Remembering Ginny by Esther Nelson


My husband’s stepmother, Ginny, died last week.  She lived several months past her 97th birthday.  Here is her obituary.

Ginny shared her life with three husbands, outliving each one.  Three sons were born from her first union.  She then married John, my husband’s father, and warmly welcomed us (John’s family) into her life.  When John died, Ginny married Fred.  After Fred’s death, Ginny told me, “Of all my husbands, Fred was my favorite. He was fun.”

Ginny lived at the Brethren Village Retirement Community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—a home with several levels of care—for over 30 years, moving there a few years after marrying my father-in-law.  She said, “We made a good decision.  I never wanted to be a financial burden on my children.”  And she wasn’t.

Throughout her life, Ginny attended a fundamental, evangelical church.  Had she been able to vote in the 2016 national election, she would no doubt have voted Republican.  She had no use for feminism (women who rail against God’s ordained order), liberalism (the Devil’s message), homosexuality (perversion of God’s perfect creation) and immigrants (they siphon resources from hard-working Americans).

Yet, at the same time, Ginny was generous, giving to causes that fit with her ideological worldview such as missions.  It was important to her that people come to understand the “truth” as seen through the prism of the theology she embraced.  Within her community, she was loving, actively engaged, and caring, helping people in practical ways—donating food and other necessities to organizations sponsored by her church.

Ginny’s harsh judgment (although always expressed gently) towards people who held beliefs different from her own did not match her generosity towards people in need.  That disparity between her words and her actions puzzles me.  Maybe the best I can do right now is to acknowledge that human beings express themselves in wide varieties of ways and not all of those ways are consistent, rational, and logical.  I’m tempted to chalk the irrationality up to a lack of critical thinking.  But I’m convinced that’s not the whole story.

I think that oft-times, we don’t speak and act using what Jewish tradition calls svara—moral intuition.  According to Benay Lappe, a self-identified, queer rabbi, svara follows the “…teaching of rabbis of the Talmud [who] were willing to make radical moves—sometimes uprooting the Torah itself—to make Judaism more meaningful, compassionate, and responsive to the human condition.”  Engaging svara, love and compassion take center stage.

Ginny’s funeral ritual was familiar to me.  Folks remembered Ginny as a godly woman, living her life with an eye towards the day she would be with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Ginny loved practicing hospitality.  She thrived when able to cook for people.  Family and friends recalled her Thanksgiving dinners.  One of her grandsons noted, “Grandma made the best pumpkin pie ever.”

Women practicing “home economics” in all its various forms fits well with conservative Christianity’s idea of godly living.  Those of us who have no interest in the culinary (and other housekeeping) arts are found to be lacking.  The concept of assigned and fixed gender roles is alive and well within Christian fundamentalism.  Would Ginny have been remembered so fondly had her interest been in deconstructing and reinterpreting a text?  Doubtful.  Mary, Ginny’s sister, was not a zealous homemaker during her rocky marriage, preferring to hike the Pennsylvania countryside.  Ginny often remarked, “Mary brings out the worst in a man.”

But Ginny did make life fun.  The fun she enjoyed (in addition to practicing hospitality) had the approval of her church community.  Camping was high on her list.  She also liked playing games.  Bible charades was her all-time favorite.  Her grandson said he, along with his brothers, especially enjoyed acting out the story of Cain and Abel (Cain murdered his brother Abel) as well as the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac.  A ripple of giggling flowed through the gathering at this point.

During the sermon, the minister referenced Ginny’s favorite game–Bible charades.  He asserted that Ginny’s love for Bible charades gave evidence of her godliness.  “Ginny lived every day with her Bible ever-present.  She could act out any story.”  I stumble here.  Knowing about and acting out Bible stories makes one godly?  Where’s the common sense?  Where’s the understanding?  How did the Bible stories integrate into Ginny’s life?  What influence did the Bible stories have on her?

Is it not appropriate at this time to ask how one can hold on ideologically to hate (feminists, liberals, gays, and immigrants) and not see that the figure Christian fundamentalists worship (Jesus) sought out those people on the margins of society (prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and the poor) to make up this thing Jesus referred to as his kingdom?

Ginny lived her life aligned with the beliefs and practices of her community.  As far as I know, she never questioned any of it.  She just accepted what was there.  For years, I did the same.  Even though I eventually chafed at the constricting doctrine and the restrictions placed upon me, it took a long time before I could break free.  I understand the grip a community of faith can have on a person even when the community’s beliefs and practices make no sense (at best) or are cruel (at worst).

I still struggle to come to terms with how “good” people like Ginny hold onto thinking and behavior that perpetuates division and destruction.  Human behavior has its complexities.  We are capable of heroic acts of love and generosity as well as cowardly acts of hate and greed.

Fundamentalists are convinced they worship a loving God—“God is love,” after all, comes from their Scripture (I John 4:8).  Matching one’s theology (love) with one’s speech and behavior would seem to me to be a goal worth striving towards.  That requires us to think critically in addition to using our moral intuition—something that many of us resist—especially when it comes to our faith communities.

 

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

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Categories: Ancestors, Belief, Christianity, Evangelicalism, Faith, Family, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Foremothers, General

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16 replies

  1. The answer to your question that comes to me is: brainwashing by patriarchy through the vehicle of patriarchal religion.

    Touching essay. I don’t have evangelicalism in my family, but I do have relatives who are good and caring people in their personal lives who vote for hatred in the name of religion or for other reasons. Siggghhhh

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    • Yes, I agree about patriarchy’s ability to brainwash through our religious institutions. Religious institutions (in my experience) seem to hold more power and sway over people than other kinds of institutions. But perhaps it’s just that I got a huge dose of it all and responded in a particular way. Interestingly enough, my eldest son who attended Ginny’s funeral, told me while driving to the cemetery and reflecting on all the ritual surrounding the event, “I have been immunized against fundamentalism.” He never seemed to have been swept up in fundamentalism’s power.

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  2. “I still struggle to come to terms with how “good” people like Ginny hold onto thinking and behavior that perpetuates division and destruction. Human behavior has its complexities. We are capable of heroic acts of love and generosity as well as cowardly acts of hate and greed.”

    Your struggle is my own, Esther.

    Some belief systems are irrational by nature, I think, and not open to scrutiny… I don’t think it’s a lack of critical thinking that’s the issue here, I think that “belief” blinds us to questioning “truths”…

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    • Thanks, Sara, for your insightful comment. I believe that most (if not all) belief systems are irrational. Beliefs, as I see it, derive from myths or stories created by a community of people in order to make sense (or meaning) from the world. Beliefs, then, are interpretations of myth. It’s those interpretations, then, that become understood (at least in my experience) as “gospel truth” and “gospel truth” resists changing the orthodox understanding of a myth. Or, as you note, “belief blinds us to questioning truths.”

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  3. Very interesting, especially this sentence: “human beings express themselves in wide varieties of ways and not all of those ways are consistent, rational, and logical.” I wonder how Ginny’s might have changed if she’d met the Goddess early on instead (as Carol says) of being brainwashed by patriarchy. I’m glad she was at least kind to people and cooked for them. Thanks for writing about her.

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    • Great question, Barbara. Not sure how Ginny’s thinking/behavior might have changed had she met the Goddess early on. I DO think that all religions (just like individuals) are capable of both peace and violence because people in all their varieties inhabit religious systems. As Reza Aslan has noted over and over, “If you are a peaceful person, your religion will be peaceful. If you are violent person, your religion will be violent.” Ginny, someone I would call a peaceful person, worked within what I would call hateful ideology, as peacefully as she could.

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  4. This post bespeaks your own largeness and generosity of heart. Thank you for expressing your complex emotions and observations here.

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  5. Thank you for this insightful post. You summed up so well what I’ve been writing about for the past three years since moving “home” to the Bible Belt to be available for my mom’s care, as necessary. I’m living proof of “never say never” as I swore I would never move back here, having intentionally lived away for more than forty years. Your essay and comments above are so articulate and insightful. I struggle to make sense, too, living surrounding by people – neighbors and 150 years’ worth of relatives – who align closely with your Ginny’s outlook on life and religion. My effort is now to stop feeling self-righteous myself, to try not to see the Other as blind or irrational or, simply, wrong — this is a form of othering and it doesn’t do anyone any good, because if I come from this space, it is felt, sensed, and resistance builds to any kind of deep conversation where we might meet in the middle. Granted, it’s a struggle but I make an effort to ask in the spirit of genuine curiosity about the why of a literal, fundamental view. Anyway .. thank you agian. Blessings!

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    • Thank you, Darla, for your positive response. In many ways, it was easy to be with Ginny. She was an uncomplicated person–loving and generous. She never allowed a difference of opinion on matters affect her caring for people. If she saw where she could help a person in need, she did. She had no interest, though, in looking at systems of thought that filter down into policy and law, bringing hardship and suffering to a broken world. She left it all in God’s hands. There’s a real downside to that.

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  6. A beautiful, insightful post, Esther. I sometimes wonder if, for some people, this way of living life as if everything was a moral imperative never to be questioned had to do with living through the early part of the 20th century with two world wars, when god versus evil seemed so clear and the fate of the world depended on the triumph of what was considered “good.” Of course, that doesn’t explain all the younger people with the same attitude or all those who also lived through that time without living their lives with that way of thinking, but I do sometimes wonder as I think about the effect of history on individuals.

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    • Thank you, Carolyn. That good/evil dichotomy did seem more prevalent in early to mid-20th century. Perhaps when people say, “She was a product of her time,” they are referring to the kind of thinking that seemed more like a norm of a bygone era. However, as you note, there are plenty of younger people who don’t use critical thinking or svara (moral intuition) as they journey through the world. I’ll keep thinking……

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  7. Esther, You are certainly more evolved than I am. What a gentle and compassionate spirit you express in your ability to love and accept her just the way she was – in all her contradictions. Sigh! I find myself completely unable to relax into such acceptance – or putting it in terms that Ginny would understand, to “put them in God’s hands to take care of.” I wonder, at what point does acceptance become acquiescence? At what point does it become facilitation of evil itself? There were, after all, loving and kind people who cashed their paychecks from the Nazi party as it perpetuated systemic evil. At some point somebody has to name the evil (or perhaps for people like Ginnie the words “pain” and “suffering” might have more resonance). For it is ignorance that allows injustice to occur. So, while I do appreciate your perspective, I continue to struggle with it. I am haunted by a scene in “The Poseidon Adventure” when the large group of survivors of the capsized ship are marching to the top of the ship but are, in reality, going down toward the bottom of the ocean. The smaller group, recognizing this mistake, try to turn them around telling them of their error. But the larger group had faith in their fearless leader and blindly march toward their destruction. Carol is correct. Brainwash, indeed!

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    • Great thoughtful comment, Beverly. Excellent question you raise. “…at what point does acceptance become acquiescence?” My short answer: I don’t know. Regarding Ginny specifically, she knew I did not agree with her worldview and how that worldview (held by many) worked itself out into policies and laws. Would it have been “better” had I insisted we talk about issues I felt to be important? I don’t think so. As she put it, “I’m sure about what I believe in.” Perhaps the larger question is, How do individuals as well as societies move forward in ways that bring about justice? I don’t think there’s a formulaic answer to that. We do what we can.

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  8. What an interesting article and perspective/thoughts. Thank you for sharing them. And so appropriate to read this after just getting done listening to a Course in Miracles lesson about hearing what your mind tells you, not ‘reality’. This has always fascinated me: how human minds work. And yes, once we decide something (I am a Christian; ‘Christians hold these ‘traditional’ views on feminism, homosexuality, immigrants; therefore, I think that, too.) As soon as your mind has followed that maze, the large majority of us ‘turn off’ any other input. I remember taking a course on this in college; how when stimuli hits your brain, it first asks ‘does this align with my thinking/beliefs?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then the brain actually blocks it. And THAT is how a kind and loving person simultaneously holds these very condemning, hateful thoughts is formed and maintained. We ALL suffer from this to different degrees with the ‘beliefs’ that we have decided on shaping our ‘realities’. To take each moment, each thought and each stimuli on its own would be overwhelming for our human brains. But yet, so essential to human evolution to force yourself as often as possible to truly listen, to be as open as possible and to question everything that you think you ‘know’.

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  9. Thanks, Karen, for your input, adding to the conversation. Interesting perspective–that of our brains actually turning off or “block” when receiving information that doesn’t align with our belief system. What I do know of what we call “Eastern religions” or thought is that it seems to prod us in the direction of taking “each moment, each thought and each stimuli on its own….” Living in the present moment, I think, is so essential.

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