Sunday, September 2, 2012

Yams, Turkeys, and the Gospel Truth

The Rev. Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church
Proper 17, Year B
Original posting

Anthropologist Margaret Mead recorded this curious little saying of the Arapesh people: “Your own mother, your own sister, your own pigs, your own yams that you have piled up, you may not eat. Other people’s mothers, other people’s sisters, other people’s pigs, other people’s yams that they have piled up, you may eat.”

Obviously there are several directions a sermon might take off in from here. Up, somehow, is probably what you’re hoping. For our purposes, we’ll just note that Arapesh women seem to have been commodities. But the Arapesh hardly have a corner on that market. In fact, right there in the Bible you can read about the leaders of one tribe making peace with another tribe by giving them their daughters for wives. Apparently it was polite for the other tribesmen to return the favor. Although I guess it wasn’t very polite to the daughters.

That was a long time ago in a faraway land. But if you think that this kind of “giving away” of a daughter in marriage has nothing to do with the blubbering dad who “gives his daughter away” in a modern wedding, well, bless your heart.

To wit, in the 1994 edition of Emily Post on Marriage (not exactly an ancient text) we find that the well mannered bride, possibly because she still functions as the gift of one tribesman to another, has a special role to play. She must, and I quote, “try to understand and accept the attitude of her future family (whatever it may be), and she must not stand inflexibly upon what she unwittingly considers to be her own family’s rights.” Ms. Post, as you may have guessed, gave no such instruction to the groom. Haven’t tribesmen always given away their daughters as peace offerings to create a little goodwill?

Now if you’ve long dreamed of having your father walk you down the aisle here at Christ Church and deliver you to the arm of a handsome beau, don’t worry. Forbidding this practice isn’t a liturgical ditch I’m willing to die in. Otherwise by now I would be… well… dead. But it still seems worthwhile to note that the roots of some traditions aren’t as deep or as distant as we’d like to believe, and they’re anything but obscure.

To be fair though, we should balance things out by poking something in the eye of modern, liberated folks too. About the same time Ms. Post’s book was published, this advice appeared in the style section of the New York Times: “Women on the way up should avoid associating with ‘unsuccessful turkeys,’ even if they happen to be friends. Leaving your friends behind isn’t disloyalty. You are going to be judged by the company you keep. Seek out the people who can help you. Men have known this for years, and we are playing in their arena.” Of course. We can deal with the age old problem of making women commodities by making everyone a commodity. Man, woman, friend, stranger, tell me what you can do for me, and I’ll tell you whether I have any use for you.

Fortunately yams and turkeys aren’t the only options available to us when it comes to the treatment of women or any other person really. We could actually love them, you know.