radical 2
Theology

“Radical” review: 61-84

Interestingly, David starts off this chapter with another horrifying story.

In it, he relates how a pastor of a church he was speaking at responded to his to ministry in inner-city New Orleans and impoverished areas overseas:

David, I think it’s great you are going to those places. But if you ask me, I would just as soon God annihilate all those people and send them to hell. (62)

On this one example, David and I are in complete agreement. I would say “what the fuck is this shit,” but David is considerably more indirect than I am. He simply says “Wow” (63). After that reaction, though, our views of the situation diverge … as one would probably expect at this point in my Radical review. David looks at this pastor’s antagonistic and violent attitude toward global missions and argues that every Christian is commanded by the Great Commission to be a global missionary, because it says “to all nations.”

I look at that pastor’s violent approach to inner city communities and developing nations as one drenched with white supremacy and an uncritical adoption of American imperialism, colonization, and exceptionalism, along with a core-deep belief in capitalism as a moral system.

The problem is, David shares some of those problems.

He sees Christianity as an American export.

This perspective is, depending, both right and wrong. David has inherited a view of Christianity that’s very much entrenched in the western European articulation of it. All of that is exacerbated by British and American missionary movements and the indelible affect they’ve had on how American Christianity views itself. I don’t know about your experience, but in mine there’s nothing more pious than reading missionary biographies.

What those biographies failed to convey to anyone I knew was that American and British missionary efforts frequently went hand-in-hand with colonization. Many missionaries were more focused on westernizing people than they were in converting them (Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is an excellent depiction of this that pissed me off the first time I read it, back when I was still a fundamentalist). There are echoes of that in other situations, too– America and Canada have a sordid past with essentially kidnapping First Nation children and abusively forcing our culture onto them. This oppressive act was frequently justified to white people as “Christianizing” them (for a horrifying look into that point of view, there’s Janette Oke’s Drums of Change).

In another sense, modern American evangelicals are still engaged in the same exact thing. If you’d like to know more about that, God Loves Uganda (which you can stream on Netflix) talks about how our evangelical leaders have spent a lot of time and money trying to make countries like Uganda just as homophobic as us. For more on that, I highly recommend this piece by Bisi Alimi.

But, in a very serious sense, he’s also wrong. From his point of view, the United States doesn’t count as a mission field (“having a heart for the United States” is a “smoke screen” for lazy people, 75)– and woven all through chapter four is this concept that we need to think “globally” about the Gospel which, according to him, means taking our version of Christianity to other countries.

What he fails to recognize is that many other nations have deep Christian roots– but they don’t look like American Christianity, so he dismisses them. For example, there are Kurdish Christians with a religious tradition reaching back to the fifth century. Then there’s Jordan, which has one of the oldest Christian communities anywhere in the world, but were one of the targets of the Christian crusades. Ethiopian Christian history stretches back centuries– to long before they built a monastery in the sixth century.

When people like David conceptualize “the Christian tradition,” they’re most likely not including the traditions of Jordan, Ethiopia, Turkey, or India. They don’t look like American evangelicals, so they’re dismissed as “not actually followers of Christ” (76).

His view of “developing” nations is racist.

This chapter is not the first time this has come up– in every chapter up to now he’s spent a great deal of time making sure we understand how woebegone and beggared other countries are. People living in garbage pits, people without access to clean water, people who struggle to find food.

Except many people in American don’t have clean water. Ten people have died in Flint because of poisoned water, and many children there will grow up with permanent brain damage. But it’s not just Flint– St. Joseph has had unclean water for almost a decade (along with many other counties all over the South). Many children go hungry on snow days because the only place they can get breakfast or lunch is at school. America is the seventh wealthiest nation, but we’re barely capable of providing adequate healthcare to our population– more women die from pregnancy and childbirth in America than in any other developed nation.

David has this concept of evangelicalism being beset by concerns with “first world problems” like padded pews and projectors, but is blinded by American exceptionalism and a shallow, “single-story” view of Africa and Asia (which, just to be clear, are continents, not countries. Looking at you, Jen Hatmaker, with your “African” this and your “African” that). America, while wealthy, isn’t that spectacular, and other nations aren’t all shanty towns and open sewage. Just do an image search for Abuja or Vientiane or Ulaanbaatar.

He sees wealth as God’s blessing, and therefore as a reflection of God’s glory.

The principle argument of this chapter is that God created everything in order to glorify himself. People worshiping God is the “final, ultimate, all-consuming, glorious, guaranteed, overwhelmingly global purpose of God in Scripture. This is the great why of God.” He exists to be glorified, we exist to glorify. End of story. Then we get a letter from a church member who had recently come back from a short-term missions trip to Guatemala, which he uses to conclude the chapter:

After spending a week around precious childen who eat a small cup of porridge a day, the question I have come back to Birmingham asking God is why he has blessed me when others have so little. And this is what God has shown me:

“I have blessed you for my glory. Not so you will have a comfortable life with a big house and a nice car. Not so you can spend lots of money on vacations, education, or clothing. Those aren’t bad things, but I’ve blessed you so that the nations will know me and see my glory.”

… That is why God has given me income and education and resources. God saves me so that that nations will know him. He blesses me so that all the earth will see his glory! (84)

“Blessings” is a shorthand in evangelicalism for “money.” God gave this woman money instead of children who are starving because giving her money glorifies him. She had the money to go to Guatemala on a likely ineffective and ultimately harmful short-term trip and that means God was glorified dontcha know!

Yeah. Sure. That makes sense.

The problem is that David has spent this entire chapter quite literally railing against the concept that some people are “called” to be missionaries while those who aren’t are supposed to do what they can to financially support the missionary effort. And then he concludes his chapter with someone basically doing exactly that.

I’m confused.

statue law
Social Issues

Law of Kindness: how Christianity affects my ethics

I’m a spiritual abuse survivor, fundamentalist cult survivor, abuse survivor, and rape survivor; I’m part of the LGBT community and, as a feminist, have experienced harassment, rape and death threats. Because I don’t have access to a decent therapist I’ve found myself dealing with all of that trauma primarily through online support groups. Over the past three years I’ve faded in and out of a variety of groups with a multiplicity of purposes, mission statements, and moderation styles.

Many of these support groups adopt the stance of being a “safe space,” a doctrine I almost always appreciate. I have to deal with biphobia, misogyny, and ignorant-though-well-meaning people who victim blame me almost everywhere I go, so it’s nice to be able to retreat into a bubble where that doesn’t usually happen and if it does the moderators deal with it so traumatized people don’t have to. I also take a firm stance in moderating my comment section here. Slurs , threats, or doxxing isn’t allowed, and if you don’t argue in good faith you’re going to be banned fairly quickly.

However, here and and in every other “safe space” I’ve inhabited, a question is inevitably raised: what does it mean to be a safe space? Each group defines their boundaries differently, and what I’ve seen happen is frequently not every member is going to be happy with those boundaries: either they’ll find them too constraining or not protective enough. For example, if I see someone comment on an article about a teacher sexually abusing over a hundred students with “that must be one incredibly promiscuous school” what should the standard of a purportedly “safe space” be?

Over the last year, though, I’ve been a part of a number of discussions about what constitutes a safe space, especially when the group in question has quite a cross-section of trauma survivors and individuals with different needs, such as being neurodivergent and/or mentally ill. Many of those conversations centered around what to do with people who are ignorantly reinforcing cisgender, heterosexist, misogynistic, racist, or allistic frameworks. A few main methods would eventually come out of that conversation:

  1. People who have the wherewithal that day should attempt to educate the individual in good faith using a calm, moderated tone. If the individual persists in bad faith, then more moderation may be required.
  2. Any space that claims to be a “safe space” shouldn’t be moderated at all, because no one should have their voice silenced by anyone. (I’ve seen this one usually appear in groups for spiritual abuse survivors, like The Naked Pastor and Stuff Christian Culture Likes.)
  3. Trauma victims who are a racial, sexual, or nuerodivergent minority should be able to respond in whatever way they deem appropriate. Encouraging oppressed people to be “kind” or “calm” is tone policing and is inherently harmful to liberation and equality.

To a certain extent, and depending on context, each of these arguments appeal to me. If you’ve been around as a commenter for a while, you’ve probably realized I favor approach #1 here: attempt to educate, then ban if necessary. Sometimes, though, I go with option #3, because hell no I will not tolerate someone referring to Syrian people as “rapefugees” and I’m not going to stop to “educate” them. I can understand the philosophy behind approach #2, even though I don’t think it ever works out in practice. #2 does insure that people that I might subconsciously want to ignore get to have their say, too.

However, at some point over the last few months I realized that I agree with approach #1 because I’m a Christian.

I talked about this concept some in my response to the GCN conference, and I’ve been struggling to articulate what I mean. Part of me recognizes the validity of approach #3, and I’ll continue to support people who are “raging against the machine.” I believe in #BlackLivesMatter, and I will continue to support their protests because they are disruptive. Shutting down traffic, disturbing mall shopping, sit-ins and marches and interrupting campaign speeches– all of it. Black men and women are being lynched practically every day by our police force and I would not dare to tell them that they are not responding to their rage and grief “appropriately.”

Or I’ll read “Nice Girls Don’t Birth Revolutions” and feel something inside of me exalting along with Alana Louise May when she says:

People are so conditioned they will die to defend the very system that has been abusing them,

Poisoning them

Plotting their death before their very birth

That shit is sick

That shit is fucked

And no I am not interested in your polite passive aggressive tea room debate

But then, a few days later, I’ll read “Words for Cutting: Why we Need to Stop Abusing ‘The Tone Argument‘” and nod along to Katherine Cross’s words all the way through it and then want everyone I know to read it, too.

I do believe that our involvement in systemic racism and misogyny and everything else needs to be communally repented of, that abusers need to be named, that victims like Nagmeh Abedini should be believed and protected and defended. That we should confront oppression when we see it, ignoring how the mere act of confrontation itself is enough for some to dismiss us as “abusive.”

But, as a Christian, I am personally called to a different way of being. Jesus asks me to put down my sword, to turn the other cheek (which is a radical act peaceful resistance), to embody the fruits of the spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. If being a Christian means acting like Jesus, it means acknowledging that a soft answer turns away wrath, that I should have the law of kindness on my tongue.

There’s a mental separation I have to live with: as a public citizen, as a voter, as a member of interfaith communities and activism movements, I’m not a pacifist. I believe that mandating pacifism on oppressed peoples is another act of violence against them. I think that enforcing standards like “be kind” or “stay calm” or “tolerate ignorant shitheads” onto trauma survivors can re-victimize them all over again. I could not imagine a world where I would ever be kind to the man who raped me, and asking a victim to be “kind” or “loving” to their abuser is akin to sending them to the seventh circle of hell.

But, privately, I do not believe that I could take the life of someone else, even in defense of my own.

So while I do not think these standards– love your enemy, do good to those who hate you— should ever be something that is indiscriminately ordered from the top-down, I am becoming ever more convinced that I, personally and privately, should fully embrace these concepts. I should commit to if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, which I still hear in my mother’s voice.

Jesus confronted those in power. He was direct, and powerful. He boldly proclaimed that some of them were vipers and white-washed tombs with nothing but bones inside. He was forthright with the Woman at the Well. He argued with the Syro-Phonecian Woman (eventually conceding her point). I don’t think that having the law of kindness on my tongue means that I become mealy-mouthed or impotent.

But, if I am to love my neighbor, it must include people I don’t agree with. Who are misogynistic. Who are biphobic. Who say ridiculous, harmful things to me that have me sobbing in my partner’s arms, or that leave me fragile and triggered and shaken. I don’t have to be the one who responds every single time, and if I can’t respond without hatred bubbling in my heart, without the temptation to wound them like they wounded me, then maybe I shouldn’t.

Photo by Michael Coghlan
radical 2
Uncategorized

“Radical” review: 43-60

David opens up this chapter of Radical with a horrifying story.

In it, he relates how a seminarian from Indonesia (his name is Raden) was in a village where the local witch doctor challenged him to a fight. Even though Raden was trained in martial arts, he declined by saying “My God does the fighting for me.” Supposedly, at that moment, the witch doctor starts gasping for air and within minutes has “fallen over dead” (44). Raden goes on to use this as an opportunity to “share the Gospel” with the villagers. Everyone, as you might expect from these sort of “missionary tales,” converts on the spot.

Over the next page, David totally embraces the concept that God took direct action to literally kill a man so that Raden’s message would appear more powerful and convincing to the villagers. While he says that this isn’t a method we should try to duplicate (no shit, David), he doesn’t doubt that God did do this– which makes me wonder why he thinks this isn’t something we should attempt again? Apparently, the death of one man was worth it to God at least in that instance. Why not others? If God did it, why shouldn’t we “make pronouncements that lead to their deaths” (45)? The whole point of this chapter is that we’re completely ineffectual without God’s involvement. Isn’t it true from David’s perspective that if God did something– even when it looks like murder– it’s ultimately a good thing? “God is sovereign” and all that?

However, he doesn’t even bother acknowledging that question.

~~~~~

Throughout the rest of this chapter, David returns to one of the principle messages from chapter one– that the American evangelical church has adopted the “American dream” and strayed from our original design and purpose. He re-launches into this argument with:

To this point, we have seen how the American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the gospel. This differentiation is heightened when we contrast trust in the power of God with reliance on our own abilities. (45)

All I could ask was uhm… how exactly have we seen that? He’s ranted a bunch about how wealthy we are in comparison to underground house churches in Asia, and he’s condemned “the American dream” a bunch, and he’s ranted about what the Gospel really means a bunch, all without giving me anything truly concrete to work with. He doesn’t think easy-believism is the reality of the Gospel, and has shouted a bunch of Calvinistic stuff about how we’re sinners and God hates us, and he thinks padded pews might need to be tossed out to save us from our apathy, but … it all has just been a rant so far. He hasn’t put forth a substantive argument.

Here, though, he tries a little bit by giving us a slightly-less-fuzzy articulation of “The American Dream”:

… we can do anything we set our minds to accomplish. There is no limit to what we can accomplish when we combine ingenuity, imagination, and innovation with skill and hard work. We can earn any degree, start any business, climb any ladder, attain any prize, and achieve any goal …

The dangerous assumption we unknowingly accept in the American dream is that our greatest asset it our own ability … But the gospel has different priorities. The gospel beckons us to die to ourselves and to believe in God and to trust in his power. In the gospel, God confronts us with our utter inability to accomplish anything of value apart from him. (46).

Ah. He means meritocracy.

Like him, I’m frustrated with the concept, largely because it’s a lie. My partner is an excellent example: he’s intelligent, talented, and a dedicated, earnest worker. He accomplishes a lot at his job, and is routinely recognized for his significant contributions. I’m proud of him, and he deserves every award, every raise, every glowing performance review.

But.

But, he’s only there because he has a master’s degree from one of the best engineering schools in the world. He has that degree because his father paid for it out of pocket. His father was able to do all of that because his father paid for him to get an engineering degree. His grandfather was able to do all of that because he was an engineer at the booming Chrysler company. His grandfather could do all of that because he came from a reasonably comfortable farming family who were able to survive the Great Depression and make sure their kids were all able to go to college and do things like become extremely successful engineers and neurosurgeons.

At least four generations of wealth, prosperity, health, and education led to the place where my upper-middle-class white male partner is an up-and-coming leader in his department. That’s meritocracy for you: the prevalent belief that the rich and educated don’t help each other.

So yes, in a way, I share David’s frustration with the concept. However, instead of recognizing any of that, he slams to the complete opposite end of the spectrum: he believes in our utter inability to accomplish anything of value apart from God.

I really don’t want to live in David’s universe because it seems like a maddening, frustrating place. Through the next few pages he relies on the word desperation, saying:

Think about it. Would you say that your life is marked right now by desperation for the Spirit of God? Would you say that the church you are a part of is characterized by this sense of desperation? (60)

… which reminds me of a conversation I keep having with people. If they’re approaching religion from a typical evangelical way of understanding concepts like “personal relationship with Jesus,” and they read my blog, they’re probably going to walk away from here feeling somewhat dissatisfied with my lack of … well, evangelical-ness. I’m not bursting with talk of how God has worked in my life, our recounting ways that I’ve been just so blessed. There’s no stories here about how the spirit of God moved on my heart, or how I was convicted or “given a word,” according to whatever parlance you’re used to.

So, from David’s understanding, no, I’m not desperate for the Spirit of God, but it’s not because I don’t think we should be. I just have a different perspective on what this means. In many ways– most ways, probably– I am extremely desperate. Desperate, at times, is the only word to describe what I feel.

I am desperate for the unceasing tide of misogyny I have to wade through every single day to end. I am desperate for the police brutality and white supremacy in my country to be repented of and eradicated. I am desperate for trans people to be loved and accepted, for them to be able to grasp the healing and wholeness that is– or should be– out there.

Yes. Desperation is the only word that fits. And I pray. I do. I’m still uncertain what possible point prayer serves, but my soul eternally cries out to someone to just make this all stop.

But then I realize that the “someone” I’m asking for help is me. And it’s you. Unlike David, I don’t think we are “utterly incapable of accomplishing anything of value” without God’s direct intervention. I believe that God, unlike what David argues, uses likely and unlikely tools (53). Sure, they asked someone with a speech impediment to become a public speaker. But, they also asked Deborah to become a judge of Israel, and the record we have of her leadership is one of boldness, confidence, and competency.

Evangelicals like to tell stories like Gideon and Moses and Peter and Saul– the unlikely men, the people who seemed most unsuited for XYZ position. They embrace these narratives and argue that our abilities, our talents, are fairly irrelevant to God. In fact, the more pathetic and broken you appear to be to everyone else, the more likely They are to use you. Just to be sure that everyone “gets the message” that it only happened because God did that, and not because that person was smart and capable.

But what about Joseph, who was an excellent administrator? What about Lydia, who was a beloved community organizer? What about Phoebe, a proficient leader? Or the person(s)who eventually recorded the Gospel of John, a thematically beautiful written work?

All of this, to me, begs the question: what do people like David really mean when they say we can’t do anything “apart from God”? Do they mean that God gave us all the talents and abilities, so anything we do is ultimately their doing? Do they mean that God took direct action and planted the ideas for the granaries in Joseph’s head, a la The Chairman from The Adjustment Bureau? That God put the words in place before the author of John could write them down?

This is why I find these arguments frustrating. In a way, they’re unfalsifiable. Whatever David does mean by the “Spirit of God enabling us,” there’s nothing one way or the other that supports or disproves him. He can say literally anything he wants.

Monopoly Money
Feminism

stay-at-home-daughters are raised to be imprisoned

I may have mentioned, in passing, that I’ve been looking into attending seminary. There’s a few possible obstacles that have made finding the right seminary a difficult process, but one of the biggest is my unaccredited undergraduate degree. Because I can’t relocate for seminary, I have to find one that supports an online program, and most of the ones I’ve found have been either too conservative to admit me (as a woman and/or as an LGBT person); the ones that aren’t that conservative still won’t consider me because I don’t have an accredited degree. For several places, even if I were to complete the foreign language requirement at Liberty it still wouldn’t help me, because they only look at the undergraduate degree.

It looks like I may have found a place to apply (United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities), but I had to have a long conversation with their head of admissions to fully explain my background and why, even though my educational history looks super sketchy, I’m actually quite qualified for seminary. A big part of that story was the fact that I went to PCC because I was raised in the stay-at-home-daughter movement; attending a backwater fundamentalist Christian college was the only way I could go to any college anywhere.

The way I was raised, the movement I was brought up in, continues to limit my options. I imagine there will be ramifications of that ideology throughout my life. For example, I’m dreading my someday children coming home from school and needing help with their algebra homework. I was a woman in a Christian fundamentalist cult– I don’t know anything about math beyond arithmetic.

A little while ago I read Paulette Perhach’s “A Story of a Fuck Off Fund.” If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you do so because it paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to be a woman with limited financial options. Which, let’s face it, is an awful lot of us. As I read it, though, my background informed my reaction to it, and I realized that one of the many ways the stay-at-home-daughter movement is abusive is this one: it purposely and intentionally makes damn well sure that women cannot leave abusive situations.

I’m sure most of the parents who decided to raise their daughters this way didn’t cackle to themselves “yes! Now, if she marries someone who throws her down the stairs, she won’t be able to divorce him! Bwa-ha-ha!” However, one of the reasons I was given by multiple leaders in the movement was that if a woman feels like she has the ability to leave her marriage, she might be tempted to consider it when she shouldn’t. Being totally dependent on a husband– having no college education, no marketable skills– was given as an argument for being a stay-at-home daughter. This idea was frequently put in contrast to the “feminist” idea of a “career woman,” which for us was basically a byword for Jezebel.

The stay-at-home-daughter movement, while not fringe, is not exactly mainstream, but I think there’s echoes of the ideology in broader movements. Complementarianism frequently comes with a heaping side dish of keeper at home, and while most of modern America has probably never even heard the term complementarianism, the ramifications can still be felt. Women are frequently the ones who stay at home with children, and loose out on career opportunities. Women are the ones frequently forced into the position of primary caregiver for elderly parents.

Women are the ones consistently expected to make financial sacrifices, therefore becoming more dependent on their husband’s income. For many of us that’s not a problem. I’m completely and totally dependent on my partner’s income and health insurance. I don’t foresee that to be a problem, but financial dependence is one of the reasons why, when a woman says something like “oh, the first time he ever hit me I’d dump his ass so fast!” my response is usually a hard and blunt “No. No, you wouldn’t.”

There’s a lot of reasons why I react that way: abusive relationships aren’t always physically violent, the abuser usually makes sure their victim is isolated and dependent before they escalate to violence, the victim has already been gaslighted and had her self-confidence destroyed … etc.

All of the above is why I’m writing a book explaining why complementarianism sets up abusive environments. It encourages toxic masculinity, it sets up abusive relationship dynamics as the ideal, and it especially limits a woman’s options when her relationship is abusive. Not only is divorce considered anathema in these circles (John Piper straight-up said women should “endure being smacked around” rather than immediately pursue separation and divorce), but complementarianism as a system practically ensures that women won’t be able to leave unhealthy environments. They’ll be constrained by their belief system, first of all, but they’d also be constrained by realistic concerns like food and shelter.

Photo by Jason Devaun
radical 2
Theology

“Radical” review: 23-42

And we’re jumping right back into the Radical review. After I did the introduction and first chapter, I tweeted something about how the subtitle should have been “I take hyperbole literally,” and after reading through the second chapter again (titled “Too Hungry for Words: Discovering the Truth and Beauty of the Gospel”), I’ve realized it’s not just hyperbole. It’s everything. David takes everything as literally as possible.

I have the tendency to interpret things overly literally, especially when I’m tired, and even I can recognize sarcasm, hyperbole, metaphor, and the distinctions between exposition and poetry. Like, look at this:

Jesus told us everyone who sins is a slave to sin, and Paul went so far as to say that we are captive to the devil himself. (31)

Honestly, fellow, if you have to premise something with “they even went so far as to say” maybe, just maybe, you should take a step back and ask yourself—if they’re really going so far, do they mean it literally?

David also has a pretty serious problem with taking his own understanding of Scripture and elevating it to something pretty close to Scripture itself, and that’s me being generous. There’s this:

We are each born with an evil, God-hating heart. Genesis 8:21 says that every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood … (30)

And this:

Why is [Jesus] in such agony and pain [at Gethsemane]? The answer is not because he is afraid of the crucifixion. He is not trembling because of what the Roman soldiers are about to do to him … (34-35).

Three things: first of all, if the verse you’re about to quote says “the imaginations of a man’s heart are evil from his youth,” running around making the claim that means we’re all God-haters from the moment we’re born doesn’t make much sense. Second, while it’s entirely likely that Jesus was also worried about whatever is in the Cup he’s asking to be passed, it seems dismissive and uncompassionate to point-blank declare that Jesus wasn’t afraid of the crucifixion. Jesus was human like as we are. Assuming he couldn’t possibly be afraid of the coming crucifixion (35) seems just a touch Arian to me.

The third and last is that David is a pretty committed Calvinist, and he’s refusing to even acknowledge that there are other approaches to Christian theology. According to him, he lays awake at night terrified for all the people who aren’t an avowed Calvinist like he is. To him, everyone who isn’t a Calvinist is completely and utterly wrong and we will die in hell.

He does this sort of thing throughout the book, and it never ceases to be frustrating. I’ve never been impressed by men who are this arrogant.

The second biggest problem I have with Radical he also introduces in this chapter: asceticism. If you’re not familiar with asceticism, it’s typically a religious attempt to abstain from indulgences or pleasure. There are varying degrees of this, ranging from things like Lent to wearing a cilice and whipping yourself. In my case, it showed up in things like my Sunday school teacher telling me to wear uncomfortable shoes in order to “mortify the flesh.”

In many respects, Radical is a modern argument for Christian asceticism. If David wasn’t so virulently Protestant he’d probably have realized he’s really just recycling St. Francis of Assisi and stopped writing the book. Here, he questions music, padded chairs, air conditioning, decorations, and a bit later on, even sermons (27, 40).

Why all of this bothers me is that it has gnostic overtones. When we buy into a harsh divide between our souls and our bodies, it’s easy to take some passages from the Bible and make them be about all bodily impulses as being evil and corrupted. There’s a long tradition in Christianity of sexual abstinence—in fact, it’s possible that at least one of the early church fathers castrated himself (Origen, according to Eusebius). Even if they didn’t go as far as castration, you can see the leftover movement in the modern Catholic requirement for priests to abstain from sex and marriage.

The problem is, this leaves out things like other Scripture passages (like Paul’s instruction that we sing psalms and hymns in Ephesians), and ignores the fact that the Christian religion is one very much concerned with embodiment. Jesus is God made flesh, God with us, Immanuel. The two sacraments we all agree on—the Eucharist and Baptism—are fundamentally about recognizing that our bodies and our souls are inseparably the same, and that spiritual acts are physical ones and vice versa.

In my opinion, arguments for asceticism—whatever religious or secular place they come from—always ignore this reality, and arguments that ignore reality can’t be successful. I’m especially sensitive to this as a chronic pain sufferer—take away indoor heating and padded chairs and I’m unable to come to your church service. Make church services last six to twelve hours like what he talks about here and I will not be able to fully participate in your church.

The third and last significant problem with this chapter is that he’s very much of the “Christians talk about how God is love too much, we need to focus on how God is wrathful and hateful and a holy judge” persuasion. Like here:

Yes, God is a loving Father, but he is also a wrathful Judge … And in some sense, God also hates sinners … On psalmist said to God, “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong.” (29)

Leaving aside for the moment that the psalms are poetry and therefore treating an outpouring of a psalmist’s emotions as literal factual truth about the nature of God themself is more than a little ridiculous, let’s take a crack at his “God is also hateful and wrathful” assertion. He positions their wrath as being in tension with their love, as though God’s love and wrath are opposites. I’d like to posit that they are not opposites, but that one results from the other. God is wrathful because they are loving.

This springs from my understanding of the context—if you examine almost every time that God is being portrayed as wrathful, it is in response to someone being oppressive. In almost every case it’s the Israelites doing things like refusing to observe the Year of Jubilee, like in Amos. Supposedly God gave them every opportunity not to turn into an oppressive Empire that preferred the wealthy and powerful over the poor and needy, and they took every opportunity to become precisely that. And when that happens, the prophets and the psalmists spend a lot of time condemning it, writing about how they believe God feels about it, too. According to them, God’s usually pretty upset and for good reason.

During Jesus’ ministry, it seems he spent most of his time addressing the injustices he saw. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, lifted up the poor in spirit. The times he’s shown as angry are in reaction to the elite using their positions to abuse those below them—like the moneychangers in the temple, or the Pharisees giving their followers a “back-breaking burden.” Jesus loved, and because he loved, he grew wrathful when he saw oppression and injustice.

But, according to David, God is wrathful, and because someone thousands of years ago sinned, we’re all born completely and totally evil – “you are an enemy of God, dead in your sin, and in your present state you are not even able to see that you need life” (32)—and Jesus had to bear all the fury and wrath “stored up from the beginning of the world” (35) in order for God to be able to come down from his mountain again (33) and tolerate being around us.

Just … is God actually that petty?

There are a few things in this chapter that I could almost agree with him on, like his rejection of a “superstitious sinner’s prayer” (37). I’ve even compared the sinner’s prayer to a magical incantation, so obviously this idea is something we both dislike. But we almost immediately diverge from each other, because he’s a Calvinist and I’m not. He’s still viewing Christianity in terms of saved and unsaved and I’ve moved past that to being a Christian means following Christ.

Maybe somewhere in this book we’ll fall more in step with each other. I doubt it.

me Eliel and sarah
Theology

thoughts prompted by the GCN conference

I wish there was a way to communicate how busy it has been for the past few months, and how wonderful and exhausting, all together at once. Between visiting family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, business travel, buying a house, packing, moving, unpacking, painting, and all the other little odds and ends that fall along with that … it’s been a whirlwind.

Handsome and I did buy a townhome, and I am sitting in my brand-spanking new office, with my brand-spanking new bookshelves (the past few months have seen a steady buildup of book piles around my old office), and I’m thrilled to pieces. There is sunlight in my home in winter. I have windows. I’m hoping this will help with the seasonal affective disorder, but February will be the true test of that. February is really the cruelest month.

We’re mostly unpacked—technically everything is out of boxes, there’s just a pile of things on my dining table left to be hung or sold or donated. So far it’s all the tiny little things that add up that make moving exhausting. Not the rent-the-truck-have-all-your-friends-carry-boxes day, but the week and a half after of trying to find 22x20x1 HEPA filters that don’t seem to exist for your brand-spanking-new furnace.

Update on something slightly more relevant to you readers: thanks to my Patrons and the many of you who helped on top of that, I was able to attend the Gay Christian Network Conference a few weeks ago, and present on Bi the Way: What’s Next for Bisexuality in the Church with Eliel Cruz-Lopez and Sarah Moon.

The panel was spectacular, and I even got to meet and hang out with a few of you, which was the highlight of the conference for me. It was mind-blowingly weird and fun to be live-tweeted, y’all. People were quoting the things I, Eliel, and Sarah were saying, and a few folks came up at the end and said we’d started them thinking or even changed their minds on a few things. That was amazing. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the panel, but at the end when people were coming up and hugging me and we all laughed and cried together … I felt like I was standing on holy ground.

What happened for me at the conference happens so rarely that it both feeds my soul and enrages me all at the same time. Thursday night we sang a song about God’s love for us, and listening to all those people in the room I knew that they meant—really meant—that God loved all of us, that God loved me. It’s infuriating that feeling the love of God from my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is so rare, but it was nice to experience regardless.

Every time I feel like maybe I should just say “screw it,” and give up on being a Christian, something like going to the GCN conference happens. I’m still on the fence about a lot of things, and my faith is just as mixed-up and confused as ever, but the few moments in my life like GCN’s conference tells me that remaining a Christian is still a worthy endeavor. Maybe it won’t be that way forever, but it’s true for at least today.

Other things of note at the conference: Broderick Greer preached Thursday night. We need more theology from survivors, from the margins, as Broderick put it, because “objective” theology from the Ivory Towers of White Supremacy and Misogyny is … well, to put it bluntly, faith without works is dead, and there’s nothing more dead to me than a bunch of old straight cisgender white men talking about God as if they have the sole right to Themself. They stay locked up there and refuse to come down to where people are dying because of their so-called “objective” theologies. It’s “faith” without boots on.

One of the workshops I attended was given by a former fundamentalist, and the description in the pamphlet said it would link fundamentalism and idolatry– y’know me, I exclaimed ooo! and went. I believe he was quoting someone when he gave this line: “fundamentalists don’t believe. They know,” which he followed up with “ever heard ‘I know that I know that I know that I’m saved!’?” and I think I gasped aloud, because he was right, and it helped clarify something for me that I’ve been struggling with a ton over the past few months.

The reality that I don’t know, that, in truth, it is impossible to know whether or not god/the supernatural/a supreme being/deity exists, and in fact, believing in him/they/her anyway is probably the essence of faith … well, it’s driving me nuts. I want to know. I want to look at my world and feel reasonably confident in “yes, a supernatural being has a redemptive plan for their creation and I am a participant in that plan” or “no, there is no divine spirit guiding anything, ever, we’re all a mathematical miracle and then we die the end.” However, what’s been hitting me in the gut every time I try to think about it is that there is no way to know, and that’s sort of the whole point behind faith.

I used to think that atheists claiming that Christians accepting the existence of God on “faith” meant we were believing in something without any evidence was a load of bunk … but now I think they’re right. I don’t have any “evidence” or “proof.”

I’m not ok with that yet, but I’m getting there. I’m becoming ok that choosing to believe in the Christian Trinity is no more or less ridiculous than believing in the Greek pantheon or the ancient Mesopotamian goddesses. It’s faith. I don’t know, I believe that a Triune God exists, and that they love me.

But, moving on. Perspectives embraced by organizations like GCN (who represents both Side A and Side B positions), that it’s important for all of us to live in the tension of disagreement over important ideas, are always challenging for me. Part of that is my ISTJ-ness—I want to be right, dammit—but another part of it is that I look at platforms like Side B and think “oh hell no.” If you’re LGBT and have chosen Side B for yourself, more power to you. You do you. But the fact that the most commonly held position among straight evangelical Christians is Side B makes me light on fire a little bit.

And Allyson Robinson’s address is still making me think. Some of what she said, things like “the culture war is over,” I flat-out disagree with especially as a bisexual person who isn’t even widely accepted in the LGBT community and we’ve got a freaking letter. But other things, like encouraging us not to use mockery and derision and snippiness and trolling when interacting with bigots … steps on my toes a mite. But, it reminds me of a truth I’ve been hearing echoed in several places, from Audre Lorde to bell hooks to Brian Zahnd in Beauty Will Save the World: you cannot use the tools of Empire to remove that Empire from power.

In many ways, that was the trouble with second-wave feminism: they decided to use patriarchy’s tools to try to tear down the patriarchy. They decided to adopt the same metrics that patriarchy’s Empire used to measure success: jobs, wealth, political power, capital.

The Christian LGBT community is, in many ways, a triumph of love over hate. But it’s hard, it’s hard not to hate, especially recently. A deep, miry, black, thick and oozing place inside of me roils when I heard Trump say things like “I could shoot someone in the middle of the street and I wouldn’t lose any votes.” When I hear Falwell, Jr. say “we need to end those Muslims,” it’s hard not to choke on my hatred. I want to scream and cry and break things.

Anger is appropriate, even rage. But hatred is not. When Jesus said that hatred is like murdering someone in your heart … he was right, and it’s not ok. I’m not entirely sure how to stop, but I know that I have to be able to. I cannot use the tools and weapons of Empire.

I’m not entirely sure what that all looks like, or what all I think about everything I’ve just spilled out here, but I’m working through it one day at a time. If you’d like to be as encouraged and challenged and confused as I was for three days, maybe you can go the GCN conference next year. It’s in Pittsburg.

I don’t quite have internet at the new house yet (it’ll be here on Thursday), but I am back to a regular blogging schedule again. Thanks for all of your patience and support through the past two months.

las vegas repulbican debate
Social Issues

2 Ways Modern Republicans are Anti-Christian

I was seven when I saw the original Star Wars trilogy, and eleven when The Phantom Menace came out. To say that Star Wars had an impact on me would be one hell of an understatement. I was obsessed. Completely and utterly obsessed. I loved everything about those stories, and almost everything I wrote for over a decade was Star Wars fanfiction.

Like with Star Trek, Star Wars helped shape my views and opinions, and two of the things that affected me most were the Jedi Code and the statement Yoda makes in The Phantom Menace:

Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

I didn’t fully understand what he meant as a teenager, but as I’ve grown I’ve come to appreciate the truth in this quote. Over the last few months I’ve come to appreciate it even more, as it’s been occasionally difficult to not let my justified and righteous anger over so much of what’s happened– police brutality, domestic Christian terrorism, the utterly depraved, utterly evil policies advocated for by Bush, Cruz, Trump, Carson, and all the rest– to not let that anger transform into hatred.

Hatred would be easy. Hatred would even feel good, probably.

But Yoda was right: hate leads to suffering. What’s become vividly clear to me, watching with nauseated horror this circus-cum-trainwreck, that the Republican party is deeply and terribly afraid– and that fear is leading to anger, and then to hate, and culminating in terrorist attacks and assaults and murders. People’s homes and churches are burning to the ground. Little girls are being attacked at school for wearing a hijab.

Many Republicans say they’re Christians; in my experience, they tend to be Republican because they think that Christianity is Republican. However, the modern Republican approach to many issues– from foreign policy to economics to domestic public health concerns– blatantly contradicts two Christian principles.

In the first chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy (if he wrote these letters, which is … doubtful), we find this passage:

 … I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God …  for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling …

The context of this passage is one of suffering . Regardless of whether or not Paul wrote this to Timothy or some later person wrote it in Paul’s name to the persecuted church, it’s clear that the author of this letter was encouraging their reader not to be afraid. To live by their Christian principles (love, joy, peace, kindness, forgiveness), to use their Spirit-given gifts, regardless of what the people around them were doing or what the frightening consequences might be.

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but the modern Republican party is wholly consumed by it. Fear is the driving force behind calls to only admit Christian Syrian refugees (just in case you think Trump’s the only one who thinks Muslims shouldn’t be let into the country, that was Bush). Fear is turning into barely-restrained panic, prodded and goaded by white supremacist, fascist, misogynistic, and homophobic rhetoric. Christians are afraid, and so they’re filing for Title IX exemptions that will allow them to discriminate against women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons while still receiving federal money.

We’re so very afraid, and we’re letting that fear dictate almost all of our political choices. We’re letting unprincipled men and women use that fear as a weapon to control us and maintain their power.

Fear is leading us to suffering.

But it’s not just fear controlling us. We’re being manipulated by lies.

One of themes woven throughout Scripture is that the truth will set you free: that Christians are supposed to value and love truth, that we’re supposed to be honest, that we’re supposed to condemn duplicity. Many of our Bible stories are about the consequences of lies and self-delusions, encouraging all of us to be honest about who we are and what we’ve done.

In fact, truthfulness and honesty are such bedrock Christian principles that the greatest antagonist of our faith is called the Father of Lies:

If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!

We’re afraid of lower social classes, of black people, of LGBT people, of Muslims, of foreigners, and all of that fear is based in lies. We’re Christians– we’re supposed to love and accept the widow and orphan, the foreigner, the weak, the prisoner, and yet conservative Christians have gone out of their way to lie — with unbelievable impunity— about all of these groups for decades.

Read the common Christian propaganda about the AIDS epidemic from the 80s– it’s almost totally bald-faced lies, and the things that aren’t are still twisted half-truths. Or, for a more recent example, look at the videos the went viral this summer that claimed that Planned Parenthood is “selling baby parts” for financial gain. Carly Fiorina is still using this outright deception, and Ted Cruz is just thrilled to pieces with Troy Newman’s endorsement. If you don’t know who Troy Newman is, he argues that people who murder reproductive health providers are committing “justifiable homicide.” All of this led to Robert Dear shooting twelve people at a clinic– and a rapid increase in aggression and violence since the release of the videos.

Many Christians are convinced that the “only faithful Muslim” is a radical jihadist, that “true Muslims” are committed to killing infidels, and peaceful, loving, tolerant Muslims aren’t real Muslims. This is a lie. It’s possible to make any religion look brutal and violent– in fact, a straightforward, un-nuanced, un-contextual reading of the Bible (yes, even the New Testament has its problems) could lead someone to conclude that God wants his followers to commit genocide, since he commanded them to do exactly that repeatedly.

Or how about the despicable lie that transwomen are just looking for a way to assault women in restrooms? The truth– the truth that Christians are supposed to uphold and cherish– is that there have been exactly zero times that this has ever happened. Instead, Christians in Houston fought tooth and nail against allowing trans people to use the appropriate bathroom because of nothing more than fear and lies.

We’re not supposed to be afraid. We’re not supposed to lie. But, instead, it seems like modern and supposedly Christian Republicans are rarely capable of anything else.

radical 2
Theology

“Radical” review: 1-22

The first time I heard about David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, I was in my second year of graduate school. It had been out for over a year at that point, and a colleague I worked with recommended it to me after a conversation we’d had about the corruption and greed common in American evangelicalism. This book had left a lasting impression on my friend, but I wasn’t as struck by it as he was.

Partly that’s due to the fact that I didn’t grow up in American evangelicalism, so David’s condemnations weren’t directed at me or my religious culture. He was describing a slightly different sort of radicalization than the one I’d grown up with, but, in the end, I realized I’d spent most of my life trying to live by a fundamentalist application of the same interpretations, the same principles– and I’d already figured out that, honestly, they’re just not realistic, healthy, practical, or even a way of living that reflects the whole breadth of Scripture.

However, it is a massively popular book. It’s acquired over thirty thousand ratings on Goodreads, thirteen hundred on Amazon, over four hundred on Barnes and Noble, over three hundred on Christianbook, and most most of these reviews are positive, averaging at 4.5/5 stars. Many of the Christian writers, speakers, and theologians I pay attention to have recommended Radical at some point– Francis Chan and Jonathan Merrit wrote blurbs for the book, and Rachel Held Evans has promoted it.

It’s one of the few books that seem to have bridged the audience gap between conservative and progressive Christians, and I hadn’t seen anyone critique it with any depth until I started reading the 1- and 2-star reviews on Goodreads. After all, shouldn’t someone like me be jumping all over this particular bandwagon? He talks about Jesus’ teaching for us to sell everything that we have and give to the poor– isn’t that exactly what I’ve spent a significant amount of time shouting about?

But, like I said above, I don’t think David’s approach and interpretation incorporates the natural balance that appears not just in the epistles, but in the Gospels, as well. And I think that the interpretation he advocates could be harmful to many Christians.

* * *

The first chapter, titled “Someone Worth Losing Everything For,” functions as a long introduction to the themes David will be arguing for. He opens with the contrasting experiences that prompted him to examine some of the assumptions broadly held in American Christianity (concepts like being “blessed by God” is equal to being wealthy, although he doesn’t articulate it that plainly): his visit to persecuted churches and the Sunday he became a pastor of a megachurch. His conclusion:

We were settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves. (7)

Abandoning ourselves is one of the themes of Radical, and as you can probably imagine it’s one of the things that sent up a red flag for me on this re-read. While I do agree with David to an extent about what’s inherent in Jesus’ call to follow him, the phrase abandoning ourselves can lead down a dark and unhealthy path. There is beauty and Christlikeness in self-sacrifice, in service to others, but while I think it’s terribly important to actively love others sacrificially, I have learned that there are limits. Even Jesus took breaks. Even Jesus withdrew and took care of himself when he needed to.

But the idea of abandonment doesn’t necessarily include the need for boundaries and the acknowledgment of realistic limitations, and as someone with chronic and debilitating physical and mental illnesses, the kind of lifestyle David says all Christians should live isn’t possible for me. People like me don’t seem to exist in David’s (coughwhite-and-able-bodiedcough) world.

While I can agree with his criticisms of American Christian greed (like his observation on one church’s new 23 million dollar building and another church’s gift of $5,000 for refugees featured on the same magazine cover), I read statements like:

We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with. (13)

 … and I can’t help but think but you’re twisting him too, David. He spends this chapter highlighting the times Jesus made statements like “sell everything that you have” and “put down your nets and follow me” or “hate your father and mother”– and yet he completely ignored people like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who didn’t sell everything they had, who didn’t abandon their livelihoods or home or family and were still considered Jesus’ disciples. Or the numerous people (mostly women) behind the scenes who gave Jesus food and money and a place to sleep for the night.

The most significant problem I have with this chapter though, appears here:

First, from the outset you need to commit to believe whatever Jesus says. As a Christian, it would be a grave mistake to come to Jesus and say, “Let me hear what you have to say, and then I’ll decide whether or not I like it.” If you approach Jesus this way, you will never truly hear what he has to say. You have to say yes to the words of Jesus before you even hear them. (20)

That doesn’t make any sort of sense, and isn’t something Jesus required of his followers– not even his apostles, for crying out loud. Thomas demanded hard, physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection, and according to the Gospels, Jesus gave it to him. He heard “the words of Jesus” as communicated to him by the others, and said “no, I need more than that.”

What David is asking his readers to do is foolhardy and ridiculous. I think I understand the sentiment driving his words here– he’s attempting to argue that following Jesus is a package deal and we can’t pick and choose (which is really ironic right about now since it’s what he’s spent this chapter doing). However, telling fellow Christians to uncritically imbibe his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings — which is the only thing this book can possibly be — is asking Christians to forget the warnings about following Paul or Apollos or Peter.

He’s setting us up. He’s putting the idea in place that if you disagree with him, David Platt, the youngest megachurch pastor in America, you are not really committed to Jesus. Men who put themselves on pedestals like this– however unconsciously they might be doing it– should make us all skeptical, if not outright suspicious.

newspapers
Uncategorized

news and updates

It’s been almost exactly a month since I posted anything, and I will admit this pop-in isn’t an announcement that I’ll be returning to a regular schedule now, sadly. This holiday season has been and will continue to be more than just a little hectic, so while I’ll be writing a few posts now and then, regular blogging probably won’t pick back up until January 18.

So, what’s been happening? Well, I finished my Hebrew course on Wednesday. That class kicked my butt for some frustrating reasons, and I’ve decided not to continue on with Hebrew because it would be the same instructor and textbook, both of which were migraine and panic-attack inducing. So. Back to my original plan of doing French in order to finish all the requirements for my graduate degree (technically, I finished the program and I got to walk, but until I’ve completed two years of a foreign language I can’t get the piece of paper). The fact that Liberty University is an “open canker on the face of Christianity” (as I called it in a facebook status last week) doesn’t really motivate me to finish getting my degree from them.

But, I can’t start French until September next year, so between now and then I’ve decided I’m going to throw all my energy into writing my book on why complementarianism is abusive. I don’t think it will change the posting schedule, as spending more than two days a week researching complementarianism is probably not a great idea for my mental health.

Last week I had a sharp pain in my back that I thought might be a UTI or a kidney stone, so I spent the evening in the ER. Turns out it’s a hemorrhagic cyst or hematoma or something on my kidney. The pain has faded to a persistent soreness that feels like I pulled a muscle a few days ago, and it’s unclear whether or not this problem can resolve on its own. Turns out cysts on your kidney are somewhat normal, but if it’s connected to my endormetriosis, it could be a sign that it’s worse than I thought it was and I might need to have an ablation done this year. Considering those have a four-month recovery window, I’m not looking forward to it. Your thoughts and prayers are appreciated.

In the more immediate future we’ll be visiting family for Christmas, trying to close on our house, moving, and I’ll be attending the Gay Christian Network conference in Houston, presenting on “What’s Next for Bisexuality in the Church?” with Eliel Cruz and Sarah Moon. If you’re planning on being at the GCN conference, maybe we can do a meetup if there’s time? Speaking of the conference, the only reason why I was able to even consider going is because of my Patrons, but if you feel inspired to do so, I’ve created a way to make a one-time donation through PayPal. Between airfare, shuttles, the hotel, and food, every little bit counts (especially since my new wheat allergy means that basically all fast food is out, so food while traveling just got very expensive). Anyway, it’s there if you feel so inclined. :)

Next up in the review series is Radical: Taking Back your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt. This book is a little unusual for me since it’s not focused on gender roles, but I think it’s worth tackling in a review series. It has nine chapters, but I may be able to do two chapters per week depending on how it goes, so we’ll see how long it takes. That starts on Monday.

Taking this month-long break has been really good for me. I’ve been very busy and a lot of stuff has happened, but it’s the first time since I started blogging that I’ve taken an actual vacation instead of a “working vacation.” I love all of you so much, but not checking comments/facebook/twitter multiple times a day has been relaxing.

Anyway, see you all on Monday, and I hope your season has been merry and bright so far.

Photo by Mick Baker
shame
Social Issues

the value of shame

I have … unusual hair. At one point when I was a child, it was so long I could sit on it, but it wasn’t just the length that made it stand out. It was also full, thick, voluminous– or as my partner likes to call it, “robust.” I have thick, wavy hair and I have a lot of it. It was also fairly healthy, so, as long as it was, it kept its body all the way to the ends. Honestly, it didn’t even look real.

Because of that, I tended to attract attention in public. Complete strangers would come up to me and begin stroking my hair without even asking me first. It bothered me, but a part of me preened under all the “oohs!” and “ahhs!” my  hair got me.

So in graduate school, the first time a black colleague came to work with her 4c natural hair down and I asked her if I could touch it, I didn’t think much of my behavior. I was fascinated by her hair– it was the first time I’d ever seen 4c hair worn naturally, and it was so different. She took my request to touch her hair in stride, and I connected that interaction to the sort of thing I’d experienced as a little girl– as maybe a little bit weird, but complimentary.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that asking to touch a black woman’s natural hair is a microagression. Not every black woman I’ve talked to feels the same way about this– one woman honestly doesn’t mind, she sees it as an opportunity for education– but being “curious” or “fascinated” are just examples of all the ways that our culture erases the experiences of black women.

When I started listening to black women talking about all the “curious” and “fascinated” people who’d touched their hair over the years, I felt ashamed. I think back to doing that to my colleague, and something deep inside of me recoils. What I did was racist– and that’s an amusing anecdote compared to other things I’ve done, said, and believed about black and brown people. The only word I can ever come up with is horror. If I could go the rest of my life without admitting to the heinous things I used to think, I would.

***

A little while ago a friend and I were talking about skincare products. I have extremely sensitive skin– I can’t tolerate washing my face with anything besides warm water most of the time– so I’ve been limited to a single line of moisturizers. The line my friend uses is one of the brands that are especially bad for my skin, and when she brought it up, I said:

“Oh, I’d never put that stuff on my face.”

My friend and my partner– who was sitting next to me– were legitimately and appropriate offended by my remark, and called me on it. But I did not understand why they were upset. To me I was purely thinking of how my skin reacted to that brand, and there wasn’t a shred of judgment in her using that line.

Except a listening person couldn’t hear anything except judgment in my choice of words, and regardless of what I meant, intent isn’t magic.

Later that evening I was recounting that conversation with my partner, upset that I’d been “attacked” for expressing an opinion. That was when he realized I had no idea how my words were received. He stopped dead on the sidewalk and said “Sam, you hurt her feelings.”

For a split second I couldn’t believe it, and then I burst into tears. I realized with perfect clarity that he was right, and I heard myself from the outside for the first time that night. I had hurt her, and I was deeply shamed. I cried for the entire car ride home, and the second I saw her I apologized. That whole night, though, I was wracked with shame. The thought I am a horrible person how could I do that to her kept spinning ’round and ’round my head.

***

If there is a writer I wish every ex-fundamentalist could read, it’s Brené Brown. If you have the time and you’ve never seen her TedTalk “Listening to Shame,” I highly recommend it. In the research I’ve done since leaving the fundamentalist cult behind, I’ve done a lot of reading on the differences between shame-based and guilt-based cultures, and I think Christian fundamentalism is a mixture of both. Growing up, shame was an integral part of my identity. Much of Christian culture glorifies shame, enshrining it in concepts like total depravity and calling each other and ourselves “worthless rags” and “worms.”

As Brené puts it, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging,” which sort of encapsulates total depravity in a nutshell for me. She also says that “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Shame is paralyzing, especially for those of us who have survived fundamentalism. It was the primary weapon used to control everything about our lives, about the way we think, about what we thought, about what we said and did. For me, when I experience shame today– like after the incidents I related above– it still has the power to stop me dead in my tracks and send me into a feedback loop of I am a horrible, worthless person.

That’s not a healthy reaction.

In that TedTalk, Brené talks about exploring shame without letting it paralyze us like that, to wade through the “swamp” of shame without staying there and settling in. Shame shouldn’t control us, because all it can do is deaden us to the opportunity this new awareness is giving us.

However, I think the ex-fundamentalist community might be going a little bit too far with the “no shame!” bandwagon. We were either a) not given the tools to manage feeling ashamed properly, or b) stripped of those tools– so I completely understand the overwhelming need to try to avoid experiencing it. It’s hard to confront shame head on because we can feel the fear trying to choke us. Feeling ashamed feels like letting ourselves being tugged back under the sometimes inexorable tide of fundamentalism that stills roars in the back of our minds.

When we’re faced with shame, it could be emotionally and mentally easier to not let ourselves experience it; except, when we avoid any opportunity to feel ashamed of ourselves, we’re deterring self-growth.

This is where writers like Brené talk about the differences between guilt and shame. Typically, guilt is portrayed as the positive alternative to shame, but recently I’ve come to disagree. Guilt is an easier emotion to manage, but for me at least that also makes it easier to ignore. Shame, though, is compelling. It’s blinding. The realities about shame that make it so dangerous are also what make it important.

If I didn’t feel bone-deep shame for my racism, or my tactlessness, or my internalized misogyny, or my ableism, if there wasn’t a part of me that felt the part of me that is racist is horrible, I don’t think I’d be as fierce about overcoming those things.

The hard part is not letting shame become a part of my identity. Being racist– and I am racist, not just a person who explicitly or implicitly contributes to systemic racism– is not who I am. It’s a nuanced separation, but it exists. I am bisexual: that cannot, will not ever change. I am and always will be a cis woman.

However, I don’t have to continue being racist: I can unlearn it and change.

But racism, or ableism, or whatever else, are so deeply buried inside of me that it takes moments of heart-stopping shame to overcome it. We can’t let ourselves bury ourselves in shame, to flagellate ourselves with it, to wallow. Shame shouldn’t stay. It should be an emotion we use constructively to motivate us to change, not a weapon we use to punish ourselves.

Photo by Grey World