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Holy Solidarity: Lent & Liberation, Part 5

Trayvon Martin. Adrienne Rich. Shaima al Awadi.

I’m taking these names with me into the Christian Holy Week that begins this Sunday. I suspect that the first two names are far more familiar than the third. So here I offer some observations about all three and then why they help me to engage with Holy Week for the sake of profound social change.

Trayvon Martin

The blogosphere is bloated with important, scandalous, insightful, stirring, and stupid posts about this tragic event (and if you don’t what this about, read about it). I won’t try to add to the bloat here except to say this: I can’t remember the last time I was this disgusted by the so-called “criminal justice” system in this country. As many others have already noted, just imagine if Trayvon had been white and George Zimmerman black. In that scenario, and less than a century ago, Zimmerman would already be dead – lynched. (Just go back and watch the wonderful film Places in the Heart.)

White supremacy is a deep poison in U.S. history and culture. It won’t be extracted but by sustained force of will, honesty, and deep conversion.

Adrienne Rich

If I see one more obituary headline about this amazing woman describing her as a “feminist poet,” I’m going to run from my house screaming into the streets (much to the annoyance of my neighbors). So when’s the last time you saw a description of T. S. Eliot as that “white poet”? Ever see Ralph Waldo Emerson described as that “male writer”? I bet you’ve seen Langston Hughes described as an “African-American playwright.”

A standard-issue human being is white and male. Everyone else needs a label. Until that stops, justice will be elusive and human flourishing will languish.

Shaima al Awadi

Just last week an Iraqi immigrant and mother of five died from injuries inflected by a severe beating in her El Cajon home (in San Diego). At the scene there was a note warning the family to “go back to your own country.” El Cajon police said they are investigating the possibility of a hate crime. (The “possibility”? Really? Give me a break.)

So, you haven’t heard about this case? I hadn’t either until it leeched into my FaceBook feed nearly unnoticed (read some more here). Then I did some digging. Shaima al Awadi actually worked for the U.S. Army, translating, helping, consulting about Islamic culture. Where is the news media on this story? Where is our collective FaceBook outrage? Do we hear or see virtually nothing about this because she was a woman and also not an “American”? Probably. Sit at the intersection of white supremacy and male privilege and all this makes horribly twisted sense.

Shaima was beaten, apparently, with something like a tire iron. And she died from those injuries. How can any of us stand this? How can we go on living in such a xenophobic society, such a white supremacist, such a patriarchal society?

Of course, those are just three names, three human beings, among countless others few if any of us will ever know who endure the ravages of white male privilege every day. I can’t possibly try to “solve” all this. Who could? But here I’ll offer some brief reflections about why I find all of this important as I enter into Holy Week. I pray that this will inspire fresh ideas for action.

Christians will remember in this holiest of Christian weeks that Jesus faced a critical choice, quite literally a choice of life and death. He belonged to a rich and vibrant religious tradition that offered a number of options for his mission. He could have, for example, chosen the path of a Levitical warrior to liberate his people by force from Roman occupation. I say “Levitical” warrior because the culture of tribal warfare from which that biblical book arose was constructed on an economics of masculinity in which topping one’s enemies – with violence, if necessary – demonstrated covenantal faithfulness.

But Jesus chose instead to follow the path articulated by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. In that book, the Levitical warrior becomes the “suffering servant,” and rather than topping one’s enemies, that servant leads all the nations instead to God’s holy mountain where they learn war no more and beat their swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

In the gospel according to John, that choice is described as nothing less than the glory of God. Resisting the violence of imperial (read “white”) male privilege and choosing instead a deep solidarity with all those who are oppressed by such violence is, for John, the quintessential revelation of divine splendor.

In the light of that glory, recommitting ourselves to ending white male privilege is a recommitment to saving this planet from the ravages of imperial patriarchy. How could that not mark a week that Christians insist is “holy”? I should surely hope that Christians the world over would find that kind of path as marking our way toward Easter.

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Women [and] Archbishops: Lent & Liberation, Part 4

Brackets matter. Take the title of this blog post, for example. It signals two things at once: 1) the topic of women in relation to archbishops; and 2) the tantalizing possibility of women as archbishops. The title manages both of those meanings with the nifty little conceit of brackets.

But there are other kinds of brackets, the kind that aren’t spoken but are clearly operational nonetheless. Like this: “For the sake of Church unity there are certain things [women’s ordination] that we really can’t talk about right now.” Or this: “Accepting gay people in our churches would break centuries of traditional Church teaching [about the all-male priesthood].”

Brackets are [functionally and politically] handy and [spiritually] dangerous. If we can’t say what we really mean and talk with each other about what really counts, does it really matter what kind of [political or religious] conversation we’re having?

Unless very skillfully used, I find brackets annoying. So let’s take the recent resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury as an occasion to consider the insidious use of bracketing in Christian churches.

The circles in which I tend to run are abuzz about brother Rowan’s failure during his tenure fully to embrace lesbian and gay people. Anyone who has read his brilliant theological essays knows that he actually does affirm LGBT people. The real problem here has been his inability fully to embrace women. That failure is at the root of the “gay problem” – and it’s usually bracketed.

All of us engaged in the struggle for sexual inclusion need to be very clear that the entire struggle rests, not on sex and sexuality, but on gender – and especially on the status of women and women’s bodies.

So on this Lenten journey toward new life, I would like to share just three [further] observations about this struggle, which may seem arcane at first. Trust me; these matter, just like [insidious] brackets.

1. Raping Men is Worse [in the Bible] than Dismembering Women

The next time someone trots out the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 to oppose equal marriage rights – a story about rape, not “homosexuality” – ask that person about the strikingly similar and horrifying story in Judges 19.

Destruction of Sodom. The dismemberment of a woman apparently doesn't warrant divine pyrotechnics.

In that biblical story from Judges, a host is faced with the same dilemma as Lot was in the story from Genesis. In Judges, however, no angelic intervention prevents the sexual sacrifice of a woman to fulfill the requirements of a hospitable household. The woman in that story, an anonymous concubine, is brutally raped by Benjamite men in Gibeah and is later ritually dismembered to prompt retributive military action by Israel (see Judges 20:6-11; and for goodness’ sake, don’t let your children read the Bible!).

 

So why have no Hollywood films been made depicting the fate of that concubine at the hands of the Benjamite tribe in Gibeah nor of the swift retribution inflicted on the Benjamites by Israel? No European legal statute or Medieval penitential category emerged to describe the rape and ritualistic dismemberment of that nameless concubine. There is no sin of the Benjamites referred to as “Benjamy” or sinners as “Gibeahthites” as there are “sodomy” and “sodomites.” Why? (I’m grateful to the books on sodomy by Mark Jordan and Michael Carden for that essential question.)

The answer is painfully clear: biblical writers were truly horrified by the prospect of raping men. Dismembering women? Eh. Not so bad, really…

2. Polygamy Protects Women [Who are Submissive] in Households

Bishop John William Colenso

Only the most historically astute Anglican Christians today will recall that John Colenso was a 19th century Anglican bishop in South Africa. He got into trouble by permitting new converts to Christianity to continue in polygamous relationships. This prompted a crisis in the Anglican Communion that didn’t get “settled” (if it really ever did) until the late 20th century.

Even though both the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth conferences grudgingly accepted polygamy for the sake, ostensibly, of the economic well-being of women, something far more patriarchal is at work here. The (limited) tolerance of polygamy in all these decisions is directly proportional to the lack of any threat it poses to the gendered order of marital relations, more particularly to the patriarchal ordering of a household.

As long as there is a man in charge, we can live with a bit of [ethical] wiggle room.

3. Same-Gender [Non-Hierarchical] Marriage would Destroy the Ozone Layer

Think back to 2003. Remember all those objections to the election of openly gay and partnered Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire? Those objections were not about “homosexuality.” The voices objecting to that election made some rather revealing rhetorical shifts. They no longer referenced the biblical story of Sodom (that’s so 20th century). Instead, they started insisting on the earlier Genesis accounts of the supposed “complementarity” of women and men as essential in God’s design of creation.

In a 2003, Peter Akinola, the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, declared that setting aside the “divine arrangement” of marriage as between a man and a woman is an “assault on the sovereignty of God.” In a rather startling rhetorical move, Akinola compared this assault to the human depletion of the ozone layer insofar as “homosexuality” marks a “terrible violation of the harmony of the eco-system of which mankind is a part” (See Steven Bates’ great account of all this.)

The “harmony” in question is none other than the gendered ordering of the patriarchal household.

Those are just three among countless instances of bracketing the dignity of women for the sake of preserving patriarchy. They call me to fervent repentance in this Lenten season for failing to do more to dismantle patriarchy. They also beg a question, at least for me: Why am I still a Christian? I do have reasons for embracing this peculiar faith, and I’ll try to articulate them as we move on toward Easter.

For now, I’ll just say this: there actually is a woman archbishop. Her name is Katherine Jefferts Schori. For some complex political, cultural, and religious reasons, she is not called “archbishop” but instead the “Presiding Bishop” of the Episcopal Church. But she is, in fact and in effect, an archbishop. Thank God.

I don’t mean that she alone will somehow erase the patriarchal past. I don’t even mean that she is a feminist (she might be, I don’t know). Given Christian history, those issues don’t matter nearly so much right now as the mere fact that the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman.

That gives me hope. I know it does for many others as well. And wouldn’t it be great if Queen Elizabeth II found hope in that, too? She, after all, will decide who will replace Rowan Williams. Let us pray…

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Life After Patriarchy: Lent & Liberation, Part 3

The promise of new life marks the Lenten journey toward the cross and the empty tomb. I believe that journey is incarnated right now in the struggle for life after patriarchy. That’s not how most Christians think about such things. So how might we recalibrate Lent toward liberation?

The struggle to liberate women and women’s bodies from the power of white male privilege will take as many resources and tools as we can collect and figure out how to use, all of them bathed in fervent prayer and compelling worship. The effects of white male privilege are complex and deeply entrenched in daily life and they won’t simply dissipate just because anyone says they should.

Lent is a great time to reflect on those complexities and consider them carefully as we journey toward the promise of Easter. (In addition to these blog posts during Lent, I also recently offered a version of this particular post at All Saints’ Church in Pasadena; you can watch a video clip of it here.) I have some ideas about how all of this relates to the traditional biblical passages we so often hear during Lent, but for now I want to offer a bit more framing for this struggle.

First, I think it’s important to reiterate that I engage in this struggle as a white gay man. I am, frankly, perplexed and dismayed by the near-deafening silence from so many of my white gay brothers about the twin poisons of sexism and racism that infect western society, both today and historically.

We must all note carefully that “homophobia” is not the cause but the result of an insidious confluence of white supremacy and male privilege. I hereby confess my failures in recognizing that confluence in the past and call on all my white gay male comrades to do the same. I urge this not to wallow in white male guilt (which is totally wasted energy) but instead to re-energize our commitment to building a different world.

By committing myself to this struggle, I need not (and actually must not) denigrate being white, gay, or male. We’ve witnessed far too much of that “zero-sum-game” rhetoric of late, to wit: if someone else has rights, I’ll lose some of mine; if “those” people get married, my marriage is weakened; my success depends on your failure. None of that is actually true.

Moreover, I actually enjoy being gay, male, and white. That’s not the issue. The issue, rather, is this: My status as a beloved and cherished creation of God isn’t diminished in the least by insisting that others are, too.

I also believe we must keep the historical trajectory of this struggle over women’s bodies in view. There are so many milestones in that history, but here I offer just five to keep us grounded in the broader struggle.

Greco-Roman Culture. Christianity emerged in the crucible of empire, traces of which have lingered in our churches ever since. Not least among them is the tight bond that emerged among household arrangements, religious institutions, and the political ideologies of empire. This was especially true after the Emperor Constantine wedded Christianity to imperial sensibilities in the fourth century. Note this well: the State will never consider household arrangements a purely private matter; how households function, especially with respect to women and male privilege, is part and parcel of imperial ideology. That was true in the fourth century; it’s true today.

Basic Biology. Let us not forget that the 18th century witnessed the discovery of the vagina and the uterus. Yes, that would be the eighteenth century after Christ. We can, of course, be thankful that those vital organs finally had a name of their own, but this served to provide a supposedly empirical basis for women’s “natural” domesticity. Thomas Laqueur wrote a truly eye-opening book on the history of gender and sex in western culture, which I highly recommend: Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. This is, among other things, an important cautionary tale for anyone who thinks “science” alone will save us.

Anti-miscegenation Statutes. White people mostly prefer to forget those laws in the 19th century forbidding mixed-race marriages, which suddenly necessitated the need to refine what in the world race is. Moreover, those statutes were often applied unevenly depending on the gender of the parties. It was, for example, far more egregious for a black man to try to marry a white woman that it was for a white man to try to marry a black woman. Why? The reason in part, both then and today, is the need to emasculate black men for the purpose of propping up white supremacy. Notice the logic: a black man would become the white woman’s superior by virtue of being her husband; this is repugnant from both a racial perspective and a racially gendered perspective (the black man would then be considered an actual man). I recommend Peggy Pascoe’s recent book on this, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America.

U.S. Jurisprudence. It was only in 1979 the last state in the U.S. finally repealed its “Head and Master” statutes, which gave husbands ultimate control over all household decisions. Can you imagine something worse? How about this: it wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape became a crime in every state of this country – 1993! Prior to that time, it was simply the wife’s legal obligation to have sex with her husband whenever he demanded it.

Gendered Bullying. Increased media attention to bullying in our schools is a good thing, but I have yet to read any incisive analysis of its cause. The bullying of “effeminate” gay men and “masculine” lesbian women and increasingly transgender people has nothing to do with whom these people love; it has everything to do with violating the gendered order of things in which men are dominate and women are submissive. The war on women is a war on everyone.

Those and many other historical markers should, and I believe must, inform how any Christian preacher preaches during Lent. I have some ideas about that for Lenten themes, which I’ll offer in future posts. For now, I would urge all Christian faith communities to embrace the struggle for women’s liberation as a fundamental Lenten discipline. After all, what kind of resurrection life do any of us really imagine? If it isn’t marked by the full thriving and flourishing of women, then it’s not really Easter.