By Dr. Peter Candler
I would like to thank the editors of the Lariat for publishing on Sept. 27 an editorial on public breast-feeding, because they have drawn attention to an issue that is of profound cultural significance, and have had the courage to hold a position on it that is so manifestly unchristian.
It would be tempting to ascribe the Lariat’s position on this matter to simple enlightened prejudice, were it not the case that it clearly issues forth from a naiveté about the challenges of professional mothers. The fact that the Lariat chose to rebuke Professor Pine for 1) not warning the students in advance and 2) not using “the situation to her advantage” is distasteful at the least, unconscionably stupid at worst, and presumptuous all in between. But there is something even more worrying here: there is more than a trace of the Freudian or even Nietszchean in the view that breast-feeding is fine in principle but not if I have to witness it. The desire to hide away or symbolically kill off the most basic and original source of your early life’s nourishment could be seen as an expression of a deep ingratitude or even resentment about being human, which means receiving your life from another. It is at least one argument in its defense (although I regard it as a practice so self-evidently justified that it hardly needs defending) that it is visible a reminder that someone loved us into being and nurtured us, and with great difficulty.
The Lariat is expressly “against breast-feeding, a generally intimate and personal act, being put on display in an environment that isn’t particularly conducive to it.” But if this is because the environment is not conducive to it, the problem might rest not with the act itself but with the environment, which is cast, it is not difficult to observe, in characteristically male-dominated spaces: “classrooms, business meetings, professional appointments.” It is worth pointing out that the ideal of “professionalism” here excludes a priori not just nursing mothers, but also the infusion of the “personal” into the workplace. But the best teachers typically refuse this decadent distinction not only because they often have to, but because a fully human wisdom often calls into question the received canons of professionalist orthodoxy.
The comic that runs alongside the editorial suggests that the Lariat’s is a view held in the name of “common decency.” But an appeal to common decency rings utterly hollow when it means a wanton discrimination of our female colleagues and friends, who already face inequities in salary and expectations across professional life, and encounter difficulties of which all of us men are blissfully ignorant.
In fact, “common decency” is often a ruse, since it has almost always been used to justify some form of discrimination or subjection.
The language of “common decency,” however, is not and never has been a part of the Christian vocabulary of faith.
This is because at the heart of Christian faith is something that, to the world, is grossly indecent: the idea of the invisible, eternal creator of the universe being born in human flesh of a peasant woman who nursed him as a boy, preaching a gospel of charity towards one’s enemies, and suffering a disgraceful and ignominious execution on a Roman instrument of torture. To the world, says St. Paul, this is a scandal. But to Christians it is the truth of the universe.
What does it tell us that generations of Christians were not only not scandalized by the image of a woman breast-feeding, but that it occupies a central place in the iconography of the Madonna and Child as well as in the theology of Christ and his Church? Moreover, the image of the nursing Virgin Mother is, above all, an expression of faith in the full humanity of the Incarnate Son of God.
Critics of Christianity from its earliest days protested against the Christian hospitality to the stranger, above all the stranger that is human flesh, but Christians relentlessly maintained that Christ is human in every sense that we are, and at the same time is fully and wholly divine, or else no one is saved.
One thing this tells us is that if you are scandalized by a woman nursing her child in public, if you find the prospect of a woman who devotes her life to teaching you and to raising a child whom she has the audacity to bring to class in order to meet all the pressures put upon her as well as she can—if all of this strikes you as a breach in decorum, then you ought to be still more radically scandalized by the Word made flesh.
Dr. Peter Candler is an associate professor in the Honors College’s great texts program.