In colonial America, as in other places where water was fetched and heated only with great effort, ablutions were a family process. One by one, beginning with the father, then the mother and continuing through the youngest child, all would bath in the same tub of water. Both parents, as well all the oldest kids, worked the fields and tended the livestock. Of course, children also played outside. Saturday, in order to be clean for Sunday church service, was the proverbial bath night. The old German proverb, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” had a very real meaning for early American settlers. Admittedly, even though the water was so tepid and dirty by the time the youngest of perhaps a dozen or more children were finished bathing that it would have been easy, it would have been ridiculously rare, if it ever happened at all, to loose a child in the muck. Rather than literal, the saying came to represent a frontier dweller’s value for resources similar to that expressed in the adage, “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”
In 1867, Presbyterian minister and professor, R.L. Dabney, in his A Defence of Virginia and the South, defended slavery and workplace exploitation as “the useful and righteous remedy [for] the ignorance and vice in the labouring classes.” To dismantle this institution would have presented hardships for the righteous people of the South. These “righteous” only included the landed gentry, of course. Dabney widely quoted Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle used the ‘bathwater’ proverb in 1853, when it was first published in English in his pamphlet, Nigger Question (my apologies, but this is the real name of the piece). Carlyle railed against the abolition of slavery as a traditional economic system in the British West Indies, blaming Britain’s lost income from sugar plantations on the emancipation of slaves some 15 years earlier. Carlyle also proclaimed a belief that blacks were created by God to serve whites. He proposed that ridding the West Indies of slavery, without replacing it with some other form of forced labour, was like “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
In a Community Evening talk in Cambridge, England a few short years ago, Barry discussed racism and civil rights in the United States – very accurately, I might add. Barry had attended seminary in the U.S. for a year as an exchange student, and had been shocked ta the persistent level of racism he encountered. Over dinner, Barry ran into disagreement from some present from the U.S. Evidently, things are much better than the image Barry painted. Really! From who’s point of view? It’s easy for members of the dominant culture to disavow the inequities experienced by those outside the club. The value of Barry’s observations was in the fact that they originated from someone outside the culture. This, of course, also presents difficulties. Once challenged by an outsider, the status quo will almost always react in opposition to what has been said.
On occasion I have discussed the gender issues I have found so prevalent in the U.S. and, since my stay there, in the U.K. The most common reaction has been to dismiss the situations as non-existent, and the subject is many times met with smirks. I have heard that, “it’s only in the last hundred years that women haven’t understood they are included when someone says ‘men’ or ‘mankind’.” I have been told that to change language and imagery in liturgy runs the risk of, “throwing out the baby …”, indicating, to me at least, the belief that much of what we consider good in the church is predicated on male hegemony. And I’ve heard that it is tradition that demands a male image of God.
The theology that justified keeping blacks oppressed included images of God as an old, white man. When black slaves in America were illegally taught to read, they found in the Bible a message in distinct opposition to the tradition of slavery-to a system of power and privilege based on the debasement of others-as well as a different concept of God that didn’t exclude them from being made in God’s image. Tradition, however, fought back to keep them in their place. Is it really any different for women?
The development of tradition usually takes a long, long time. At its best, it is the collective wisdom and treasure of generations. I have heard that the evolution of tradition can be compared to a process of fermenting the best fruits into fine wine – progressively concentrating the choicest characteristics of the fruit into a vintner’s delight. I think this image is possibly a tad optimistic. Being somewhat irreverent, I think it is also a process much like the familial, Saturday night bath. In reaction to ‘dangerous’ thought, doctrine developed to purify religious ideas. Over the generations, theology has been washed in the common bath of previous tradition-revealing not only what is good, but also possibly tainting it by concentrating that which may not be particularly healthy.
The last child in the bath may come out cleaner than it was, but may also be covered in a residue of filth of those that have bathed before. Tradition demands inspection-taking a good look at the “baby” to see if it is, in fact, washed clean of the prejudice of previous generations. It requires a process of looking for the biases and attitudes that developed due to maintaining self-interest or self-protection. If you prefer the wine-making analogy, any vintner will tell you that even the best grapes can sometimes produce vinegar due to the inclusion of “wild” yeast or other impurities. It can only be tested by opening the cask and tasting what is inside it. If we are going to cite tradition as authority, we had best be sure we know certain facts about its development-who, what, how and, especially, why. And then, of course, is that acid test – we actually need to taste the tradition to determine if it is the sweet concentration of good grapes, or a polluting vinegar being hailed as good because that same tradition says it should be.
This kind of rigorous examination of tradition should not stop at race or gender issues, but continue to be used to determine the validity of any tradition, especially one that excludes rather than embraces. Just as the traditional interpretations of scripture and culture that valued white over color and male over female have been tossed out with the dirty water of time, the tradition that excludes people of different abilities, sexualities and gender identities need to be vigorously sifted through. I am convinced that these proscriptions long ago turned to bitter vinegar – the spoiled grapes of a vintner intent on gaining an image of righteousness and virtue at the expense of easy targets – those in the minority. Not only is this not the traditional American way, it is counter to the message and ministry of Jesus Christ, which are always the best lenses through which to examine tradition.