The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the latest issue of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York. With a president about to be inaugurated who favors intensifying the nuclear arms race, Zak’s book is even more timely than it was when he wrote it. And God knows, we need to be inspired to go out and resist all the madness..
Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. By Dan Zak. New York, NY: Blue Rider Press, 2016. 336 pp. $27.00 (hardback); $13.99 (eBook).
In the coverage of the death of Fidel Castro in November, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis came up again and again, but always as if it were part of ancient history. No mention at all that today there are 15,375 nuclear weapons on the planet, or that the Doomsday Clock, indicating how close we are to nuclear catastrophe, is at three minutes to midnight.
What’s to be done about this massive public obliviousness to the threat of nuclear weapons? One strategy is to educate people, as Dan Zak does to astounding effect in his 2016 book, Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. But the education Zak undertakes in his book is not of the policy-wonk kind. It’s education through storytelling, the kind of storytelling that mesmerizes the learner.
At the heart of Almighty is the saga of the July 2012 infiltration of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tennessee by three Transform Now Ploughshares activists, Sr. Megan Rice, Gregory Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli. Y-12 was (and still is) a site where thermo-nuclear warheads are overhauled and upgraded. Already in the book’s prologue, Zak has the Ploughshares activists preparing for their incursion into Y-12, baking bread to share with their captors, pouring the human blood they will spread on Y-12 walls into baby-bottles, and setting out. And in the last chapters, he has Sister Megan, released in 2015 after two years of imprisonment, back tying a peace crane onto the gates of Y-12 to protest the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
In the chapters between, the author weaves, with extraordinary finesse, the whole story of nuclear weapons production and use by the United States. He begins with the Manhattan Project at Columbia University during World War II, where the secret research took place that led to the development of the first atomic bomb. The subject of this segment of Zak’s story is Selig Hecht, the Columbia biophysicist who was deeply involved in the secret research, but who later joined with Albert Einstein and other scientists to denounce the bombings and stress the horrific future nuclear weapons made likely. Zak’s nuanced description brings Hecht alive in an unforgettable way.
But Hecht’s story and the dozens of others that comprise Almighty are by no means mere beads on a string. In Hecht’s case, as in many others, the stories are woven together with mastery. Who, for example, do you think lived across the hall from Hecht and his wife during the Manhattan Project? Dr. Frederick Rice and his wife, Madeleine Newman Hooke Rice, and their daughter, Megan. Sister Megan Rice cited the secrecy around Hecht’s work as one of the causes of her concern about nuclear weapons.
Of all the stories in Almighty that will not leave me for a long time, that of U.S. testing of nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands is sure most unforgettable. Within a year of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. had removed all of the residents from the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll, to a “sparser atoll” 125 miles away and began testing nuclear weapons there. As the U.S. military removed the people, they told them that they had been “chosen by God” because testing the weapons was “for the good of mankind.”
Ultimately, the radiation from U.S. tests on the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, if parceled out evenly, would equal that of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized detonations a day for twelve years. The U.S., upon granting the Marshall Islands its independence in 1986, settled all claims for $150 million dollars. The story of Tony deBrum, who was nine years old when the first nuclear weapon was tested on Bikini, and those of other Marshall Islanders gravely affected by the testing, only makes U.S. actions all the more horrifying. And this is but one of the multiple galvanizing narratives throughout Almighty’s 300-plus pages.
Readers of this blog who live not too far from New York may be interested to know that Sister Megan Rice, one of Almighty’s pivotal heroes, will be leading the annual retreat of Pax Christi Metro New York this year ( nypaxchristi.org ). It’s taking place on the weekend of March 10 to 12, at the Maryknoll Sisters Center, near Ossining, NY. Zak’s book is a terrific introduction to the retreat, but if you can’t get there, read the book anyhow. At a time when each of us needs to be stepping up in the face of new threats of nuclear disaster, Almighty provides much-needed inspiration.
Tags: ecofeminist theology, Elizabeth A. Johnson, God's suffering, Vatican Council II
In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?
In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.
Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.
In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.
No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)
Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.
Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.
Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.
Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.
Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”
Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.
Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.
The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.
But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.
This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”
Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95
Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95
Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95
Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95
Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, Catholic Sisters, Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation, Mary Dunn, motherhood
The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l’Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition by Mary Dunn. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2016. Hardback, $45; e-book, $44.99. 150 pp. plus back matter.
For Christian feminists, a book about the life of Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation, the little known French-Canadian Ursuline nun canonized in 2014, can’t help but be welcome. As the title of Mary Dunn’s remarkable new study suggests, however, The Cruelest of All Mothers is a good deal more than a saint’s life.
Raised in Tours, France, Marie Guyart began having mystical encounters with Christ at the age of seven and longed to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry. She did so in 1617, age eighteen. In 1619, she gave birth to a son, Claude, and six months later, her husband died.
Guyart spent most of the next eleven years raising her son, supporting them both by working in her brother-in-law’s business, while continuing to long for the religious life. In 1631 she entered the Ursulines at Tours—all convents were cloistered in those days—over the strenuous objections of her son, who was left without visible means of support. Two years later, in a vision, the Virgin Mary told Marie she had plans for her in Canada. In 1639, Marie and three other Ursulines sailed to Quebec, where she spent the rest of her life.
Marie de l’Incarnation’s ministry was impressive in many respects. She founded the Ursulines in Canada and served as their superior for eighteen years. She also learned multiple indigenous languages and translated the catechism into Iroquois. But the issue at the center of Dunn’s analysis is Guyart’s abandonment of her eleven-year-old son and the meaning(s) of that act in light of Christian perspectives on motherhood and contemporary scholarship.
In chapter 1 Dunn “explicates” Marie’s abandonment of Claude in the context of the times, that is, in the way that Marie herself was likely to have understood it: as a sacrifice performed in conformity with God’s will, modeled after the crucifixion. Marie’s deep desire to stay with her son would have been irrelevant. But in chapter 2, Dunn suggests that the abandonment may instead have been quite the opposite: a refusal on Marie’s part to conform to the norms of seventeenth-century French family life, in which parents’ greatest obligation was to protect the “patrimony” of their children.
But, Dunn reminds us, human actions rarely fall into neat, either/or categories, in this case, those of submission or resistance. Dunn therefore draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to explore the abandonment as what was likely within the boundaries of Guyart’s own time that “left little (positive) room for actual maternal bodies and real maternal practice.” Fundamental to this world-view were centuries of Christian teaching in which motherhood itself was portrayed as fleshly and the renunciation of children as heroic. The seventeenth-century Christian privileging of self-sacrifice as the ultimate in spiritual practice reinforced these longstanding teachings. In her own time, then, Marie had little choice but to abandon Claude if she believed God had called her to the mystical life.
Dunn goes on to suggest, however, that in another time and place, Marie might have been able to understand motherhood itself, and not only its renunciation, as a sacrifice modeled on that of Christ. Now let me acknowledge at this point that feminist discussions of sacrifice in recent decades have been something of a minefield, with theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker denouncing Christian notions of sacrifice as inherently misogynistic, even sadistic. In her final chapter, however, Dunn uses the work of the French feminist psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva to undercut such dismissals of sacrifice, embedded as they are in binary, Cartesian, either/or thinking. For Kristeva maternal subjectivity—itself the model of all human subjectivity—is a mother’s willingness to “give herself up” in order to make room for the other within. (But) a mother’s willingness to give herself up does not end in the annihilation of the mother in the service of others, but in the enrichment of the mother through the inclusion of the other (13).
In fact, as Dunn explains, Kristeva’s understanding of motherhood folds into each other the pivotal categories that have been held in opposition throughout Western/Christian history: agape and eros, the Word and the flesh, syntax and rhythm, male and female. Furthermore, this Kristevan model of motherhood as sacrifice and fulfillment finds its closest analogue in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross because that sacrifice ended in life, not death, that is, in the Resurrection and the formation of the Christian community. Similarly, motherhood culminates in new life and profound connection. In fact, as the book continues, Dunn demonstrates that motherhood was infolded into Guyart’s spirituality throughout her life despite—or because of—the abandonment of her son
Dunn’s reading of motherhood in the life of Marie Guyart’s life and in Christian history is itself a significant achievement. But Dunn introduces a third, galvanizing layer to her narrative: her own experience of motherhood, and especially, of mothering a child with a rare genetic disorder. Already half way through the introduction, Dunn writes about being the mother of two older children, Bobby and Frankie, three years and one year old respectively, at a time when attitudes toward motherhood are very different from those of the sixteenth-century. Throughout the book. Dunn returns to this experience of mothering these two and then two more children, the last one, Aggie, born with the genetic disorder.
At first glance, there would seem to be few similarities between Dunn and Guyart. Dunn stays at home, devoting much time and attention to her children, and especially to Aggie. Yet a careful reading of Dunn’s intermittent shifts from Guyart’s motherhood to her own brings a certain similarity to the surface: Dunn also experiences ambivalence, or at least anxiety, about the daughter the doctors assure her will be quite unlike her other children. Aggie is Dunn’s dear child but also the abject, the other that ancient Christian teaching identified with the flesh and with motherhood itself, and which seventeenth-century Christian spirituality urged Guyart to reject. It’s to Dunn’s considerable credit as a scholar and a writer that she doesn’t resolve this tension, this binary, any more than she resolves the tensions within Guyart’s own experience of motherhood. As we continue the feminist effort to tranform the hierarchical binaries with which the church and Western civilization have burdened us, neither may we opt for easy resolutions.
This review appears in the March-June 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and in the March 2016 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.