Sexual Abuse, the work of a two-year committee on which I served together with two pastors, two social workers, a medical doctor and a psychotherapist. Among other things, that report summarizes the findings of a professionally-done survey of abuse prevalence in the denomination. As far as we have been able to ascertain, it is the first such fully-denominational survey to appear in the literature on abuse.
The survey findings are very sobering, although no woman and no therapist of either sex to whom I’ve summarized them has been surprised by them; I regret to say that it’s your average male in the church pew who persists in a state of denial. The survey found that the prevalence of abuse is no lower in the C.R.C. than in the population at large (approximately one in four adult church members has survived one of the three types of abuse); that the vast majority of such abuse is of women and children at the hands of adult men; that many of those who had been abused told no one else about it; and if they did tell anyone it was almost never their (male) pastor or a (male) church elder. And bear in mind that the survey was limited to adult church members age eighteen or over, so we have no idea of abuse prevalence rates among children. This much, however, is clear: as Christians rightly call their politicians to a new reformation, they need to be reforming their own institutions at the same time.
But as our text from Ephesians 6 reminds us, true reformation is never simply a case of trying to implement good intentions. Sin is both individual and institutional (yet another solid Reformed doctrine!) and it is kept effective “not [merely] by flesh and blood, but [by]…the rulers…the authorities…the cosmic powers of this present darkness…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Thus, if ever we needed “the whole armor of God,” both as individuals and communities, it is now.
We are a nation searching for wholeness in race and gender relations, in economic and educational relations, in our distribution of health care and other communal assets. We cannot see our way clear to these goals on our own. And yet, as our text promises, we take up the whole armor of God – in worship, in study, in political activism, in interpersonal and social relations – “so that [we] may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”
There is a promise and a hope implied here, both of which are denied to those who see life as nothing but “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Armed with our Christian hope and promise, let us pray that the light of God’s Spirit will shine before us as we go out into the darkness of a fallen world.