And that’s on idolatry
Ashton Weber | Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Oh my God.
If you, like me, were raised with the Ten Commandments drilled into your head since elementary school, this statement may have caused you to think, “No, Ashton! You meant to say, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain, remember?”
For years, I corrected people with a similar refrain whenever they let a God slip instead of a gosh. When I return home now, my youngest sister does the same to me.
So, am I going to spend the next four minutes of your life arguing that it’s okay to swear or that you should never do it again? Neither. Both would be a waste of our time because, truth is, I couldn’t care less about swearing. What I do care about is the manipulation of religious teachings so they can be used to justify behaviors and structures that are not in line with the true mission of Christianity. What I do care about is taking the Lord’s name in vain.
If you don’t know me, you may be missing some of my context with the Catholic church. To summarize, I went to a conservative Catholic high school and was essentially taught that it’s impossible to be Catholic and fall on the left side of the political spectrum. As the 2016 election unfolded and I began to find feminism, I reached a crossroads: would I choose faith or would I choose feminism? I chose feminism and quickly rejected the institutionalized cisheteropatriarchy of the Catholic church. Since arriving at Notre Dame, however, I’ve realized that faith and feminism may not stand in such stark contrast. I’ve worked to reconstruct my image of God and now engage with theology through the lens of feminism.
To kickstart this reconstruction, I read “She Who Is” by Elizabeth Johnson. Within the first two chapters, Johnson explained that the conception I previously had of God was actually a breach of the third commandment. On page 40 she writes, “Exclusive, literal patriarchal speech about God is both oppressive and idolatrous. It functions to justify social structures of dominance/subordination and an androcentric world view inimical to the genuine and equal human dignity of women, while it simultaneously restricts the mystery of God.”
As the book continues, she explains that taking the Lord’s name in vain is not so much about saying things like, “Oh my God,” but more about using God as a justification for oppression.
Last week, a response to my most recent column was published. It responded to my rhetorical question of “What would Jesus do?” with an explanation of things that the Catholic church, inspired by Jesus, is doing worldwide to alleviate poverty and suffering. The letter’s author uses these examples to justify her reasoning that the Catholic church does not deserve the criticism I subjected it to. While I would agree with her that the church has done great work in serving those in poverty across the globe, I would be ignoring immense institutional failure if I allowed good work to excuse Catholicism from criticism.
The unfortunate fact is that the Catholic church has been instrumental in the creation of an idolatrous image of God that upholds systems and structures which exacerbate poverty and suffering. For centuries, the Catholic church has been complicit in racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and colonialism. The intersection of these isms creates a world with a hierarchy of humanities, a system in which one way of being is better than another. In the words of Fr. Brian Massingale, “What makes the Church white and racist is the pervasive belief that European aesthetics, European music, European theology and European persons, and only these, are standard, normative, universal and truly Catholic. In other words, when we talk about what makes something Catholic, the default is always to the products that reflect a white cultural aesthetic. Everything else is seen as Catholic by exception, or Catholic by toleration.”
Whiteness is not the only thing seen as Catholic by default. Consider the treatment of LGBTQ+ Catholics, most of whom participate in church spaces that do not affirm their gender identities in sexual orientation. Think about Catholics who identify as women, many of whom participate in church spaces that teach their reproductive organs are the most important part of their being. As Johnson explains earlier in “She Who Is,” a feminist academic approach considers the world from the margins and examines how the least represented people are being treated. Look at the margins of the Catholic church, and you’ll find that many who exist there are either blatantly excluded or merely tolerated by the church.
My column was not solely addressing the need to reject personal wealth. Instead, I was arguing for a more intersectional approach to Christian thought. I was advocating for an imagining of Jesus so radical and inclusive that tolerance would no longer be the church’s approach to social justice. If we look at the people who lead the Church, we will see overwhelming representation of cisgender, heterosexual white men. From our knowledge of Catholic church leadership, it is not difficult to deduce that the best way of being a Catholic is to live up to this hegemonic Catholic identity. When we choose to defend or excuse this hegemony, we are actively taking God’s name in vain.
This week, I challenge us to think more deeply about who God is and then go a step further. Consider what your image of God is rooted in. Who gave it to you? Who would feel affirmed by this image and who could it be used to oppress? How might you be justifying your own complicity in oppression with God’s name, and how is this a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain? This work will be uncomfortable, but it is necessary to build a church that is truly inclusive of all its members and to understand God in a way that is not idolatrous.
Ashton Weber is a junior with lots of opinions. She is an econ major with a minor in sociology and she can often be found with her nose in a book. If you want to chat about intersectional feminism, baking blueberry scones, growing ZZ plants or anything else, she’d love to hear from you. Reach Ashton at [email protected] or @awebz01 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.