Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 6, No. 12, December 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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Patriarchy and Violence

Robert G. Hewitt
Retired Episcopal Priest
Westcliffe, Colorado, USA

This article was first published in Ruach,
the journal of the Episcopal Women's Caucus, Fall 2010.
Reprinted with permission of the author.

My eighth grade teacher told us one day that Isaac Newton had declared, "Matter can neither be created nor destroyed." I timidly reminded her that the Bible began with, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." She, in monotone, repeated Mr. Newton's statement to us, with neither explanation nor comment. In all innocence, I had ventured into the dangerous territory of what public schools could (or could not) teach in the USA. I just shut up.

So began my fingers-crossed attitude to Bible reading and believing, and my fascination later with Charles Darwin's theories. I am now 88 years old and have, in the everlasting meantime, engaged in attempts to reconcile evolution and the Bible to my own satisfaction. That led me back to the creation stories in Holy Scripture, having graduated from General Theological Seminary in New York City in 1951, and having served as pastor to six parishes, to the relationship between myth and history.

Rene Girard theorizes that behind every foundational cultural myth there lies an actual incident of deadly, bloody, human violence, concealed and "nice-ified" by the myth itself. It puzzles me, therefore, that he develops his foundational biblical anthropology around the story of Cain and Abel, in which the actual violence is not concealed but explicit. It seems to me that the better question could have been, "What was the violence concealed behind the myth of Adam and Eve?" Among the early modern biblical anthropologists (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), Adolphe Lods, J.F. McLennan, and W. Robertson Smith were theorizing from evidence within the book of Genesis that a hidden time of matriarchy/ matriliny existed before the patriarchy came into being. Their evidence consisted mainly in noting (1) several marriages that could not have been possible under the prohibitions of a patriarchal system; (2) that some women held an obviously established right to name their children; and (3) that early genealogies, stretching back to Adam and Eve, were apparently manufactured. They entertained the possibility that there was a time (a hidden time not stated in the text) when male participation in the process of procreation was not understood; a time when there was no word "father," nor any concept or knowledge of "fatherhood." Women, in the primitive perception, produced children for the community sui generis, or through the mysterious agency of an invading Spirit. This part of these anthropologists' theorizing provides for an element of "hiddenness" required by Girard's theories. But was there violence as well?

I want to leave Adam and Eve for the moment, and jump to the present to the work of James Gilligan, M.D., faculty member at Harvard Medical School. He had been chief psychiatrist for the State of Massachusetts' penal system, and wrote the book, Violence, in 1996 in which he concludes from his study of, and personal acquaintance with, his most violent prisoners, that patriarchal systems mandate violence. He writes, "The fundamental challenge for our time, I believe, is to break the link between civilization and patriarchy so that we can continue to receive the benefits of the former without having to pay the costs of the latter. If humanity is to evolve beyond the propensity toward violence that now threatens our very survival as a species, then it can only do so by recognizing the extent to which the patriarchal code of honor and shame generates and obligates male violence. If we wish to bring this violence under control, we need to begin by reconstituting what we mean by both masculinity and femininity." (p. 267)

If violence is endemic to a patriarchal society, as Gilligan says, and I believe he's right, we may ask what actual violence occurred at the beginning of patriarchy (and civilization, and history, and time) to start us off in that direction.

In Girard's psychological theorizing, he identifies the human propensities to "mimic" and to "desire" as the ultimate roots of violence. When baby A desires a toy that baby B holds, a rivalry for the object desired sets up, and a tugging match ensues. He calls this "mimetic rivalry." One human being mimics the desire of another human being for a given object, and rivalry follows.

I ask: What may have happened in a primitive community when it discovered the secret of male participation in procreation? Accepting Girard's theory, I believe that a mimetic rivalry sets up between men and women for the desired object, namely the children. Where men previously had no claim to producing the children that women were bearing, they now wish to claim full and exclusive production and ownership. "My doll, not yours!" becomes, "My child, not yours!" But for a man to know that a particular woman is carrying and bearing his child, he must keep her away from other men. In whatever else primitive patriarchal marriage may have consisted, it surely necessitated the sequestration of each woman by each man from all other men. From this circumstance an exclusionary rite of marriage would necessarily evolve, and an establishing of patriarchal households.

But prior to the evolution of patriarchal marriage, and immediately upon the discovery of paternity, the community would be faced with the problem of many existing children whose fathers could not be identified. Because the new patriarchal system would require the legitimizing of children, i.e., public recognition of the child's male parent (as in: man C begat child D), living children whose male parents could not be identified were probably slaughtered by men over the vigorous objections of women. Patriliny replaces matriliny.
'The fundamental challenge for our time, I believe, is to break the link between civilization and patriarchy so that we can continue to receive the benefits of the former without having to pay the costs of the latter.' James Gilligan, M.D.
The priority of the new word "father" over the established word "mother" must be gained and perpetuated at whatever cost. Several modern archaeological digs in the Mediterranean area have uncovered large numbers of remains of infant bodies collected together in funerary urns. The ritual sacrifice of first born male children was still being practiced in Judah in the 6th century BCE (See Under Every Green Tree, Susan Ackerman, Harvard Semitic Monographs 46, 1992). One may conjecture that until the length of the gestation period for humans became common knowledge, the legitimacy of every first-born child would be suspect, and that even after the nine-month pregnancy was certain, the killing of first-borns would have already been ritualized as a "sacrifice," and carried out anyway. This unprovable scripting of early human behavior would provide the violence needed for these conjectures to fall in line with Girardian theory. I offer this script as a reasonable but horrific description of the violence that lies behind the myth of Adam and Eve.

I equate the forbidden fruit "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" with "the knowledge of male participation in procreation." Once that knowledge is acquired, civilization, patriarchy, history, and time begin: first, with the slaughter of unnameable, unpatriarchable, children; second, with the curse of male domination and female sequestration; and third, with the establishment of male genealogy as the first basic structure of history (C begat D). But the terrible slaughter is quietly disremembered, and the historical/patriarchal community lives henceforth in denial of its violent origins. Rituals and prohibitions in all patriarchal societies thereafter are structured to prevent adultery and bastardy (the new and dangerous possibilities that were not dangerous or possible in prehistoric matrilineal cultures).

I believe this essay can be one of many possible historical interpretations of the myth of Adam and Eve, and may lead to interesting new attempts in Christology, anthropology, sociology, etc. I would also hope that it would prevent the present assumption by both Biblical literalists, and even some modern Biblical historians, that myth and history are necessarily antithetical. We can assume that they complement each other. Otherwise we are still left with two important questions: "What really happened (i.e. history as opposed to myth) at the beginning of time among men, women, and God?" and "Why not now abandon patriarchy (easier said than done) in order to reduce, and eliminate, violence in the world?"

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