Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 53:10-11; Ps. 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb. 4: 14-16; Mk. 10:35-45
Like many of you, perhaps, I’m still reeling in the aftermath of the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh.
I bring this up because of today’s Gospel reading. There two of Jesus’ disciples, the sons of Zebedee, actually make application for a much higher Supreme Court than any SCOTUS we might imagine. James and John ask to sit one on Jesus’ right hand and one on his left, when he “comes into his glory” precisely (as Matthew puts it) to judge the 12 tribes of Israel (MT 19:28). They want to be Supreme Court justices on steroids! James and John want power – the highest they can imagine.
How male of them! How patriarchal!
But Jesus’ response is surprising. It’s surprising, because it indicates that Jesus’ idea of judicial power is not masculine power-over, but servant leadership – something more, well . . . feminine. It is not what Bret Kavanaugh sought, but what was demonstrated in the attitude of Christine Blasey-Ford.
To get what I mean, please recall the final day of the Kavanaugh hearings. It was a perfect portrayal of patriarchal judgment contrasted with servant-leadership.
In the Senate chambers, Republicans – all of white men; many quite elderly – enjoyed tremendous power-over. And they could do for Brett Kavanaugh exactly what James and John wanted Jesus to do. In fact, they could give Kavanaugh much greater power-over the rest of us than even the senators themselves possess.
In doing so, they appeared to sit in judgment, not over Judge Kavanaugh, but (ironically) over a bright sensitive woman, who displayed the qualities that Jesus highlights in his statement on judicial leadership. Her testimony was a model of dignity, restraint and self-sacrifice. She explained that she had decided to put her own life and the safety of her family in danger to fulfill what she considered her patriotic duty.
And the way she carried herself as a witness bore out the truth of her words. Her answers to her questioners were always on point. There was no hint of self-promotion, defensiveness or ad hominem claims about her own virtue, intelligence, or scholarly accomplishments. Instead, she spoke sincerely and sometimes through quiet tears.
Her dignified manner and humble words stood in sharp contrast to Brett Kavanaugh’s blustering patriarchal harangue. He did what patriarchs typically do and what women could never get away with. He played “poor-me,” shouted indignantly, huffed and puffed, wept uncontrollably, accused, and talked over his interrogators. He evaded answers, changed the subject when he found questions uncomfortable. He bragged shamelessly about his accomplishments, virtue, and hard work. He “proved” his case by appealing to the testimony of Mark Judge, the very man Dr. Ford had identified as Kavanaugh’s accomplice in the crime she alleged.
If it weren’t so tragic, it would have been quite comical. On “Saturday Night Live,” Matt Damon made that point as you’ll see here:
Just imagine if Dr. Ford had acted similarly! Game over in that case.
Yet, in the final analysis, the aged patriarchs sitting on their thrones of judgment over one of their own dismissed Dr. Ford out-of-hand. They chose to believe Brett Kavanaugh. As I said, they actually turned the tables. They gave the impression of sitting in judgment over the accuser rather than over her alleged assailant; they proceeded as though Kavanaugh himself, not Dr. Ford, was the victim-of-the hour. They found his absolute denials convincing as (like Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton before him) he predictably and emphatically denied any wrongdoing.
To put a finer point on it: the patriarchs gave every indication that they would believe Bill Cosby if (similarly to Kavanaugh) he argued, “How dare you accuse me of rape! I’ve played Cliff Huxtable. And your accusations don’t coincide with the image I’ve believably cultivated over the years. Millions have looked up to me as a fatherly role model. I’ve received honorary degrees for my work. So, I couldn’t possibly violate women. Cliff Huxtable certainly wouldn’t do that. It’s preposterous to believe I would! I’m Cliff Huxtable!”
Put otherwise, the all-male Republican panel followed a theatrical script aired 27 years earlier (and countless times in western history) when Anita Hill, accused another SCOTUS candidate, Clarence Thomas, of habitual sexual harassment. And they were led in their skepticism by the president of their men’s club (and of the country), who himself has gleefully admitted his general habit of objectifying and assaulting women, and who has been accused by many of quite particular sexual misconduct.
As if he could be trusted in such matters, the man in question, President Donald Trump, actually made fun of and mocked Dr. Ford. While dismissing her, he expressed compassion for Judge Kavanaugh and for young men and boys who, he said, find themselves vulnerable to false testimony by devious women exactly like Christine Blasey Ford – and his own accusers.
How male of him! How patriarchal!
Yes, that’s the way of patriarchy pure and simple. In terms of today’s Gospel, the Republicans (along with Democrat Joe Manchin) gave reality to Jesus’ words, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Ford’s demeanor and testimony was more in accord with Jesus’ description of justices in his much higher Supreme Court: “But it shall not be so among you,” Jesus said. “Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In summary, Jesus’ idea of judicial wisdom reflects “servanthood,” self-sacrifice and putting the needs of others first. It is far more like what we witnessed in Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony. It’s the model of female leadership and judicial restraint displayed by women throughout Mark’s Gospel.
There, from outset to conclusion, it is women who are referred to in servant language. In the beginning of Mark (1:31), the first act of Peter’s mother in law upon being cured by Jesus is to serve food to her benefactor and his companions. And at the end (MK 15:41) Mary Magdalene along with another Mary and Salome are identified beneath Jesus’ cross as “those who used to follow him and provide for him when he was in Galilee.”
To repeat, all of that suggests that in today’s reading, Jesus is proposing the notion of “servant leadership” on his Supreme Court — and, it seems, on ours. It suggests that the practical content of that concept is typically embodied not in men, but in women.
It seems then, that in Jesus’ eyes, a woman like Christine Blasey-Ford would have been a far worthier choice for Supreme Court justice than any Brett Kavanaugh.
I for one am going to keep all of this in mind on November 6th.