The Bible and ISIS

An Atlantic article talks to ISIS members to understand their world view. They are idealists and want to create a godly land, with free health care and social security for all, where women will be women and men will be men (i.e. men will go kill things and come back to a warm hearth and good food and a servile wife). [Unsurprisingly, this last image makes me horny (Yes! Yes! I am a feminist but unfeminist stuff tends to make me horny, and I cannot do anything about it – the vagina likes what it likes – so quit hazzling me!).]

Back to ISIS – They believe that the apocalypse is imminent, and are waiting for it and are trying to hasten it’s arrival. They follow the Koran to the letter, and are required to kill other muslims and enslave non-muslims, whose lands they conquer. This is all very biblical! The Bible too predicts apocalypse and requires that believers kill all those whose lands are close to the promised land and enslave the women and children of those whose lands were more distant. God punished severely those who did not follow this rule (example, Saul in 1 David).

Biblical scholars talk their way out of the reality of all this biblically-required genocide by choosing to interpret these commands as referring to our sins i.e. we are required to completely destroy and enslave our own sinfulness (not actual human enemies). Interestingly, conservative American preachers don’t do the same trick of abstraction when it comes to Biblical commands about women, and in this they are completely aligned with ISIS (the difference is merely a matter of degree, but both agree that women cannot be leaders over men, and both interpret instances of women prophets (example, Deborah) as signs of the end-times).

The conclusion that these people – Bible & Koran thumpers – are a bunch of kooks seems unavoidable.

In stark contrast to this kookishness, I read in the same publication about how the black churches provided the key institutional framework for the civil rights movement, and continue to support (albeit at a lesser extent) the black-lives-matter movement. They see Jesus as the original revolutionary, dragged off by the powers-to-be, unfairly charged and killed.

Not sure where I am going with all this…


My son, the atheist

My son says God doesn’t exist. This statement came about suddenly, with no warning, at the end of our nightly reading session. My baby is suddenly a person, quite separate from me and with opinions very different from my own. I am torn between great pride and great shock. I probe more, and I discover that he doesn’t just think that God doesn’t exist; he thinks that my belief in God is a sign of my great fear and intellectual laziness. He says that it is perhaps because I am terrified that something horrible will happen that I feel the need to fall back on this mythical entity.

I am on the defensive now, and feel forced to *prove* that God does exist, an impossible task and particularly unsuited to someone as doubt-filled and uncertain as me. He is so much surer of his stance: for every Mother Teresa and Martin Luther, religion has produced thousands of ruthless zealots; religion does not make people kinder, it makes them more certain in their illogic; religion is used primarily to force others to conform and Christianity is especially suspect since it comes backed by richer and mightier groups; if there was one true God, then why is it that holy men-women across the ages have come up with such differing ideas of who this God is, each claiming their theory is fully correct?

I turn my head to look at this child sharing my pillow – who is this new person? This is not the same one, the one who, not-so-long-ago, would cry piteously if I didn’t sit next to his potty chair while he did his business. I am torn between pride at how well-thought out and critical his arguments are, and consternation at this insight into my child’s opinion of my faith, and concern that perhaps he will not discover a life-giving faith of his own.

Pride wins out.

And as I listen to him falling asleep, I pray that God will work his wonders and reach my son too.

What would you give up?

There is a striking parallel in the lives of saints across religions, whether it be the Hindu rishis or the Buddhist monks or the Catholic nuns. They let go of worldly tangles and exchange it for joy. That seems like a pretty fair deal. Would I be able to do the same?

Celibacy and silence: I believe the two are linked together since the absence of the former makes time for the latter. And I want the latter. The long hours of silence and prayer speaks to a deep thirst inside me, but is it possible to delink silence from celibacy? Why not structure my life to match the nuns’ schedule without giving up husband-sex-children? They wake up at 5.00, prayer-mass-bible-silence until breakfast at 9.00, then off to work, pray again for an hour at lunch, then work again, and then 5.30-7.30 community time, and then silence-prayer-bible-mass until bed. I could have the same schedule, simply replacing community time with family time. It would take discipline, but it is not impossible.

Giving up ipad, ipod, personal laptop, computer, and the vow of poverty: The nuns claim that giving these up was a big relief, and I can understand their view – how wonderful it would be to cease striving; to do one’s best every day but to unclench and let go of the death-grip on goals – career goals, goals for the kids, retirement-savings goals; what a relief it would be to let go. These certainly give me no joy, and stuff, in any case, happens, no matter how I try to bend reality to my will.

Still obsessed with nuns…

What is the secret of the nuns’ joy and peace? Can I replicate it, within the context of my life?

Let’s start with the easiest – makeup, pretty shoes/clothes etc. – these I think would be easy to give up, a relief not to have to think about what to wear to work everyday – the frustrating daily calculus of determining what would be feminine, but not too much so; what attire would display authority while still being approachable; what combination of sweater and scarf would ensure that no skin is displayed without treading into hijab territory. Oh and not having to worry about hair and its arbitrariness? Yes! Giving these up will not be a sacrifice. I can easily see how this alone – donning a uniform every day which covers my hair – would significantly improve my quality of life. And I wouldn’t even be the first to do this. So no problem with this one. I could simply decide on a “uniform” (white shirt and jeans?) and buy 15 pairs, and I am set for life. Done.

Community: Oh, to have the community that these women share! I am most envious of this. I bet that just this one thing – being among a community of sister saints – increases their joy. But this one is difficult to replicate for a lay person unless some serendipitous combination of circumstances makes good friends move close by and they also have the time for daily community.

And then there is obedience: This is the most problematic of all. The idea I think is the following: I want to read a book but the kid is sick, so I must joyfully (instead of resentfully) give up my desire and obey, enjoying my time with the kid. I can see how that would lead to peace. But what about obedience within a context of unfairness? There is something cow-like about these nuns who are joyful within a church that denies women. It is troubling, their untroubled joy. Do they not care about injustice and hence not hear God’s call to correct it? Or is it that we only hear that which already exists within us? Or are some of us are called to care about particular things, while being blind to other equally important things? It is troubling-confusing, the sisters’ joyful acceptance of the status-quo; inexplicable in an otherwise perfect model of what humans could really be.

Zandria F. Robinson

I read her blog, and then read some articles about her (thanks to my friend UnAmerican’s previous post), and then made the mistake of reading the comments section. My God! The hate that has been directed at this woman – why?! It makes my stomach roil and I wonder at her courage.

And underneath my horror and admiration is another emotion – relief that I was not born black in these white lands; I can leave.

As my husband said about France, “black and brown people here are so beaten down and scared that if you breathe hard on them, they will blow away.” My son, who is born in these lands, experiences much more than us. In France, there are very few Indians, and his friends say that he is from Africa. They don’t believe him when he says he is American. He is darker than I, and is smart as a whip, a topper in school and a champion at chess and can solve the rubics cube in under 2 minutes, and I watch as he hunches more inwards over time, looking down in the presence of adults; his voice so low, we have to ask him multiple times to speak up. He will not go and ask a waiter for more water. How different he is from his cousins in India – they are loud-bordering-on-obnoxious and so sure of their place, high in the world. They demand. My son scrunches himself smaller.

In our apartment building, several neighbours cannot get their heads around the fact that we live in their apartment building in this aristocratic neighbourhood. It is so bizarre a fact, it doesn’t compute. So when the downstairs lights burst, the apartment manager comes to our door and questions us about our whereabouts on that day. She is a budding Sherlock Holms and wants to ascertain the facts. After 15 minutes of this and once her intent is revealed, I ask her – “Why would we, me a professor and my husband an engineer, after 5 years living here, suddenly feel the urge to sneak down in the dead of night and break a light?” She goes away – logic is not the strong suit of these hate-filled-ones – but persistence is, and she comes back another day with a different charge. This is a beast that cannot be killed.

But to us, this hate is a minor annoyance, easy to shrug off, at most a twinge in the pit of our stomach.  But for my son, it is a more deadly, slow-poison. He is almost-always crowned the leader when there is troublemaking involved and never the leader in any other matter. One day, we got home from the park, and I was in the garage putting things away while the kid waited right outside for me, and two neighbour women start scolding him. For what?! He was simply standing there, waiting for me. He has every right to be there – we live here!

I hear them and I came out the garage and I see my son, standing sullen and scrunched up, his voice getting lower, more defiant-defeated. And I shout at these hate-filled-ones, and I threaten to bring down the whole force of every power under the sun if ever-even-once they shout at my son again. If they have an issue, come speak to me or my husband, or “I will see you behind bars,” I thunder with all the righteous fury of generations of middle-class Indian privilege. They flounder at my vehemence – they do not know that I am not one of those whom they have beaten-down since birth.

And I wonder at black mothers, what they must feel as they watch their little ones being “dealt with a firm-hand” in school and by random strangers who feel the need to “teach them a lesson in how to behave.” Head down, hat-in-hand, a bow and scrape perhaps? What is the proper level of obeisance that must be paid to whiteness?

My stomach roils at the thought of being in these mothers’ shoes, but underneath my empathy is also relief – I can leave and take my kid away from this mindless muck.

Binge watching nuns

Every free minute of the past 2 weeks, I’ve spent watching youtube videos of nuns. I’m obsessed with these women: there is light and joy and peace radiating from them, and they burst into peals of giggles at the slightest provocation. As Oprah said in one of the youtube videos “what are they doing for their skin? They glow!” They disarm me with their humility and humor. This is who I want to be. But what is their secret, and is it possible to backward engineer and replicate their joy?

The nuns say God is the secret of their joy. They say the vow of chastity, poverty and obedience are crucial. Obedience is especially important – to negate self, and to bow to the will of a higher power, and to believe that earthly bosses/colleagues/circumstances are vehicles for Godly commands, and to obey, completely and radically. As I watch them prostrate themselves, my body aches to do the same; it is the same reaction I have to the motions of Namaaz; kneeling, bending, prostrating, raising one’s hands to the heavens in acceptance. They say community is crucial, and they have 2 hrs every day when they break their silence to laugh together as they play volleyball, hockey and cards. They say silence and prayer are at the heart of everything; time spent with the Lord listening, being still, allowing for space in a cluttered mind to listen for the still, small voice.

I am struck by the fact of these women, who’ve given up everything the world teaches us we need, and are more joyful than anyone I’ve seen in the world. No makeup, pretty clothes, no tweezing, no pretty shoes, a lot of silence and prayer, no children, no husband, no intimacy, no sex, no pay, no personal ipads, ipods, laptops, computers, and of course, obedience.

What would life be if one overturns a lifetime of assumptions about what one is supposed to be striving for, and simply stops and throws all of these out the window?

Rage away Friend!

The world seems full of possibility, everything doable. I remember when I was a girl and would rail against some sexist thing or the other, fighting with my cousins-uncles-aunts-teachers who insisted that women were an inferior type of human (it was quite normal to hold such views in those days), who told us that if some man pinched us on the bus, it must be because we’d worn Jeans (an immodest western invention) or looked someone in the eye (more immodesty). I once bit one of my cousins, so incensed was I by his unshakable and illogical superiority over me. Another one, I refused to speak to for years after he told me proudly about how he and his friends “rubbed against” the girls on the bus. And all those awful Bollywood movies in which either the woman was burnt to death by her in-laws or was raped before her marriage and had to kill herself to protect her family from shame. And everyone else found these movies perfectly entertaining!

And this was all just 15 years ago – all of these seem so bizarre now that I find myself questioning whether these actually happened or whether I’m exaggerating. And no! This and more happened routinely. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that things would change so much, so fast. I never dared hope – I assumed the world would remain what it was, and the most I expected for myself was to escape being burnt alive or raped.

And today, I look around me, and my family whatsapp group is filled with people tripping over themselves to proclaim their support for feminist ideals. The cousin I bit – he is the most vociferous of them all! The Indian girls in my class are loud and don’t seem to feel the need to mute.

So today, the world seems so full of hope. Everything can change and will change.

None of these changes, of course, can be traced back to anything I specifically did. But I believe that all my constant fighting and arguing and railing and hoping and praying and raging and supporting those I thought were on the “right side” and sometimes-sneaky battles against those I thought were on the “wrong side”….I believe that all these actions somehow helped create the world I see around me. Today, I go into a road-side restaurant in Chennai and there are young women sitting alone at tables ordering meals – 15 years ago, I was the only one I knew who did such “shameless-forward” things. It makes me want to crow and jump for joy seeing this. And of course, this does not mean that all things are great; clearly they are not….But I feel so certain that the thankless task of arguing and fighting and raging will bear fruit; perhaps not in any direct tangible way, but it will bear fruit and much much sooner than we expect or even dare hope for. So rage away, my friend! The world shifts and changes and reforms itself every time you do.