By Lindsay Airey
2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” -Luke 18:2-5
To understand why the Persistent Widow jumps off her small passage in the biblical narrative, startles me into attention, and lovingly beckons me to see and follow her, I first need to give some context. I have been in an active process of 12-step Recovery for a little over a year now. This kind of Recovery is a process that, among other things, encourages me to practice loving myself enough to advocate for myself. It’s the kind of Recovery that’s been helping me to unlearn codependent ways—taking false responsibility for people, only to find myself all dried up at the end of the day.
As a woman, this caretaking for others runs especially deep. It can sometimes be a good and appropriate thing. But most of the time, for me, it masks my own deep need for love, and powerlessness to navigate relationships in a healthy enough way to expect and ask for a mutuality of love, justice and power. And it’s hidden in all the little micro-moves, expressions and decisions of my day.
I recently had the visual of this disempowerment brought home to me while watching another woman go through security at the airport. She smiled and apologized a lot, and was always vigilantly scanning at least five moves ahead for ways to caretake for others, all the while making sure to take up the least space possible, herself. I cringed watching her. She is too many women I know. More often than I care to admit, she is me. She is also the exact opposite of the white man ahead of us taking up as much space as he pleased—blissfully unaware of everyone else around him. At a visceral level, I wanted to trip him and shake her.
For a brief moment I wondered, how did we get to this place as a culture, where looking out for the community means diminishing the self? Due to a historical legacy of power imbalance, abuse and societal arrangements that privilege and give men power over us, leading to a deep internalization that we are only as good as who and what we spend our time propping up and caretaking for, far too many of us women spend our lives apologizing for taking up too much space, not being mindful enough of others’ comfort and needs, carrying the burden of walking on eggshells and making ourselves small so that others’ sensitivities, fragility and sense of power and dominance can be protected and go unthreatened.
Enter the Persistent Widow: a woman with no need of pity or charity, she is self-assured, determined and empowered. Knowing the grave injustice of her situation, she will not be held down by the chains of self-doubt and societal shame. She will not be shut up. She is upheld by Jesus as a model of what it looks like to be truly human and part of ushering in the kin-dom of God.
She has me thinking of all the “persistent widows” I have had the honor of witnessing, learning from, and following within the context of Beloved Detroit. Thank God for these embodied examples, who offer an alternative way to that of complicity and powerlessness. The Recovering woman in me takes note.
Enter Val, Debra and Monica: who, during a routine meet-up to canvass some neighborhoods targeted for water shutoff, instinctually jump to at the sight of a brother being surrounded by unmarked SUV’s on the nearest street corner.
These persistent widows run toward the scene, phone cameras drawn, as these unidentified police surround this defenseless street man, guns drawn execution-style.
These persistent widows raise their voices all the more when their demand for this anonymous, military-style squad to identify themselves is met with silence.
These persistent widows keep persisting as others stand by, resigned to the dominant narrative that if they are taking this man away, even without identifying themselves or where they’re from, then “he must have done something.”
These persistent widows, refusing to back down in the face of unchecked power, finally get a sheepish, “’We’re from the State,’ from one of the unidentified vigilante enforcers just as they are rolling away. They are too empowered and free to be pushed back on fear and timidity in the face of this blatant and all-too-routine oppression. They smell Death coming from a mile away, and say, “So? Is that all you got?” They know that what is in them is far stronger than anything the death-dealing powers of empire can dish out.
And thank God for Valerie Jean. Mother of five who has resisted her own water shutoff so many times I’ve lost count. The scarlet letter of the blue line of water shutoff fires her up all the more to get her neighborhood organized to resist this campaign of covert, PR-glossed genocide on poor, black and brown.
She “persistent widow-ed” me once. I was hesitating about participating in my first “slow down” as part of a campaign to raise general awareness of water shutoffs, foreclosures, school closings and more. I was hesitant to be so “rude” and “presumptuous” as to inconvenience people by causing them to sit in traffic on their commute home from work. She quickly responded, “Having your water shutoff is inconvenient. Being slowed down on your way home from work? To hear about those being cut off from basic necessities? I think they’ll be ok.”
I am a white, First world, middle class woman of extreme privilege. The persistent widow jumps off the biblical pages and invites me—and others of my station within white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, capitalist affluenza and domination—not to pity her, but to open our eyes and get saved: by getting in the game. To wake up to the ways we have been spiritually, politically and humanly impoverished by our arbitrarily granted privilege and power, and to throw in with those working to dismantle structures of oppression. To get free by loosing ourselves from the same systems of oppression which literally impoverish, kill, and back the many up against the wall, while we languish in the comfort and “security” granted us by the boot ever being placed on their necks.
This may not be the cruel world any of us chose to be born into, but as dear friend, mentor and persistent widow Lily Mendoza always reminds me, we may not be responsible for it (in the ultimate sense), but we are responsible to it. Since we are living, breathing creatures of conscience, we have agency to decide whether we will, or will not, play the counterfeit game that’s been set up for us.
Can we, especially those of us of greatest privilege, put ourselves on a path that gives us proximity to hear, let alone follow, this woman who models to us such faithfulness and power in resisting the death-dealing calculus of empire? We The People of Detroit’s Monica Lewis-Patrick recently remarked to a group of Loyola of Chicago students, “We all need to first honor ourselves enough to deputize ourselves into this struggle… and then make the sacrifices it’s gonna’ take.” The Boggs Center’s Tawana Petty followed up with, “A lot of times, we see people getting closer to God or Jesus, and further away from humanity…as people are dying all over this city from thirst and starvation.”
Can we regain our radical roots, un-learn fear, silence and isolation, and regain the persistence of this widow in the face of the Death that keeps coming for all we hold dear? Can we refuse to accept the inevitability of “the way things are” and get busy with life-giving, fear-defying risk, sacrifice and meaningfully living into alternative life-ways, more worthy of the ancient path Jesus and the prophets tread for us? The persistent widow leads us down collective roads of repentance, resistance and renewal, rather than the same old roads of repression, reticence and refusal.
Another way is possible. It is the way of hope-inspired, self-loving, gritty resistance—offering us a liberating detour from the tired road of resigned, hardened and complicit cynicism trod by the Judge and his good ole’ boys club. It is up to us (as it always has been) whether we will count the costs and consider ourselves, along with every other living being, worthy enough to throw in with those making a beautiful, more just way out of no way.
Given the choice, I’m throwing in with the widow. The question is not whether we will pity her or give her charity, it is whether we will see that she is the one Jesus’ grace-filled invitation to discipleship is beckoning us to follow. This is salvation. Can we honor ourselves enough to throw in with such a demanding and hope-filled way?