I’ve been reading Homage To A Broken Man, which I downloaded free from the Plough website; I just finished it this afternoon. It’s, well… not quite a biography– more of a promotional piece about Heinrich Arnold, the on-again off-again Bruderhof leader and son of the founder, Eberhard Arnold. I have a lot more opinions about it than I feel like writing up here at the moment, but I have to say that all in all it was a profoundly depressing chronicle, and not much of a recommendation for so-called community life. I’ve read a fair amount about the Bruderhof in the past, with a certain amount of misgiving about the tone and content of their material. This piece had a lot of historical detail which I hadn’t encountered before, especially about the period in Paraguay, but, honest and truly, in 2012, if you read about a charismatic, personality-focused, authoritarian, intentional community wrenching itself away from its first world context and the extended connections of its members, and transplanting itself to complete isolation in the South American jungle, alarm bells just go off all over– especially if you live in the Bay Area.
Anyway, the book focuses heavily on the power struggles which followed Eberhard’s death, and which lasted for decades, apparently; they weren’t pretty, to say the least, but what astonished me the MOST was the utter lack of spiritual authority accorded to his wife after he had departed. She is repeatedly referred to as the co-founder of the community, along with her husband and her sister, she functioned as his full partner, yet he seemed to completely dismiss any role she might have in the community’s future, other than as a kind of housemother, and in fact no one else seemed to expect anything more of her, including her own sons. Though she lived to be ninety-five, she was portrayed as little more than a victim or a friendly decoration.
I read some of her memoirs years ago, though they covered only a very early period. Why would she consign herself to such an insubstantial role in the community she brought into being and managed for years, and why would her husband? For me, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the complete suppression of female spiritual input had at least something to do with the really shocking emotional brutality which occurred as the community came unmoored from its roots.
I’m not saying women can’t be just as horrible as men, if they put their minds to it. And I’m not going to twist myself around too far defending the Catholic/Orthodox church’s approach to the legal status of women, BUT, I will say that, at a core level, women in the traditional church retain their spiritual autonomy and voice, and that seemed to be completely lacking here. Can you imagine the apostles having Mary in the house, and not being concerned one whit about her perspective on the spiritual health of the community, and its direction? I mean, maybe they didn’t make her keep the books, or decide which tractor to buy (for all I know, she was good at that), but would she have been ignored as the community’s spiritual heart?
Well, maybe by Paul.