Monday, April 22, 2013

Profiles in Fear: Some Running Thoughts during Marathon Week in Boston

By Dr. Angela Bauer-Levesque


On a bus to New York City on the second day after the Boston Marathon bombings, for an appointment at Trinity Church Wall Street, near what has become known as Ground Zero, I listened to my body. I realized that I couldn’t shake the comparisons between Boston 4/15 and 9/11 despite the tremendous difference in scope.

Boston at Night, photo by Jenna Ethier
I am conscious of the communal and common anxieties, the eerie feelings, the heightened alertness, the furtive glances, the numbness paired with a vulnerability that has strangers converse with each other. Security checks, heavily armed guards at T stations, ATF personnel with assault weapons at hospitals, and other strategies keep people guessing while projecting an illusion of safety. The unknown feeds fear instead of curiosity; fear that reaches into the unexamined places within.

It was a gorgeous spring day in New York City (as I heard it had been in Boston as well), blue skies, blooming trees, lots of people enjoying their lunch outside, hustle and bustle everywhere. Walking by the huge construction site, which Ground Zero has been for many years now—with the so-called Freedom Tower still missing its top and the lines for getting into the 9/11 Memorial winding around the block—I am annoyed by all the tourists, and even more so by the young men and women still hawking overexposed photos of the former Twin Towers, and postcards of their firebombing and eventual collapse. How long will this insane practice continue? When will the memorial allow for quiet and reflective visits, time to mourn and time to remember? 9/11 has become a complicated symbol for all kinds of uses and abuses. I wonder what fears are covered up by such commodification.

The New York Stock Exchange is blocked off by police vehicles, and any car coming close is inspected both inside and underneath with a mirror on a long stick—just like back then and like crossing in and out of the former German Democratic Republic. Fear is in the air. While the ID-ing is relatively minimal here by comparison, and even this morning leaving South Station was far less careful than I had expected, the feelings of vulnerability remain. Folks everywhere are talking about danger and about “others” acting suspicious. I pray that at least in New York and Boston we can stay away from hate mongering in general, and Islamophobia in particular. Time will tell, and the solidarity of Christians and white folks is needed. White Christian privilege means that some of us have far less reason to fear than others. We won’t be profiled because of the Marathon bombings; we won’t be harassed because of ethnicity and religion of the 9/11 terrorists.


My one day round trip was emotional and sensual in strange ways of heightened awareness of sounds, sights, and smells. While the feelings make sense to me—they are the same—other comparisons between NYC 9/11/2001 and Boston 4/15/2013 do not. The scope is just so different.

For several weeks after 9/11 streets below 14th Street in New York City were closed off; more than 300,000 people were either evacuated or continued to live amidst smoldering buildings for 50-plus days, and a chemical stench lingered for months. There were thousands of flyers with photos of missing family members and neighbors posted all over. In comparison, Boylston and Newbury between Arlington and Mass Avenue is a small area of 15 blocks, shrunk to 12 blocks within 36 hours, and further since. All marathoners and spectators were accounted for within hours. I understand that the businesses and offices that were shut down feel differently. Traffic jams, not air quality, appear to be the biggest complaint I have heard.

Uncontrolled violence makes fear grow, and perspective and vision shrink. Many, myself included, focus on the nearby and almost lose sight of the wider world. I was reminded by a friend who lives elsewhere in the United States that on Monday, when the two explosions killed three young people (so far) and injured 170 or so others enough to be hospitalized, many more people were killed across the country and around the world; bombs explode daily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria—the list of places where IEDs (improvised explosive devices) go off all the time runs on. I know that comparing numbers gets us nowhere. The obscene olympics of death tolls, of competition for attention, renders some deaths as more important than others, and thus more grievable, as Judith Butler argues so powerfully in Frames of War (2010).  Fear shrinks the world we inhabit. Nevertheless, the dead and the injured and their families need compassion and support of the community in grieving and beyond.


On Friday, confined to our homes in Cambridge, Watertown, and Boston for most of the day, asked by the Governor to “shelter-in-place,” a new euphemism for lock-down, we watched TV on and off. Living in Inman Square in Cambridge, my partner and I could hear parts of the operation at the suspects' family home a few streets over. Fear had moved outside. Colleagues, friends, and family emailed, called, or sent messages on Facebook to express their worries about our well-being.

I learned that the events overnight toward and in Watertown had scared students on campus, who heard non-stop sirens for quite some time, police and other emergency vehicles, as well as helicopters, fanning fears that they would somehow be confronted with violence. During the night and throughout the day, the repetitive media coverage fed a frenzy of fear. “Controlled explosions” were announced again and again; military helicopters circled overhead; cell phone reception was blocked for hours. As the day wore on, it became increasingly difficult to focus on work or even chores around the house. We let the trauma consume us, even without a feeling of fear. Nervous laughter at the “stupidity” of this or that move may have masked it. Video images of amassing security personnel, local and regional police, FBI, ATF, bomb squad and other military vehicles with mostly men pointing assault rifles, while racing around street corners, were intended to make the 400,000 locked-in people feel safe, even as an official admitted that the numbers were operationally unnecessary. Fear had become a piece of the strategy of apprehending the one 19-year old suspect. Unsettled by security, I began to fear for the fugitive, my fear flirting with empathy.

Fires of fear were further fanned by newscasters, as the ethnicity and religion of the suspects became public. The suspects were racialized as “other,” of color, not white, “not Caucasian,” even though Chechnya, the country of their ancestors, is part of the Caucasus mountains.  Feeding the rising Islamophobia and xenophobia, the images, words, and actions in the Boston area and beyond make me afraid of another wave of hate and harassment toward Arab, South Asian, and Muslim communities, similar to the experiences of the profiling after 9/11—their fear of communal blame and reprisals.

While the shelter-in-place request was still on, after the police activity in the neighborhood had slowed down, I ventured outside, and drove a couple of miles to pick up a friend, who would join us for dinner. The streets were eerily empty; people who were out walking their dogs or tending to the outside of their houses glanced furtively over as I passed. My fear returned. It was clearly not about another explosion or the potential of physical harm. Rather, I was afraid of what the next street corner would reveal, having internalized the general mood. Another beautiful spring day was almost over, and mostly lost, as I realized how much this lock-down cost, monetarily, emotionally, and in terms of diminished life for so many, the grieving and injured families and communities included.


I am relieved that the second suspect was apprehended alive. I am glad that this chapter of the trauma is closed. I know that there will be more traumas revisited, interpretations offered, accusations made, exceptional legal consequences demanded; and fear will not be far from the surface. I see the challenge to work against the inclination to demonize any group of people, be it immigrants, Muslims, or any other scapegoats, all because of our unresolved feelings. The upcoming Kellogg Lectures at Episcopal Divinity School will be one of what I hope will be many opportunities to explore the complexity of powers and people, politics and religions, fueling the events of this week.

Definitely, fear is not all. Of those of us who have learned to cover our feelings, some move to sadness, tears eliciting gestures of comfort; some move to anger accusing scapegoats old and new; some stay with their fear from knotted stomachs to canceled events to perilous fantasies of destruction. Amidst it all, my prayer is for wisdom in world awareness, calmness in community, and courage to continue living our lives fully and publicly. Will you join me? 

Dr. Angela Bauer-Levesque is academic dean and Harvey H. Guthrie Jr. Professor of Bible, Culture, and Interpretation at Episcopal Divinity School. She has served on the faculty since 1994. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Exploring Sex and Violence in the Bible

By Dr. Gale A. Yee

At a recent meeting of the Pacific Asian North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM) at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, one of my Old Testament colleagues introduced herself as someone who teaches sex and violence in the Bible at her seminary. 

In some ways, I could say the same. This month my co-edited book, Joshua and Judges, in the Texts@Context Series from Fortress Press, examines two biblical books, Joshua and Judges, that fit the bill precisely. 

In the lectionary of the Episcopal Church, the only Sunday readings from the book of Joshua are stories about the Israelites crossing the Jordan and entering the Promised Land, bearing the ark of the covenant (Josh 3:7-17), their circumcision and eating of first Passover in the land (Josh 5:9-12), and their renewal of the covenant, now that they are settled in the land (Josh 24:1-3, 14-25). 

Completely passed over are the horrific stories of the genocide of the indigenous Canaanites at God’s command. The only story from the book of Judges in the lectionary is one about the prophet Deborah commanding Barak to take up a military position on Mt. Tabor against the armies of the Canaanites (Judges 4:1-7). Completely ignored are the many stories of the violence against women in the book, which ends with the gang-rape of a woman and her dismemberment and the seizure and rape of 600 more women (Judges 19-21). Both books have terrible legacies. The book of Joshua has been used to legitimate the conquest, colonization, and extermination of many indigenous people across time and around the globe. Violence against women is still an appalling aspect of our societies even in this “enlightened” era.

Acknowledging the specific socio-cultural contexts from which the contributors write, Joshua and Judges, the essay collection that I edited with Athalya Brenner, confronts the issues of sex and violence in these books head on. 

Well-known biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann tackles the hermeneutical dilemma in Joshua that describes God decreeing violence so that Israel can occupy a land already inhabited by other peoples. The violence stems from the uncritical view that Israel’s covenantal chosen-ness that demands the negation of the Other, the Un-chosen. Two Israeli educators, Yonina Dor and Naomi De-Malach, examine the wide range of Jewish attitudes about the book Joshua, those that provided ideological support for Zionism, conquest of the land, and the expulsion of its residents, and those that feared that the book would sanction further violence in Israel.  Daniel Hawk surveys the parallels between the ways in which biblical Israel and American Manifest Destiny construct national identity through stories of conquest.

The essays on Judges particularly focus on the women and gender issues in the book from the social locations of their contributors. My co-editor, Athalya Brenner, argues that women intentionally framed the book of Judges by design. Three contributors examine the tent-peg wielding assassin, Jael (Judges 4-5).  Ora Brison sees in Jael a strong independent woman that offsets her experience of abused and humiliated women in her work in an Israeli women’s shelter. Ryan Bonfiglio interprets Jael and her choice to kill or not to kill Israel’s enemy general, Sisera, from the perspective of the choices his immigrant Italian grandparents faced when they settled in the US. 

I see parallels between Jael and the Chinese woman warrior, Fa Mulan, highlighting the American Orientalism of Disney’s Mulan and its influence on the gender formation of young Asian American females. Royce Victor reads Delilah through the lenses to two significant Indian literary works, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Brad Embry interprets the horrible story of the Levite’s concubine’s rape (Judge 19) from his specific religious context: the Pentecostal-Holiness Assembly of God tradition. Examining the male judge Gideon, Bar Mymon observes that Gideon puts on his masculinity the way he (Bar Mymon) dons his Israeli military uniform and becomes the Man, in a severe process of gender deconstruction and reconstruction.

The people in the pew are most likely unaware of the sex and violence embedded in the books of Joshua and Judges, since their stories are rather censored in the Sunday lectionaries. Nevertheless, I urge congregations to read and study these stories together to see how awfully familiar they are to present-day happenings. My students in my Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures have their eyes wide-opened when they read these narratives. I remember one of my students saying that she now hesitates to teach children the popular song, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” because it calls to mind the atrocities committed against the indigenous Canaanites described in Joshua. I am hopeful that this volume of collected essays continues the very needed conversation we need to deal with the military and sexual violence endemic to our society.

Dr. Gale A. Yee is Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School.