Wednesday, November 4, 2009

female trafficking in the bible?

[Our] Western, American, middle-class point of view can actually interfere with our understanding of God's Word. The story of Naomi and Ruth takes place against the backdrop of an ancient patriarchal culture. If we want to grasp the message, we must enter Naomi's world. We can do this better with the help of our sisters in the Third World whose cultures more closely resemble the ancient biblical culture.
--Carolyn Custis James, The Gospel of Ruth (p 30)

What if one of our sisters is from Malawi and is helping us? What if she's "a child of the third wife in a polygamous marriage"? What of "her experience as a widow and mother of three" might inform ours, if we're willing for ours to be so informed? What if she's encouraging us "to think of the trafficked women in Geneva and not to forget that contextual Bible study is about transformation"? What if we start to have some "thought about how few choices trafficked women and men have?" And then what if we began reading the Bible, the Book of Ruth, and chapter 3?

Well then, we may just do what the wonderful Jane Stranz is doing and now encourages us to do: to "read it with the idea that Ruth could be seen as a trafficked woman - that Naomi could be seen as a formerly trafficked woman who encourages another woman to follow the same path, because of course there is no other path." Jane has been listening to Fulata Mbano Moyo, her "brilliant colleague," sharing with us her insights again.

Would we really be doing injustice to the Bible? As importantly, if we don't consider the possibility, then are we doing injustice to Ruth and to Naomi?  Or don't we remember those lines of John Keats's "Ode to A Nightingale" which go like this:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
    No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
    In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
    Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
        She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
                The same that oft-times hath
    Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
        Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

If Keats is not thinking of the tears of the trafficked human, he nonetheless conveys how "forlorn."  If we're reluctant to listen to Mbano Moyo, then how about Keats?  If not a feminist like Jane (who has reminded us of the problem of trafficking in our world), then how about a Bible translator like David Ker (who also continues to remind us)?  Ancient Israel of the bible, or Geneva, Glasgow, Tokyo, Congo, Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the East, and the West.  We do well to listen to the silences to the cries to the voices, our own and others', when we read.

Now, to be sure, Carolyn Custis James (whose book I quote from to start this post) doesn't necessarily advocate reading the bible to see Ruth or Naomi as trafficked humans.  But in her chapter, “When Women Initiate and Men Respond” (on pages 173-174 The Gospel of Ruth), Custis James does get us thinking about how to read "Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha"; she's getting us to consider how we, women and men in the Western world, initiate and respond.  How do we respond to the experiences and the stories of trafficked girls and boys?

Custis James reads how Memoirs of a Geisha:
chronicles the life of a young Japanese girl sold into slavery by her desperately poor parents—an appalling transaction in human flesh repeated in real life thousands upon thousands of times throughout the world’s sordid history and still happening today in shocking numbers. Sayuri is trafficked into the world of the geisha—the upper-class counterpart of the common prostitute. She is destined to become a “butterfly in the night.” Her youthful beauty, artistic accomplishments, and virginity will go to the highest bidder from among a coterie of Japanese businessmen. The Chairman—the elegant man approaching her now—is one of them.
Their first meeting seems innocuous enough. He wipes her tears with his handkerchief and sends her skipping on her way with a coin to buy a shaved ice treat, never to forget his kindness. Like a radiant full moon against the blackened sky, it is a snapshot of contrasts—two human beings dwelling in the same universe, simultaneously inhabiting separate worlds. She is female. Powerless, dependent, vulnerable, voiceless, and (except for the coin he just pressed into her small hand) penniless too. He lives in the privileged world of men and is possessed of power, self-determination, education, and wealth. The disparity between them will never go away and stirs up subliminal questions. What will he do with his advantages? Will he exploit her too? Or is he her ticket to freedom?
So as we think about these questions, we might bravely apply them to ourselves.  We might consider the story of Boaz and Ruth ("What will he do with his advantages? Will he exploit her too? Or is he her ticket to freedom?").  Won't we do well to hear the voices of African women and not forget the forlorn hidden away from among us by men who would traffic and own them?


Jane said...

thank you so much for this passionate post. Fulata's day to day work is very much about trying to challenge and change masculinities. Her Bible studies are always brilliant because she brings her faith and experience to them and never pretends to be offering an "objective" view of the text. As we read chapter 3 of Ruth last night I was very deeply moved - we read the TOB French translation and the word "rachateur" coems up time and again. Women's bodies are merely commodities, their lives do not exist. The other image Fulata used was the image of hospitality - she rewrote slightly the words of the institution speaking of broken bodies - trafficking is a table at which women are forced to offer hospitality which they cannot in any way limit.

David Ker said...

Fascinating! Matthew's genealogy can be read as a feminist manifesto.

Jane said...

OF course from Rahab via Naomi and Ruth and - but in some ways this also shows that women also abuse one another as well as being abused by patriarchy. It's not always easy to act with integrity if you don't feel you have choices ...

Bob MacDonald said...

I am using Ruth as a grammar lesson this year. Targuman - Chris Brady also is working on the Ruth Targum and promises to post on it by the Spring.

The situation in chapter 3 is definitely one in which power is present. What is the significance of the right of redemption issues in that social structure? The Levirate law plays a part. I guess I will have to read some commentaries.

Bob MacDonald said...

Tonight I was eating alone since my wife and son have gone to Winnipeg to visit another son. The older boy had prepared a stir fry for me and as I finished it, I dipped my bread in the leftover gravy and took note - that Boaz simply had in chapter 2 been smitten with Ruth and 'fell in love'. Thus he is not trafficking or abusing power - simply it is a love story.

J. K. Gayle said...

Good discussion!

Hospitality, Jane! Reminds me in some ways of what Lydia H. Liu says about translation:

"[O]ne does not translate between equivalents; rather, one creates tropes of equivalence in the middle zone of translation between the host and guest languages. This middle zone of hypothetical equivalence, which is occupied by neologistic imagination, becomes the very ground for change."
Tokens of Exchange, page 137

"If it is true that the translator . . . in the host language always initiates the linguistic transaction by inviting, selecting, combining, and reinventing words and texts from the guest language and, moreover, if the needs of the translator and his/her audience together determine and negotiate the meaning (i.e., usefulness) of the text taken from the guest language, then the terms traditional theorists [in the West] use to designate the languages involved in translation, such as 'source' and 'target/receptor,' are not only inappropriate but misleading.
Translingual Practice, page 27

A feminist Matthew, David!

Women abused by the patriarchy abusing, Jane!

Power, and love, Bob! But I'm not sure the story, if a love story, is so simple. Your praise of Ruth reminds me of what Laurent Pernot says of the sophist and his Praise of Helen:

"Gorgias undertakes to excuse her by arguing that if she followed Paris, she could only have done so for one of these four reasons: (1) she obeyed the gods' commands; (2) she was carried off by force; (3) she was persuaded by speech; (4) she succumbed to love."
Rhetoric in Antiquity, page 17

I wonder if "she could only have done so for . . . these reasons" could also mean she could have done so also for all of these reasons. And I wonder that about Helen, Naomi, and Ruth.

Bob MacDonald said... so simple. No I would not oversimplify it. But - what if it were the only way that the razor's edge could find its way through the patriarchal system? Via a Moabite woman no less through whom David is disqualified from being Israelite (he is only three generations from that act of love - David is a Moabite!)

Jane said...

Thanks for all your insights Kurk and Bob - perhaps the story is "also" a love story. The great thing about all of these stories is that they don't just have one reading. Ruth the moabite's child is actually Naomi's child - a quick bit of literary fine-tuning to sort out David's blood line?
Kurk those insights abotu translation are fascianting btw the actual title of Fulata's talk was "Break my body, eat and drink me": retelling Ruth's story in the context of sacrificing women's bodies to put food on the table!

Bob MacDonald said...

I am working through a number of commentaries on Ruth - this one noted here is a great curiosity - will report over the next several months on Ruth if all goes as planned.