Dancing Daughters & Disabilities (Matt 14, Mark 6, John 5-6)

Sunday, March 26, 2023


So much love and gratitude for Sarah and Rose for their creation of and work on this transcript!

Channing: [00:03] Hi, I'm Channing. 

Elise: [00:06] And I'm Elise.

Channing: [00:07] And this is The Faithful Feminists Podcast. 

Elise: [00:09] We focus on feminist interpretation of scriptures and follow the LDS Come Follow Me Manual as a guide for study. We understand that scriptures can be a tricky endeavor for readers, but we also believe sacred texts contain really compelling examples of loving and liberating relationships with The Divine, others, and ourselves. We hope you'll join us in exploring the problems and promises of sacred text with imagination, critique, and celebration to reveal what we feel is the loving and liberating heart of scripture.  

Channing: [00:40] While Mormonism, with its iconic floral foyer couches, is our background, we follow our faith in our God on the path of spirituality over institution and connection over condemnation. We are fellow wanderers, weavers, and doubters. If you found yourself feeling too faithful for some and not enough for others: Welcome. We've saved you a seat on the soft chairs. [End intro]

Elise: [01:09] Hi everyone. Welcome back to another episode. In this week we are covering Matthew chapter 14, Mark chapter 6, John chapters 5 through 6; all for the dates March 27th to April 2nd. Because there's a lot of different chapters going on, that means there's lots of different stories. Some overlap and some are different iterations of the same story. But I think some of the standout stories that happen in these chapters is where we see Jesus walking on the water; Jesus feeds the group of 5,000 people that we talked about a couple of weeks ago; Jesus also explains how salvation is gained by eating living bread and water or like his flesh and blood.

[01:49] But today in this episode, we're going to focus kind of like doing a deep dive on two individual stories. The first story we'll focus on is the story of Herodias and the beheading of John the Baptist. And then we'll end the episode by talking about the man at the pool of Bethesda. 

Channing: [02:05] Perfect. So to introduce our background characters and set the stage for this really wild event of the beheading of John the Baptist, we have three main-- well, I guess it'll be four main characters. We have Herod, who is king or ruler of Galilee. We have John the Baptist, who was imprisoned because John openly critiqued Herod marrying his brother Phillip's wife, and this wife's name is Herodias. And then later on we will encounter Herodias’s daughter whose name is Salome. 

[02:40] We learn in Mark chapter 16 verse 18, that John was imprisoned after the following happened. It reads, “for John had said unto Herod, it is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife.” John critiqued this marriage because it went against Mosaic law. Now Herodias, Herod's new wife, was deeply displeased with John's critique. The text doesn't tell us why, but we can imagine an open critique of her marriage was both a personal critique and one that threatened her power and the power of her new husband. We can imagine that Herodias wanted to kill John for this critique, but the text tells us that “she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and a holy man.” 

[03:27] So now we have a little bit more information that makes the story more interesting. For me, I read the character of Herod as someone who is the middle man in a tense conflict between two people he respects: his wife, and someone that he saw as a just and holy man. This makes me think that perhaps the only reason Herod even imprisoned John in the first place was either at the request of his wife or as a compromise with her to spare John the Baptist’s life. 

Elise: [03:57] But we soon learn that imprisonment isn't enough for Herodias, because she develops a kind of clever plan to get the results that she wants, which is the death of John the Baptist. During a birthday dinner for Herod, Herodias’s daughter, from her first marriage to Philip, whose name is commonly believed to be Salome, “came in and danced and pleased Herod and them that sat with him.” And we understand that at first read, this phrasing might be ambiguous as to what kind of performance this might have been. And to modern readers with a hyperawareness to the sexualization of children, this verse can feel really alarming. This is why we're so deeply appreciative of what author and scriptorian Heather Farrell has to say on the matter. She writes, 

“Oftentimes when this scene is displayed, we imagine Salome as an alluring teenager who charmed Herod with her sexually charged dance. Yet there's nothing in the Bible that indicates that Salome's dance was seductive. In fact, given the timeline of events, it is likely that Salome was a young girl around ten or eleven, and that her dance may have been more theatrical or gymnastic in nature.” 

This viewpoint is also shared by Wim JC Weren, author of “Herodias and Solome in Mark's Account of the Beheading of John the Baptist.” The author writes “that she would've performed an exciting erotic dance with which she would've tried to seduce the spectators, is an idea that more likely has sprung from the fantasy of male exegetes than from Mark's text.”  

Channing: [05:33] We were really appreciative of that reframing. From there, we know that Herod was delighted with her performance and didn't only offer to her whatever she wished, but “sware unto her, whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it to thee, unto the half of my kingdom.” At this point, Salome took leave and returned to her mother, Herodias. She asked her mother what she should request from Herod and Herodias directed her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Salome does so and Herod obviously has instant regrets. We read in the text,  “And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.” So in other words, he was worried to not follow through in front of his friends and colleagues.

[06:26] And I don't know about you, but for me, I don't know why each time I'm reading the scriptures, I keep getting reminded of the story of Jephhta's daughter, but I hear it here too. Obviously the circumstances are different, but I also see a lot of similarities in the way that these powerful men put aside relationship, respect, and dignity in order to fulfill an oath that was made rashly and without care or consideration for the consequences. And there's just a question that keeps popping up in the back of my mind whenever I encounter these circumstances in the texts that I just have to ask, Why is it that these men value the truth of oaths more than the truth of their hearts? And that's something that I'm really thinking about. 

[07:12] After this, the text tells us that immediately after Salome makes this request for John the Baptist’s head, we learn “the king sent an executioner and he went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a charger ([aside:] or a large plate) and gave it to the damsel, and Salome gave it to her mother.”

Elise: [07:34] From here, I think we wanna spend a bit more time with Herodias and Salome. Often we enjoy interpretations of complex characters like Herodias that include some kind of redemptive material that changes the story and places her in a good light, but for some reason this week we really want to keep Herodias exactly the way she is presented in the text. Not because we don't believe she is deserving of a redemptive arc, but because we want to practice challenging ourselves and by extension, challenging our listeners to try something new. What if Herodias isn't a good person just because she is a woman? It's tempting, even for us, to try to talk Herodias’ character into the light, claiming that she was limited and negatively affected by systemic sexism and was cleverly working within and manipulating those systems for a desired result. But unlike other tricksters in sacred text we've encountered before, Herodias’s tricks aren't life giving. Instead, they're life taking, and therefore, in our eyes, she is deserving of critique. 

Channing: [08:38] In many ways we feel that Herodias is an excellent symbolic character for white women. It's not that Herodias isn't affected by sexism. We can argue that she is, because she's unable to have her wishes for John the Baptist to be beheaded when and how she'd like. Rather, I believe that in comparing the systems of power that limit Herodias with those that empower her, Herodias not only holds more power than she does limitations, but she also holds more power than most women in her life.

[09:11] Let me explain. Herodias is a queen twice over. She was born into a powerful family and married powerful men. She gets what she wants most of the time because she can. Herodias is placed in the center of power in so many systems. She's wealthy, housed, married, has children, and is a governmental leader. She's also well placed to move around the system of sexism to achieve her desires. In other words, I don't see Herodias as marginalized or disempowered. I see her in the center of power able to access all that she needs, and most of what she wants. 

[09:50] In the same way, white women are similarly placed. Sure, circumstances are different and many of us are not queens, and many of us also don't consciously desire anyone's death. But when looking at systems of power and who is placed in them, white women often find themselves at the center. White women are less likely to be unemployed or working below a livable wage than black women and women of color. White women are also less likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than black women, and are extremely less likely to have their children arrested or killed by police. White women are more likely to be housed, employed with a livable wage, and enjoy more safety, accommodation, and protection than black women, women of color, and indigenous women. 

Elise: [10:40] It's important to mention here that of course, the discrimination, violence, and pain all women suffer in the system of sexism is real and notable. We're not saying that white women don't suffer under sexism. What we are saying is that white women suffer less than sisters of the global majority. What I am saying is that if you are a white woman, think about what it might be like to take the very real and very heavy pain you experience at the hands of sexism and double it, triple it, quadruple it for every system of power you don't have to fight against to live. Recognize that not all women are having the same experience as you are and recognize that you have more power than you think, and that sometimes that power is manipulated by our hands, in ways that harm others. 

[11:27] White women have and often do weaponize both their marginalization and their power to enact harm on others. This includes instances of calling the police on black folks who are doing everyday things like walking down the street or watching birds in a park. This includes using governmental power to displace and further disempower unhoused folks by throwing their belongings away and forcibly removing them from tent communities, like the mayor of Salt Lake City has been doing. This includes using governmental power to restrict women from gender affirming and lifesaving healthcare for both cis and trans women. This includes, of course, cultural appropriation as well. 

Channing: [12:08] Right, and we're not saying that all white women are secretly hoping for a head on a platter like Herodias, but we are saying that there are a thousand small ways in which white women contribute to the continued suffering and disempowerment of others because of their inability and sometimes defiant unwillingness to see how much power they actually hold and weaponize. In this we, of course, must always include ourselves, as both Elise and I are white women. We are saying that the story of Herodias can teach us what not to do. Herodias can show us the way not to be, because we know that her type of use of power ends in life taking, not life giving. We also know that the way she uses her power was passed down generationally.

[12:55] Herodias achieves her goal through her daughter Salome. We actually don't super hold Salome responsible for what happens here because she's so young, and a lot of children at that age really want to act to please their parents. I still want the onus of accountability to lie with Herodias and with Herod, but we also recognize that Herodias exercised her power through the next generation. Herodias taught Salome what to say. She sent a message through Salome. Herodias used Salome, but we can do something different. 

[13:33] What if we taught our daughters to use their power for protection? What if we did so by choosing to do so ourselves? What if every time we felt tempted to call the police on a [person of color]*, we checked ourselves against our bias and tried to solve the problem another way? What if we taught our daughters about white supremacy and white privilege? What if we taught them about what it means to be an accomplice? What if we told them it was okay to break the rules, if it meant keeping someone else safe?

[14:03] What if we learned to dance alongside our daughters, with Miriam who sung the song of liberation and taught it to her people as they celebrated their way out of Egypt, rather than teaching our daughters the dance of Salome, whose reward was death? Can a generation of white women teach those who will come after us that there is another option, another way, besides continued violence and oppression? I know we can, because I know that I can read the story of Herodias and Salome differently than how it happened in the text. I know there could have been humility and forgiveness. I know there could have been collaboration and relationship. 

[14:41] At the end of the day, it's important to me and to us that we remember that just because a woman makes a choice doesn't automatically mean a good choice was made. Women are human. They're complex. Women are just as capable as men of violence, manipulation, and vengeance. This recognition, however unsavory, is also an important part of dismantling sexism. To recognize yourself and other women as good, beautiful, vibrant, powerful, talented, life-giving, and relational is absolutely an amazing and impactful thing. But being able to recognize yourself as equally capable of violence, prejudice, life-taking, selfishness, pride, and death is something wholly different and entirely necessary. Once one is able to recognize themselves as fully and equally capable of both good and bad, then the work of accountability, responsibility, integrity, and change can begin. Just as we are all Deborah and Tamar, Abish and Emma, Dinah and Bathsheba, we are all also Delilah and Jezebel, Herodias and Salome. We have it in us. The question is, what will we do about it? 

Elise: [16:01] Thank you for such a thoughtful and critical look at this story and in some of your best fashion-- Channing has always been really good at saying, How can we do an internal reading on this reading and what does that mean for us? And I think that was a nice example to offer for everyone.

Channing: [16:17]  Oh, thank you. I know though that you were feeling so pulled to talking about the man at the pool of Bethesda, so I am so excited to move us there. 

Elise: [16:28] Yes. This story shows up in John chapter 5 and a little bit of a summary: so Jesus goes to Jerusalem during Passover and decides to visit the pool of Bethesda. And tradition had it that when the waters of the pool moved or were troubled by an angel, the first person immersed in the water would be completely healed. As such, the pool attracted many folks who were sick or disabled. Verse 5 says there was a man there who had an infirmity for 38 years, and when Jesus saw him, Jesus asked, “Wilt thou be made whole?” or said differently, Do you want to be healed? And the man answers, “Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool. But while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.” Jesus then heals the man, commands him to walk and take up his bed, even though it's the Sabbath day. 

[17:19] Now. First of all, I love this story because I love water and I love baths. [Channing laughs] This is a very core thing about me, but I think that I want to look at some harmful interpretations of this story as a word of caution and critique before offering something more communal and life-giving. So let's take a look at the question that Jesus asks when he first meets the man. Jesus asks, Do you want to be healed? And I think a dangerous interpretation risks blaming the man for his lack of healing, as if it's a personal failing on his part because, this interpretation would argue, if he wanted it enough he wouldn't be so lazy and he'd try harder to get in the pool. Boo. We don't like this reading because there's a lot of victim blaming and ableism at work here.

Channing: [18:09] Absolutely. Another harmful interpretation also stems from Jesus' question, Do you want to be healed? Because as able-bodied readers, we may think to ourselves, what a strange question. Of course somebody with a disability would want to be healed. Why would Jesus even ask? However, inherent in this thinking is the idea that life with a disability is no way to live. That those with disabilities wish to be more like the able-bodied and that one cannot live a full satisfying life with a disability. And this is absolutely not true. 

[18:44] Instead, in the article titled, “Jesus and People with Disabilities: Old Stories, New Approaches,” authors McColl and Ascough suggest that perhaps Jesus asks this question to honor the man's autonomy and his will. Perhaps Jesus understood that every life has value, even if it can't be readily understood by others. And that people should be able to make decisions about their own bodies and wellbeing. To this, authors Belser and Morrison write in their article titled, “What No Longer Serves Us: Resisting Ableism and Anti-Judaism in the New Testament Healing Narratives,” 

“Most conversations about healing are structured around the bedrock assumption that I would prefer to live without a disability. This misperception is like static on the line of our conversation. I’m not looking for a cure. I don’t dream about being healed. It is true that disability has made my life more difficult. But living with a disability has also enriched my life. Through my disability, I have come to a deep knowing of my own body—a rooted, embodied sense of self that grounds my spiritual practice and brings me great joy.”

Elise: [19:56] Thus, I think in the most generous way, perhaps this was a moment where Jesus was in conversation with the man about what he wanted and needed regarding his disability, and Jesus was ready and willing to honor the man's decision and his autonomy.

[20:10] And this is yet another intersection of bodily autonomy that extends past our single track conversations about abortion. Abortion is one of the many areas where values of bodily autonomy are expressed, but these stories remind us to extend our value of bodily autonomy into other realms like disability and trans issues.

Channing: [20:31] If we then look at the man's response, he tells Jesus he wants to be healed, but the reason he hasn't been able to is because he has no one to carry him into the pool, or by the time he slowly makes his way to the pool, someone else has already stepped in and reaped all the healing powers. We think we can read this response in a few ways.

[20:50] First, American culture is built on the system of ableism that says physical and mental fitness is the same as self-fulfillment. That radical independence is necessary for success. That strength equals happiness, and that people and bodies are only valuable when they can work efficiently and produce effectively without accommodations. From Belser and Morrison, we learned that many of the healing narratives in the Bible also uphold such ableism, as they suggest that disabled bodies are the result of sin, that these bodies are broken, that they are insufficient, and in need of fixing. That they are waiting around for a cure and lying around in pain and misery waiting for Jesus’ remedy. As such, these stories speak of life with disability as a tragic affliction that causes a lonely, wretched life. 

Elise: [21:43] However, the authors note how disability activists spend lots of time resisting this very pity that Channing just articulated and uprooting the paternalism that underlies it. They note first that pity is a political issue because it requires and reinforces an unequal power relationship between the person who pities and the object of their pity. Second, they note that pity is a threat to the disability rights movement because it masquerades as kindness and often gets covered over by words like love and compassion. Toward this end the authors write, “it gets old, being everyone else's service project.” Additionally, pity evokes sympathy for suffering, but not solidarity.

[22:31] And if we want true change and transformation, what we need to be working toward is solidarity. Belser and Morrison write, 

“In this context, I’m so sorry becomes a way of communicating I’m so sorry you can’t climb stairs, rather than I’m so sorry we built you out of this building. Even the last fails to satisfy. I’m not particularly interested in sincere regret, unless it is coupled with tangible, practical change. As a political act of challenging ableism, I want my [conversation partner] to understand that the problem exists not in my own body but in the complex web of decisions that built this building with stairs as its only means of entrance. Without this critical shift in perspective, her response to the problem will focus on eradicating disability and effacing my being. By meeting my outrage or lament at injustice with pity, she will use my anger against me. My frustration will become occasion for confirming what ableist culture has told her all along: Disability is tragic, a life not worth living.”

[23:45] Thus, I think we can read the man's comment as a call to be in solidarity with disabled folks: not as a Sunday service project where we carry him into the pool, but as long-term solidarity that focuses less on the ableist concept of broken bodies and more on the idea of broken societies. In this way, the story becomes less about the perceived problem of a man's disability and more about a problematic ableist society that requires solidarity in order to be transformed for liberation. In this way, Belser and Morrison note, we can resist ableism without also silencing the fact that sometimes people do cry out for healing, and that there are times and places where people long for relief from pain.

[24:32] So then even if this story honors the man's desire and decision to be healed, the takeaway is not that disabilities are pitiful and tragic. Instead, we can shift our focus to the systems in place and ask questions like when people do want healing or healthcare or resources, why is it so limited and inaccessible to the majority of people who wait by the pool of Bethesda? And like our good friend Kate Mower says, “disability is not something to be cured. Ableism is the thing to be cured.” 

Channing: [25:06] I love that. Can I share a personal experience? [Elise: Of course] My daughter broke her leg around this time last year and it was a really fascinating experience to be a parent of someone who had a temporary disability, because she couldn't walk without crutches. And it was really interesting to notice how many activities she was excluded from even when people were well-meaning. So when her class went on field trips, she needed special transportation to and from the event that had to be provided by me. Or when we went to gardens here in Salt Lake City, I was having to push a wheelchair with an eight year old and a broken leg up and down these really big hills. And it was actually not very safe because the hills were so steep. And walking them would've been fine, but pushing a wheelchair down them was a whole ‘nother situation entirely.

[26:06] And this whole experience really opened my eyes to the fact that there are buildings that don't have an elevator. There are buildings that don't have a wheelchair ramp, and how difficult it is for people, even with just a broken leg, to go up and down stairs; and how much easier it would be to have doors that really do stay open long enough for you to walk through.

And it's just wild to see, even in places where I didn't even expect, how disability issues don't just affect people who have long-term, chronic disabilities. They affect everybody. Everybody is benefited by accommodations. 

[26:44] And so I love this critique that it's not anything wrong with disabled folks. It's something wrong with the community and it's something wrong with the system of ableism because that can be fixed and it can be fixed so easily if we would just freaking pay attention, and freaking listen. So thank you so much for offering this because this has just been something that's really been on my heart since she broke her leg. It's just-- I've paid a lot more attention to it now because it affected me in ways that I didn't allow it to affect me before. 

Elise: [27:18] Yeah, yeah. Thanks for sharing that. Friends, we're so grateful that you joined us for another episode this week. We're really loving the New Testament and of course, we love spending this time with you. We'll talk to you soon. Bye.

Elise: [27:32] [Begin outro] Friends, thank you so much for joining us today for another episode of The Faithful Feminists Podcast. We know your time and space is sacred, and we're grateful to have spent ours with you. If you enjoyed this episode, we would love it if you showed your support by sharing the podcast, leaving us a loving rating on iTunes, or connect with us on Instagram as The Faithful Feminists.

Channing: [27:52] We're deeply grateful for your kindness and encouragement. We love you so, so much, and we hope to spend more time with you again soon. Bye, friends!

*Note: We apologize for using the offensive, outdated, and incorrect phrase "colored person" as opposed to "person of color" in this episode. As podcasters and white women we are responsible for staying accountable, knowing better, and then doing better. We apologize for our mistake and it will not happen again.
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