CONTEXTUALIZING ROSEMARY

by Rosalind Hinton

What better time to explore models of liberating pedagogy than in the midst of war? The man in the White House is now asserting his right to dominate the world in the name of God, goodness, and American freedom. What better time to think about transgressive teaching. While our eyes are trained on a far away nation broken by war and twelve years of sanctions, a man who lost the popular vote is dismantling affirmative action in the name of diversity, public education in order to “leave no child behind,” and Head Start in the name of literacy.

What better time to hold up teachers who have devoted their lives to developing pedagogies that expose arrogance and privilege. I have studied with three great teachers who fit this model, Daniel Berrigan,1 Alvaro Alcazar,2 and Rosemary Ruether. What makes these people special in my mind is their steadfast witness to justice, their clarity of thinking on a wide range of issues, but most of all, their ability to create a space that allows for personal awakenings and deepened commitments to a larger world.

We are not in a time when we can throw up our hands and write a disclaimer regarding our government’s actions. For many of us, distancing ourselves from U.S. foreign and domestic policy is something akin to sitting in our rocking chairs on our North American plantations while the poor of the world do our bidding. We simply cannot deny the advantages that we experience as citizens of the most powerful country in the world. This president and his administration have rubbed our noses in our own privilege like piddle on the porch. Anything short of dismantling our own comfort zones is complicity in, perhaps, the most arrogant display of military and economic might the world has ever encountered.

It is wise to reflect on teaching models that help us witness without being overwhelmed, communicate truths that cannot be held in sound bites, and pierce through bold-face lies. As I write about Rosemary Ruether, it occurs to me that the important lessons were learned on the go, rather than in lectures or from comments on graded papers. The lessons were often personal, such as how to be a good colleague and responsible adult. It is best, therefore, for me to relate my ideas of Rosemary as a teacher through a few stories.

I first met Rosemary when she gave a speech at Loyola of New Orleans. She consented to an interview with me for a tiny literacy paper with a circulation of about fifty. Somewhere in the middle of the interview I learned of an upcoming trip to Palestine/Israel and by the end of the interview I was asking if I could go. She was enthusiastic about my joining her group.

In retrospect, this trip offered an important introduction into the relational nature of Rosemary’s intellectual life. These trips are fact-finding missions that forge relationships and keep Rosemary intellectually engaged and personally involved in the wide range of issues about which she writes. Over a ten-day period, we met with colleagues who were also friends. We also met with friends of friends who were working in various aspects of the Palestinian struggle. These local community activists were setting up health clinics, legal aid clinics, human rights watches, cultural museums, orphanages, and cottage industries. Each person offered an insightful analysis of their immediate situation and explained their strategies for meeting community needs and overcoming obstacles. Disciplined critical analysis of social conditions was a daily occurrence. Communities had to take an accounting of available resources and potential allies as they plotted how to get around the latest laws and the newest bureaucratic red tape. A web of human initiative was called forth on behalf of efforts such as getting hearing aids for children, holding meetings, and providing clean water to townships. The clarity of thought that arose from these situations was piercing in its simplicity. Each remark was the net result of an intense scrutiny of every level of political, social and economic life. There was often a duel of wits as activists overcame the whimsical decisions of petty bureaucrats and the systematic destruction initiated in the highest levels of government. Strategic thinking emerged from a community setting made up of people from all walks of life. They literally re-created the liberation struggle every day in a series of thrusts and counter-thrusts as ideas were put forth, co-opted and re-envisioned. The experience set a standard of integrity for social analysis that I will live into for the rest of my life. For ten days I watched thinking in the service of liberation. I also witnessed a satisfying mix of disciplined technique and improvisational style that is the result of, and in turn re-creates, a meaningful intellectual life.3

These educational junkets are also one way that Rosemary transforms students into professional educators. She helps students see local issues in global contexts. By consenting to travel, I became a fellow colleague and adventurer. I hesitate to use the word adventurer because of the image of cultural tourism that the word evokes but as often happens in travel, immersion in another culture helped me see my own realities with new eyes. I understood for the first time how structural racism worked in the U.S. and how my childhood suburban lifestyle was designed so that I would bypass the ghettos of my own community. I understood that one aspect of privilege was the ability to not see beyond my own life. Rosemary is not a Barney figure offering a big group hug that stands in for concrete social analysis. She helps her students participate in a deconstruction process in which we implicate ourselves. She is also a model for dealing with your own complicity in structures of oppression. She is indefatigable. There is no time for guilt. Rosemary seems to relish a good fight for a just cause. Perhaps she shares a lesson learned in the civil rights movement, that engagement in the struggle purifies the sinner.

In truth, these trips ruin the casual vacation. Surface pleasure is hard to maintain after you have dived deeply into cultural and political struggle. Like all good teachers, Rosemary is really good at making you feel uncomfortable with a life lived on the surface of events. You do not always come away with answers, but gain a willingness to ask questions about parts of life that you are not supposed to see.

Rosemary offers her graduate students a wide berth. I realized quickly that I could be overwhelmed by my newfound autonomy or revel in it. Enjoying this much freedom did not come naturally to me. Like many people, I would rather rearrange the furniture in my cell and shake my fist at authority figures, than take responsibility for my own initiatives. I had no such luxury. Rosemary’s mentoring process gave me a profound lesson in how adults should treat each other. She did not stand over you, butt into your business, offer unasked-for advice or pressure you with her own agenda. Initiative had to come from her students. It was our questions that she answered. It was our requests that she considered. It was our concerns that she listened to.

Now, that does not mean she gives you lots of time. Rosemary is in demand and on the go and sometimes you just have to go with her. I would walk into her office to ask a question that had taken weeks to formulate and she would say something to the effect of, “Hey you have a car don’t you? Could you drop me off at X?” Some of my greatest lessons seemed to come on the road. For instance, I was in Chicago for a research trip one summer and decided that I needed to change my field of study and my dissertation committee. I spent the better part of the summer agonizing over this shift in direction. I went to see Rosemary and she said, “I’m going to someone’s house, ride in the car with me if you want to talk.” I spit my problem out at the start of Lakeshore Drive. Rosemary had the solution as we hit an exit ramp for the Loop. She not only offered me a rationale for a much-needed change, but also mirrored for me what I could not see in myself, saying something like, “You are a historian, you think like a historian, you just need to commit to that path.” She suggested a new configuration for my committee, said that I could use her name in talking to professors, but said that I had to make it happen. She then let me out in front of Marshall Field’s on State Street in the pouring rain. I stood there dumbfounded. Besides a new understanding of myself, I realized what a profound waste of time anxiety is. I then got on the EL and began my new life as an historian of religion.

Rosemary’s classes were not intimate seminars, but consisted of approximately thirty-five Master of Divinity students and a half a dozen doctoral students. I would characterize these three-hour sessions as weekly dinner theatre. (In a Methodist Seminary, large quantities of coffee and Diet Coke, rather than alcoholic beverages, accompanied her performances.) The lectures themselves were chock-full of information that I still use, but were often as dry as two-dayold toast. It was the asides that brought the house down with laughter. Rosemary dissects good-old-boy networks in one-minute surgical strikes that entered her lectures from the margins of her notes like stealth bombers. The political left and the right are seldom spared her evaluations. I cannot share any of these comments because they were gone as fast as they came. Rosemary does not linger over her own remarks.

It strikes me as ironic that recent critics find Rosemary’s writings essential- ist. Perhaps they confuse simplicity for essentialism and erudition with diversity. Rosemary is a master of insightful understandings that make the world a little more comprehensible. When I am confounded and looking for clarity, I often go back to concepts that I learned from her. As early as the 1970s, she wrote that women must deconstruct both class and race in order to understand how gender hierarchy falls within both race and class hierarchy. She pushed early feminists to move beyond symbolic superstructures and address the economic and historical realities of women’s oppressions. In the classroom, she penetrated my unquestioning belief in the Protestant work ethic when she casually observed that hard work does not generally advance the economic status of the majority of the world’s workers such as migrant workers and hotel maids. She explained how women are part of an unpaid and low paid substructure of the economy that drives industrial expansion. Rosemary continues to challenge facile notions of sisterhood. Again, in the early 1970s she called on white feminists to understand that they are the privileged half of an oppressive and dualistic symbolic system that characterizes women as virgin/whore. In an edited volume of global theology she warned of the danger of using other cultures for personal spiritual renewal absent a commitment to their liberation struggles. Rosemary questioned environmental solutions that left out half the human race when the environmental movement was in its infancy. She also questioned the creation of pristine eco-systems that displaced indigenous communities. Rosemary stood with the Zapatisas in the early 1990s. She found hope in global linkages of local grassroots endeavors long before the anti-globalization movement brought these communities into popular consciousness. Rosemary warned of a global backlash against women taking place in fundamentalisms across religious traditions long before the Taliban made the nightly news. She continues to seek a deeply contextual yet global feminist ethic and calls for a standard below which the treatment of women cannot sink. When I need to cut through information assaults that do not inform, I go back to these undressed “truths.”

One question that has intrigued me is how Rosemary sees so much, so clearly, so early? I believe it is because she combines intellectual pursuits with activism. New ways of being in the world move from the street to the halls of power. People do not think their way into new modes of being, but live their way into them. Because Rosemary is near the action, she has her finger on the pulse of change.4 Once I naively asked Rosemary what type of solutions she brings to the various communities to which she is invited. She told me that she offers no solutions and informed me that the people with whom she works contextualize their own problems and generate their own solutions. She patiently explained that women often experience sexism when they engage in larger liberation struggles. She told me that she offers support for women’s experiences, listens to their ideas, shares her own experiences and explains her own context. Rosemary has not discussed with me other things that I have seen her do: such as mobilize resources for projects; edit scholarship so that local issues gain a global forum; and dedicate her own book revenues to community clinics.

Rosemary may not give you warm fuzzies, but she has the priorities of professional relationship-building down pat. Witnessing to justice is a highly professional yet deeply personal form of relationship building. It can blossom into friendship, but does not require it. Her model of collegiality opens up channels of reciprocity and generosity. Rosemary understands the importance of creating a supportive environment where ideas flourish and people have the space, personal support, and economic resources necessary for creative endeavors. With wit and aplomb she can make you aware of a stupid remark. But, at the same time, I never remember her saying “no” to anything that I genuinely needed— from writing letters of support, to editing a volume of student articles, to helping my niece network for a job in Sweden.

Once, when I was having personal difficulties, like many graduate students do who are manic about finishing a dissertation, she simply said (again, I am paraphrasing), “It’s best not to have every area of your life fall apart at once. For instance, if your work is not going well, make sure your family life is functioning, if your family life is falling apart, make sure you have other support systems and that your work is manageable.” We never discussed my personal life again and, frankly, didn’t discuss it very much in this conversation. But these simple remarks became a kind of mantra for me. I understand now that you do not have to take apart everything at once. And most of all, you usually have some control over the pace and difficulty of change.

Traveling with Rosemary is a little like traveling with a rock star. People come up to you and say, “Is that THE Rosemary Ruether? Can we meet her?” At this point you move from fellow traveler to celebrity handler and not so modestly respond, “Well, she’s a busy woman, but I’ll see what I can do.” Rosemary paradoxically both guards her time and gives generously of her time. While eating breakfast, she will sit with those who found meaning from Sexism and God Talk twenty years ago and contextualize modern feminist problems. But she will also disappear from a social event and you will find out later that she was finishing up a writing project. (The advantage of no anxiety means you don’t have to procrastinate over your work.) So like a talented rock star, she shares her gifts with her public, but also engages the private discipline that nurtures her craft. I continue to live into this balance for myself, between sharing time and wasting time, between meeting external requests, honoring professional demands and respecting internal desires. I am beginning to see the magic (or perhaps grace) that is involved in this process. The time you share with others can be a powerful force for your own work.

Rosemary loves life and as she once told me, “hates injustice in the name of religion.” As a teacher, she shares this love with her students. She treats her students and her colleagues the same—with respect. From the very beginning, she looks upon her students as professionals who have something to offer. Over time, her students internalize this respect and begin to believe that they really do have something worth saying. She calls upon her students to be bold, speak up and take a stand and demonstrates that life is hardly worth living any other way.

Notes

1. Daniel Berrigan is a Jesuit priest, poet and writer. Along with his brother Phillip he was tried for his Anti-Vietnam War and Nuclear Freeze activism as a member of the Cantonsville 9 and, later, with Plowshares 8. I was radicalized by him in a course on Marks’ Gospel in the late 1980s.  
2. Al Alcazar is a professor in the education department at Loyola of New Orleans. Alcazar fled the Philippines under a sentence of death from Ferdinand Marcos and has devoted his life to peaceful struggle on behalf of marginalized communities.  
3. I am indebted to Madre and its executive director, Vivian Stromberg for re-reminding me of the clarity and power of social analysis done in the midst of activism in her discussion of Madre’s milk and medicine campaign in Iraq presented at DePaul University on March 12, 2003.  
4. As a cultural historian, I am a constantly amazed observer of how power is performed and re- performed on a daily basis. By the time a style or idea hits the halls of power, it is co-opted material and someone on the street is thinking of a new way to subvert the system, re-appropriate material and invent new modes of being free.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2003, Vol. 53,  No 1.