A Reflection on Matthew 1:18-25 by the Rev. Kate Hennessy
In the world of psychology, where I spend a fair amount of time, therapists and clients seeking a new paradigm for the healing relationship other than that offered by the medical model, can find richness in Narrative Therapy.
Narrative therapy holds as its most basic tenet, that as humans we are creatures of story. Our stories are our basic units of experience. Told and retold, they shape people's perspectives of their lives, histories, and futures. For the narrative therapist, it is important to listen for the dominant story that informs and constructs the individual’s view of her or his own reality. Sometimes that dominant story is laden with constructs that keep the individual from living out his or her fullest potential. And, sitting squarely within the story, the client her or himself has no idea that his or her construction of reality might be limiting in some way. The task before us then is to deconstruct the story, not in order to disprove the construction, or to say that this particular construction is wrong and ought to be replaced by another one which is right or correct. Rather, deconstruction is done in order to be able to notice the effects of the construction on the person's identity so that sufficient space will open up for the person to be able to decide if he or she prefers that construction or not.
Hand in hand with deconstruction is the reengagement of history, which is not merely re-framing or reinterpreting historical events, but includes things like remembering events of history that may not have been considered important, and re-engaging with those events in an active way, so that the details are known and the connections between those details and various aspects such as motives, hopes and principles of those involved might be made. It is, as the term implies, a relational engagement with history. Particularly if there is interest in bringing forward alternate stories from the one that has been the dominant one, examples that are consistent with the emergent theme or themes must be remembered from the past and sought after in the future. This thickens the new stories and opens the narrative space to possibilities that were not there previously.
Narrative therapy comes from postmodernism, the same roots that brought us feminism. The same roots that tell us that since we can never have the complete picture, the objective truth, if indeed there is one, because we are at all times being busily steeped in the tea of our own perspective, our task is to become aware, to notice, to, open the spaces that new stories might emerge, alternative stories might be raised up, new voices might find a hearing, provocative new perspectives might engage us as we engage our story.
The story of the birth of Jesus the Messiah….”Mary, engaged to Joseph, found to be with child”….and suddenly….scandal ensues. This same Mary who in Luke has such a sense of herself as the God-bearer, here is the object. A different story ensuing. And Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph was of course doing the honorable thing, the right thing, perhaps the only thing he could even imagine doing in his time and place. Because the deal was that in that time and place if you announced to the world that the woman to whom you were betrothed was bearing someone else’s child you were condemning her (and the father if known) to death. So Joseph was going to do his best to do this quietly, not call attention to Mary, see if he could get her out of this alive, and still avoid claiming a child that did not belong to him, because after all, that simply was NOT done.
All in all in a paternalistic honor-shame system, maybe disempowering someone to protect them is not the worst thing you could do. It is compassionate in making the best of the worst. It was likely in the interest of saving her life. In this construction of the story this may have been another one of those examples of doing the well-intentioned thing, operating on the information at hand and making the best choice. But we know that this is Mary Theotokos, voiceless and disempowered, Mary who in another story has said an unqualified yes to changing history. Mary in whom God is doing a new thing, writing another story.
One thing that this has triggered for me is thinking about how often we are guilty of doing what Joseph was forced into in this story, disempowering others in the name of protecting them. It is of course what feminism would call a classic paternalistic stance. But make no mistake, we are all culpable. I think I can be fairly confident in saying that anyone who is reading this is sitting in a place of some privilege. Warm, dry, in front of a computer, literate and educated. That alone separates us in some rather significant ways from many people with whom we might have contact, and gives us a perspective about the stories that make up our lives that may differ from theirs in ways that we may be more or less aware of at any given time.
As Christians most of us take the call to live out the Gospel message seriously. And for many of us a good part of that that message has some component of a call to “do for” others whom we consider to be somehow in need. Whether it is the call to fill the box for the food shelf, or to decide what the MDG project is going to be, or to decide if we are going to staff the food shelf or contribute time to the homeless shelter, we face these decisions almost daily. We are people of good-will and we want to do what is good and right….but in whose story? I think back to the missionaries who took the Native children away from their families and culture and put them in boarding schools. Cutting their hair and taking their language and all vestiges of anything that connected them to who they were seems barbarous to us. But in the missionaries’ construct of the story, they were protecting them from dying as heathens, and if some sacrifice was required for that, it seemed a small price to pay. Obviously, we are doing nothing as egregious as stealing people from their families. Our sins tend to be much more subtle as we presume our privilege or simply operate blindly from the constructs of our ignorance, presuming we always “know what is best” simply because we are the ones doing the protecting, the providing or the doing for.
As we make choices about how we will go about “doing good for others” it is often so much easier to engage in the work of charity instead of the work of justice. In doing charity we can remain powerful, comfortable in our constructed reality, unchallenged by the faces and voices of the suffering. Justice calls us to another place. It calls us to engage. It calls to deconstruct our own assumptions and move from our comfort zones. It calls us to listen to the nameless faceless voiceless ones as they call us to account for and repent of our own acts of paternalism, racism, classism and other injustices.
Just as Joseph was able to step outside the construct of his time, and with God’s help, do a new thing, and support Mary in being the God-bearer, perhaps we can support each other in deconstructing the old stories and telling new stories of empowerment, of voices raised together in songs of hope for the kingdom of justice and righteousness for which God Incarnated Godself in Jesus.
I serve as one of three priests (all women) on a Total Ministry Team in a small congregation in a medium sized town in rural Minnesota, where I am also a clinical psychologist at the community mental health center. I live with my partner of eleven years, my faithful contemplative canine Maggie the Peke, and an ever-changing number of special-needs rescue cats. In a meme on my personal blog I once defined myself as a “liberal, evangelical, feminist, mystical, mindful, slightly Anglo-Catholic, Episcopalian-by-grace.”