Professor Chris Baker reflects on two recent publications that consider the transgression of boundaries.
Transgressing boundaries has been much in the news recently – and for all the wrong reasons. From the Hollywood hills to the corridors of power in the Palace of Westminster, victims have bravely found the power of voice and called out the daily examples of sexual harassment and abuse they encounter from the hands of those in power. They have brought home to a public sphere that would still rather not confront these issues the psychological and mental scars that remain powerfully invisible long after historical events have taken place; low self-esteem, fear, stress, a sense of loathing and lack of confidence, and the multiple addictions that can then take hold as a form of ‘numbing the pain’. At the heart of the issue is the inappropriate use of power and coercion that allows the perpetrator to transgress with impunity, and invade both psychological and physical spaces that are designed to protect us.
Two recent volumes written by public theologians both happen to address this current sickness at the heart of our body politic. Nick Spencer from Theos has produced a highly timely paperback, The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable, describing the persistent deployment of the Parable of the Good Samaritan within British political life, and across all political parties. This story is of course a parable about transgressing boundaries. The injured and isolated human being, lying at the side of the road, is ignored by those religious and cultural figures who prioritise cultic and ethnic purity as the reason for a non-intervention of human compassion and solidarity on their part. The one who finally intervenes to provide care in the short-term but also long-term provision, is a person who is an outsider to the cultural world of the injured man – in fact, from a cultic point of view, a mistrusted Other. This Other nevertheless chooses to unconditionally intervene to alleviate his plight.
Jesus’ command to go and do likewise, says Spencer, is both a powerful call to action, but also an indictment on those who, on the one hand, affirm the parable in the political realm, but curtail its moral power for the sake of narrow, party political interpretations; or who fail to take the risk of crossing over to the other side of the metaphorical road to occupy a different and alternative counterspace. How transformed politics would be, muses Spencer, if this semi-abused parable, itself a metaphor for public religion in the UK as a whole, was liberated from the aspic jelly of cultural over-familiarity on the one hand, and religious illiteracy on the other.
The second volume by Alison Webster, entitled Found Out – Transgressive Faith and Sexuality is a personal biography, narrative, advocacy and theological reflection based on several interviews with women of faith who have struggled to engage identities, experiences, and sexualities with the rigid institutionalism of the church and the provocations it often offers. Like some of the characters in the parable of the good Samaritan, Webster argues, the church opts for cultic purity for the sake of maintaining its power, despite obvious and well-catalogued abuse and harm such power causes women and the LGBTQI community. She reflects on the engagement of Jesus with women, and those on the margins, and indeed his own suffering caused by engagement with the ‘powers of the world’. She offers powerfully, but without rancour, a challenge to the church to transgress its space of power and coercion, and step into another space of welcome, and reflect and affirm the experiences and perspectives of countless women and men of faith who are currently having to live incomplete, double or inauthentic lives.
This transgressive stepping from a space of fear and control into welcome and reflection is not only for the healing and wellbeing of the those so often at the wrong end of prejudice and unrealistic fantasies and projections. It is also for the sake of the healing and wholeness of the body of Christ itself. As Webster says, “Power structures make sharing difficult…what we share is the temptation to fear. Those with privilege often inhabit it with a sense of ambivalence, afraid of not being up to the task entrusted to them, or of losing their positions. Those locked out of it feel a sense of injustice, and a fear that power will be used against them. But our faith is counter-cultural. Again and again we are exhorted by God to ‘fear not’ [and to] risk finding freedom in being known, accepted and loved.”
Of course, one must be very wary and discerning in arguing for transgressing spaces under the impulses of love and compassion – such a move can be a hideous and distorted proxy for the continuation of further emotional dependency and sexual control. However, we will judge the wholesome transgression of boundaries by their results. It will create individuals, spaces and institutions who flourish under mutual conditions of respect, courtesy and deep friendship, characterised by an eagerness to hear and affirm the stories of others, and in doing so have their own stories and experiences affirmed. The Church of England’s new guidance for schools on challenging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is an excellent example. Every time this happens I believe that the desire to inappropriately transgress boundaries starts to diminish. The culture of permissive transgression that abuses and controls, that is so endemic in the entertainment business and politics, seems finally destined for a long overdue change.
In their different ways both Nick Spencer and Alison Webster call the church and religion to account by reminding it that we transgress boundaries only in order to liberate and empower those on the other side, not control them.
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