An Ethical Theology of Housework
Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterized Jesus as the “man for others.” It is, of course, the maleness of Jesus that makes the sobriquet striking. “Woman for others” would be redundant and trite. But, as any theater buff will tell you, “casting against type” is a sure-fire attention-getter. So we have, for instance, the prophet Hosea describing the Holy One as “those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them,” (11:3-4) and even, heaven help us, as a mama grizzly: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…”(13:9) Isaiah says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”(49:15) Moses sees himself as called by the Holy One “to carry the nation in his bosom as a nursing mother carries a nursing child.”(Num. 11:12) Much later on, the apostle Paul compares his concern for the Thessalonians to the care of a nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7-8). Other maternal imagery found in Paul’s letters includes gentleness, tenderness, labor, and breast milk (Gal 4:19-20; 1 Cor 3:1-3) You get the idea. The images work because they are counter-intuitive. Nobody expects men, or, a fortiori, the Holy One Himself [sic], to put themselves at the service of others.
And, on the other hand, the apostle Paul talks at great length, in his second letter to the Corinthians, about trying hard not to be a “burden” to the people. But chances are that he never picked up his own socks (or the 1st century CE equivalent in the Middle East), or washed his own dishes or underwear. We know for a fact that he did not write his own letters, but dictated them to various secretaries (Timothy, Tertius, and a host of others, named and unnamed.) The fact that any of them were named was probably not unrelated to the fact that, like just about all the numerous secretarial personnel at the time, they were male.
I do not mean to imply that “Paul was a sexist pig”—that would be a cheap shot and not worth the trouble of writing. Rather, Paul, like millions of other decent men before and since, lived surrounded by a system of mostly female helpers invisible to them and their society in general, and, usually, to the men they helped. What would it be like— I sometimes wonder—to be able to take for granted, to the point of not thinking about it, the perpetual presence of someone to cook my meals, run my errands, make my phone calls, write my letters, wash my clothes, keep my house clean, and remind me of my importance? (Not to mention, of course—and Paul would never have considered this—a whole class of human beings, mostly female, available for hire on demand for my sexual pleasure?)
Yes, like most professional women, I have had access to secretarial services and cleaning ladies, on occasion. Before that, I was a secretary. Partly for that reason, but mostly because, like most professional women, I can’t afford to hire a full-time permanent secretary or housekeeper, I have always regarded “my” helpers as purveyors of temporary and very precious gifts, to be treated with maximum courtesy and friendliness and never never taken for granted. For we were waitresses in Egypt. And most of the time, like most professional women I know, I am my own secretary (and a damn good one too) and my own cleaning lady (not so good.)
The point is that, at various times, I have been part of that invisible army of helpers. I have never been a member of the class for whom they mostly toiled. Like most professional women, I figure I’m doing pretty well if the only person I have to take care of is myself. I have trouble imagining anybody taking care of me, and I absolutely cannot conceive of being able to take such care for granted.
There is nothing individually immoral in not seeing the invisible army of homemakers, secretaries, maids, “girls”, and “working girls” one has been brought up not seeing, beginning of course with one’s own mother. One can accept their services without imagining that he [sic] could possibly be a “burden” to anyone. The choreography is too smooth to notice. You drop a sock and it disappears from the floor. You come home hungry and dinner appears on the table. You have letters to write and your secretary appears with her steno pad at the ready. You beget children and they somehow get cared for. Call it magic, call it choreography, but surely no one could call it a burden! After all, in exchange for this care, its purveyors receive room, board, and sometimes money.
There are feminists who believe strongly that the state of a world run by men who have such hordes of servitors at their disposal is proof positive of male inferiority or at least of having too much time on their hands. “If I had a wife and a secretary,” one friend of mine declaimed on a particularly hectic day, “I could end hunger, cure cancer, bring down the deficit, and make peace in the Middle East by Christmas, and have time left over to learn how to play tennis. What do these guys do with all that spare time?”
Here follows the Ritual Disclaimer/Concession to the Other Side’s Argument that today’s writers consider mandatory even though no reader is likely to notice it. See http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/politics-and-the-english-language-ii/. That is, obviously, hyperbole, erupting from overwork, sleep deprivation, and the myopia these can often engender. It ignores the fact that most men today do a lot more housework than their fathers, and probably infinitely more than their grandfathers (who likely did none at all), and that, in today’s computerized offices, most men also do for themselves much of the work that secretaries did for their fathers and grandfathers. Many of today’s (equally computerized) women who would have been secretaries a generation ago are now the lawyers, bureaucrats, and middle managers they would have worked for. So okay, I’m open to the possibility that sometimes some men are burdened with tasks that are invisible to the rest of the world, even its female component. The theological issue remains the same: what do human beings owe each other, and what recognition do we owe those who supply those needs to us?
Getting back to Paul, he says in Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens.” Not a bad idea. My former congregation once experimented by undertaking to translate from Hebrew, and back again, a version of a sabbath prayer including such descriptions of the Holy One as (Heb.) “ozer”–the one who helps us. Feminine: (Heb.)”ozeret.” Which happens to be the modern Israeli Hebrew word for “cleaning lady.” It drew a couple of giggles from a congregant who had formerly lived in Israel. I found it mildly amusing. But then I was also jarred into thinking about it. These days, I reflected, it would take an act of divine intervention to get somebody else to help me clean my house–possibly rising to the level of a miracle. Or, looking at it another way, when we make ourselves available to help each other with the drudgework of everyday life, are we not doing the work of the Holy One? And isn’t this precisely the kind of reflection a good religious communication should evoke, at least occasionally?