For years my brother has listed simply “Sam Cooke” under religious views on his Facebook profile. I suppose those not close to my brother think this to be a rather tongue in cheek declaration of atheism, at worst, or agnosticism, at best. However, privileged as I am to be his sister, best friend and compatriot in musical taste, I know that my brother’s devotion to the music of soul singer and Civil Rights Movement icon, Sam Cooke, comes from a deeply Christian place.
The longest running argument in our family has pitted my brother and me squarely against our father with Sam Cooke in the middle. Tommy and I maintain that, regardless of Bob Dylan’s authorship, Sam Cooke’s interpretation of Blowing in the Wind is the definitive version. My father’s young adulthood as a hippie flowerchild deluded him into thinking that Bob Dylan’s voice is pleasant. But, our very favorite Sam Cooke song is Hem of His Garment. The song is an interpretation of Matthew 9: 19-23; Jesus’ healing of a woman who, having suffered twelve years from hemorrhages, touches the hem of his cloak and is cured by the steadfastness of her faith in Him.
This morning in our worship service we heard a story from Papua New Guinea that has stayed with me all day and led me to reflect on this story from Matthew and my relationship to it. A pregnant woman, a woman who loves to dance, starts to hemorrhage during childbirth. The Salvation Army is called and arrives on the scene with a car to take the woman to a hospital. The woman’s husband will not allow his wife to enter the car because she is bleeding so profusely she is sure to ruin the interior of the car. The husband does not want to be held responsible for any damage to the car. The local caregivers agree with the husband. Nothing can convince them to allow the woman to get in the car and she consequently dies in childbirth. Similarly, the woman in the story from Matthew, because of constant menstrual hemorrhaging, is deemed unclean. Under Jewish law she cannot be touched. She is on the margins of society: isolated and vulnerable.
Sam Cooke’s version of the story goes like this:
Oh, She spent her money here and there
until she had no, had no more to spare,
the doctors, they’d done all they could
but their medicine would do no good.
When she touched Him The Savior didn’t see
but still He turned around and cried
‘Somebody touched me’
It was I who just wanna touch the hem of Your garment,
I know I’ll be made whole right now’
She stood there crying
‘Oh Lord, Oh Lord and Oh Lord, Oh Lord’
Jesus does not turn away from the touch of an unclean woman. Nor does he claim the miracle of her healing for himself, but says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Shortly after worship, with the stories from Papua New Guinea and Matthew heavy in my heart, I attended the Center for Reproductive Right’s panel on the Rights of Women living with HIV/AIDS. The panel started with the testimony of a young woman from Namibia named Esther who shared her story of forced sterilization. Esther introduced her story by saying, “I am HIV positive and I am angry.” Surely, hers is a righteous anger. When Esther went into labor with her son the doctors and nurses, those charged with her care, asked her if she wanted to be sterilized during childbirth. Esther refused. She was later put under general anesthesia and sterilized anyway. She did not learn of the procedure until three years later when she went to a clinic for contraceptives. When a nurse at the clinic told her contraceptives were unnecessary because she had been sterilized Esther was told that she should be thankful for having received sterilization free of charge.
In our conversations around the subject of gender based violence, we will do good if we keep close these stories; of the woman who dances in Papua New Guinea, of the woman who clings to the hem of Jesus’ garment, and of Esther who is righteous in her anger. Yesterday, in the panel on Positive Masculinites we reflected on the story of Tamar and accepted the challenge of talking in our churches about rape. The church’s silence on the reproductive rights of women risks our complicity in global conspiracies of discrimination against pregnant women. I hope, as we reflected on the story of Tamar, we can reflect on the story of Esther, and that we accept the challenge to tell her story, and the stories of women around the world suffering similar human rights violations, in our churches.