Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Silence Breakers: Woman Zion and the #MeToo Movement (Lamentations 2:20-22)”

with Gina Hens-Piazza

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Mary E. Hunt: We are delighted to welcome Dr. Gina Hens-Piazza of the Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University to our virtual table.

Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose today is social change as well as intellectual stimulation. One question that keeps arising as we look at not simply attending to domestic violence and sexual assault, but stopping it is the role of religion. Today’s conversation with Gina Hens-Piazza is a good place to start. The Book of Lamentations is a devastating read. The #MeToo Movement reveals a life-threatening problem.

Professor Gina Hens-Piazza is Professor of Biblical Studies and holds the Joseph S. Alemany Endowed Chair at Santa Clara University where she teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology. She lectures at national Bible institutes and serves on the editorial board of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. She published The New Historicism (Fortress Press, 2002), and Of Methods, Monarchs, and Meanings: An Approach to Sociorhetorical Interpretation (Mercer Press, 1996

This is how we at WATER summarized the commentary book in our “What We are Reading” entry on our web site: “Woman Zion suffers like her sisters. “Victimizing the Victim, Violating the Already Violated (Lam.1:18-22)” (p.16) makes Lamentations a hard biblical text to read. This thorough and thoughtful commentary includes powerful reflections from students and ministers in many contexts. The goal, to use a complicated biblical text to illuminate the complexity of suffering and strategies to alleviate it, is achieved with gracious style.”
Welcome, Gina.

Gina Hens-Piazza: I want to focus on two chapters, and primarily two verses of Lamentations today, Chapter 2:20-22. Working on a commentary means you end up dwelling long-term on a few verses.

“Silence is golden, . . .
…speech is silver.”

Gold being worth more than silver indicates that speaking is good but silence is better. Hence, saying nothing is preferable to speaking.

A silence in the biblical tradition that argues against the wisdom of this proverb
• Dinah
• Bathsheba
• Midianite female captives
• anonymous women war captives could kept as concubines
• Tamar
• dancing maidens of Shiloh
• the Levite concubine
• Etc.
Silence is not golden!

Breaking silence surrounding trauma is a necessary step on the road to healing and resilience.

The silence in the biblical tradition surrounding trauma is deadly. Silence allows trauma, violence, abuse to continue unacknowledged, to go uncondemned, to be normalized, and often to be left unpunished.

Being able to cry out…
• “I’m not doing well since my accident that killed my child”
• My father said it was for my own good but he beat me”
• “I was abused by my uncle for five years”
• “I saw my child gunned down and I couldn’t do anything”
• “I was raped!”
Being able to cry out such expressions can begin to establish what is necessary to deal with violence and trauma.

To rupture those dark places one must regain
• Decision for Autonomy
• Exercise Agency
• Engage in Truth-telling no matter what

Late in the Israelite literature, a woman’s voice ruptures the silence that up to this point surrounds the biblical women’s voices that never had the opportunity to cry #Me TOO.
• the time – the destruction of Jerusalem (Zion) and the exile.
• the book – Lamentations
• The voice is Woman Zion –the metaphor used to speak as Jerusalem.

Woman Zion = Mesopotamian goddess associated with capital cities
• They are described as mothers
• These metaphoric women plead on behalf of their inhabitants
• They are portrayed as weeping goddesses in time of trouble

Listen to Lamentations – both the description of Woman Zion and hear her voice

Lamentations 1:1-4, 16
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.”

For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.

But then something more violent happens. The poems of Lamentations collapse the destroyed city and the lamenting goddess into one metaphoric figure – a weeping widow, Woman Zion!

The problem however is as the poems in Lamentation progress with the cries of those suffering and the need for answers, the weeping Woman Zion blamed, she is then made responsible for her own catastrophe, and the suffering of all the inhabitants.

In Lamentations as elsewhere in the Scripture – the woman (in this case, a metaphoric woman) is once again scapegoated. The woman is blamed.

Lamentations 1 (from the voice of the observer)
5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.
7 Jerusalem remembers, in the days of her affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in days of old. When her people fell into the hand of the foe, and there was no one to help her, the foe looked on mocking over her downfall.
8 Zion sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans, and turns her face away.
9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; her downfall was appalling, with none to comfort her. “O Lord, look at my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!”
10Enemies have stretched out their hands over all her precious things; she has even seen the nations invade her inner most places, those whom you forbade to enter.
11 All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. Look, O Lord, and see how worthless I have become.
12 Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
13 From on high he sent fire; it went deep into my bones; he spread a net for my feet; he turned me back; he has left me stunned, faint all day long.
14 My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they weigh on my neck, sapping my strength; the Lord handed me over to those whom I cannot withstand.
15 The Lord has rejected all my warriors in the midst of me; he proclaimed a time against me to crush my young men; the Lord has trodden as in a wine press the virgin daughter Judah.
16 For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.
17 Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her; the Lord has commanded against her that the neighbors should become her foes; Jerusalem has become a filthy thing among them.
18The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity.
19 I called to my lovers but they deceived me; my priests and elders perished in the city while seeking food to revive their strength.
20 See, O Lord, how distressed I am; my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death.
21They heard how I was groaning, with no one to comfort me. All my enemies heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it. Bring on the day you have announced, and let them be as I am.
22 Let all their evil doing come before you; and deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions; for my groans are many and my heart is faint.

Woman Zion is made responsible for her own destruction, for the destruction of her inhabitants, for her own victimization

Using trauma theory to analyze this text reveals that what happened to Woman Zion is what happens to victims today. Women and men victims are made to feel that they have done something wrong, that they are guilty even if they are the ones who have been abused. Here Woman Zion is sexualized and objectified, made a prostitute, and adulteress, and thus easy to lay blame upon.

A question I ask this text is who is hiding behind this metaphoric woman? The prophets tell us:
• Merchants swindling and tampering with scales for profit (Amos)
• Priests and false prophets leading the people astray with their practices (Jeremiah)
• 6 kings unseating (assassinating) one another in the north in a short 20 yr period (Hosea)
• Courting foreign nations and their militia instead of trusting in Yahweh for protection (Isaiah)
• Government confiscating the lands of the peasants when they can’t pay their high taxes (Elijah)
• Disemboweling pregnant women as a war practice to stem the grow of a population (Amos)
• The powerful taking advantage of the powerless (Zephaniah)

In Chapter 2, playing on her guilt, the male observer/speaker in Lamentations urges woman Zion to do what we might expect.

17 The Lord has done what he purposed, he has carried out his threat; as he ordained long ago, he has demolished without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you, and exalted the might of your foes. 18 So cry aloud to the Lord! O daughter Zion! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite! 19 Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street.

Woman Zion is urged to make the typical stereotypic response of a blamed woman victim in order to remedy her crisis, and in this case that crisis of others. Despite her brokenness, Woman Zion is urged to employ her whole being –
• with hands raised,
• tears streaming,
• voice crying out,
• heart uplifted.
• to be ceaseless in her entreaty
• She is to act like a guilty now penitent sinner
• with all her might
• in order to persuade the all-powerful God to stop acting against her.
She is the metaphoric woman who is not only blamed for what happened, but is responsible to remedy what happened.

Trauma theorists tell us that overcoming the experience of violence, assault on one’s person, the tumult of war, or the degradation of domestic violence etc. requires:
1. the decision for autonomy
2. the exercise of agency
3. the determination to become a “truth-teller” no matter what

But unlike all the other women of Scripture who never had their cries heard or their voice narrated to document the violence against them, never had a chance to exclaim “#Me Too,” out of the rubble of exile, in the midst of the indictments of shame and blame leveled at the metaphoric Woman Zion her voice breaks through and she stands up to the patriarchy and to the patriarchal deity they have constructed that enabled such injustice to prevail.

Recognizing the dynamics of dominance that has almost cost her a voice and conditioned her to believe that she was not capable of autonomy, Woman Zion will act contrary to culture, custom and some would say, common sense. Urged by a male observer to turn to God, Woman Zion will speak. But though instructed to be emotional, to pour out her tears, to plead and cry and assume the posture of a desperate woman supplicant, she evidently decides to do otherwise. As a strong woman who has given up being a victim, and who has abandoned self-blame before her abuser, in reestablishing autonomy, she evidently determines to confront the lord of a bankrupt theology. Instead, she will exercise agency and demand that the divine take note of others’ suffering and her own. Then she will be a truth teller. Woman Zion will let loose an angry tirade at the god of an insolvent theological tradition through which she and other women have been scapegoated.

She responds to patriarchy and to the idolatrous god of patriarchy responsible for underwriting this system of injustice that lays blame at the feet of women and she says:
20 Look, O Lord, and consider! To whom have you done this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne? Should prophet be killed and priest in the sanctuary of the Lord? 21 The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; in the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy. 22 You invited my enemies from all around as if for a day of festival; and on the day of the anger of the Lord no one escaped or survived. Those whom I bore and reared my enemy has destroyed.

Woman Zion boldly invites this construction of a god to do some self-reflection and practices a disciplined composure. With measured and direct speech, she employs an economy of words. There is no emotional outpouring accompanies her recitation. As a strong woman she has given up being a victim and confronts the person who has done violence to her. She abandons self-blame before her abuser.

With words aimed directly at her torturer, she paints a canvas portraying this deity’s campaign of carnage. Not only have infants died at mothers’ breasts, but “women eat their offspring, the children they have born” (Lam 2:20) The oppressive social conditions that have led to mothers’ loss of maternal instinct stem from those in charge who use a patriarchal god to endorse what they do. Women are consuming their children because this patriarchal god and the social political system that uses this theology has consumed the people

This god that supposedly holds her responsible, is not really a god; it is the construction of patriarchy. It is a construction designed to endorse patriarchy and those whose lives benefit from patriarchy. It is a deity made up/constructed to ensure that those who wield power and leave others powerless can continue to do so. This god is the fabrication of those who meet their own needs, who are so self-absorbed, and self-centered, who stratify the social world with themselves at the top endorsed by this fake god who they use to threaten those below into submission. This god is patriarchy itself, patriarchy deified.

Though Woman Zion is afflicted with pain and blame, the indictments against her do not have the last word. In Lam 2: 20-22, she reasserts autonomy, exercises agency, and tells the truth about a broken theology that lays blame upon herself, a metaphoric woman, rather than at the feet of those political and religious officials hiding behind her yet responsible for this travesty

The warrior deity who abuses, violently punishes, and makes innocent children victims bears no resemblance to the ancient goddess weeping for her children. Such a tyrannical force conceived as a deity is at best the concoction and reflection of the competitive dynamism inherent in an oppressive hierarchical order. A patriarchal deity must wield unbridled power at the top to maintain its position, and in the process, destroys community by stratifying social classes below. Named patriarchy, this subjugating order produces a theology reflective of itself but not reflective of who God is.

Hence, when Woman Zion confronted the deity, she not only challenged this theology, but began to pave the path to resilience. Audaciously, she named her trauma as abuse, and defined this construction of the deity as “the enemy.” She gave voice not only to her own emancipation from the clutches of self-blame and victimhood; but by raising her voice, she also occasioned a space for other victims of trauma to break their silence, to express their anger and their pain. And in the process, as these bold silence breakers lift their collective voice, they stand ready to move forward in an embrace of the full value of their lives as well as to begin to recognizing the real Holy Presence within their midst.

Question and Answer

Question: What about the case for simply not reading this book at all, letting it die out in a generation or two? I must say I was not overly familiar with it and glad for that. Does reading reinforce the concept of women’s culpability, women’s inferiority, sinfulness, dirtiness, etc. Is this another, albeit more subtle, way that patriarchal religions function such that the Bible deserves the cigarette-pack type warning: This book could be danger for every woman’s spiritual health?

GHP: I have a colleague, Naomi Seidman, who stated that Lamentations should be exiled from the canon. I have spent lots of time documenting the treatment of women in the biblical tradition, but that’s only one part of the response. It’s one of the important things to do in Lamentations. I think that it’s important to read this book for women and men, because I think we can never read texts of the past without looking at what’s helpful and harmful. We cannot deny what we as humans are capable of.

I think of the Holocaust and the numerous representations of it in art, music, film and drama. We can never afford not to have these representations because it was such a horrific event, and we can never afford to forget what humans are capable of, so to not repeat it.

With texts like this, it’s important that we see that religion is capable of subjecting, violating and contributing to the subjugation of women. It’s an important cultural book. It keeps our memory alive.

For those who’ve been abused, they can join their voice with the courageous Woman Zion.

Question: Thank you. I am a survivor who spoke out in the Episcopal Church, and experienced retaliation from priests on staff. The sexual violence, and sexism in a religious context have a deep clout because of false religious authority that makes it more challenging to recover from trauma. I’m most intrigued by Woman Zion having the characteristics of the weeping Mesopotamian goddesses. I’m curious how this subversive voice erupted from such a patriarchal context.

GHP: You said something important – that there is sexual violence, and then the violence that comes when people act as a truth teller.

In commentaries, people say that Chapter 3 is the centerpiece, which states “and a strong man spoke up.” And he gives speeches about why this destruction has happened. I believe that Chapter 2 is the centerpiece.

There is a response to trauma called Post-trauma Growth, where we grow out of, not because of, these experiences.

Question: To hear about collective trauma, it’s really difficult to hear about the liberating portions of these stories in contexts with collective trauma, and I don’t want to be retraumatizing in my work.

GHP: For years, the field of psychology believed that trauma could best be dealt with through talking. Simply asking someone to recount their trauma has a risk of retraumatizing. The recent work in Trauma Studies, such as the book The Body Keeps the Score suggests that one of the effective ways to deal with trauma is through our body. I had a series of exercises we did with our bodies when we would read these texts. So instead of asking people to tell their stories, because of the collective nature of abuse and sexual violence from war, we would go through these exercises and talk about how the things we were doing reduced stress, and reduced stress around a certain memory.

One strategy I use is to tell counter stories – to show that we are oppressed and we are capable of lifting up and surviving.

Question: In the Old Testament, Israel is portrayed as a woman who is abused – are there liberating aspects to this as you did with Woman Zion?

GHP: I have a hard time calling Nation-States “she” as it’s another objectification of something that’s an it. Hebrew pronouns don’t always compute with our concepts of gender, but critical scholars make them equal. I think when we make nations or cities or communities or churches female, we have an example of the objectification women. Objectification is not the work of women, but of those that have power. There are stories of powerful women in the scriptures, but they have to be unearthed. The detour in the Israelite literature is the blaming of women, the ancient Mesopotamian goddesses were never blamed.

WATER is grateful to Gina Hans-Piazza for her expertise and commitment to using biblical scholarship for justice.