taking the words of Jesus seriously

My friend’s attitude pissed me off. I shouted, “Are you kidding me? Taking care of my grandchildren is the only thing I’ve ever done I feel entirely happy about! Anyway, Jesus liked hanging out with women and kids too! So f*&! you!”

Let me explain…

I’d just picked up Lucy and Jack at kindergarten and preschool when a friend called. Jack goes to preschool three days a week and Lucy goes to kindergarten five days a week. My grandchildren attend in the morning and my wife Genie and I take care of them every afternoon. Picking up the children has evolved into quite a ritual. I prepare snacks for them, usually sliced apples for Jack and a banana for Lucy, and/or Greek black olives and sliced tomatoes for her and cheese and crackers for him. The twenty minute drive home usually involves a stop to watch the 1: 09 PM train from Newburyport to Boston go under the bridge on Route 1-A and sometimes a stop at a local farm to feed the animals. Trains are Jack’s big thing. The driver always sounds the bell and blows the horn when we wave.

So anyway, this friend happened to call soon after we got home. I was watching the children paint a huge picture on fifteen feet or so of butcher paper I’d just unrolled across the kitchen floor when my friend asked me what I was doing. I answered, “I just picked up the grand-kids, ” then without thinking I added, “I love hanging out with the other young mothers at preschool.”

There was a pause in our conversation while my friend — a successful entertainment attorney in LA who I’ve liked, worked with and bickered and fought with for years — processed my words. He repeated my statement with an ironic inflection on the word “other.” “The other young mothers?” he said several times and laughed. I laughed too. Still– my inadvertent remark made sense to me. When I pick up Lucy and Jack I’m one of the few men at the preschool and the only grandfather. One or two dads come in and hurriedly collect their kids. They’re entering an almost exclusively females-and-children zone where only women care for the kids, a throng of mothers gathers and everything is on a child’s scale, from the-low-to-the floor potties, to the small chairs gathered around tables loaded with finger paints. The outnumbered fathers scamper in and out as if to linger might cast doubt on their manhood.

Related: On respect, responsibility, and Mrs. Hall’s open letter to teenaged girls

After a year of my showing up almost every day, the moms are used to me. We know each others’ names. Some moms know I’m a writer, so the unkempt look is explained. One mom must have looked me up online because she discovered I’d been on Oprah and other TV shows. Even a minor celebrity gets cut some eccentric artist slack, at least in our friendly-to-writers Boston area. These days I could show up in my bathrobe and slippers and no one would mind. I’m just one of the gang.

“We” young mothers discuss which child of ours has a cold and how fast we’re all going to catch it, which child wakes up in the night, the quantum leap a little girl suddenly made with her drawing skills, who is pregnant with her second or third child, (even I draw the empathy line there), strategies for helping a little boy who is scared of pooping, the new job one mom just got and how happy she is because at last she has health care insurance, and a single mom’s trouble organizing her childcare schedule, now that she’s on the night shift at the hospital where she’s a nurse.

For once everyone in the room knows what the person next to them is experiencing. No matter who we are to the outside world, here, together with our children, we’re at our most transparent. Unconditional love leaves no place to hide. There is terror in our love too. Every child we’re meeting represents the most important part of our lives. Every mother knows her life hangs by a frail thread. Her well-being is utterly dependent on the vulnerable little human being who has kidnapped her heart. With complete love comes the fear of complete loss.

So when my friend teased me good naturedly I was annoyed. He was just kidding and we’re very old friends, but I detected a note of condescension, maybe even a bit of pity in his voice. He was sitting in a plush Santa Monica office with a view of the Hollywood sign. He lives in a world where life’s meaning is measured by meeting the “right” people. Been there, done that, though I’ve long since abandoned the movie business where, in the 1970s and 1980s, I’d directed four forgettable feature films, as well as some thirty hours of documentaries. Since leaving “the business” I’ve become a full time writer of fiction and nonfiction and am able to work out of my home and therefore lucky enough to have reorganized my life around my grandchildren.

In my new book And God Said, “Billy!” exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, I make a point of making one of “my” women the hero of the book, and also of exploring just how the so called church has failed women. In my mind you can more or less judge an entire culture by simply asking one question: How do they treat women? And: How do they treat children?

In America childcare doesn’t rate high on the list of sexy let alone cool, jobs. Maybe that’s why my friend wanted some reassurance that I was still writing, and hadn’t given up on my literary career to “just take care of those kids.” He said, “Haven’t you already raised your family? I mean can’t they just get a babysitter or something?” Like I said, my friend’s attitude pissed me off. I shouted, “This is the only thing I’ve ever done I feel entirely happy about!”Then, I added,  “Anyway, Jesus liked hanging out with women and kids too! So f*&! you!” I’m not sure that counted as “sharing the gospel” with my “unsaved Jewish friend, ” as my evangelical missionary mother would have put it. But still, logical or not, that remark cut to the heart of what I believe about Jesus, life and what matters.

What’s unusual, given the Middle Eastern/Roman Empire first century context, are the stories about Jesus reaching out to inconspicuous women on the fringes of society. Transposed to today’s Hollywood the stories about Jesus liking women are as unlikely as a story would be about a hot young director canceling his pitch meetings with the heads of the studios after years of trying to break into the business, to instead, just hang out at preschool with mothers and kids! Now that’s something it’s hard to believe anyone would make up!

Even that analogy fails to capture how unlikely it was that the stories about Jesus hanging out with all the “wrong people” were made up. For a start the people writing them down disapproved of his inclusive actions. And if the story of Jesus blessing a menstruating woman for surreptitiously touching him was calculated to make other first century Jews “accept Jesus, ” then the gospel writers were the worst public relations men in history. They might as well have claimed Jesus drank pig blood every day for breakfast. Leviticus 15:25 says, “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time her [period], or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her [period], all the days of her discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. … Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as [unclean]. … Everything on which she sits shall be unclean … Whoever touches these things shall be unclean.”

However much it must have made his chroniclers cringe they reported that Jesus publicly identified with diseased outcasts, even with an “unclean” bleeding women! And Jesus’ thoroughly un-first-century “icky” antics didn’t stop with lepers and menstruating women. He held a dead girl’s hand! Jesus did this notwithstanding explicit commands in the Scriptures such as “He shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother, ” (Leviticus 21:11).

And after touching lepers, and the dead, Jesus hung out with whores!

The fact that Jesus was seen as having friendly public contact with women and other nobodies was bad enough. That alone was an act of rebellion against all the things good upright self-regarding male Jews believed in. But Jesus’ whore-embracing was a double slap in the face to the Bible-thumpers. In their minds it put Jesus on the side of the pagan, prostitute-condoning Roman occupiers. Yet, the anointing of Jesus by a prostitute is one of the few events reported in each of the four gospels. Jesus is willingly anointed with expensive perfume and– he likes it! There are protests by his followers, not to mention by Jesus’ enemies– the religious leaders of his day. Matthew’s gospel says that the “disciples were indignant.” Luke calls the woman doing the anointing, “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life” — which is a nice way of calling her a hooker.

The Jesus story is still out of sync with the way we treat females. Rather, we’re still out of sync with Jesus. Women are still abused, raped, killed, marginalized, belittled and insulted. And females come in for an extraordinary amount of abuse online, especially women writers who express opinions about women’s rights. They are attacked viciously in ways few men are with lashings of sexual innuendo, threats of violence and worse. One in three American women live on the brink of poverty. Few women have sick days at work and zero flexibility to care for children when their kids are ill. An observer from another planet, who looked strictly at the numbers of women earning minimum wage with no access to good child care and health care, would conclude that America is a country that hates women, hates children and is working to destroy families.

Also by Frank: Mass Killing is our Idea of Patriotism

And, we’re still obsessed by the “otherness” and “uncleanness” of female bleeding! Disparaging talk about women’s menstrual cycles is as ubiquitous as it was two thousand years ago, and just as stupid. Today’s Pharisees talk about “monthly work loss.” Politicians, and fundamentalists cite menstruation as yet another “proof” that only men can serve God and country, or be priests or ministers. They insist that women are “equal, just different.” These are the same bigoted fools who say that because Jesus “only had male apostles” that there can’t be female priests. Why stop there? Jesus never used antibiotics in his healing ministry either!

As for Jesus’ so-called followers today,  when it comes to attitudes about women we still might as well be in first century Israel. Given the example set by Jesus you’d think the churches created in his name would have led the way on women’s rights. You’d think political leaders from so called Bible-belt states would be leading the charge on raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing maternity and paternity leave, bringing older working women back into the education loop and fighting for early childhood education programs: IN THE NAME OF THEIR FAITH.

The opposite has been the case. As they say in Italy, “the fish rots from the head.” When it comes to churches setting an example, there hasn’t been a female pope in two thousand years of church history. The Roman Catholic bishops and their far right loony evangelical culture war co-belligerents, have even led the fight to deny women health care insurance coverage for contraception! Meanwhile in the so-called Bible belt of the USA, church attendance hovers at around fifty percent. Social services are minimal. Women are banned from most evangelical and all Roman Catholic and Orthodox pulpits. Child care funding is minimal. The mostly evangelical GOP wants to cut food stamps. And the“Tea Party” congressmen thrive on the lies they tell about America’s first black president while also trying to stop his programs to give healthcare coverage to everyone and insurance coverage to women for contraception! So much for… following Jesus.

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