Sunday, May 2, 2010

Patriarchy, Controlling Outcomes, and the State of Denmark: Desire that Gets the Best of Us

I’m always amazed at how different aspects of life converge to speak to seemingly unrelated matters.  As a friend of mine struggled this week with the very negative, long term consequences of following patriarchy, I also found time to enjoy a new rendition of Hamlet.  This found me as I finished the last of my preparations on an article that I wrote about patriarchy that I anticipate will be published in early summer.  I thus find myself pondering another aspect of the complicated and subtle topic that I did not have the opportunity to address in the article, resulting from all of these matters.  How can patriarchy’s desirous end of fostering wholesome family life by employing many wholesome and laudable means warrant criticism?  And…  What could patriarchy possibly have in common with Shakespeare’s Hamlet?

One of the great appeals of patriarchy for parents involves the idea that a prescribed plan can produce a specific if not a guaranteed outcome, a system promoted as God’s formula that can give parents the ideal family that they so desire.  Many swallow patriarchy like a medicine meant to anesthetize their fears.  The problem with this approach rests not with the virtuous end that seeks goodness but with the focus of the means one pursues to achieve the goal.  Desire gets the best of us as we seek the wisest and most expedient means to achieve our goal.  Much can be said about the trappings of formulaic religion, and it gives the illusion to the follower that they somehow bear less responsibility for their actions, displacing their responsibility on the plan that makes so many good promises to them in their great need. 

This kind of plan to control outcomes, craft as Shakespeare calls it, can also be seen throughout Hamlet in nearly every character, some for good in the pursuit of meeting God-given human need and some for evil in the pursuit of ambition.  Most spectators easily identify the murderous deceit of Claudius, but are Gertrude, Ophelia, and Hamlet any less culpable for their own choices?  Are they less culpable when they become the object of the craft of another or when they design their own craft as a means of coping with their own lot?  Can these examples provide some insight that might help us better understand patriarchy’s ambitions for virtue and the nature of its supposed error?

As I pondered and prayed about the difficult circumstances of my friend who followed patriarchy as compared to the plight of Gertrude, I thought more deeply about the influence that pain, fear, and the feeling of powerlessness poses upon us.  Like my friend who capitulated to fear and the premises of patriarchy that defined her far more helpless than she really was, I think of the influences upon Gertrude when Hamlet the King dies.  In addition to the grief over the loss of her beloved husband, Denmark’s precarious status under threat from Fortinbras of Norway likely heightens her sense of urgency.  If her husband’s brother can seize the crown and displace her son under the guise of the country’s best interests, how more easily could this ambitious successor dispense with her own head?  Infatuation magically assuages her grief and provides a ready-made formula that seemingly solves many problems through a would-be wisdom of craft.  Though we might judge her for her too hasty marriage, many of us can appreciate the pains and pressures of her human need.  The immediate benefits that satisfy some of her tremendous and painful needs make her vulnerable, and that satisfaction of the flesh makes it easier for her to avoid the turning of her eyes into her very soul to see its black and grained spots.  Vulnerability clouds her perspective which subsequently clouds and taints her judgment.  The formulaic solution seems to have pragmatic method in its madness.

Those who choose patriarchy’s prescribed formulas also fall prey to the promises of patriarchy because of vulnerability, much like Gertrude does.  The pressures upon the Christian family seem insurmountable, and when that family allows patriarchy to frame their perspective, the parent can feel very powerless.  Fear becomes a most potent motivator when one believes that their kingdom risks collapse under the threat of one’s formidable enemy, a godless culture.  Add to the mix the responsibility of the divine right of kings, and the paternalism of patriarchy’s leadership falls into play.  This craft alleviates the burdens that parents perceive, and it gives the illusion that the craft will control the outcome.  The system even appears to focus on how to achieve righteous means through the legalism of conformity to a formula as well as the righteous end, giving the illusion of wisdom while powerfully alleviating the stress and work of personal and dynamic choice.  It seems like righteous satisfaction.  Like Gertrude, choosing to look through a perspective that has been clouded by craft becomes too much painful work.  We are oft' to blame n this -- 'tis too much proved -- that with devotion's visage and pious action we do sugar o're the devil himself.  We ever so subtly allow the end to justify the means by failing to think about matters deeply, yet I find it interesting that the Bard's villains count this cost far more artfully than do the unwitting. 

Where does Gertrude go wrong in the pursuit of her desire?  Though the intensity of great desire makes us vulnerable when life presses us, God gives us human needs and desires, and satisfaction of those needs as gifts through which He bestows great blessing on us.  Comfort in the face of grief heals us.  Companionship comforts us in the painful loneliness of loss.  Ambition, the seeking of favor, derives from the “going around” to solicit support, but it can be a force that works much good for many.  Even Jesus speaks of great desire (epithumeo) in anticipation of sharing the Passover feast with his disciples (Luke 22:15), yet He uses the same word to describe sinful sexual lust in Matthew 5:28James 1:13-15 states that temptation provokes us through lust or strong desire, but that desire does not conceive sin without our participation.  We conceive sin through our personal choice of evil, a failure to exercise self-control over our own willfulness.  Desire becomes too great when we allow our focus to be drawn away, and sin is conceived when we choose the wrong object for our desires.

And herein, I believe, manifests the primary subtle error within patriarchy, a premise that I believe that 1 Corinthians 10 supports.  Paul explains in this chapter that the Israelites in the wilderness were drawn away into error through lust, and he lists the specific objects of their error:  idolatry, fornication, testing the Lord, and grumbling.  I believe that patriarchy fails to learn from the example of those who failed in their own ambitions to please God, following the ambitions of their own willfulness instead.  Patriarchy subtly shifts into idolatry when it focuses too heavily upon family virtue instead of due and balanced focus on God who created it.  Esteem for virtue combined with this displaced focus draws the system into error.  Using family as an end to achieve its ambition for virtue, it resorts to human striving through lists of rules and moral imperatives which are meant to protect the family.  In so doing, it loses sight of the end it seeks and treads upon the very families that it seeks to protect.  Not only does the family become an idol, so does the system, and even the system’s leaders do as well.  Patriarchy calls individuals to sacrifice their individuality on its altars of the traditions of men.  Gertrude likewise sacrifices perspective in this way when she places truth and clear perspective upon the altar of comfort and safety under the guise of wisdom.

Family dysfunction can be described in a similar way that perhaps will make my point more clear.  Dysfunction begins with addressing the needs of those we love, but sometimes we go over and above what is appropriate, doing for another what they can and should do for themselves.  It is not the caring itself that defines the dysfunction but the degree of care offered, even despite good intent.  Good service becomes obsequious, and that service hides one’s ambition to gain favor.  All human beings fall into this trap when we subtly displace our good feelings of worth that should derive from our identity in Christ onto the good feelings that we experience when we care for others.  We learn to identify ourselves through works and human striving instead of resting in stillness.  In so doing, we make those we care for our objects, people we use to find worth for ourselves, worth that should come from who WE are in Christ alone. 

From this same super-achieving that perverts appropriate love and care within a family into the dysfunction of the extremes of care-taking that typifies addiction comes the paternalism and caretaking that patriarchy offers.  Christians who unknowingly fall into these trappings of aberrant patriarchy subtly shift the identity and worth of each individual within the family from their identity in Christ onto the idolatry of self which the system demands -- that identity be sought through perfection, performance and earned merit.  Claudius strives to preserve the system of craft he has created to serve his ambitions, and his craft eventually demands payment with his own life, all because of the idolatry of his own heart.  In the end, he becomes a servant of his craft.  Though patriarchy strives to attain virtue, human craft eventually demands its wages.  The evil men do lives after them, and the good men do is not so memorable.  So it is with patriarchy, me thinks.