Saturday, May 05, 2007

Recovering From Our Culture: Why Words Matter

Off the Shelf:

She Who Changes: Re-imagining the Divine in the World by Carol P. Christ

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd

Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism (Live Girls) - Daisy Hernández, Bushra Rehman (Editors)

Crones Don't Whine: Concentrated Wisdom for Juicy Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen

Many Roads One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps by Dr. Charlotte Kasl.

A series of recent events has got me thinking about words and the power they hold.

During the Civil Rights era, a famous case called Brown vs Board of Education challenged the White's Only school policy in the south. (1) Attorneys with the NAACP (future justice Thurgood Marshall among them) used Kenneth Clark's Doll Study to show the psychological effects of the so-called "separate but equal" system on black children. In this study, psychologists showed little black children two dolls, one black and one white, and asked them to describe them. They described the white dolls as beautiful, smart, and sweet. They described the black dolls - the ones that looked just like them - as ugly stupid and lazy. That is how insidious Jim Crow culture was; little children clearly understood the comments, behavior and assumptions of adults around them and they interpreted this to mean that that they did not matter, and were somehow consider less worthy than other people by their very nature. (1)

We have made progress as a culture, and it was evident when the Women of Rutgers stood up with dignity and grace and pride and denounced the insults they had received.

And we still have a long ways to go.

Why This Matters:

When someone tells me that it doesn't matter that generations of girls grew up with a white, male god, and were told that they were not allowed to be priests, and were somehow more sinful (because of Eve's disobedience, and their own sexual nature), and that they were even occasions of sin in others and must be shamed and shut away, then I say this:

What we say and how we say it matters a great deal. The images we use, the words we use, the assumptions about power and worth we hold in mainstream culture all suggest that men are better and women are less important, even less important to God, because we are not, after all, made in "His" lordly image.


We are told that these are just words and that they should not matter. We are criticized for making too much out of too little. The same thing was said when the NAACP objected to the disgraceful treatment of their people in the Jim Crow south. A "Whites Only" sign is more then just words.

The Witches' Voice recently published an amusing, heartfelt and thought provoking article by Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis on the challenge posed by including everyone at our spiritual table. It is based on his experience as the only non-Christian in the room on Texas Clergy Day:

The superintendent, an affable old scion of Texas, began talking about church-state separation. Not so much about how it limits church participation in the public schools, really, but more about how were the best ways for ministers to work around it. ....That means, ” he continued, “that we’re not going to allow hate groups like the Klan, neo-Nazis, or Wiccans get access to our children…”

As if seized by a dybbuk, my innate Jewish need to kibitz took me over. My hand shot in the air. Flustered by the interruption, he paused mid-presentation. “…Yes?”

“Excuse me, I’m Rabbi Dennis, I’m new to the area, but did I understand that you just lumped Wiccans in with hate groups?”

“Well, yes, we feel…”

“Pardon me, ” I went on, “But Wiccans are not a hate group, they are a religious movement – they have chaplains in the United States military, for God’s sake – and they are entitled to the same access as any other religious group. And as for this whole concept of ‘limited equal access’, ”I went on, “That sounds like code for ‘selective access’ – if you are going to allow any religious groups to operate inside the schools, then you have to allow all religions to do so, that’s the law…”

It was all boilerplate religious freedom rhetoric, but at the time I suddenly felt like I was a Jew arguing for freedom of conscious before the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

My speech effectively ended the presentation. He muttered a summary statement and invited us to enjoy the cold cuts buffet. As for my fellow clergy, half sat in aghast silence, the other half buzzed among themselves in amused whispers. At lunch one of the Methodist ministers simply chuckled and said to me, “Well, you certainly know how to kill a party.”

A Modest Proposal:

To anyone who thinks that words still do not matter, and that I should just read "her" whenever I read "him" or or see "her" when the image is male, I say this:

I would like to offer a modest proposal. It's this: Men have had power over the history we read, the words we use, the money we spend and the wars we fight for centuries. They have carved and painted images of the powerful male for us to admire and portrayed women as the weaker sex. They have projected this patriarchal view of Father God and Male Leader for over 5,000 years and hidden any evidence to the contrary. Now it's our turn.

We will use only Her words and Her images for the next 5,000 years. Only women can be Priests and Presidents, and let's not pay men anywhere near what we make for the same work (assuming we let them do that work at all). Let literature, film and music portray women as powerful and men as weak tools and victims and then let us use our religions to suggest that they have a good but lesser place, and that is in the home. We will control their sexual behavior and their reproductive rights, of course, because they are not mature enough to make these decisions on their own. Meanwhile, our charming boys can "rule" the domestic sphere, and we women will honor them for their dedication and compassion by praising them from the pulpit while refusing to pass, let alone fund, child care, health care, education reform or social initiatives that would serve them and their families.

And here we ask (as another modest proposal once did), "Who in their right minds would want to subjugate, humiliate and legislate another human being in this way?"

It's a long list - How much time ya got?

The Blessings of the Goddess

To embrace the womanly part of the divine, to see ourselves as holy, connected and worthy is a necessary part of our spiritual practice and our personal healing. One way we do that, is to find that part of the sacred that is also a part of you and me.

To be honest, I think that the nature of the divine is beyond the issues of gender, race and culture. I also believe that divine is connected to all these at the same time. When I perform a Celtic rites to celebrate Bridget, I am connected to all the Celtic women in my line, and to all of the power and the sacredness that this implies. As women who were told that only men could do or be certain things, we find healing in rejecting that negativity and power in supporting our precious and poetic spirit.

Pagans and Others in Recovery:

Words are dangerous when they support ignorance and hate, but they can also have a less obvious, but insidious effect. One example of this would be the experience of Pagans and others in traditional 12 Step groups.

Pagans, feminists, gays and lesbians and people of color often don't feel welcome in rooms where God is (always and only) spoken of as a white male Christian construct. Supposedly, these are non-denomination meetings, but Pagans and others know that the Christian bias in 12 Step meetings (as well as the heterosexual bias, the well meaning, but limited world view in their literature, and the outdated assumptions about addict and codependent psychology) is a very touchy subject.

Some of their members get it. Many don't.

Why are you so upset, they ask? This isn't a Christian God at these meetings. We clearly state that we speak of "God (singular) as you understand Him."


Pay no attention to the use of The Lord's Prayer after every meeting.

The use of this Christian Testament prayer is not enshrined in either the 12 Steps or the 12 Traditions. It is simply a habit, and a bad one at that. These are good and decent people, overall, but it does not occur to them to wonder if a Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist person would feel welcome at a meeting that insists on saying this prayer. I don't believe that 12 Steps meetings do this to be mean (although I could wish that they would open their minds and their hearts a bit wider). I believe that they are comfortable sitting in the middle of the mainstream and they just don't get it that others follow a different, and equally valid path.

So, here we are, back at my modest proposal: Let's start today by rewriting all the texts in AA to say only "Goddess as you understand Her" and talk only of "God the Mother" as a Black African female, and speak only of Yemaya and never Christ in these meetings. I'm sure it won't matter. It's only words, after all.

Focusing on the Solution:

Some Pagans in Recovery choose to attend Spiral Steps meetings or Pagan-only 12 Step meetings, and avoid traditional 12 Step groups entirely. Some Pagans cherish the fellowship (sic) and recovery that they find in traditional meetings so much that they simply find ways to live with the language. Some Pagans go because these traditional meetings are the only available recovery meetings in their area. (2) I know Pagans and feminists who attend traditional meetings, but they also use words like Her, Goddess and Mother when they do the readings, and in their shares. And if some of the AA old guard find that it bit jarring when they hear that then perhaps it will cause them to question how women have felt in hearing Him, God and Father for so long. (3)

Where Do We Go From Here?

Firing one idiotic shock jock for calling a team of beautiful, strong, educated young women "nappy headed Ho's" doesn't even begin to cover the extent of harm done spiritually, psychologically and physically to women all over the world that the use of such language and the assumptions behind it support. Although it was a nice start. One hopes that people will remember those splendid students, and let Don Imus fade into obscurity, where he belongs. As the mainstream media turns it's attention to other matters (I hear that Paris is in the news again) let us continue this dialog among ourselves, but let's take it further afield. Questioning the words we use, all the words, sacred, sexual and mundane, is a sure, firm step towards healing.


(1) These were, in fact, a series of cases.

(2) For information on finding or starting a Spiral Steps group in your area, write to Dj at or visit the website to join the cyber support group:

(3) For more in this issue, read Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps by Dr. Charlotte Kasl.


SOPKA said...

I beg to differ about people being ignorant and not purposely intolerant in 12-step meeting maybe on the East and West coast but in the bible belt the 12-steps are a christian institution and as my husband and I where told the reason we had problems in recovery is that we had the wrong higher Power of course that higher power was not the reason we were sober for ten years at the time Jesus would have done a better job.. It was a mantra heard in meetings and from sponsors I tell addicts now to get a good psyciatrist before heading to rehab. There is really no treatment of addicts in this country that has legitimate physical and biological relief for the ailing only pop spiriutal and psychological mumbo jumbo.

Dj Connell said...

Do check out Spiral Steps, and the on-line support group they offer. You will see something very different happening in these rooms.

Also read Dr. Kasel's book (noted in blog)


Ros said...

Hi Sia

You probably won't read this because the post is so old but - I really enjoyed your writing. I felt so good that someone else was saying what I felt and have always felt about the language we use.

Thank you so much

Dj Connell said...

I did read it, Ros, and your nice note made my day.