Sexism Can Kill Body and Spirit

Sexism Can Kill Body and Spirit

By Mary E. Hunt

Originally published by the Women’s Ordination Conference, April 24, 2018.

Imagine my surprise when I read about the women who were shooed out of the sumo wrestling ring in Japan when they tried to save a man’s life. What sounds like “news of the weird” is a serious story about traditions and how harmful they can be. It made me think of Roman Catholicism’s ban on women priests and how deadly it is.

A true story from the New York Times (4.4.18, p. A4): On April 4, 2018 at an exhibition match of sumo wrestling, “Ryozo Tatami, the mayor of Maizuru…was giving a speech when he had a brain hemorrhage and collapsed.” First responders including women jumped into the ring to deliver CPR. One of the women was variously reported as a nurse or a doctor. A sumo judge was heard on the loudspeaker imploring the women to leave the ring. “When the referee told them to leave, the women backed off, causing confusion and scuffling around the patient.” In the video, it is quite apparent that one woman handled the situation very capably and several more hurried in to help. Apparently, maintaining the tradition of male-only space was more important that saving a person’s life. It sounded familiar to me.

The sumo ring (dohyo), like the Catholic altar, is male-only territory, where women, considered unclean due to their capacity to menstruate, are forbidden to enter. Male responders arrived with a defibrillator. Women were ushered out. At last report, the mayor was hospitalized for surgery and in stable condition, perhaps owing his life to those first few chest compressions by a woman.

The head of the Japan Sumo Association later publicly thanked the woman who provided medical care and apologized for the referee’s actions. It is not clear how such an incident would be handled if it happened again as such traditions died hard. “Believing that tradition is more important than human lives is like a cult that mistakes fundamentalism for tradition,” said Yoshinori Kobayashi, a Japanese comic book artist quoted in the same New York Times piece.

Why focus on the gender of persons rather than on the solemnity, discipline, and reverence that make sumo a popular spectator sport for both women and men? This was not a one-off event. For example, a local governor who happened to be a woman had to present a championship award on a runway adjacent to the ring because of her gender. This happened year after year despite her protests. While there is sumo wrestling by women, the professional ranks are men only. Sound familiar?

When I read the article, I was struck by the many parallels with the institutional Roman Catholic Church’s ban on the ordination of women. While some might argue that no one ever died because women were excluded from presiding at the Eucharist, I believe that the scandal of gender exclusion has ‘killed’ the spirits of many people.

Underneath the exclusion of women from priesthood—which is routinely said to be because women were not present at the Last Supper (sans evidence) and because women do not “bear a natural resemblance to Jesus in the Eucharist”(raising the question on anatomy and not capability) —are similar concerns about ritual purity. Whether they actually go to the specificity of menstruation remains a matter of speculation. But they are clearly related to the belief that women are inferior, or at least unknown to the men who exclude them.

I conjecture that women at the altar would ‘defibrillate’ the faith community by easing the new life of equality into it. I fantasize what it would be like if Catholic women just went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and presided at a Eucharist. Security guards would escort them off the altar while hysterical clerics shout “Blasphemy, heresy” atop their lungs. I doubt the Catholic women would even rate an apology by an embarrassed cardinal who would see in the incident the absurdity that the Japanese official did. He would prefer that people not celebrate Eucharist than have women preside.

It is not for me to tell Japanese sumo aficionados how to run their sport. But neither is it is not lost on me that they have had major abuse scandals of late, some alcohol-fueled, like their Roman Catholic clerical counterparts. Mistreatment of younger men by older ones have cast a pall over the whole sumo enterprise, again akin to the epidemic of sex abuse which has left Roman Catholic clergy with precious little credibility.

To be clear, I have no great affection for sumo wrestling or for women ordained in the kyriarchal model of church and ministry. But what is shocking in both cases is how ‘tradition’ is misunderstood as ‘how we have always done it’ rather correctly understood from its Latin root ‘to give or deliver or hand over’, perhaps hand on what is most important, namely life in all its fullness. To let old prejudices snuff out life, physical or spiritual, is simply absurd, profoundly sad, and a colossal waste of life itself.