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Beloved Community and the Irrevocable Deed

“How good and pleasant it is,” declared the psalmist, “when kindred live together in unity.”

Many Christians recited that verse from Psalm 133 during Sunday worship yesterday. What a striking contrast between reciting what is “good and pleasant” and recalling Charlottesville, Virginia descending into chaos and violence, hearing with dismay the hate-filled speech, lamenting a country deeply fragmented.

Like many others, I long for just the right words, the most effective rhetorical posture, the finely-tuned strategy – anything at all to fix this broken society.

I pondered this as I sat and prayed with the other biblical texts for yesterday’s liturgy – the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, Paul writing about Jews in a letter to Christians in the heart of the Roman Empire, the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. These texts reminded me how deeply embedded we are in systems far larger than ourselves, systems that divide and fragment us with cycles of injury and vengeance, systems that remain invulnerable to reason, and logic, or just a “better argument.”

We are not dealing with mere partisanship here or ideological differences, as if all we need are persuasive facts to correct wrong-headed ideas.

Cornel West was among a line of clergy in Charlottesville who stood arm-in-arm to face a phalanx of white nationalist demonstrators. West is no newcomer to this work and witness; he’s been around the racism block many, many times. West described staring into the eyes of those demonstrators and noted: “I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life.”west_charlottesville

What has recently become more directly visible, and its expressions more emboldened, has deep and stubborn roots. Festering in this country’s past is not only the institution of slavery but the construction of race itself as the means to justify and perpetuate the superiority of white people over all others. This creates a social system that cannot be uprooted or dismantled by fiat, much less by street brawls.

The Emancipation Proclamation may have ended slavery as an institution, but it did not dispel the social system or its enduring legacy. Michelle Alexander reminds us how that system perpetuates itself in ever new guises – at first as “Reconstruction,” then “Jim Crow,” and today, in the “mass incarceration” of young men of color.

It’s tempting, in other words, to isolate problematic individuals – whether as neo-Nazis or white nationalists – and to suppose that rebuking them or arresting them or punishing them will solve the problem. But we are not dealing with a few bad apples in the barrel; the barrel itself is the problem. Or as a poet-activist recently proposed, white supremacy “is not a shark; it’s the water.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King understood the deeply spiritual character of this system of injustice and its hateful expressions, for which only a deeply spiritual response will suffice. This insight shaped the six principles of nonviolence that guided his life and work.

Principle #3, for example, urges us to remember that we are seeking to defeat injustice, not people. “Evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”

How easy it is to forget this in the heat of confrontation and conflict, yet so vital to remember: the hate Cornel West encountered is just as soul crushing and corrosive for the hater as it is for the targets of their hate.

King believed that the only meaningful and lasting solution is for all of us, together, to create and sustain what he called the “Beloved Community.”

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what King meant by this, which is certainly much more than a social club. That galvanizing image first appeared in the work of Josiah Royce, a late nineteenth-century philosopher of religion.

For Royce, the communal bonds we share with each other, the ones that make us human together, are torn apart by treachery. Royce called that moment of betrayal “the irrevocable deed.” He chose that language carefully, to underscore the severity of treachery and its debilitating legacy, how it refuses to dissipate just by ignoring it or pretending it never happened. Apologies alone will not suffice to heal the rupture of betrayal; the deed still stands as irrevocable.

Treachery, Royce argued, demands atonement – for both the betrayed and the betrayer. This will mean creating something new, not in spite of that irrevocable deed but because of it. This new thing Royce described as the Beloved Community.

Royce turned often to the story of Joseph in Genesis, the climax of which was appointed for yesterday’s worship (Gen. 45:1-15). Recall how the story began: out of envy, Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him and he was sold as a slave into the house of Pharaoh.  Over time, Joseph becomes a trusted servant and even a “lord of Egypt.” And this: his ability to interpret dreams saves the whole land from a terrible famine.

Among those he saves, of course, are members of his own family, including his treacherous brothers. The storyteller does not give us a “forgive and forget” moment but an extended family reunion in which Joseph insisted that his brothers remember what they did to him. He insists on this, not for vengeance or retribution but to build something new and hopeful from their shared memory – the essence, Royce proposed, of “atonement.”

hands_multiracialGenuine community, Royce argued, the Beloved Community, emerges from a shared memory of betrayal and a shared hope for new life.

Countless “irrevocable deeds” litter our past, some festering like an open wound, others leaving only traces of a scar. What transpired in Charlottesville is but the latest manifestation of what Jim Wallis calls “American’s original sin” – racism. Unless and until we tell that story truthfully, remember it together courageously and humbly, the irrevocable deeds of white supremacy remain un-atoned.

Royce would argue that Christians already know what that kind of truth-telling looks like, or have at least a hint of its rhythms whenever we gather at the Eucharistic Table. At that Table, through a shared memory and a shared hope, the same God who made something good from the evil done to Joseph makes something good from us – the Body of Christ.

In a world torn apart by hate and violence, what Christians do at the Eucharistic Table matters. The Table matters; I have to believe this. At the Table we cease to be fragments – divided by race and nationality, split apart by color and gender, betrayed by envy and sold into the slavery of countless cycles of injury and vengeance – at the Table we are knit together into a single body, bound together by love and grace. This, at the very least, is our hope.

Learning to tell the truth in and with love at the Table will not solve our resilient divisions; but I am convinced it’s the only path on which a graceful solution will appear.

Martin Luther King, Jr., urged us along that path with familiar words that never grow old:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

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Love. Now More than Ever.

Many Christians heard a rather odd collection of biblical texts this morning (Genesis 24, Song of Solomon 2:8-15, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). As I reflected on each of these texts to prepare to preach on them, I kept coming back to this: the world-changing power of love.

Yes, it’s a cliché, and it still matters. The following are some observations about those texts and why Christians gathering at the Eucharistic Table still matters, and why churches trying to live a life-changing gospel still matters, and why love itself matters, now more than ever.

The passage in Genesis presents the story of Rebekah drawing water from a well, a providential sign from God (as the story goes) that this woman would be Isaac’s wife. There’s something like a Hollywood-worthy moment in this story when Rebekah sees Isaac for the first time and leaps from her camel, and when Isaac sees her, and – as the storyteller says – he loved her, and she comforted him as he mourned the death of his mother, Sarah.

Rebekah eventually gives birth to twins – Jacob and Esau – and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. So this is not just a tender story of young romance, but a life-changing, history-shaping encounter with erotic love.

Or maybe not…there are too many sexy bits in this story, as some early Christian theologians seemed to think. As was common in the early centuries of Christian traditions, stories like this one from Genesis were read allegorically, filled with symbols of Christ and the Church.

In the third century, Origen proposed that Rebekah at first represents patience, which is honored with jewels from those who are wise. The meeting with Isaac then stands for the union of the soul with Christ. “Are you not yet moved,” Origen writes, “to understand that these words are spoken spiritually? Or do you think that it always just happens by chance that the patriarchs go to wells and obtain their marriages at waters?”

A century later, Ambrose supposed Rebekah symbolizes the soul at the font of wisdom, or perhaps Rebekah at her well of water is the church by the font of baptism, or as Isaac takes his bride to the tent, so Christ lures the wayward toward Heaven (though I’m not sure that sounds any less sexy than the story itself…).

For modern critics of Christianity, these ancient commentaries show how reluctant Christians are to deal with romantic desire, just to let sex be sex.

If some theologians didn’t read enough sex into those ancient stories, I read too much of it into Paul’s letters when I was a teenager. In his letter to the Romans, Paul laments over not being able to do what he really wants to do and doing the thing he doesn’t want to do. I read that growing up as so obviously and self-evidently about sexual desire.

I mean, of course I read it that way! That’s how pious Evangelical teenagers think, can’t help but think that way, wish desperately at times they could think of just about anything else.

Paul captures that adolescent vexation precisely: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” That was basically the first-century script for my mid-twentieth century hormone-ravaged youth group.

But Paul doesn’t say what exactly vexed him so terribly much. While I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with sex, I find it much more useful these days to read Paul in relation to the socio-economic systems in which all of us are embedded, whether we like it or not: we cannot help but contribute to global climate change, for example, just by riding around in a car or purchasing nearly any item from nearly any store; we cannot help but participate in the institutional dynamics of white supremacy in this society, a system no one alive today helped to create but from white people benefit every day just by trying to live as “good citizens.”

Stop thinking about sex when reading Paul (if you can) and think instead about the suffocating systems of injustice in which we are steeped and through which we try our best to navigate: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Even just a glimpse of those systemic issues can be paralyzing; analyzing them is discouraging; trying to dismantle them, exhausting.

“Come to me,” Jesus says in Matthew, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Many of the self-styled progressives in my seminary classroom are actually troubled by these words from Matthew’s Jesus, or at least suspicious of them. There’s too much work to do! No time for rest and we can’t possibly lay down our burdens in a world of injustice and violence with no time to spare! Or, as I actually heard an ordained minister say, “there will be plenty of time to rest when they lay me in a grave.”

So thank goodness for the Song of Solomon! Or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs. I am endlessly fascinated by that little book of erotic poetry tucked away in the latter half of the Hebrew Bible where most people can’t even find it. Even more, it carries with it a wonderfully peculiar history in Jewish and Christian traditions, especially among mystics (a history that shaped my book on sexual intimacy and the Eucharist).

The lectionary option to read that portion from the Song of Songs rather than a psalm kept pushing me back to erotic desire as I read the other texts, kept urging me to notice love and why it matters.

Part of what makes the history of this little biblical text so peculiar is how important the Song of Songs was to Medieval Christians and how it nearly vanished entirely among modern Christians. For centuries, the Song of Songs was the one text most often copied, the one text most often chosen for commentaries, and the one text most often selected by preachers. More Latin manuscripts of this erotic poetry exist than any other biblical book. More medieval sermons were preached on it than any other and it took its place along with the four gospels as among the most important; at times the Song of Songs was read more often than any of the gospels except John – and that’s because many thought John was early Christian commentary on the Song of Songs!

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He Qi: “The Song of Solomon”

What in the world is all that about? Simply put: for our medieval ancestors, only the language of erotic desire can capture our own deep longing for God. The yearning for encounter, for intimacy, and for communion among dear friends and spouses and loved ones – what the ancient Greeks called Eros – this is the very same desire that draws us closer to God.

I certainly never heard that growing up. I would have read Paul’s letters quite differently if I had. Modern Western Christians generally have been quite skeptical about mixing the language of faith with the messy entanglements of erotic longing. Some critique this rather pointedly: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. God isn’t even mentioned once in the Song of Songs!

Yes, that’s true, respond the mystics. And that’s because God is the one speaking:

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. …
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely (2:13-14).

I can scarcely imagine how the world would change if that were the divine voice people heard – not the scolder-in-chief, the wrathful judge, the distant father from whom the best we can hope is tolerance. No, but the voice of the beloved, as the song writer says, the one “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” eagerly coming in search of the lover – for us.

To be clear, I’m not referring to the mushy Hallmark-card version of sentimental romance. To see and know ourselves as the cause of God’s ceaseless delight will forever change the way we see others and the world around us; we become even less tolerant of injustice, even more scandalized by hateful speech, even more committed to act boldly and courageously and beyond what we thought possible for the sake of a better world.

As Matthew makes clear, the kind of “rest” promised by Jesus is not without burdens, but they are ever so much lighter when taken up with love.

The mystics actually warned us about this: If you hear that divine voice, truly hear the Beloved speak, be careful! The love of God will change you, unravel you, and remake you.

And that’s exactly what the world needs: people who are changed by love.

Come to Rebekah’s well.
Enter Isaac’s tent.
Gather at the Eucharistic Table, a foretaste (lest we forget) of the heavenly wedding banquet.

And then lay down the burdens that are not yours to carry.
Pick up the lighter one instead,
the one that matters,
the one that makes a difference,
the one borne because of love.

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Cradle It — Tenderly, Fiercely, Queerly

This holy-day season offers plenty of queerness, enough to inspire some gritty hope and ignite a fleshy faith in a world that has run completely off the rails.

Do you hear what I hear? Racist taunts and misogynistic jokes and the derisive mocking of the disabled; stock market bells clanging with stratospheric heights while people huddle under highway overpasses without any home or hearth; the panicked whimpering of cattle herded toward their slaughter in filthy factory farms.

Do you see what I see? Syrian cities in rubble; sinking rafts on the Mediterranean Sea; a deadlocked American jury unable to convict; polar icecaps vanishing like morning mist; the Hijab torn from a tearful head of a Muslim, her face wracked with fear and foreboding.

Do you wonder, as I often do, what possible difference any of us can make in world such as this? I know and affirm the standard response: we need to strategize, and organize, and pull as many legislative levers as possible to yank us toward a society of peace and justice.

And still I wonder: can we avoid playing a tit-for-tat game of political power? Do we measure success by how many votes are cast? How many “losers” can we tolerate when we finally “win”?

Perhaps we need to return or begin and then stay rooted elsewhere, which this peculiar season with a cradle in it urges me to remember. The God who shows up as an infant marks a way forward, the way of the flesh – touching it tenderly, caressing it carefully, embracing it fiercely.nativity_guatemalan

How romantically naïve that sounds, if not thoroughly ludicrous. Except for this: the powerful retain their power by keeping us divided and fragmented; by telling us that some people cannot be touched much less loved; that whole populations belong behind walls, out of reach; that entire species are merely disposable for the sake of economic growth and profitability.

As a white man entangled in all the horrific machinations of white supremacy and misogyny, I’m grateful for Toni Morrison’s reminder of why a fleshy faith matters in systems of oppressive institutional power. In her novel Beloved, the character of Baby Suggs preaches to her fellow ex-slaves, urging them to love their flesh, to “love it hard”:

Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. … This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up.

Queerly, to work for a better world we must first and continually cradle the flesh and cherish it – I mean, really cherish it: hug it, feed it, sing to it, cuddle it, rescue it, stand up for it, brush out its matted fur, pour a river of cleansing tears over it as we massage it, adore it, and never, ever take it for granted.

Imagine your whole family doing this as a Christmas gift, setting aside petty disagreements and all the fretting over suitable presents and showering each other with hugs and kisses.

Imagine your neighborhood, your whole circle of friends and colleagues, pausing to hold hands and rub sore shoulders and linger in a protective embrace. And then more: inviting all those “others” to join you in that arc of fleshy touch – the stranger and alien, the differently colored and accented speakers, the hungry and lonely, the despised and abandoned.

Imagine people everywhere, starting in your own cozy nook and familiar cranny, and extending across this country and around the globe honoring and worshiping the flesh – assigning worth to it, as “worship” quite literally means.

Adore the flesh that God made, just as God does. Taking unimaginable delight in this flesh, God dives headlong into this whole beautiful, poignant mess with us, landing in a cradle. And for no other reason than endless, deathless love.

If we imagine these things and do them, we might hear a heavenly chorus of angels break into song once again, probably weeping as they do, overcome and undone by the glory of God…in cherished flesh.

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A Standing Rock Thanksgiving

A recent social media meme pointed out the terrible irony of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at a time when Native Americans are being tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and sprayed with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures.

I would add two more words to describe that confluence – fortuitous and Eucharistic.

I realize the risk in both of those words just now, especially a Christian liturgical word that has carried so much colonial and neo-colonial baggage, a religious rite that traveled with conquerors and pioneers who scattered, decimated, and killed the native tribes on the very land those same tribes now seek to protect. I take this risk hoping the ongoing standoff at Standing Rock will inspire more communities to engage in courageous and decisive action at the intersection of racial history and ecological fragility.standing_rock1

I fuel this hope, especially at this time of year, by remembering that Christian faith began not with a text or a doctrine or an institution, but with radical social practice – table fellowship. As the gospel writers portray it, Jesus was constantly getting in trouble for eating with the wrong people.

Who sat at your table – and whose table you joined – mattered a great deal in that first century society, nearly as much as the character of your sexual relations. Both food and sex perpetuated hierarchies of social value, relations of power that stratified ancient Mediterranean communities just as they do today. Jesus cast these hierarchies aside – much to the ire and even revulsion of many in his own community; this eventually cost Jesus his life.

The earliest Christians continued that practice of table fellowship, which they came to call “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At those shared tables, both then and today, Christians do two interrelated things: we remember the violence of a state-sponsored execution and we proclaim a hopeful faith in the God who brings new life from such pain and suffering.

Josiah Royce, a late-nineteenth century American philosopher of religion, described a genuine community as a people who share both memory and hope in common. People who share only memory but no hope often fall into a paralyzing despair; people who dwell on hope with no shared memory can easily drift into utopian fantasy. A genuine and indeed beloved community, Royce argued, will always share the intertwining of memory and hope. He applied this description to Christians at the Eucharistic table.

We have some daunting and likely gut-wrenching work ahead of us as Americans living in a deeply divided, fragmented, and increasingly hostile society. The wounds and scars that divide us are not new, of course, but for many white liberals like me, too many of those wounds have gone unnoticed for too long; we have not held enough memory in common and we have lived with too much untethered hopefulness.

America cannot be “great” nor can we move “forward together” without remembering more honestly and bravely how firmly our national roots are planted in a violent past, without hoping for a future in which my thriving and flourishing are inextricably bound up with yours.

The family Thanksgiving table likely cannot bear the weight of that crucial work. Perhaps that’s why our faith communities still matter – our synagogues, our churches, our mosques. Perhaps the standoff at Standing Rock can become the occasion for forging new modes of multi-faith solidarity, a fresh vision of shared tables on sacred land, a way through painful memories toward a hopeful horizon.

Perhaps so – and if so, then white Europeans will once again owe the courageous indigenous peoples of this land a profound debt of gratitude.

(Click here to support the water protectors at Standing Rock.)

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Solidarity in Shame, Hope for Healing

As a white person, I cannot really know how a person of color feels in a white supremacist country like the U.S. As a man, I cannot really know how a woman feels in a patriarchal society.

As a gay white man, I do share at least this much in common with many women and people of color: a deeply embedded sense of bodily shame. Perhaps together we can deepen our collective hope for healing.

I’m tempted to insist that everyone lives with some degree of alienating shame (I think that’s a useful way to read the biblical story of the “fall” in Genesis 3), but the more modest scope suffices to make this point: far too many of us internalize hateful messages and quickly find ourselves awash in self-loathing. Left unaddressed, shame can lead to isolation and depression, or it can spiral outward in gestures of aggression, hostility, and even violence.shame

Witness Omar Mateen, the man who shot and killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, this past Sunday morning. In addition to being a Muslim, he was perhaps secretly gay. If so, what he did still qualifies as a “hate crime” – a crime rooted in his own hatred of himself. Shame, in other words.

LGBT people confront toxic comments at nearly every turn; many of these are hard simply to shrug off and forget. Some of them linger, tempting us to believe their poisonous lies and be ashamed of who we are. We’ve heard some choice ones over the last few days, which are just particularly virulent illustrations of a daily reality. Consider these:

  • The Lt. Governor of Texas apparently believes people like me actually deserve to be shot and killed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He tweeted a Bible verse shortly after the massacre in Orlando: “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7).
  • A supposedly Christian pastor in Arizona rejoiced that there were “50 less pedophiles in the world” but then added this: “The bad news is a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive, so they’re going to continue to molest children and recruit children into their filthy homosexual lifestyle.”
  • Another supposedly Christian pastor in Sacramento, California, preached the very morning of the massacre that he was sorry more of us didn’t die. He later added this: “I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.”
  • And here’s just one international example: a popular meme on Russian social media this week declared that “50 faggots were killed in a bar in the United States. Fortunately no human beings were hurt.”

It’s not that each of these absurdist, nearly melodramatic outbursts or even all of them together are too much for any of us to take; we’ve learned how to be strong and we’ve cultivated a good deal of resilience over the years. No, it is rather how each of these can trigger a lifetime of painful memories that start to build up like plaque in the arteries of our souls – all those times of being called a sissy in grade school, or “devil’s spawn” by a pastor, or a cocksucker in high school, or a fucking faggot on vacation in a gay resort, of all places.

I’m describing here what people of color keep trying to get white people to understand about racist microaggressions, and what women keep trying to get men to understand about sexist objectification, patriarchal dominance, and the cumulative effect of being leered at for years and decades. Jessica Valenti wrote about those leers just recently in the New York Times. She describes their lasting imprint rather poignantly:

For me, it’s not one particular message or adolescent incident that bothers me; it’s the weight of years of multiple messages and multiple incidents. It’s the knowledge that this will never be just one day, just one message, just one hateful person. It’s a chipping away of my sense of safety and my sense of self.

All of these moments and incidents and stray comments burrow deeply into our psyches and sit there, festering in a toxic soup of internalized revulsion and bodily shame. Most of us scarcely realize how many of our daily interactions and even dearest relationships wind up coated with layers of that acrid brew.

No one can heal from all this shame alone since isolation is itself a symptom of shame’s corrosive effects. Only by sustaining deep relationships of mutual love and respect can any of us hope to retrieve for ourselves and among others the joy and dignity for which God makes us all. This is what makes churches and gay nightclubs alike so terribly important. No, these have never been perfect social spaces, not by far, but they have been vital venues where we can start to forge relational foundations for healing.

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In this age of increasing religious and cultural pluralism, we need to work across old boundaries and in new communities far more diverse than we have yet seen or perhaps even imagined. The diversity itself will contribute to the healing we seek. Indeed, we must create spaces where women, people of color, the sexually queer and the queerly gendered, and white, straight, men can all do the hard work together of building a different kind of world — a world in which no one need turn to violence, not as a first nor even a last resort to find some relief from the debilitating weight of bodily shame.

Yes, easy access to guns was the proximate cause of the Orlando massacre. But I suspect and I am quite convinced that its deeper source was Omar Mateen’s unbearable alienation from his own bodily goodness, a spiritual malady from which far too many of the rest of us still suffer.

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for Congress to do something about that.

[I have written more extensively on the difference between guilt and shame, and how this matters for Christian faith and social transformation, in my book Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy. Portions of the commentary above are adapted from that book.]

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Don’t Drop the “T” — Put it First

Childhood friends teased me for “playing with dolls” rather than “playing army.” High school football players called me a “woman” when I auditioned for concert choir. A friend from my church youth group once told me that the “least I could do is sit like a man.” He said this when I crossed my legs by folding my right knee over my left knee rather than resting my ankle there.

All of that happened before I came out – either to myself or to others – as a gay man. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not separate and distinct; they are deeply intertwined. Indeed, at the root of “homophobia” is a thinly veiled misogyny, or more pointedly, a profound gender panic over the erosion of male privilege.

Every gay man should already know this, if not from direct personal experience, then surely from witnessing the treatment of women in our patriarchal society. Sadly yet also understandably, some gay men are among the most sexist.  I say “understandably” not to excuse misogynistic postures but to appreciate the depth of patriarchal formation that shapes everyone, even (especially?) gay men, who have been told relentlessly to “act like a man,” or “butch it up” in public, or who puzzle over “straight acting” in personal ads.

Gay Rights Next BattlegroundThe consequences of all this have become more apparent and dire with the increasing visibility of those who identify as transgender. The recent arc traced from former Olympic decathlete Caitlin Jenner’s gender transition to the defeat of a Houston anti-discrimination ordinance has now generated an open letter from some (anonymous) “gay/bisexual men and women” urging us all to “drop the T” from that ubiquitous LGBT acronym. This, they argue, is crucial as “trans ideology” erodes the “rights of women, gay men and children.”

To appreciate just how misguided and even dangerous this letter is, we need to review some ancient history here, both civic and religious, which is far from over and past. That history continues to haunt this present moment in ways we cannot afford to overlook.

Historically, and speaking frankly, sex has most frequently been understood as an act of penetration – a body party of one person is inserted in the body part of another. Gender is mostly irrelevant in these ancient views. Whether it concerns a vagina, an anus, or a mouth, penetration marks what counts as “sex.”

Not just coincidentally, “penetration” also describes conquest, battlefront victory, and more generally how one dominates a weaker party. That’s the point. To “be a man” and to “be a warrior” have been synonymous for most of human history. It’s not just lust that leads conquering armies to rape everything in sight in the ancient world; indeed, it’s not about lust at all but power and dominance – or I suppose we should say the lust for the power to dominate.rome_rape

For the ancient societies that produced biblical texts, both “good sex” and “good worship” exhibited these dynamics of dominance and submission. As biblical scholar Stephen D. Moore succinctly puts it, sex in the ancient Mediterranean world was basically “eroticized inequality.”

Keep those ancient historical markers in mind and consider these more recent ones:

  • Christian men in the 19th century worried about the “feminization” of Christianity and tried to create a more manly and “muscular” depiction of Jesus.
  • The term “homosexuality” itself was coined by 19th century medical researchers to describe “inverted” men, men who acted as if their genitalia and emotional lives turned inward — just like women.
  • Prior to World War II in the U.S., only the “submissive” partner in male same-sex sexual acts was considered “homosexual,” because he was “acting like the woman.”
  • Emasculating African American men (treating them like women) has been a constant tool of white supremacy, from plantation slavery to anti-miscegenation laws and contemporary police brutality.
  • Joking about the supposedly tiny genitals of Asian men belongs to a larger project of feminizing them for racist purposes.
  • The Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq involved U.S. soldiers (both male and female) humiliating Iraqi prisoners with sex acts, basically making them submissive, “like women.”
  • After Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire, conservative religious objections exhibited a significant shift in rhetorical strategy and moved away from the story of Sodom’s destruction, and toward the supposed “gender complementarity” of human beings in the biblical creation accounts.
  • For decades, street violence and bullying has focused not on loving relationships but gender nonconformity, on “femmie fags” and “bull dykes” and even more on the transgender among us.
  • More than a few contemporary Christian men have now returned to the anxieties of their 19th century forebears and are deeply concerned once again about the “feminization” of Christianity and turning Jesus into a “sissy.”

Drop the “T”?

Far from it! It’s actually high time we put the “T” first in our social analysis, political activism, and theological reflection. Perhaps then all us (especially white men) would understand better what biblical theological Walter Wink called “the domination system.” That system – just as pervasive in our civic and religious institutions today as it was in the first century society of the Gospel writers – creates hierarchies of value and sustains them with violence, the very system Jesus sought to dismantle.

Drop the “T”?

No way. Not when so much of our distress — from racism and colonialism to militarism and ecological disaster — is fueled by the deeply entrenched denigration of all things feminine. Not when so many gay men think that “marriage equality” protects them from the patriarchal-industrial complex that no amount of “straight acting” will blunt. Not when white, affluent gay men have never paused to consider what their civil rights have to do with working class women of color.

Drop the “T”?

That’s a great idea if you want people to focus on trivialities (like who uses public bathrooms) rather than the urgent task of dismantling the systems that place men over women, white over black, straight over gay, and humans over all other animals and their ecosystems.

Drop the “T”?

Absolutely not. To the contrary, the peculiar faith of Christians would urge us to put the “T” first for a world of peace and justice in which everyone can thrive and flourish.

peaceable_kindgom_swanson

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The Eighth Day: Bloody Memories and Hopeful Futures

How do you celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision? That’s what this day used to be called, this eighth of the twelve days of Christmas. Most Christians now know this day instead as the Feast of the Holy Name, celebrated on January 1st.

The contemporary liturgical language certainly sounds a bit more palatable for New Year’s festivities. But I think it’s a mistake to cover over the bloody wounding that accompanies the giving of a name — the violence that always attends carving out identities in social systems.circumcision

Following ancient Israelite custom, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, which Luke’s gospel account mentions explicitly (Lk 2:21). January 1st falls on the eighth day of the Christmas season, and thus the rather odd religious commemoration on what just happens to be the first day of a new year on the secular calendar.

Perhaps this new year conjunction is just odd enough to provoke some serious reflection on why any of this matters.

British theologian Graham Ward has noted that the circumcision of Jesus marked a boundary of identity, specifically a Jewish male identity. This is just one among many reasons, as Ward puts it, to remember that theology always entails a “cultural politics.” (Go here for a link to Ward’s essay.)

Ward’s language, though, is still a bit too tame. As nearly everyone realizes, the politics of culture in the modern West always involve finding ourselves classified and categorized in social identities. These identities exhibit multiple features and characteristics, but they are always gendered and racialized. There is, in other words, no such thing as “generic humanity.” We are always already racially gendered – and this happens mostly through acts of wounding and violence.

Less abstractly, what identity means today in the U.S. depends on: a) whether one fears being raped and then being blamed for it; and/or b) whether one can drive a car, shop in a store, or walk down a street without raising suspicion among law enforcement officials – or ending up dead.

garner_eric_chokeMore simply still: If you are not marked as “white” or “male,” then who you are emerges through wounds and violence. And just there, God shows up – colored and wounded.

Christmas, after all, proclaims a God who chooses to identify with all of us on a path marked by blood. The blood of childbirth, yes, and yet more blood in wounded genitals, and still more as a criminal executed by imperial power on a cross. God takes up residence with us in all that bloody mess.

That’s why I fret over the erasure of genital blood on this “Feast of the Holy Name.” Does that liturgical shift reflect an ongoing discomfort with Jesus’s genitals or a subtle denial of wounded bodies? Probably a bit of both, which carries implications for all the sexually and racially scarred bodies populating our communities and sitting in the pews of our churches.

Well, so what? (And that’s probably the best question to ask about any theological reflection.)

Among the many possible responses to that question, I’m rather intrigued right now by the number eight. While I’m not particularly enamored with numerology, those who are note several significant features of “eight”: it’s the number of people saved on Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20); it’s the evocation of perfection in some Chinese traditions; Pythagoreans associate eight with love and friendship; some ancient Egyptians considered eight the number of cosmic order and perfection; flipped on its side, 8 is the mathematical symbol of infinity.

Most of all, I’m fascinated by Augustine’s fifth century speculation. For him, the “Eighth Day” is the day of the promised new creation, the glorious “what next?” that follows the seven days of divine creation in Genesis. For Augustine, the Eighth Day promise is signaled and sealed by the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.

On this eighth day of Christmas, I’m clinging to Augustine’s imaginative proposal. In the midst of so many bloody memories – not least, those incarnated in the bodies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – Christmas invites a radical, even illogical hope for the future. Not in spite of our bloody awful memories but in the midst of all of them. God appears among us, from the very beginning, as wounded and scarred, enticing us to live differently.

For Christians, January 1st is always stained with blood. God chooses to reside right there, in our bloody memories. And right there, not somewhere else, God seeks to give birth to hopeful futures.midwife

Let’s be the midwife in 2015.

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Salvation is an Inside Job

I love Da Vinci’s portrayal of John the Baptist, for multiple reasons. He’s vaguely androgynous, strangely alluring, and his smirk hints at a secret he’s dying to tell – that he did tell: repentance is the path toward life.finger_pointing_john

The vast majority of Christians hear about John on the second Sunday of Advent, a day when Episcopalians begin worship with a prayer about the message of prophets, the importance of repentance, and the need to forsake our sins. Exactly pitch perfect for life in the U.S. today.

I think it’s worth remembering that prophets quite often make people mad, but not necessarily because of what they say about the future. Prophets make people mad because they tell the truth about the present, the kind of truth-telling more than a few don’t want to hear, especially if it means changing the way we live.

John is usually framed by the gospel writers with the words many Christians also hear in Advent, words from Isaiah the prophet about a voice crying in the wilderness, mountains being brought low, and crooked paths made straight.

John was a bit more pointed about that message. A counter-cultural, granola-crunching, hippie from the Haight-Ashbury, John despised the socio-religious pretentions of decent folk who kept up appearances but did so at the expense of the under-class and day-laborers. Luke’s account has John refer to the religious leaders of his day as a “brood of vipers” and insists that the fruits of repentance will be marked by social and economic justice (Luke 3:7-14).

John’s rudeness is something like an occupational hazard for prophets, born, I think, from the urgency of their message. The truth they speak is most often one of judgment and the need for change.

There’s a good deal of prophetic truth-telling happening today and it’s making a lot of people irritable if not really mad.

More than a few otherwise calm and measured scientists are starting to sound a bit unhinged in their truth-telling about our global climate. It’s not just an “inconvenient truth”; to take this truth seriously would mean making a profound course correction in the way all of us live.smokestacks2

We are also living through a nationwide moment of truth-telling about race and racism. To take seriously this truth of systemic white supremacy would mean, just as it does for our global climate, a profound change in our socio-economic institutions.

At this time of year, I’m frequently reminded what often links our climate crisis with our racism: the economy. In this season when the retail shopping engine lurches into high gear, the link is startling.

Some of today’s prophetic voices, for example, are trying to tell us a truly unsettling truth about our shopping malls. They would urge us to notice that nearly every product we can buy in our department stores is made in one of the roughly 300 factories in Juarez, Mexico, just over the border with El Paso, Texas.

jaurez_factgryName nearly any mainstream corporate brand you can think of, and there’s a factory in Juarez making their stuff with poorly paid labor, unregulated working conditions, horrible ecological effects, and in the wake of an epidemic of kidnappings, violence against women, and murder. Just a few years ago, Juarez was actually named the “murder capital of the world.” That’s where a lot of our stuff comes from.

Consider this short list of companies who rely on the suffering of the women of Juarez to fuel the global economic engine: Philips, Epson, Honeywell, Toshiba, Johnson & Johnson, Seiko, Lexmark, General Electric, Maytag, Alcoa, Goodyear, Bosch, Pepsi, DuPont, and Coca-Cola.

Again, that’s a short list.

I find this nearly intolerable. None of us chose to set up this system yet all of us are deeply ensconced in it and benefit from it every day – much like the system that has caused our climate crisis and the systems that privilege white people.

I say “nearly” intolerable because I do think this kind of prophetic truth-telling would crush us without the rest of the liturgical year and what it offers for Christian faith. These first two weeks of Advent, after all, are not for our despair but for our hope. Advent rather boldly declares that another kind of world is possible and, indeed, that God is even now bringing about that new world.

The question, of course, is how. How is God doing this?

Personally, I would love to see God just part the heavens, rend them open, step down here and fix this mess. It’s beyond my ability to analyze adequately, let alone sort it out. Some superhero salvation, perhaps from some realm beyond, would be really welcome right now. And indeed, my Christian faith includes the conviction that God has sometimes acted in such dramatic fashion and sometimes still does and will still do.

But mostly not.

Mostly, salvation is an inside job. Social transformation happens mostly from the inside out – and that can be just as dramatic as the heavens being torn asunder.

John the Baptist certainly cared about the inequities, distortions, and corruptions of his own society. Yet notice the twin focus of his message: the urgency of repentance to prepare for the one who will baptize not just with water but with the Holy Spirit.

Ah! The Holy Spirit – now that might be the game changer we need. That’s the who can bring down the mountains of resentment and hate each of us has built up to protect our fragile hearts; the one who can take the twisted paths we follow to justify our destructive lives and make them straight; the only one who can cry out in the wilderness of modern loneliness and despair and make the wild flowers bloom in the deserts of consumerist impulses.

The world’s transformation most often happens and takes root there, in the human heart.

So let’s read Isaiah like that:

In the wilderness (of our collective suffering) prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert (of our sorrow and perplexity) a highway for our God.
Every valley (of despair) shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill (of violence) be made low;
the uneven ground (of economic oppression) shall become level,
and the rough places (of racial hostility) a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 40:3-5).

Read Isaiah like that and Christmas becomes a celebration of salvation as an inside job: God chooses to save with and among us, to guide and lead us toward our thriving as one of us, from the inside out.

How does God transform the world?

With repentance. The kind of repentance sparked by seeing the world as it really is, from realizing how the world actually works, from hearing words of prophetic truth-telling that can pierce our collective denial sufficiently to make space for the Holy Spirit.

In that space, the Word of God becomes incarnate — again.advent_candles3

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Merry (Messy) Christmas!

Carnal existence is wonderfully and terribly messy. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Most of us do notice, yet few Christians seem to talk about the messiness of bodily life at this time of year, when we celebrate the Word of God in the flesh.

“Away in a manger,” we Christians sing, while Mary tended to a baby who spits up and poops, like all babies do. And that manger? It smelled like pig saliva surrounded by the odor of cow shit.manger

Christians know all this at some level, but it’s rather remarkable how infrequently we talk about it. Progressives, like me, prefer to talk about the glories of bodily life after hearing for far too long about the “sins of the flesh.” Spiritual honesty and vitality demand more than that facile dichotomy.

If this feast of the Incarnation is ever going to break free of the titillating tinsel of cheery commercialism and actually seize the human imagination once again it will take both the glories and the humiliations of the flesh with the utmost seriousness – just as God did and does.

Bodies do exult with joys and pleasures sufficient to make angels sing. Bodies also grow weak, fall prey to disease, get very messy, and then they die. I think regularly about the messiness of bodies as I care for my 92-year old mother. Quite literally millions of others likely do, too, as they care for elderly parents with diapers on one end and dementia on the other.

Things can get just as messy on the inside as the outside. Each of us lives with a vast interior space crowded with all kinds of cultural voices: go on a diet; work harder; be more polite; stop being so uppity; know your place; clean the kitchen (like Martha Stewart pays someone to do).

Quite frequently all those voices reduce to just one – our own. Many of us could easily win the prize as our own fiercest critic. There’s a name for that voice; it’s called shame.

Christians spend a lot of time talking about guilt and forgiveness and hardly any about what forgiveness alone can never really touch – shame. I tried to write about this in my recent book where I defined shame as “alienation from our bodily goodness.” Everyone knows what that means and some need anti-depressants to address it. But bodily shame can just as easily issue outward as inward. In my book I described it like this:

When left unaddressed and allowed to fester, this alienation from bodily goodness can spiral into an inward collapse on the self and breed ever greater isolation. “Alienated bodies” can also exacerbate troubled interpersonal relationships and even wider social disintegrations, violent hostilities toward those deemed “other,” social policies that stratify and divide communities, and even environmental degradations.

hands_multiracial3I truly believe bodily shame lies at the root of human distress, and probably always has. We know that distress as racism, homophobia, economic injustice, and horrific self-loathing, which breeds all the rest. Christmas, this Feast of the Incarnation, invites us to come out from our shame and to discover anew – or for the very first time – the antidote to bodily shame in a divine embrace. Christmas invites us to imagine what for most is literally unthinkable: God takes great delight in our flesh, our smelly, delectable, terrifying, itchy, silky, unmanageable, glorious flesh. I tried to imagine that as I wrote this for that recent book:

Most of us take the skin covering our bones for granted, except perhaps when we bruise it or cut it—or perhaps when a friend grabs our hands in a moment of crisis, or our fingers intertwine with the fingers of a beloved partner. Human flesh feels remarkably soft and resilient, creased and textured, smooth and supple. Human flesh comes in a stunning array of colors for which just “black” and “white” seem terribly crude. Pink, mocha, tan, auburn, chocolate—these are just a few of the tints and tones of the flesh that can occasion joy for us, and for the God who made it…hands_multiracial4

Imagine, in other words, God taking great delight in your body. I mean the naked one, the one with creases and dents, the one with the quirky smile and crooked nose, the one that gets messy and tired and cranky, the one that you never think is good enough or does enough or measures up to today’s cult of youth and beauty. I mean the body you cover with festive holiday clothes and workaholic frenzy just as Adam and Eve covered theirs with fig leaves. God asked those first humans about that. Read about it in the third chapter of Genesis. Who told you, God asked them, to be ashamed of how I created you?

If we can start to imagine God truly loving our own, messy bodies, then we might start to see other bodies that way, too. That would change the world. And that would give angels reasons to sing yet again.

angels_sheperdsMerry (messy) Christmas!

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Counting the Deaths that Count in Eastertide

I know how many people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School (26, not including the perpetrator and his mother) and how many died at the Boston Marathon bombing (3). I know this (without needing to “do a Google”) in part because these horrific events took place rather recently.

I know these numbers for other reasons, too. Both of those tragic moments happened in places where I can imagine myself visiting or strolling; I can easily see my godson’s younger brother as a student at Sandy Hook. And all but a few of those thirty-one people who died were white.

I have never visited a Sikh temple nor have I ever traveled to Pakistan. There are parts of the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) that I might drive through but likely never “visit.” Yet in all of those places adultssikh_temple_shooting and children alike have died, violently and recently. I have no idea how many unless I look it up and then search carefully through all the online search results:

Six died at a Wisconsin Sikh temple last August. Since the Sandy Hook shooting last December, 35 have been killed by gun violence in Oakland (10 miles from my house), four of them teenagers. In my own city of Richmond, 7 have been killed, one of them a teenager. (Slate offers a sobering but helpful interactive map of gun violence in the U.S., though the statistics are strangely hard to confirm.) Only God knodrone_strikews, literally, how many have died in U.S. drone strikes overseas. In Pakistan alone since 2004 drones have killed 2,358 people, 175 of them children. (Those numbers are disputed by various reporting agencies, but this animated graphic proves helpful and chilling.)

The vast majority of all those victims were not white.

Now, to be sure, these situations (let alone my  memory and attention span) are complex, multi-layered, inflected by news cycles, the “spectacle factor,” and so much more. The troubling fact still remains that I remember or know anything at all about white deaths on the other side of the country and so little about the deaths of people of color in my own backyard. Without resorting to Google yet again, I could not remember how many died just a year ago at Oikos University, a school affiliated with a Korean Presbyterian Church in Oakland (7).

I suspect something deep in the human psyche draws our attention rather naturally to the fate of those who seem most like us. If so, then white people (like me) need urgently to stretch beyond that natural tendency in a country where the vast majority of policy makers are white (and male); in a country where national news media train their spotlight on a small-town elementary school but not on inner-city streets; in a country where significant gun control legislation finally appears on the docket only after mostly white children are killed but not after mostly Asian students are shot by an Asian gunman. (The New York Times Magazine recently published a retrospective piece on the University of Oikos shooting titled, appropriately enough, “The Other School Shooting.”)

We count deaths, but some deaths clearly count more than others. I started pondering that disparity as I sat transfixed (like so many others) by the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Somewhere in the back of my brain I wondered why the whole country seemed fixated there but so rarely on Oakland, Richmond, Atlanta, New York City, or Chicago.

The specter of terrorism is clearly part of the answer. One of the Boston victims (who lost a portion of her leg in the bombing) said that it reminded her immediately of the September 2001 attacks. She was not alone, and that may be part of the problem. A commentator in London recently noted that Americans tend to panic over the prospect of international terrorism (shutting down an entire city) but seem to accept daily gun violence as routine. Those living with such violence, however, consider it anything but “routine” and more like terrorism. (Over the last two years such violence has gone up by 52% in the Bay Area where residents feel “besieged.”)

Since Sandy Hook last December through March 22 of this year, 2, 244 people have been killed by gun violence in the U.S. The demographics lurking behind those statistics are just as significant. White Americans are five times more likely than African Americans to commit suicide with a gun. African Americans are far more likely than white people to be killed by someone else with a gun. Suicide rates are the highest in states with the highest rate of gun ownership and tend to concentrate in rural areas. Homicides involving guns happen far more frequently in our cities. Digest those demographics for a moment and notice the polling data: Nearly 75% of African Americans support tighter gun control legislation while not quite half of white Americans do. (The difference between how we perceive suicide and respond to homicide matters here, too.)

Admittedly, I find statistics numbing and difficult to decipher. More visceral and gripping are the images of those Sandy Hook children and the carnage at a marathon finish line. Mia McKenzie by contrast finds those images numbing in what she names an “erosion of empathy.” Counting only the deaths that appear to count (judged by news media and Congressional action) has slowly worn done her capacity to care. Here’s how she describes it from a blog post I urge all of my white friends to read:

Some of it has to do with the fact that the wars and subsequent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for more than a dozen years. For many of the younger folks I know, that’s the better part of their entire lives. It’s a whole third of mine. For a dozen years we have watched as the mainstream media has ignored the deaths of so many brown children, day after year after decade. I mean, they were ignoring the deaths of Black children all over the world, including here, way before that, but we didn’t have to see them ignoring it so blatantly every morning and afternoon and evening and night on TV (that 24-hour news cycle is a bitch; they have time for everything except our stories).

Surely the peculiar faith of Christians has something to say here – peculiar, that is, especially for white Christians in this Easter season as we  celebrate the resurrection of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew executed by an imperial army outside the city gates. Would that death have attracted dozens of television camera crews and even more front page news stories?jesus_as_palestinian

Perhaps we need an Eastertide discipline as much as we do a Lenten one. A modest place to begin might be noticing the deaths that count and why they do. The U.S. Congress may have (inadvertently?) done just that by awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to four African American girls – fifty years after they were killed in a Birmingham city bombing.
MCNAIR ROBERTSON COLLINS WESLEY