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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Widows in Judeo-Christian, Hindu, and Facebook Morality

Mocking Michelle Bachmann or other, right-wing politicians on facebook.
Is this morality? 
Sati or Suttee: Burning widows alive. Is this morality? 
Allowing a widow, Ruth, and a foreigner, a Moabite, access to your food supply:
Is this morality? 

The Biblical treatment of widows warms my heart.

Recently I needed rides to medical treatment. Hospital personnel would say to me, "Have a family member drive you." Or, "You must have a family member accompany you upon release from the hospital."

Problem: I have no family. I'm not a widow; I'm a spinster. I'm a woman, and I'm alone.

I asked for rides on facebook.

Otherwise invisibly good people stepped forward and gave me rides and often declined payment.

I think of a facebook friend – "Harry." He is always loudly in favor of whatever the left has declared the moral stance of the day: "Sign this petition now for gay marriage! Get angry right now at Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachman or Republican Governor Sarah Palin or right-wing talk-show-host Rush Limbaugh! Sign this new petition right now against the war on women and to keep abortion safe and legal!"

In Harry's posts, moral fashions crest and retreat like ocean waves.

Harry lives close to me, on an inheritance. Doesn't have to punch a time clock.

Never offered me a ride to the hospital.

No, no, I'm not saying Harry's a bad guy. He's a good guy, a nice guy.

I'm saying that there are at least two kinds of morality at work here.

Facebook morality is a trendy morality, typified by flurries of stances of public outrage, caricatures of this moment's villain, and urgent petitions. I know that that morality is rooted in genuine care.

But there's another morality that has nothing to do with morality fashions orchestrated by the left. It has to do with more old fashioned, basic stuff: hunger, unemployment, isolation.

An awareness, and an articulation of basic, unglamorous, human need: I love this feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This person is hungry. He needs food.

This woman is alone. Give her a ride.

The Biblical treatment of widows warms my heart.

Widows are mentioned frequently in the Bible. One concordance lists 96 mentions of widows. I am very, very touched by the God who sees widows, who commands his people to care for widows.

God is not kidding when he says to take care of widows. "You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans" (Exodus 22:21-3).

God "executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing" Deuteronomy 10:18.

God commands, "At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town … the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do" Deuteronomy 14:28-29.

Ruth is a widow, a foreigner, and a heroine. She is also a role model to Jewish and Christian women, and one of Jesus's ancestresses.

Jesus reserves his highest praise for a widow: "As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 'Truly I tell you,' he said, 'this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'"


Cultural relativism tells us that all religions are the same. Those imbued with cultural relativism assume that all religions counsel kindness to widows.

Hindu tradition orders sati, or suttee. Widows must burn themselves alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands.

Sati comes from the Sanskrit "sat" for "truth," the root of "satygraha," what Gandhi called his movement.

During the British colonial period, Christians William Carey and William Wilberforce played a key role in ending sati. Sati continued into the 20th century in Nepal and Bali – not colonized by Britain.

Widows, in Hinduism, are inauspicious. They are associated with the death of their husbands. Wives are to fast and pray for their husbands. Wives are never to say their husband's name. Maybe she didn't fast enough, or pray enough, maybe she said her husband's name, and that's what killed him.

There's a less superstitious, more practical reason why widows are marginalized. A woman has value to the extent that she is currently meeting a man's needs, and, in exchange, to the extent that she is receiving a man's protection and a portion of his resources.

If a woman is not currently meeting a man's needs, she has no value. She has no share in resources. She is disincluded at mealtime. She may die slowly of malnutrition or mistreatment. One can see why some widows actually chose sati. It was a quicker death.

I lived in Nepal. I visited the home of a high-caste widow who shaved her head, wore no jewelry, and dressed only in white, the color of mourning and death. She was allowed only simple foods, no meat. Hindu women rely on wearing red, and on wearing wrist bangles and beaded necklaces. Denying all these to widows is almost like asking them to go naked. The white clothing, shaved heads and absence of bangles announce: "Widow! Inauspicious! Stay away!"


The BBC recently broadcast Anthony Denselow's report on Vrindavan, a city of widows in India. Excerpt:

"Widows in India no longer throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. But life for them can still be hard.

Considered inauspicious, many soon find they have lost their income and are ostracised in their home villages. Some are sent away by their husbands' families who want to prevent them inheriting money or property.

This is one unusual aspect of Indian society that the government might prefer the outside world not to see, despite all their genuine efforts to solve the problem.

Sondi is a tough 80-year-old whose husband died young, she had to bring up her four children by herself. It is her daughter-in-law who effectively threw her out, saying it was her own husband who kept the family going and "as you have not got a husband you will have to look after yourself."

Full text of the BBC story is here

A Hindu's take on Hinduism's treatment of widows is here

Widows in India, in some times and places, were denied the right to wear blouses to cover their breasts.
Source: Wikipedia 

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