With the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg last week, my wife and I felt a strong need to immerse in ‘something Ruth’ — as I suspect did many of us, impacted as we were by this extraordinary woman’s life and achievements. We settled on a watch of On The Basis Of Sex, a biopic documenting her days as a young lawyer, wife, mother, and passionate advocate and activist.
A scene near the film’s beginning portrays RBG attending one of husband Marty’s second-year Harvard law classes in his stead — as he battled, at the time, a disabling cancer diagnosis. The professor, Paul Freund, begins with his oft quoted assertion about the law:
The Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably . . . by the climate of the era.
Contained therein, at once, is the need for consistent, established, grounded parameters and precedents by which individual circumstance is evaluated and ‘judged’; and a readiness and openness to evolve, to reflect not only history, but current, defining standards, understandings, realities. The film dramatizes RBG’s application of this figural principle as she begins a long (long) process of revisiting laws that are, perhaps inadvertently or even with ‘good initial intention’ (‘protecting women!’), in the current ‘climate’, discriminatory and gender biased. An irony explored as well is the opposing strategy of piling up law after law, framed around similar ‘principles’ (gender biases) as an argument for stasis, too burdensome to be considered. RBG takes the pile as a shopping list for change.
What resonated for me, far beyond the content of the film, is a broader conundrum: the demand to reconcile history with current reality; the critical need to learn from what was — but also to ‘extend the law’, to allow context to inform our choices, decisions. For some of us there is an inherent anxiety around change. The unseating of the familiar, the comfortable and well-trod paths is often resisted — raising for us the spectre of uncertainty, the unknown, the chaotic. Equally, for others the prospects of retaining the status quo for the sake of sameness, what’s always been, is abhorrent. What RBG embodied was the blending of these two maxims: a willingness to explore ‘what’s wrong’ with, anachronistic about an existing state; and to provide a pathway forward — viable, contemporary alternatives. The baby is not thrown out with the bathwater — but equally is not compelled to languish in a tepid, tainted pool.
Some years ago, I had the good fortune to hear Marcus Borg, a teacher and theologian, speak about an ‘historical-metaphorical’ reading of the Bible. At the time, I’d spent a good part of the preceding forty years quite happily ‘in the wilderness’ — sufficiently disenchanted with all things ‘churchy’, that, since my early twenties, I had no desire to darken any such doors. I’d also recently returned from a trip to the UK and a (completely unexpected) attraction for traditional sung Evensong services held daily in the cathedral we were visiting — a practice in place for the past 400 or so years — and largely unchanged. Borg provided the crucible wherein these strange and apparently opposing bedfellows could be mixed. I’d struggled with the fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of a liturgy that felt completely out of synch with the 20th (and now 21st) century applications; but still wished to hear the music and appreciate the traditions of an established spiritual tradition. It appeared that I could indeed have my cake and eat it too!
A core dilemma lies not in the ‘rightness’ or ‘timeliness’ of one or the other — the historic or the contemporary. It lies in the setting of these two polarities up against each other as absolutes, the black or white ‘truth’ one or the other of which must be championed — without one informing, improving, tempering the other. And all too often the stage on which this battle appears is the court. Recall the Monkey Trials pitting an evolution-teaching high school instructor, John Scopes, against his home state, a decidedly fundamentalist Tennessee.
Courts, by their very nature are built around an adversarial system, seen, perhaps simplistically, as providing a winner and a loser. RBG has allowed us to focus on the process, wherein each case is seen not as an end in itself — but as another brick in the wall of change. Very occasionally these individuals present, not as flag bearers for one side or the other; but as conciliators, less intent on winning and more on consciousness raising, less targeting the right or wrong and more on improving and contemporizing. And, like RBG, they are in it for the long haul.
As a parting image, consider Alan Watts description of Indra’s Web and the interconnectedness of us all:
Imagine a . . . spider’s web in early morning, covered in dew. Each drop contains the reflection of all other drops.
RBG championed progress, unification, collaboration. We’re all in this together.