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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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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.

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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.