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To Have and to Hold - but not very tightly


As usual, the Greenbelt Festival where we were last weekend focused on social justice. As always, it stirred me up to think about power and how it’s exercised. Ownership and entitlement were on my mind!

Sexual relationships were the subject of a public conversation with Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. In mid-life she has come to recognise the dynamics of her early fundamentalist Christian training about sex and the shame bred by harmful power relationships between men and women.

Nadia was interested in more than a movement away from ‘power’ and ‘ownership’. She was seeking mutual freedom in relationships. ‘The absence of harm is not enough,’ said Nadia. We need to ask the question, ‘How do we make sure of the presence of good in this?’ It’s important because ‘Sex isn’t just something you do with someone when you’re intimate. It’s an energy you carry into your whole life.’

Two days later, I attended a Scriptural Reasoning seminar. I was still thinking about that energy and the nature of freedom between people in loving relationships. The seminar began with Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars giving an account of the history and use of their scriptures. What followed were rich discussions with the scholars in small groups as we compared scriptures from each tradition. The passages for our discussions were texts from each faith which have been quoted to incite domination and violence.

In the discussion which followed I was interested in a question to the two rabbis about the passage from Exodus 34 where God promises to drive out the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites – and all the other ‘ites’ from the Promised Land so that the people of Israel receive the land promised by God. ‘How can the Jewish God claim ownership of particular territory?’ said one man. ‘In the name of that ‘ownership’, it seems that those who claim to be God’s people are ready to commit violence’.

And I thought of Nadia and all the other women who have suffered spiritual and physical abuse in the name of God’s ownership. And I thought of her concern to change the energy in the power structures between men and women. Perhaps a similar change in energy needs to take place in the relationships between nations and ‘their’ land – and even people and ‘their’ God.

A lot of territory of all kinds seems to be ‘up for grabs’ in our world by people with a sense of entitlement – the bodies and minds of children and women and men, the land belonging to people of other races, the resources of our planet – even here in the UK this week, our democracy. What might be the antidote to this destructive ‘ownership’ exercised with a strong sense of entitlement?

In answer to the man’s question about God’s territory, the rabbis commented on a healthy ‘ownership’ relationship to the land. The Jewish scriptures, they pointed out, suggest that there was no such thing as unconditional entitlement to land. God told the Jews that, if they didn’t behave, ‘the land would vomit them out’. ‘And then there was the system of Jubilee: the principle that land was to be leased, not owned. Periodically land was to be returned to its owner.

Returning spouses periodically to their ‘owner’ won’t work for relationships between women and men(!) but there’s an important idea here - the consciousness that all we ‘own’ – whether it’s power or people or land or wealth or anything else is ours not to possess but to have and to hold – very gently indeed!


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