Last night Trey lay on our living room floor groaning as he suffered from stomach problems that will here remain undisclosed. In due time his problems passed and as soon as speech was restored to my sad husband, he commenced making a series of jokes about the event. Most of his jokes were about bloating and how miserable it must be as a woman to deal with such occurrences on a regular basis. Of course, I agreed. From there we somehow ended up on the topic of menopause and whether it is a relief for women or not. Of course, I have no experience and very little knowledge regarding this life event, but I told him that I didn't think women ever felt much relief from their bodies, even post-menopause.
The female body has been on my mind a lot in the last twenty-four hours. I've been reading a really interesting book on the social and intellectual history of American women in missions and yesterday I read the story of a sixty year old missionary who was forcibly circumcised and then murdered in her home almost one-hundred years ago in protest to the missionary community's stance against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is something I had heard of before, but didn't know much about, so I spent a good hour researching it online. By the end of that hour I was pretty sick to my stomach. Even though it is illegal in most countries today, FGM is still widely practiced. It seems change has been slow over the last one-hundred years.
I've also been reflecting on the physical suffering of many women near and dear to me. Many of those close to me have suffered from a variety of illness all related to the female organs. From cysts to cancer, I've seen many friends face the realization that these things which belong to us women in order to give and create life in fact bear the marks of death. Wombs which are designed to grow living things and breasts that are intended to nourish and feed somehow become woman's greatest liability, things which doctors and celebrities tell us we should be unafraid to hack off or away, but which every woman I know touched by such scars grieves immeasurably over.
And then I've been thinking a lot about the most fundamental of woman's sorrows - the angst and pain of childbirth. The longing and fear associated with everything from conception to birth is so complicated, but so basic to every woman. No matter how advanced our society becomes, this basic issue remains at large. How can I control what my body was created to do? How can I live a life that isn't in tension with what my body will naturally do? How can I produce results when my body won't do what I thought it was supposed to do easily? Pregnancy (whether wanting it or avoiding it) has always been and will always be a battleground for women and I understand this more and more and as I hear my friends' stories about pregnancy, birth, nursing, infertility, and miscarriage.
My conclusion last night while joking around with Trey was that every woman is looking for heaven for, in, or through their bodies. We are waiting for, longing for, peace with our female physical existence and all women, throughout the ages, have desired such redemption.
As twisted as they are, we see the striving for heaven in FGM practices - women themselves are at the heart of female circumcision and it seems that fundamental to the practice is the desire to maintain purity. Women who practice FGM see their cultural definition of purity as necessary to their existence and happiness - their attempt to attain the ultimate good in their temporal reality. And in order to attain this purity they want so desperately, women willingly perpetuate a cycle of physical mutilation.
We see the longing for heaven in the Western world's glorification of birth control and family planning. Unlike our sisters in Africa, purity is not our greatest desire, but rather freedom from our physical reality. We are looking for redemption from our bodies and have created complicated systems to liberate ourselves from their natural functions. We believe that our heaven lies in Western medicine and its ability to control what for millennia has felt completely out of control.
In the most brutal and bloody ways, we see the longing for heaven in the diseases and mortality rates suffered by women. In the developed world, we witness women faced with decisions of cutting off their breasts and cutting out their wombs in order to survive. In the developing world, we watch as early marriage and childbirth itself both threatens and delivers women. Threatens because childbirth itself wrecks a woman's body and particularly so when the woman is really only a young girl and medical assistance is nonexistent. Delivers because early marriage saves the girl from certain shame at the hands of men and ostracism at the hands of women. For women suffering in hospitals around the world, their bodies are a constant reminder of the longing for deliverance.
The woman's body is a place of suffering and it produces a universal longing in women for things to be made right. The ways in which women seek for things to be made right might change over time and cultures, but from the first menstrual cramps to the last battle to save one's breasts, women are constantly reminded that all is not well in this world. We know things must be set right because we know that things must be set right in us. We take extreme measures to find heaven for our female bodies through FGM practices or abortion or preventative double-mastectomies because we are desperate to make all well as we face the physical reminder our own bodies give us that the world is broken. The problem is that we most often seem incapable of knowing what heaven to be long for and it leads us to dark and twisted places.
Women are earthy. Our physicality makes us so as we bleed and lactate and cry. Religions and philosophy and medical practices over the vast array of civilization have demonstrated the degree to which woman's body is associated with the earth. And along with the creation, our female bodies groan for redemption.
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the songs of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."
I don't know what our physical existence will be like in the new heavens and new earth. I don't think scripture reveals much about it to us. But I do know this - the longings and groanings regarding the realities of my and my sisters' bodies will be redeemed. It may include all of my reproductive organs or it may not, but I know that my female body will find heaven at last.
While living overseas, I somehow accidentally signed up for a free subscription of The Economist using frequent flyer miles. My mom faithfully saved every issue for me to read when I retuned after two years, so recently in an effort to purge my room of junk, I sorted through the stack of magazines, saving a select few while pitching the rest.
Two copies piqued my interest. One issue blames motherhood for gender inequality in the workforce (yes, a blog post will be coming on the article once I've fully digested it and formulated my response). The other issue's cover labels its topic as "Gendercide: What happened to 100 million baby girls?" While living in Asia, I had heard from word of mouth that the gender ratio was far off balance due to the traditional preference for boys, but I never researched it myself. I was excited to finally read about it, even though the article was a good year and a half old.
This seemed like the perfect place to share the article. I can't imbed the article, so you need actually follow the link (gasp!). But as a quick taste and incentive to inform yourself concerning this issue, I've copied the first couple of paragraphs below. Read the rest at Gendercide: The worldwide war on baby girls | The Economist.
"XINRAN XUE, a Chinese writer, describes visiting a peasant family in the Yimeng area of Shandong province. The wife was giving birth. “We had scarcely sat down in the kitchen”, she writes (see article), “when we heard a moan of pain from the bedroom next door…The cries from the inner room grew louder—and abruptly stopped. There was a low sob, and then a man’s gruff voice said accusingly: ‘Useless thing!’
“Suddenly, I thought I heard a slight movement in the slops pail behind me,” Miss Xinran remembers. “To my absolute horror, I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail. The midwife must have dropped that tiny baby alive into the slops pail! I nearly threw myself at it, but the two policemen [who had accompanied me] held my shoulders in a firm grip. ‘Don’t move, you can’t save it, it’s too late.’“‘But that’s...murder...and you’re the police!’ The little foot was still now.
The policemen held on to me for a few more minutes. ‘Doing a baby girl is not a big thing around here,’ [an] older woman said comfortingly. ‘That’s a living child,’ I said in a shaking voice, pointing at the slops pail. ‘It’s not a child,’ she corrected me. ‘It’s a girl baby, and we can’t keep it. Around these parts, you can’t get by without a son. Girl babies don’t count.’”
I just finished reading Chi An's A Mother's Ordeal and I couldn't recommend it more. During the first few chapters, I was bored with the typical tales of the Cultural Revolution. You can read a slew of other books, all full of horrible, dehumanizing descriptions of China's chaos. But by half way through, Chi An's tale grabbed me in the gut and I found myself waking up to an extremely personal admission of victimization and guilt unmatched by other such memoirs.
Chi An tells her story of growing up, finding a husband, and starting a family, all against the backdrop of China's population control policies. After suffering the cruel delivery of her first child and the forced abortion of her second, Chi An finds herself bitter and self-focused. Willing to do anything for the benefit of her own family and despite deeply suppressed ethical qualms, she takes charge of enforcing the One Child Policy within a local work unit. It is not until she accidentally becomes pregnant for a third time while living in the US with her husband that Chi An wrestles with her deepest longings and deepest guilt. The couple decide to fight to keep this new child alive and in the process are forced to separate all ties with their homeland.
Better than any educated argument or theological belief, Chi An's words from the heart reveal a universal longing for life and the guilt that ensues when it is prematurely ended. Growing up in a world where logical and practical arguments for abortion abound, Chi An continues to be plagued by the human desire to conceive and bare children and when in the end, she becomes complicit in the forced termination of a generation, she and her colleagues suffer from nightmares, recurring sights and sounds, and emotional torment all oriented around the "little hands" that will come after them for justice in the next life. There is no reason Chi An should suffer from guilt considering the positive environment towards abortion in which she came of age, and yet something inside her refuses to accept the actions both committed against her and by her as innocent.
What finally intrigued me most about her account lies within its closing chapters as Chi An retells her first experience with Catholicism. In a beautiful reflection on why people would worship a "dying God," Chi An simply and movingly describes the apologetics of the cross from an outside and Asian perspective. I am doubtful if Chi An took time to catch up on John Stott or Tim Keller's theology before writing down her thoughts on a couple pages (nonetheless predating Keller! ;-), and yet she sums up all of their grand arguments and thoughts through the layman's lens of a Chinese woman who has lived through hell and for the first time ponders what kind of God would be so real that no person could dream him up.
And yet, Chi An falls short of reveling in the grace that lies waiting for her. She senses that there is a vast significant meaning to Christ's death, but she cannot find what it is. Instead, she finds redemption and hope through confession and a new calling in life to set right her imbalanced scales of justice. She declares to have found redemption, but she dares not hope to have found mercy and grace.
The whole of A Mother's Ordeal is well worth reading, but if you never pick it up, at least read below. It will save you the gruesome operating table scenes, but fill you in on one woman's heart full of fear and hope. Fear of a Heavenly justice that she cannot understand and hope in the value of life that she has both betrayed and protected.
"Two hours later, after I had been moved from the recovery room to a regular hospital ward, my baby was brought to me. As Wei Xin looked on, I stretched our my arms to take her from the nurse, suddenly aware of the significance of the moment. It was for the sake of this tiny human being that I had endured so many months of long-distance blackmail and personal torment. I drew my infant daughter close to me, thankful that Wei Xin and I had chosen to defy the authorities, exulting in our triumph.
..."'You are safe now, my little 'illegal' daughter,' I whispered. 'Whatever happens now, no one can ever take you away from me.'
"By the time I returned from the hospital, the first article written by Steve about our case had appeared in Catholic Twin Circle magazine. It closed with an appeal for concerned readers to appeal the INS on our behalf. A surprising number did...
"I was moved to tears of gratitude by these letters, even as I struggled to understand what had motivated their authors to write. Why should these people, strangers all, care what happened to us and our baby? What did they hope to gain from such an act? I had grown up in a culture where only people who knew you well - kinfolk, coworkers, classmates, or close neighbors - exerted themselves on your behalf, and even they expected favors in return. And yet hundreds of Americans from across the country had taken time to petition their government on our behalf. I did not know what to make of such generosity of spirit. 'The American people have good hearts,' Wei Xin and I told Steve wonderingly.
"'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' Steve replied. 'Americans would not like to have their government forcing them to abort their unborn children,' he added, 'so naturally they sympathize with you.'
"This 'Golden Rule,' as he told us it was called, had a familiar ring to it. The Analects of Confucius contained a similar precept: 'Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.' But the more I reflect on the two formulations, the more I realized how different they in fact were. Confucius had merely forbidden people to wrong one another, not encouraged them to perform positive acts of charity. Living under such a rule, no wonder so many Americans had written letters on our behalf - and with no expectation of a return.
"The awareness of what others were now doing for me convicted me anew of what I had earlier done to others. Not just once but a thousand times I broken both this new rule and its Confucian variant. I had done to other women what I did not want, and had finally not allowed, to be done to myself. The horror I had hoped to leave behind me in China came back to torment me anew. What good is your regret? I sneered at my reawakened conscience. How does it help the troubled and despairing women, now forever barren, whom you tortured, aborted, and sterilized?
I abandoned myself to the care of my tiny daughter in the weeks following. Holding her in my arms, I could finally let go of the memory of the other little girl or boy who had been taken from me twelve years before. But the joy that my ‘make-up’ baby brought to me was not untempered by sorrow. She was both balm and wound, consolation and accusation, for her very presence seemed to speak to me of all those other children who were absent, who would never be. I had won my struggle to give birth, but how many hundreds of women had lost theirs? I was able to hold my daughter, but how many others would never hold theirs? What right do I have to this child, I thought bitterly, after what I have done?
“One day Wei Xin, looking rather abashed, told me that he wanted to go to church. ‘I know that we were taught by the Party that all religion is superstition, but a lot of my friends at work go, and I would like to find out what it’s all about. Besides,’ he said wryly, ‘if the Communist Party is against it, maybe we should be for it.’
“Wei Xin’s suggestion came out of the blue. There were no Christians in either of our families. My parents had been atheists, while Wei Xin’s had been Buddhists. I had been force-fed Communism, which was virtually the state religion of the People’s Republic, since I was old enough to talk. I was not about to submit myself to some new cult, however pleasant sounding its rules. I didn’t know whether the benevolent heaven of Chinese folklore existed or not, but trying to find out had never seemed to me worth the trouble. I thought Wei Xin foolish for even suggesting that we make the attempt.
“It was by appealing to my concern for Tacheng, who would be entering the sixth grade that fall, that Wei Xin convinced me to go. As far as I could tell, he was receiving no ethical instruction in the public schools at all. Teachers in China placed a heavy emphasis on learning right from wrong, even if it was confounded with Marxist ideology, but all that was missing here. Wei Xin told me that it was in America’s churches, not in her schools, that such things were taught.
“Walking through the doors of Saint Michael’s Church the following Sunday, I had a strong sense of trespassing on forbidden ground. Attending services in China was either discouraged or entirely banned. I had never before been inside any religious edifice, unless one counts the Buddhist temple I had helped a horde of fanatical Red Guards demolish during the Cultural Revolution. The only Christian church I knew of in Shenyang had been converted into a warehouse in the fifties by the government.
“I looked over the hundreds of people present with interest. Mixed in with the Anglos were Mexican Americans, Filipinos, Korean Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese, even a Chinese family or two. No one had ordered these people to come. Like Wei Xin and me, they were all here because they wanted to be. As we sat down I was struck by the realization that this was the first time I had ever taken part in a meeting not organized by the Communist Party for its own purposes. But for what purpose had these people voluntarily gathered here? To practice the Golden Rule? To improce themselves? To socialize? To adore the deity of love?
“I understood almost nothing of what followed. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be so much chanting and singing, so much standing and kneeling, and so much invoking and summoning in a religious service. I followed as well as I was able, which was hardly at all. I caught only the odd phrase. ‘As it was in the beginning, is now…’ What was in the beginning and is now? ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’
“I was fascinated by the painful figure on the cross that hung over the altar. Why would anyone worship a dead God, I thought to myself. Chinese god images were always robust and happy – fat, laughing Buddhas without a trace of suffering in their features, or sturdy figures of Guan Gong, a famous general whose body carried no scars from his numerous military victories. Of course they were also easy to dismiss as mere excrescences of human desires – happiness and success embodied in little wooden divinities. But the idea of a dead God was simply absurd. Surely the fact that this man had been killed proved that he wasn’t God at all. Who would want to kowtow before a defeated creature, I thought, unless he was not a mere creature at all but the Creator? But then why had he allowed himself to die?It was almost beyond belief, certainly beyond the human imagination. The wildest dreams of human beings, I was sure, could not have begun to conjure up a dead God. Perhaps there was something to all this after all.
“I remembered the hundreds of women I had forced to have abortions, how they had writhed and screamed and cried. And I remembered my own abortion, and how I had writhed and screamed and cried. If this tortured figure was God, then surely he understood the pain and suffering that I had felt and caused. Was there in his death some larger meaning?
“From the time I was a small girl, I had been eager to help others. It was for this reason that I had become a nurse. At time, I had allowed myself to be twisted by selfishness into acts that I regretted, but my one true desire was to serve, to love. How could I have gotten to be thirty-eight years old and not realized this? That I had hurt and injured others was a failure to love.
“Wei Xin and I enrolled in adult classes, Tacheng in catechism. Months later I made my first confession – and felt at peace with myself for a long time. The little hands that had been clawing at me could no longer reach me in the new place where I lived. My mind laid to rest the little-boy-who-wouldn’t-die to his rest. From now on the only baby’s cries that would wake in the night were those of my newborn daughter.
“I was forgiven, but justice demanded that I do more. I would spend the rest of my life doing good to others – a goal I happily adopted, for it corresponded to my own deepest wishes. I did not know which way the scales of justice would tip when I had completed the course; I would only try to weight them in favor of mercy. In caring for others, I would be atoning for my past crimes. But how could I help women still in China? I resolved to begin by telling my story to Steve, however painful that might be, so that he might write it.”