Thursday, October 7, 2010

Who do you say that I am?

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)  Jesus asked this of his disciples. That’s an interesting question and a foundational element of spirituality because faith is a relationship.  And, it’s difficult to have a healthy relationship without knowing the other party.  It’s also difficult to have a healthy relationship without knowing yourself.  “Who am I?”

Before Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was he also asked them who other people thought he was.  Other people’s perspectives can influence our relationships.  However they are not a substitute for our own insight.  Perhaps this is why Jesus guided the disciples through a reflection process.  “Who do others say that I am?”  O.K.  That’s nice but they don’t control our relationship.  Now, more importantly, “Who do you say that I am?”  You can’t have a healthy relationship with me living someone else’s relationship or interpretation of what the relationship should be.

This brings me to the concept of “tyranny of should”.  I forget who coined this expression but I think it is very poignantly descriptive.  "Tyranny of should” occurs when a third party’s opinion dominates the opinion one holds of one’s self or others.  The third party tells you how you should perceive and interact with others.  Or, they may tell you how you should think, feel or act.  Or, some people impose their opinion of what your relationship with God should be instead of what God wants it to be.  This is a dehumanizing behavior because it invalidates you as a person and violates your free will. It sort of says, “God talks to me about you more clearly than God talks to you about you”.

Gender stereotypes are one example of “shoulds” imposed upon others that can be dehumanizing.  Instead of acknowledging the person’s authentic God-given gifts or encouraging pursuit of God’s authentic call, the “should” tyrant tries to invalidate the person.  “Because you’re a woman you should like to shop.”   “Because you’re a woman you shouldn’t like math.”  Because you’re a woman, you should want to stay home with your children.”

The story of Martha and Mary offers an example of “shoulding” upon someone.  As theologians note in biblical commentary, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet assuming the position of a disciple, violating gender-based norms.  Martha thinks Mary should be focused on traditional female activities hosting a dinner party.  I imagine hearing Martha’s criticism was unpleasant for Mary.  However, Mary had a strong enough relationship with God and sense of self to not be dissuaded by her sister’s opinion.  As Teresa of Avila states, “For a soul surrendered into God’s hands does not care whether they say good or evil about it.”  

Evidently Jesus didn’t care about Martha’s opinion either.  He affirmed Mary and rebuked her critic.  He did not permit Martha to “should” upon her sister.

I have been “should” upon as well. For example, many times based upon my gender, men in a meeting with me think I should make coffee.  Now, I don’t drink coffee and am told by people who do that my coffee-making skills suffer.  So, trust me, no, I shouldn’t make the coffee.  Contrary to some people’s belief, there is no scientific correlation between an XX chromosome pairing and making coffee.    

Similarly, at one time I found myself the object of unchristian gossip and disparagement by some parishioners who believed I should belong to our Altar Society assisting in parish hospitality duties just because I am female.  Like Mary, I knew I wasn’t called to associate with that organization and, like Jesus, the pastor supported me.

These are small examples of gender-based “shoulds”.  More impacting ones often occur around career decisions or parenting styles.  “Because you’re female you should be a nurse or a teacher.”  “Because you’re a female you shouldn’t be a pilot, pastor, programmer, police officer or pro football player.” 

God called me to work outside the home and be a parent.  I am a better parent and person because I answered both calls.  Yet, many critics tried to “should” upon me encouraging me to stay home when my children were young.   

The church “shoulds” upon women when male church leaders tell women what they should be in documents such as Mulieris Dignitatem, “Theology of the Body” or Dans le Cadre. The curious thing is that Pope John Paul II called women a “mystery”.  Since women are mysterious to male church leaders, how are they credible authorities on what women should be?

St. Augustine says our souls are not at rest until they rest in God.  I think many women’s souls are not at rest because they find themselves pulled between polar tensions of what God calls them to be and gender-based shoulds imposed upon them.  Maybe rather than listen to others’ opinions of God’s intention for us we just ask God, “Who do you say that I am?”


  1. LOL I did have a male friend of mine tell me that I should get my estrogen levels checked because I'm not so fond of shopping. However, I do hate math, but I am an excellent problem solver. Go figure.

  2. Mom, I'm going to 'should' you. You (and by this I mean you personally, not all women) 'should' NOT be a pro football player. Unless you want to get really really close to Jesus. Eternally. Ok, done shoulding. (That's a fun verb by the way).

    And now onto topics more pertinent to your message.
    Along the lines of shoulding, shouldn'ting, etc., you can also pull in some of the ideas about the Body of Christ. "Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them" (Romans 12:6). If you're the hand, do handy things. If you're the left kidney, do filtery things. But if you're the big toe, it's not your place in the body to decide that everything south of the umbilicus needs to act like a toe, or a foot, or ... you get the point. We should do what we are called to do. "If the whole body were and eye, where would the hearing be?" You can take what he said and apply it to this too. Not only is it important to recognize the gifts given us as individuals (who am I), but also to respect that we don't get to choose the gifts given by God to others (who are you). I think that's pretty much what your post was trying to get across, but that's how I saw it anyway.


  3. The "shoulding" thing was rampant in the 60's, 70's and evidently still is. Your points are valid but my experience was being encouraged against the shoulds of the morality by which I lived and believed based on my religious upbringing. That I stood against but by which I was often confused. I know now that shoulding
    can be debated except when it comes to moral
    absolutes that have no gender.

    I always thought Martha should have stopped cooking and sat with Mary too. Would Jesus have helped prepare the meal with both of them
    when the listening was finished? I believe so
    but it would be another taboo He crossed which eventually hepled sign his death warrent.

  4. Shelah, when it comes to "shoulding" on others, I think of the statement about getting the plank out of one's own eye before removing the splinter from another person's eye (Matthew 7:1-9). There are many moral absolutes such as not bearing false witness that get sticky in the implementation phase. We have witnessed our own church leaders who find that an optional commandment. In their minds they justify things like hiding the truth regarding pedophiles because they think there is a greater good in protecting church image by promoting falsehoods. Yet, some of these same people are all for excommunicating politicians who don't vote the way they think they should.

    Jesus simplified the 613 Mosaic laws and 10 Commandments to "Love God" and "Love God's people". He didn't say that "Thou shall not kill" is a more severe commandment to break than "thou shall not bear false witness". So, consistently applying things would have many a bishop ex-communicated for bearing false witness regarding pedophilia.

    But, Jesus said, "I desire mercy not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7 which refers to Hosea 6:6) so I wouldn't withhold the Eucharist from any of them. I just hope they like me keep striving to more perfectly love God and each other. It is the "sick" who need the Eucharist more. It's not a doggie treat for rewarding good behavior. It's for the "sick". (Matthew 9:12)