Saturday 10 November 2012

Vessels of Terror - revised

I have been meaning to write a comment in response to the blog Atonement, Cycles of Abuse, and Virtue/Atonement [this blog post is no longer available so I have removed the link] ever since I read it in the spring. It is gratifying to see how seriously students took the conundrums posed by mine and Brown & Parker’s articles in Patriarchy, Christianity and Abuse: A Feminist Critique.

What struck me the most was the reference to M.Shawn Copeland’s concept of “vessels of terror”. This is a powerful way of explaining the problem that people like myself have with Christian theology to those whose faith has never been destroyed by the very core values of their belief system.

A good example to explain how something seemingly innocuous can become a “vessel of terror”: I was explaining this concept to a friend of mine and he asked me whether the following story would be a good explanation of what I was talking about. A particular painting by Otto Donald Rogers of a prairie field with a leather belt on the ground was part of an installation in an Ottawa office building. A woman who would have had to face the painting every day from her cubicle said that she couldn't live with it. It reminded her of the beatings that she had had as a child. The installers took the piece out of the installation. This painting of Otto Rogers was a “vessel of terror” for this woman.

I tend to try and stay away from using the formal structures of theology, however, it appears that what I tend to do is called “a Hermeneutics of Critical Evaluation”: a bottom-up or ethnographic form of analysis (I discovered that this is the formal way to describe what I do in Schüssler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways, 77). And this form of hermeneutics or biblical/theological interpretation if heard by “traditional (read malestream) hermeneutics” can only lead to serious questions about the received wisdom of the last two thousand years of Christianity.

There is an attachment to these beliefs (or virtues) that are at the core of Christianity. For so many people, they work to explain the world. However, just because people use the identified virtues of the system to find some way to ameliorate their position, that doesn't undo the damage that they have already caused. In fact, they serve to maintain the status quo. There are examples in the discussion on the atonement blog of women who use these beliefs to “get them through the night”. While it is understandable, I would argue that all this does is keep them in a place where they can be damaged again and again by these “vessels of terror”. Suffering, for example, can be accepted because this is part of the travails of this world, and you will be rewarded in the next life if you just "keep your chin up" ("God doesn't give you a mountain that you can't climb" - ask This time Lord, you gave me a mountain this time). It keeps the abused in their place and reproduces the structures that will allow the next generation to be abused once more. In the long term, it changes nothing, which is why I couldn't stay within the confines of the Christian belief system. In the final analysis, the structures/virtues are so embedded in the core belief system that there is no way to make any kind of compromise with it. And Lord knows I tried!

I do understand why people try so hard to find some way to make the belief system work. If they can’t make it work at some level, then where do they go? Is there any way around them? What do you replace them with? How much time will people actually spend trying to mitigate the impact of these "vessels of terror”?

I can only say, “Go watch Deliver Us From Evil, then tell me that these “vessels of terror” are worth keeping.” If you have already watched it, then go watch it again. 

I looked to see if I could find the Otto Rogers' painting that I talked about. I didn't. However, I really like this one. It is called Marching Trees and is apparently currently on sale at the Paul Kuhn Gallery, although I couldn't find it on the gallery's website. 

Otto Donald Rogers, Marching Trees

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