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Divine Solidarity: Lent & Liberation, Part 2

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40).

One would hope that U.S. politicians currently seeking to mandate unwarranted vaginal probes without a woman’s consent don’t actually imagine probing Jesus. Neither do I suppose that they imagine deporting Jesus when they strike a hard line on “illegal” immigration that separates mothers from their children. I’m sure many of them don’t see Jesus when they look at single mothers of color, or the women who speak only Spanish who just happen to be cleaning their congressional offices.

But the Gospel actually demands that those politicians do see Jesus in each of those moments. It demands the same thing from all of us.

I believe at least one faithful rendering of the Gospel is this: Jesus practiced radical solidarity. I believe this also means that God continually practices deep and sustaining solidarity with God’s whole creation. The Lenten journey of following Jesus toward the cross and an empty tomb invites us to adopt that very same discipline of divine solidarity.

Traditionally, the first Sunday of Lent (this weekend) features the gospel story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. I’ve heard many sermons and read many commentaries on that story, but I’ve never encountered one that interprets that story through the lens of male privilege. We’re long overdue.

(If you don’t know that story, pause and read Luke 4:1-13; the one assigned for this weekend is Mark 1:9-15).

Tempted in three crafty and subtle ways to exercise the power that comes with male privilege, Jesus chose instead to follow the path of divine solidarity:

  • Famished and tempted to turn stones into bread, Jesus chose instead to stand with the poor, who have no power to make bread suddenly appear on the table for their families (Luke 4:3-4).
  •  Tempted to seize the kingdoms of the world for good, Jesus chose instead to stand with all the socially marginalized who have no voice in the corridors of imperial government (Luke 4:5-8).
  • Realizing his physical vulnerabilities, Jesus was tempted to test his divine safety net. But he chose instead to stand with all those who have no recourse to guarantees, who can’t afford to test anyone or anything because the risk is too great (Luke 4:9-12).

The gospel writers don’t make it explicit, but the first hearers of this story would readily have known this: the least powerful in each of those cases in the first century were women. The same is true today, especially women of color.

It’s women who struggle most to provide bread for their children (see the WIC site on this); it’s women who can’t ever seem to earn equal pay for equal work (think this is old fashioned? thinks again and read here); it’s women the world over who have virtually no access to the corridors of power that would save them from the state’s killing machine (the global situation is dire, just read here) – or even from coerced vaginal probes.

But I refuse despair. Peculiar as this may sound, I refuse despair because of my Christian faith and because of the Gospel. After Jesus resisted the power that comes with male privilege, the rest of the story bears ample witness to the remarkable result: women as agents (John 4:1-29); women as confidants (Luke 10:38; John 11:5); women as teachers (Matthew 15:21-28); women as die-hard comrades when it mattered most (John 19:25); women as the first witnesses to God’s victory over death (Mark 16:1-6).

Following Jesus through Lent must mean at least this much: listening closely to women’s voices and attending carefully to the dignity of women’s bodies. For men (especially white men), it must mean more: using our (white) male privilege to practice divine solidarity and, with it, to create a new world – a world of thriving and flourishing for all.

Now that’s a Lenten discipline all of us could, quite literally, live with.

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Ending the War on Women: Lent and Liberation

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

We are currently in the midst of a cultural and political war on women and women’s bodies. Perhaps you’ve noticed. If you had any doubts, the recent and truly creepy image of an all-male panel testifying before Congress about contraceptives should convince you. (Just imagine an all-female panel testifying about the virtues of vasectomies.)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. If Lent can be retrieved as a practice for liberating humanity from the chains of oppression, then ending this war on women must take priority. This will involve attending carefully to the propaganda machine (both secular and religious), mobilizing people to vote when appropriate, repenting where necessary, and recommitting ourselves to the hard work of creating a different world, a world where all can thrive and flourish (if that’s not a suitable goal for a Lenten discipline, I don’t know what is).

I’ll begin with three observations:

First, the current war on women is not new; it is of course many, many centuries old. (I was reminded of this recently by reading a great analysis of the ancient Greek three-cycle play, The Oresteia, and it’s recurrent theme of the fear of powerful women.)

While none of this stuff is new, the current iteration of this power struggle is particularly virulent and insidious in the United States. By “current,” I mean the cultural trajectory that began taking shape more explicitly in the 1970s after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision – a decision that acknowledged what should have been the case long ago, that women have rights over their own bodies. (Yes, abortion is complicated, but my friend and colleague, Susan Russell, recently wrote eloquently on this very topic.)

Second, I believe the current virulence in the war on women is fueled by having an African-American man in the White House. African-American men in American history have quite frequently been the subject of emasculating rhetoric if not also castrating violence; they still are today. Make no mistake about this: white men in power keep their power by subjugating women and treating non-white men like women. If we fail to link sexism and racism we do so at our own, very grave peril.

And third, I am a white man. That means a lot of different things, not least that I enjoy a remarkable amount of privilege in western society. That doesn’t make me bad or evil. It does make me accountable and it should make me responsible. I have, alas, too frequently failed to live up to the responsibility of that privilege for the sake of women’s thriving.

In a recent professional gathering, I was witness to a blatant form of sexism – in both rhetoric and posture – yet I said and did nothing. I hereby repent, and I resolve to do better. As just part of that commitment and for my Lenten discipline this year, I’ll devote regular blog posts to analyzing theologically and culturally the pernicious peril our world faces from the twin threats of sexism and racism.

Notice that I didn’t mention homophobia. I believe the disdain and opposition toward LGBT people is but a symptom of a much deeper and more intractable poison in western culture: the confluence of misogyny and white supremacy. Upon that “wedding” rests most if not all of the truly hideous moments in western society. (Pictured here is Sojourner Truth, from the 19th century. A perfect icon for the incarnation of race and gender.)

One further observation needs to be made here: Religion (including Christianity) has contributed significantly to the subjugation of women and women’s bodies, both historically and today. In that regard, my obligation and responsibility deepen as I am not only a white man, but also a Christian and a priest in the Episcopal Church.

I believe the peculiar character of Christianity, for all its severe faults and foibles, can still help us achieve a better world where all can thrive and flourish. I have some ideas about how to do that but I need help. As I post my own suggestions this Lent, I hope you will add your own. Let’s create a great toolbox for planetary thriving!

At the very least, let us commit ourselves to ensuring that no one ever again has to see a panel of all men making decisions about women’s bodies. That would be a small but nonetheless significant step on the Lenten road toward new life.

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Divine Dignity for All — Married or Not

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (a federal court) just issued a theological statement on February 7. Christians might want to take note. This is what they said: “Proposition 8 [which stripped same-sex couples of their right to marry] serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.”

The phrase, “to lessen…human dignity” is the theological statement I have in mind. To be clear, I don’t mean that this is only a theological statement; it can easily be a completely secular, non-religious statement, too. But it is also a deeply theological one. Jews, Muslims, and Christians (among others, I imagine) readily claim that every human being is created in the “image and likeness” of God. Well, how much more dignity does anyone need than that? (My friend and colleague Susan Russell has a great post on her blog about human dignity, both religious and constitutional.)

Human dignity, in all its many forms and applications, seems in rather short supply these days. Do we really believe that people living on our streets without homes or food are treated with “human dignity”? Do we really believe that immigrants forced to clean our toilets and pick our fruit but are vulnerable to deportation at any minute are viewed with “human dignity”? Oh, the list goes on and on.

Here’s one more item on the dignity list: There are many people who (to use Christian language) exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit” in their lives but who do not feel called to marriage. In countless ways, these “unmarried” ones contribute to the mission and ministry of the Church and to the common good (remember that?) of our society. So, yes to the dignity of marriage for all; and yes to the dignity of those whose relationships just don’t fit that model but are precious gifts to the Church and to the wider society nonetheless.

It really is possible to keep insisting on the dignity of every human person and supporting the dignity of marriage at the same time. Let’s call it spiritual multi-tasking. To suppose we can only talk about one thing at a time is to relegate all those supposedly “secondary” concerns to, well, secondary status.

I recently floated more deliberately an idea that I hatched a year ago to put some of these observations into practice. I call it “Dalantine’s Day.” It’s my modest attempt to affirm that there are many different kinds of relationship from which we all benefit in countless ways and which don’t rely on romantic pair-bonding. The deep intimacy of close friendships, for example, or the affection among colleagues, or the activism of neighborhood groups, or single parents raising children, or children caring for elderly parents, or those particular moments of extending hospitality to a stranger, or relationships of care with non-human animals of all kinds.

All of those various relational configurations are actually lauded by biblical writers, but few would realize it by listening to the religious rhetoric on both the “right” and the “left” today. Both sides perpetuate the idea that the most dignified form of human relationship is marriage. How many churches, I wonder, celebrate any other kind of relationship in their liturgical lives and ritual practices?

We can do better. The peculiar faith of a peculiar gospel people can do much better. In my view, achieving same-sex marriage is a worthy, laudable, and completely Christian cause for celebration, because it’s about justice, fairness, equality, and of course, love. But if we don’t say something more, then we religious folks are falling far short of the standard that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set for us all yet again on February 7: human dignity.