You Shall Pursue

February 28, 2013

Social Justice, Ezekiel, and the Ugliness of Privilege

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:59 pm

My academic life recently seems to revolve around Ezekiel of dry bones, chariots, and bizarre behavior fame. He is a fascinating character, full of despair and often rank misogyny. As I read his book, I am struck by the parallels between his behavior and much of the behavior in the modern political scene. Ezekiel paints a stark picture of a ruling elite raging at the loss of his power and privelige. It is a world shift that his psyche is unable to handle, and he descends into bizarre behavior. We see something similar from conservatives today.

A quick summary for those of you who do not know the story. Ezekiel is born to a prominent Judaean priestly family shortly before the first exile. As an adult, he is exiled to Babylon with much of the other Judaean ruling elite. His book is full of vivid visions and bizarre role-plays, which he uses to exemplify the wretchedness of Judaea in exile. Then, in Chapter 16 of the book of Ezekiel, he gives a full account of why Israel is being punished in this way, describing his nation as a foundling that God married and raised to wealth and privilege. But Israel is ungrateful and “plays the harlot” with other nations, here a metaphor for Israel’s desperate attempts to form alliances with stronger neighboring powers. Because of this behavior, God turns against Israel and perpetrates a brutal gang rape against her, enlisting all of her former “lovers,” or all of her neighboring nations.

Through Ezekiel’s position as prophet to the nations, he is, in a way, able to “have it all,” casting himself both in the role of helpless, victimized Israelite and a vengeful God. In his violent depiction of Israel as gang rape victim, he is able to use the gender binary to re-establish a norm in a world that has been, for him, turned completely upside-down. Misogyny and violence act as a balm to soothe the wounds that he feels in being so utterly betrayed by God. To my mind, this is a text about confronting abuse at the hands of a being upon which one is simultaneously utterly dependent, and which is ultimately unable to protect. Ultimately, lack of omnipotence is less scary than utterly disturbing tendencies towards vengeance.

There is a sweet seductiveness in playacting at victim, in that when one operates from relative privilege, one is more likely to be taken seriously, and thus have one’s feelings respected and protected. Conversely, when those in marginalized classes (people of color, women, poor people) are victimized, their pain is often seen as somehow their fault.

I would like to draw a direct parallel between recent attacks on reproductive rights and the slow liberalization of American society. For the first time, we are entering a world in which white upper-middle class men simply do not have enough of a voting bloc to dictate the direction that our society moves. And since women and people of color tend to vote more liberal, this produces a world in which white men are, indeed, losing power. This is scary to those invested in maintaining the power dynamic of the past (as any loss of power is), but they are not victims. They are simply beginning the long slow treck toward being one voice among many rather than the ultimate voice of power. This is read as victimhood, and conservative pundits, much like Ezekiel, lash out at the pain of their loss of power through fantasies of brutal masculine domination. Their fantasy is both sadistic and masochistic; they are both victim and perpetrator, and thus they give themselves permission to live out the pleasure of every locus of pain without regard to the real life consequences of their playacting on other human bodies and souls.

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