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.