On Taking Care, Part 2


Sieger Koeder, “The Washing of the Feet”

Carmen, in her casually incisive way, responded to my last post on working as a nanny with the following:

My question for you is this: how does being an actual servant change the way you see the Christian vocational call to servanthood?

This made me realize two things. First, I’d done that thing I do where I talk around a topic, narrating all the peripheral events and the emotions it brings up, without, somehow, ever actually addressing what I’d set out to. And second, answering her question was going to require a new post of its own.

What has my experience as a servant taught me about Christian servanthood?

First off, I’ve learned a lot about the mutability of human power structures, about their underlying falseness and even absurdity. People react fairly differently when I tell them I’m a nanny, versus when I used to tell them that I was a Ph.D. student at a high-prestige school. It’s absurd. I’m the same person–at least, mostly–as I used to be. I still like knitting and sewing, cheap red wine and expensive beer, and talking really loudly about theology on the train. (Sorry, people on the Red Line who didn’t really care about Open Table at 10 last night.) There are some ways in which the Mary of today is fairly different from that of two years ago–I have a lot less data on languages and biblical scholarship at my fingertips; on the other hand, I’m better at cooking healthy meals quickly and with the minimum of pots to wash, and I know a lot more about the range of human responses to suffering. But when people first meet me, their expectations are set in clear ways by my job title. And sometimes (not always, but often enough) actually getting to know me isn’t enough to overcome that powerful image of what a low-income domestic employee must be like.

This should not be new information for me. There is no reason for me to be all shocked and pearl-clutchy that people might make assumptions about my intelligence, ambitions, and drive based on my work. This was something I thought I already knew. And yet, I myself bought into the system. I made being a scholar the center of my identity. I thought I was detached about the academy and my place in it, that it wouldn’t matter to me where I was as long as I was doing good work, but (I have ruefully come to understand) I was one of the least detached people I know. So it’s been very difficult, but quite salutary, to learn–with the intimate knowledge of experience–how fallible, arbitrary, changeable, and ultimately absurd all of these power roles are.

Second: I’ve learned that I actually do like taking care of people. I sort of knew this already–it’s why I applied for the job–but it’s not just that I like the kids. I like taking care of the family. I like that my role makes the kids’ lives better (caregivers are better at it when they have breaks! Who knew!) and the adults’ lives easier. Being someone who helps others become all that they might be–this is my vision of personal vocation, and it’s good to be doing it in this immediate and concrete way.

There’s a line from Gosford Park that I have been thinking of while planning these posts. At the very end, Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, is speaking to a young woman in service for the first time:

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.

Without spoiling the plot, I’ll just say that this line is spoken in great bitterness and vexation of spirit. Mrs. Wilson takes pride in her skill, but you can feel, underneath the quiet resignation, rage that this anticipation of others’ needs has taken up her whole life. (Side note: Helen Mirren and everyone in that movie are SO WONDERFUL. GO SEE IT [again, if necessary]. It’s on Netflix!) But honestly, I don’t share her bitterness. I like being able to tell what people need, and being able to give it to them. And being good at this seems worth working toward.

Third: I think the difference between Mrs. Wilson and myself has to do with mutuality. My work is (at least much of the time) joyful, because the family I work for also takes care of me, in big and in small ways. They pay me a fair and steady wage that includes paid vacations and sick leave. They respect me as a person and, ultimately, as an equal. They have gone above and beyond in their support of me during my ongoing health issues. They don’t ask me to do work that they themselves are unwilling or unable to do. These things matter. And also: the kids love me. They are happy to see me, and they miss me over the weekend. They freely share with me what children have to offer, their goofiness and sly humor, their interminable and confusing stories, their hopes and fears, their desire to hang out with me, and their trust that I think they’re awesome. Which, conveniently, I do.

Mrs. Wilson is not so lucky. Her existence is wholly devoted to serving her employers, without their ever recognizing her humanity or caring about her well-being. Her sacrifices go unnoticed, taken for granted. Even that which makes her a good servant, her ability to anticipate what people will need, receives a cursory “I don’t know what we’d do without you” (a phrase which, it seems to me, tends to erase rather than recognize work). She is necessary but not appreciated. I’ve worked in these situations (cough *Starbucks*), where I was taking care of others without being taken care of in turn. No one knew or cared what it cost me to work grueling shifts at unpredictable hours, during a time when I was barely hanging on. I wasn’t being paid enough to support myself. Whether customers were polite or rude had, it was clear, virtually nothing to do with me. I felt trapped: I didn’t know how and when I would be able to find another job, but the work I was doing was physically exhausting and emotionally depleting. With mutuality of care, I find pride and satisfaction in taking care of others. Without it, I feel myself to be exploited.




Vermeer, “Diana and her Companions”

The passage I think of when I think of Christian servanthood is always the pericope from John 13, usually read at Maundy Thursday services:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…

 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.     (John 13:1-5, 12-17, NRSV)

What I like about this passage is that Jesus isn’t erasing or eliminating or ignoring structures of power and authority. They exist. They are a fact, and he’s not trying to make them go away. He talks, indeed, about the ways in which his life has conformed (in some ways) to power roles: “‘You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am.'” The disciples are his true and intimate friends, but they are also his disciples, his students, and those divisions are real. Real, but, as he shows, not solid. Real, but not immutable. Jesus can be their teacher, the example they strive to emulate, and also the person who cares for them in these inescapably awkward and close ways. Jesus does not erase power; he plays with it, upends it, shows the gap between the roles we give one another and the true tender selves who inhabit those roles. In his hands, power structures become the very locus of intimacy, where before they were the barrier to it.


On Taking Care

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ for you?

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

“You don’t look like a nanny,” says the Doctor to Clara.

I am catching up on Doctor Who. We’re with the Eleventh Doctor: manic, boastful, a bright and petulant child making up imaginative games with arbitrary rules; how convenient that this new companion be a nanny. Or, well, not exactly a nanny, because she’s way too pretty and quick-witted and shiny-haired and young to be anything so mundane as just a nanny. She takes care of children whose mother died a year previously; she meant to travel the world, but then the friends she was staying with suffered this loss, and out of the goodness of her heart, she’s stayed on. As a sort of…nanny. Only not.

What does it mean to be a servant today? “Domestic employee” is the official parlance; I know this because, unlike Clara, I am a real live nanny. And this is a puzzling place for me to be.

Let me be clear: I really, really like my job. I’m proud of the work that I do, and I dearly love the family I take care of. Also, my boss cares a lot about employee rights, so they take pretty great care of me as well. I have a deep gratitude for my specific situation.

But when I take the kids out and about, I see some interesting sides of people. For example, the majority of people tend to think I’m the mother of my charges. I assumed that it would be obvious that I’m not—for starters, I’m white, they’re South Asian. But no. On my charitable days, I think, “Wow, isn’t it nice that people are comfortable with the possibility of interracial families.” When I’m feeling bitter, I reflect that we all just assume that brown people serve white people, not the other way around.

What I find working in this job is that I’m in a sort of liminal space. Like Clara, people tell me that I don’t “look like” a nanny, or that I’m not a “typical” nanny; or they ask me what I’m planning on doing next (because this obviously isn’t a career for me). These are not-unkind comments, coming from good people, and in a sense they’re absolutely right. I’m white, and I’m highly educated, and (my financial insecurity notwithstanding) I know how to speak the language of wealth. I learned how to ski as a child. I studied Latin at a prep school. I myself had a nanny growing up. And these things matter. One way to express the divide that I feel is to say: on the playground or in the children’s room at the library, the mothers tend to talk to one another, and the career nannies tend to do the same. Whom do I talk to? With whom do I have more in common?

Which brings me back around to the quote with which I began. When we think of Christian servanthood, we think, as Carmen put it in a Gchat conversation, of “doe-eyed paintings of Jesus washing people’s feet.” We think of Pope Francis, causing a scandal by washing the feet of women and non-Christians. We think of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Perhaps we think of mission trips to far-flung places, and building schools for bright-eyed children to sing songs in. I’m not sure that we think very hard or very often about what it is like actually to be a servant; to be someone who makes her living by taking care of people’s most basic needs. I know I never used to.

It is difficult to be a poor person in a wealthy church. It is difficult even for me, who is probably not technically poor. It’s not supposed to be difficult, but it really is. It was difficult, when I was searching fruitlessly for work, to sit patiently through sermons on how “we” are all so busy that we don’t have time for contemplation; it remains difficult, when even thrift store clothes shopping feels like an unwarranted luxury, to listen to sermons on how “our” lives are full of material distractions but empty of spiritual fulfillment. It is difficult to make the decision that no, we genuinely can’t afford to pledge this year, and to feel like a freeloader, and to feel guilty when I choose to spend $3 on a cup of tea rather than put it in the collection plate. It is difficult for me to talk about these things. Perhaps they are personal and specific to my situation, or perhaps they are symptomatic of a larger pattern. I suspect the latter, but I do not know.

Before working as a nanny, I worked briefly at Starbucks. I’d worked in coffee shops in college and enjoyed it, but doing it full-time was pretty awful. I remember an exchange with a friend from church, who is ordinarily deeply kind and empathetic. I told him where I worked. His response: “Wow, that must be such a tough job, having to be on your feet and talking to people all day. I could never do that kind of work.” I thought (but did not say): You know what? You really could. If that was what it took to pay the rent, you could do it.

So many of my posts end up feeling like the fragmentary start of a conversation rather than a completed thought, and this one is especially so. What do you think—about what being a servant is, and what it means? About what it can teach us as a church?

Cui Bono?

This week I am teaching one of my favorite topics to discuss–the death penalty.  We begin the chapter by watching Dead Man Walking and then get into the moral arguments and the practical realities of the death penalty in America.  This chapter comes near the end of a year long morality class, so we’ve been practicing all year how to identify and analyze moral arguments.  As we discussed some statistics about prisons and the justice system, we started talking about the why.  Why are American prisons beset with recidivism? Why is the greatest concentration of crime found in predominantly black neighborhoods? Why are the conditions in American prisons so terrible and how did they get to be so corrupt?    While my students are becoming adept at parsing moral issues, the questions they ask aren’t usually about morality–they are usually about power.  

As you might imagine, discussing a topic as sensitive as death penalty with teenage girls is difficult, but not because it is too serious or potentially political (though it certainly is).  It is difficult because they don’t quite know how to analyze power yet.  We got into a contentious discussion yesterday about voting rights for incarcerated and convicted felons.  Most of the conversation revolved around how unfair it is that a felon who has served his/her sentence can’t vote–which is great.  Having a student voice frustration around an injustice means that she’s successfully understood the justice concerns and may have emotionally invested in the issue.  But I tried to push them into deeper analysis of the issue by asking–who do you benefits if convicted felons don’t vote?  Crickets.  Blank faces.  You could hear a pin drop.

However, I can’t blame my students.  Asking who benefits is actually just asking–who holds all the power in this circumstance?  And who is trying to hold onto their power?  I’m not surprised they first, don’t know how to analyze power, and second, don’t know that they *have to* analyze power.  I don’t think I really understood politics or how to analyze power until well into college or graduate school.  Even now, compared to my more politically engaged friends, I don’t always immediately see the political ramifications of new laws or alliances, and I find shows like The West Wing and House of Cards stressful because I constantly have to be pointedly thinking…cui bono?  But this conversation with my students really struck me because I left the classroom thinking–they should be able to do this, and I should be able to teach it to them.  And it definitely belongs in a religion class.

What I think I was lacking in my conversation with my students was a solid, faith based explanation of power.  I can explain political power, or economic power to a group of students.  But the nexus of faith and power is trickier.  Essentially, the Church needs a theology of power.*  Power is intricately related to how we behave in the world and what our lives are like.  Power can be economic, social, political, moral, structural, intellectual–it affects nearly every area of our lives.  So it is only natural to conclude that power impacts our faith lives.  So my basic questions that lead me to consider a theology of power are:  how does the fact that we profess a faith in Jesus affect how we see power?  And conversely, how does the way we use power affect our faith?  Christianity has pretty clear articulations on justice and how to act justly in the world.  But what about power?  Power, quite often, is the foundation of justice–power used appropriately brings about justice, and used inappropriately, it perpetuates injustice.

Now, I am not one of those theologians who believes that we need A Theology of Everything (a theology of sitting!  a theology of 15th century women poets!  a theology of that one time you saw God in a grilled cheese!)  God can indeed be found everywhere and every created good does point back to the reality of God, so a good theologian could write a theology of everything.  But, good theology doesn’t just ask and answer theoretical, academic questions.  Good theology advances our understanding of God in the world.  So  when I say “we need a theology of power” I am not trying to say “here, theologians.  You’re probably bored–write this theology.”  I really do think that attempting to understand how power works in the world can say something about God, and looking at how God works in the world can tell us something about power.

I learned the phrase “cui bono” through my studies in feminist theology.  Feminist theology does a really great job of asking–who benefits from women’s oppression?  Whose power increases when women’s power decreases?  Similarly, black liberation theology asks those questions of racism and racial prejudice.  But what I’m asking for is a look at power as a whole.  Feminists have already written extensively on structural power and its damaging effects.  But power isn’t always oppressive, and a theology of power wouldn’t necessarily conclude that the exercise of power is always negative.  Indeed, the fact that God acts in the world powerfully and exercises power on behalf of God’s people (i.e.: the Exodus story, the destruction of Jericho, the “power of God” that is the cross, as referenced in 1 Corinthians 1:22, etc) is already an indication that when God acts powerfully, the results can be confusing.  It’s definitely good, for example, that God freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery…is it good that God intervened so that Israelites could murder Canaanites in the Battle of Jericho?  Maybe not.  So I think we need to take a step back and look more critically and power as a whole, not just examples of oppressive power or power over someone, structurally or otherwise.

I think because of the breadth and depth of this topic, this will not be the last I write about a theology of power, but rather, a beginning to the conversation.  My goal in trying to articulate a theology of power is two fold: first, to understand something about God and about power, and second, to be able to explain to my students what power and God have to do with one another.  I’m driven to this discussion because, if it deals with justice, it influences how we can live out our Christian commitment to love our sisters and brothers.  And if it confuses my students, then it matters to people of faith, people trying to understand how to live according to our faith.  I’m not sure there are two better reasons for a theological reflection than those.


*If you know of a good theology of power that has been written already, do share!