“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.


Harrowing Hell & Holy Liminality

Betwixt and between. Neither here nor there. Departed but not arrived.

Justice proclaimed but not yet fully practiced. Equality enacted but repeatedly denied. New life promised in the midst of death.

These are profound but often difficult moments. Some decades ago now, anthropologist Victor Turner analyzed moments of transition when someone has started to leave one phase of life but hasn’t yet moved fully into the next. Think adolescence, that awkward slice of life when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult. Turner referred to these as “liminal” moments, taken from the Latin word “limen,” for threshold.

The fecundity of these in-between states dates much further back than Turner, to ancient mythology. “Liminal deities” preside over thresholds, gates, and doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman mythology, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of doorways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.

Liminal moments can be challenging and disconcerting; just ask any teenager. My own constitutional impatience makes it difficult to rest after finishing a project; I’m eager to start the next one. Communities and institutions in transition frequently want to skip over all the unsettling liminal bits, those untidy passages where the past still haunts and the future remains unclear. Sloughing of the past too quickly risks losing what we might need to make a leap forward.

But there are other kinds of liminality, too. Moments of getting stuck between a past that we won’t relinquish and a future we’re unwilling to embrace.

The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) heralded a long overdue transition toward racial equality in the U.S. Not only is a racially just society still woefully elusive, current legislative initiatives would drag us back to the “Mad Men” era if not a virtual Jim Crow. A woman’s right to make decisions about her own body should have been settled decades ago even as contraception is once again on the legislative table. The Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws in 2003; lesbian and gay couples can now have sex without fear of prosecution but they can’t get married.

There is much work to do, and neither nostalgia nor utopia will help us. Navigating the liminal “betwixt and between” thus proves both rich and challenging. The past is familiar but sometimes painful; the future is hopeful but unknown. Today, on the Christian calendar, I’m reminded that Jesus hallows the liminal by harrowing hell.

The day between Good Friday and Easter, “Holy Saturday,” is a truly peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves with Sunday preparations.

Christian tradition has Jesus doing something on this day as well – descending into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. This is the sacred version of “no child left behind.” In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

One of my favorite depictions of this Holy Liminality is in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. Actually, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

On this day, this Holy Saturday, in the midst of busy preparations for the Feast of Resurrection, let us pause, even for a moment, to remember what we marked yesterday: the lengths to which imperial forces will go to maintain the status quo. Let us remember as well all those who came before us, the pioneers and visionaries who carved an arduous path toward a better world. Let us remember all those who did not live to see that promise fulfilled. And let us remember all this to fuel the hope we need for the work still to do — a profound hope indeed, which, as tomorrow’s feast reminds us, was first announced by women.

The promise of tomorrow cannot be won by forgetting yesterday. That makes this particular Saturday not only peculiar but also, and therefore, holy.


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.


The Queer Promise of Easter in a Culture of Death

Any society that celebrates death is in cultural trouble, and I would say rather deep trouble.

This particular kind of trouble is not new to the United States, though it would take much more than a short blog post to catalogue the many examples. The recent eruption of jubilation across this country to celebrate just one man’s death halfway around the world only adds to the list.

Let me be clear: I am not sorry that Osama bin Laden is dead. He was a fomenter of violence and terrorism across the globe and a mass murderer (even of his own people). Whether rightly or wrongly (probably a combination of both), bin Laden catalyzed two major U.S. war efforts, drained the financial resources of more than one country, and caused untold heartache in dozens of countries. The statements from the families of 9/11 victims that have been broadcast in the wake of his death bear witness to the deep wounds, the scars, the grief that this one man, in some fashion, has caused.

So I’m not sorry he’s dead. But I don’t celebrate his death, either.

That distinction, though subtle, is an important one for Christians who claim to be an “Easter people.” Easter celebrates God’s decisive victory over death. We taint that celebration if we find anyone’s death a cause for celebration and jubilation, and perhaps especially when that death is violent.

Just over a week ago, Christian communities gathered for an Easter vigil celebration. On that night, many heard the story of how God rescued the ancient Israelites by leading them across the Red Sea on dry ground. This divine act of salvation, however, came at the price of drowning Pharaoh’s entire army, both horse and rider, in that same sea.

The Israelites celebrated their rescue in song (Exodus 15:1), and I would have done the same thing. But then, I have to wonder: did any of them grieve for the dead Egyptians and their families?

We don’t know. What we do know is that the Israelites spent the next forty years wandering in the desert. I’d like to think that they spent that time learning how to mourn the deaths of their oppressors. Perhaps their wilderness sojourn inspired a broader vision of divine liberation – a vision in which both oppressed and oppressor alike would come home to the Promised Land.

Isaiah seems to have been inspired by that kind of expansive vision when he writes about all the nations (not just a select few) streaming to the Holy Mountain, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and people learn war no more (Isaiah 2:2-4).

The trajectory from Exodus to Isaiah marks a remarkable evolution from tribal warfare to universal peace. I wonder what happened to that vision when I see college-aged students celebrating bin Laden’s death outside the White House by chanting “USA! USA!” as if we had just won the World Cup. I don’t know how else to describe such a scene except with words like “ghoulish” and “ghastly.”

The life-changing, world-altering insight that violence only breeds more violence is of course not new. In more than one gospel account, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

The risen Jesus practiced what he preached as he came back from death, still bearing the scars of his torture. To the very ones who had abandoned him, he said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-22).

A second century theologian by the name of Origen took that peace still further, and rather dramatically, by declaring that not even Satan and all his fallen angels would be excluded from the eternal offer of love and grace.

How queer can Christianity get? No, really. How far are we willing to take this? I honestly don’t know. I do know that throwing a party because someone was shot in the head falls a bit short of the queer promise of Easter. I’m not trying to be facetious; I’m genuinely appalled by the specter of dancing on someone’s grave.

Let me suggest this, and not without a little trepidation: The queerly good news of the Christian Gospel invites us to imagine that someday, somehow, not only the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Israelites, and not only the Roman soldiers and the disciples of Jesus, but also all the victims of terrorism and al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, will find themselves gathering in the same banquet hall, preparing for the same feast, and deeply engaged in the kind of reconciliation none of us can presently conceive.

I’m not sure any of us – myself included – can really bear the queerness of that vision. But quite frankly, I’ll take the discomfort and offense of that queerly Christian posture over the jingoistic, even blood-thirsty ejaculations of so many of my fellow US citizens over these past twenty-four hours.

Surely, Easter queerly promises something different, something better than that. Surely it does.


The Morning After

Christ is risen – but the clergy are dead tired.

That’s one version of an old joke about the grueling schedule of Holy Week services leading up to Easter morning. Not just clergy, of course, but choir members, flower arrangers, brass polishers, administrative assistants – just about everyone dealing with Easter preparations can feel a holy hangover coming on the morning after.

In the wake of all the liturgical fuss – and I do love the fuss – I start to reflect on what everyone was thinking. Kind of like hoping everyone liked the New Year’s Eve party while you throw out the empty champagne bottles. How many different views of resurrection, we might wonder, resided in our various congregations this Easter Sunday? Did they believe “it” – I mean, really?

I, for one, can believe nearly anything in a beautifully decorated church with an angelic choir providing a divine soundtrack to an inspiring sermon. But what do I really believe in the still, quiet aftermath?

Resurrection is difficult, much more so, it seems to me, than incarnation. Proclaiming “God with us” at Christmas feels good, especially with a cuddly baby as a prop. A battered, tortured body that won’t stay put in the grave where we put it feels, well, unsettling.

Other than the inevitability of taxes, Easter breaks the one rule everyone is taught to accept as inviolable: the finality of death. Few find that rule pleasant, but at least it maps out the playing field with tidy boundaries. Human life stretches from cradle to grave; that’s it. For the fortunate among us, the span between those two borderlines is long and full. But blur those boundaries, even just a little bit, and the queerness of Christian faith starts to shimmer.

For me, the queerly good news of Easter is just this: it dissolves certainty.

If we really can’t count on death like we used to, then the playing field expands toward a new horizon over which none of us can presently see. For me, that’s unnerving and exhilarating at the same time.

Among the queerest of the queer biblical stories are the ones about Easter. Consider the account in Luke 24. There we read about two grieving disciples who encounter a stranger as they travel to a village called Emmaus. After inviting the stranger to share a meal with them, they finally recognize him as none other than the risen Jesus; and in that very moment, he vanishes.

Road to Emmaus #2, Bonnell

No reunion hug. No war-story swapping. No debriefing of all those betrayal moments. No orchestral swell of music for the Hollywood ending. Jesus instead slips through their fingers. There’s no “there” there. Nothing to hold on to.

And that, it seems to me, is queerly good news.

If we know something with absolute certainty, we can be tempted to take it for granted; ask no more questions; set it aside; move on to something else. We might believe that we can control and manipulate it; use it; own it.

The risen Jesus will have none of that – no shrines, no monuments, no treatises, no creeds, no liturgies, no institutional gate-keeping. The risen Jesus instead starts sprinting away from us over that inscrutable horizon, egging us on to follow, giving us no compass points to do so.

I’m a full-throated Easter Christian – I believe death was not the final word for Jesus. And because I believe that, I believe that death is not the final word for any of us. But I have no idea what that means or what it looks like. That faith (which is not certainty) expands my playing field well beyond a game and into something like an adventure, where the next chapter is always waiting to be written – always.

That’s not a hangover you’re feeling; that’s the tug of morning-after energy. It’s urging you to step into life. New life.