Monday, September 24, 2007

On Juanita Bynum

The New York Times wrote about the case of Juanita Bynum, a wealthy and popular black evangelist, last week:

The attack in a hotel parking lot here last month was remarkable not only because the victim, Juanita Bynum, is the most prominent black female television evangelist in the country, who is pals with Oprah, admired by Aretha, and who recently signed on to campaign for Obama.

It was shocking, especially to legions of women who had latched onto her message that only chastity and self-respect would bring true love, because the attacker who choked, stomped and kicked her, Ms. Bynum said, was her husband.

The episode has led to debate about domestic violence and how churches, particularly black churches, respond to it.

Bynum's message to women appears to have lots about the benefits of submission to the godly authority of their husbands:

The couple separated in June, a fact not made public until the assault case arose. Mr. Weeks was subsequently evicted from his house and threatened with eviction from the space rented by his church.

Mr. Weeks has not granted interviews but has made several statements, saying there is more to the story and apologizing that Christians have had to endure this ordeal.

But during the marriage, Ms. Bynum publicly focused on the duties of a Christian wife, counseling women to give their husbands plenty of sex and to ask them, "Do I please you?"

About this time, Ms. Bynum glamorized her own look, trading a bun for a hair weave, picture-perfect makeup and plastic surgery that she discussed on the BET network. Her wardrobe went from ankle-length skirts to casual chic and glittering jewelry.

In the seminars, she sermonized, "I don't care what kind of husband you got, that's your covenant vow, and you have a responsibility to make him feel like he's a wonder when you know he ain't."

The whole article is worth reading, but it isn't enough for proper understanding of the events. I suspect that one needs to know a lot more about the Pentecostal Church to understand the significance of some of the phrases. I have the impression that the Pentecostals disapprove of women working outside the home and certainly disapprove of women in leadership roles, but I may be wrong here. Still, the "prophetess" quip in the article must be interpreted within the Pentecostal tradition.

My reason for writing this post has to do with Amanda's post on the same topic and on what zuzu wrote about Bynum's decision to now take up the cause of domestic violence. The bit in Amanda's post which made me think furiously is her argument that it wasn't Bynum's patriarchal ideas which made her a victim of domestic violence (apparently with two husbands):

But even my comment veers unreasonably close to victim-blaming, because Bynum's patriarchal ideas did not bring this on her. I don't want to indulge the same mistake and suggest that being a feminist who rejects sexist teachings like "why buy the cow" will be any protection against domestic violence. It won't. The myth I struggle against is that women can do something definitive to protect themselves, that there's some sort of "good girl" ideal—feminist or patriarchal—that can prevent rape or domestic violence or other assaults upon your dignity. The abuse aimed at women comes because they are women and it is womanhood that's hated, not specific manifestations of it, whether they are the good girl manifestation or the good feminist one.

I struggled with this quite a lot. On the one hand, I get Amanda's point. On the other hand, something in me argues that it's not quite right. On the third hand, she hits the jackpot when she notes that there isn't "some sort of "good girl" ideal - feminist or patriarchal - that can prevent rape or domestic violence". But I still found myself feeling that Bynum's teachings were not unrelated to the domestic violence she experienced in some way not yet clarified.

Zuzu's post on the reactions of the conservative Christians to the announcement that Bynum now will focus on domestic violence in her public work gave me further clues on what it was that I was gnawing over:

Like I said, I don’t know whether there have been previous violence in the relationship. But, oh, is she getting a blowback for reporting the incident:

Outspoken conservative minister and radio talk show host, Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson is asking: how can Juanita Bynum be the poster child for domestic abuse before we know the truth about her role in this altercation?

“Domestic violence is wrong whether the victim is a woman or man,” said Rev. Peterson. “Juanita Bynum, however, is not called by God and she’s hardly the ‘new face of domestic abuse.’ It’s impossible for a God-fearing woman to exploit her marital problems for personal gain and publicity. There are two sides to every story and like too many domestic abuse cases the husband is being tried and convicted based on a one-sided account.”

Peterson, a useful tool of the GOP, has a wee problem with women. He blames mean black women for fatherless homes (and, as a bonus, for New Orleans’ current problems). Not real fond of gays, either.

Peterson seems to be objecting to Bynum’s failure to meekly and passively accept that her husband has a right to stomp on her and choke her in an airport parking lot; instead, she’s decided to speak out and focus on intimate-partner violence:

Bynum, 48, is a national televangelist whose loud and aggressive style has become increasingly popular among black female churchgoers. At her press conference this week, Bynum stated, “My focus is not the marriage. My focus is me repositioning myself mentally to accomplish a new purpose [domestic violence cause] that God has given me.” . . .

Bynum reportedly attended a fundraising event for Barack Obama this past Saturday where she planned to talk with Obama about national domestic violence concerns. Oprah Winfrey was hosting the event.

Loud and aggressive women make Peterson’s, um, Peter unhappy:

“Juanita Bynum’s comments and actions prove that she’s an angry, out-of-control woman. God wouldn’t have her discard her marriage in order to promote the domestic abuse issue or any other phony cause,” Rev. Peterson said.

Ah, yes. She’s “angry” and “out of control.” Domestic violence is a “phony issue.” Sweep it under the rug, gentlemen!

Thinking is hard work! Like groping in the dark for matching socks in the socks-and-weapons drawer. In any case, what zuzu shows us is that the conservatives object to Bynum being anything but a quiet and humble woman who has passed all her thinking power over to her husband or to her church. She is not supposed to be a public person. Domestic violence is a "phony issue".

All this matters, because Bynum's public message used to be that women have the power to have good marriages, pretty much by being submissive in a sneaky way, a way which ultimately makes them managers of their marriages where the guy is led by the nose but in a way he will adore. But the price is steep for the women, too: They will have to pretend that they are happy with whatever the man decrees.

And here, finally, is my tentative conclusion on what Amanda said about domestic violence and the interactions of it with Bynum's preaching messages: It is indeed true that a woman as an individual cannot act in a way which escapes all chances of domestic violence. To assume so is the ultimate form of victim blaming, where the victim is seen as powerful enough to arrange the world into a better shape.

And it is indeed true that all this discussion so far has focused on Bynum as the victim without nothing much having been said about the perpetrator of the violence, her husband, Thomas W. Weeks III. We have focused on Bynum and her downfall and whether she let her followers down or not.

At the same time, Bynum's message about women being in charge of how their marriage would turn out was really a triple let-down. First, she was supporting and promoting a system where domestic violence could thrive, where women were encouraged to stay with men even if those men were not at all what a good husband would look like. Second, she was selling the idea that women within this system had the power, and therefore the responsibility, to make it work. Third, she ignored the obvious evidence (given in Zuzu's quote) that this hidden management by women would never be accepted by the conservative Christians themselves.

What would all this mean for a follower of Juanita Bynum's sermons? She might be encouraged to marry a man who shows signs of being an abuser. She might then be encouraged to believe that she can control the abusive behavior by being an abject doormat wife. And she would then be held responsible for the abuse because she wasn't quite abject enough.

This would make battery within marriages more likely, and this is the reason why I do think there is a valid connection between the domestic violence Weeks inflicted on Bynum and her patriarchal values. She was not punished for those values, true. But those values certainly left her less able to choose relationships which offer the promise of mutual friendship and affection.