“This Bridge Called my Back”

Proper 16C / Ordinary 21C / Pentecost +14
August 2
5, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71

Luke 13:10-17

This_Bridge_Called_My_BackIn 1984, a group of feminists of color published a collection of essays and poems that would radically change how the (then) overwhelmingly white feminist movement saw itself.  This Bridge Called my Back (Ed. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua.  NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press) was a clarion call for thoroughgoing, systematic inclusion at the leadership table – not just of “token minorities” as an afterthought, but of women of all races, classes and sexualities – into the conversation of how women should liberate themselves from oppression.  Even though the book is no longer in print, it is still considered a milestone, marking the advent of “third wave” feminism.

In “The Bridge Poem” at the beginning of the book, Donna Kate Rushin expresses frustration at having to bear the burden of being the social bridge between people of different genders, colors and classes, rather than being able to simply be herself:

Nepalese woman bearing burden

Nepalese woman

I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody
Can talk to anybody
Without me Right? …
I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

In the essay “Brownness”, Andrea Canaan (pp.237) also points out the economic and physical burdens that are disproportionately borne by women of color: “Look at yourself, your community, your country, your world and ask yourself … Who has waited longest, deferred most, work hardest, lived poorest, nurtured, encouraged, loved more while asking the least in return? … It is the brown woman, the third world woman.”  So globally, women of color not only serve as bridges between people, they are also bridges to other people’s wealth, who bear more than their fair share of poverty, and who are often on the receiving end of economic “structural adjustment” and  government “austerity programs”.

Alvin Ailey dancers, "Yellow"

Alvin Ailey dancers, “Yellow”

In this week’s Gospel reading, we see a “healing miracle” in which a woman appears at the synagogue who was bent over by “a spirit of infirmity (pneuma astheneia) for 18 years” and “could in no wise lift up herself” (Luke 13: 11, King James Version).  Given the drastically shorter life-spans in the 1st Century, this woman’s “spirit of infirmity” would have lasted her entire productive adult life.  Upon seeing her, Jesus calls to her and says “Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity” (vv.12).  I like the King James translation, because it highlights that her “spirit of infirmity” is not simply a matter of physical disability – it is the result of bondage or oppression, from which Jesus declares her “loosed”.


The Accuser

After being chided by the indignant Pharisees for working on a Sabbath day, Jesus retorts, “Ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” (vv.16).  The Sabbath is thus reframed, from a day of dutiful rote observance to a day of liberation – specifically for women.  Luke uses the name “Satanas” here, hearkening back to the Hebrew name “ha-Satan,” meaning “the accuser”.  The woman is loosed from all her accusers, or those who would bind her through oppressive ideology.  In This Bridge Called my Back, the poet Chrystos says “No bird ever called me crazy / No rock scorns me as a whore” (pp.244).

Yemeni women in the "Arab Spring" demonstrations that peacefully toppled a 33-year dictatorship

Yemeni women in the “Arab Spring” demonstrations that peacefully toppled a 33-year dictatorship

In the collaborative essay “El Mundo Zurdo”, the authors of This Bridge Called my Back offer a new, radically inclusive vision for feminism of the future: “The vision of radical Third World feminism necessitates our willingness to work with those people who would feel at home in El Mundo Zurdo, the left-handed world: the colored, the queer, the poor, the female, the physically challenged” (pp.196).  African-American lesbian author Audre Lorde details how the voices of El Mundo Zurdo can bring an end to the structures of ha-Satan, loosing all women from their bondage:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference; those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill.  It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish (“The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, pp.99).
"Lay Down Your Burdens," Aaron Paquete, Metis artist

“Lay Down Your Burdens,” Aaron Paquete, Metis artist

The message of This Bridge Called my Back is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago, particularly in the context of the church.  The Kingdom of God cannot be brought about through the same church structures and the same church leadership.  If “The Christian Left” as a movement is going to be true to its name, it needs to prominently feature the voices of women of color, older women, women with disabilities and lesbians at the leadership table – front and center, from the beginning, not as an afterthought.  Take note: There will be no more bridges built on our backs.


3 thoughts on ““This Bridge Called my Back”

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