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SamanthaField

Theology

folk and formal theology

My partner and I were taking our usual walk around our apartment complex and through the woods around it when I announced that I wanted to go to seminary. I had been thinking about it for a while, but by that evening I was sure that’s what I wanted. When he asked why I had several answers ready, and one of the most significant was that I wanted to formally study theology. As a lay person and average church goer I’d been obsessed with different theological subfields my entire life (bibliology being at the top of that list), and I wanted to engage one of my passions in an academic context. I wasn’t satisfied with approaching it through the “accessible” and “popular” texts anymore, but I didn’t know how to wade through the ocean of theological works and contexts on my own. I wanted the hand-holding, the guidance, that a solid seminary would give me.

One of the things that brought me to that reason was the church we’d been attending at the time. The head pastor had never gone to seminary, had no real intention of going to seminary, and I felt that a lot of my frustrations with his sermons stemmed from that. Often he’d include something I knew to be wildly inaccurate (but a popular myth among evangelicals) in his interpretations, or as illustrations, and I felt that a seminary education would have prevented some of that.

I was also in a two-year class the church offered called “The Theology Program.” Interestingly, I’d found the classes helpful in deconstructing fundamentalism even though the video instructors were themselves fundiegelicals who’d graduated from Dallas Theological. While I wildly disagreed with most of their conclusions and thought many of their arguments against “heresies” were strawmen, the act of going through a historical look into the Christian tradition and touching on most of the significant theories was informative. It gave me the words and the tools to go looking for things on my own.

One of the things I picked up from the instructors, though, was a condemnation of “folk theology.” Their use of that term was fairly loose, and generously applied– basically anything that didn’t belong in one of the major systematic theologies was “folk theology.” Essentially, if something you believed wasn’t straight-up Wesleyan, Calvinist, Catholic or in one of the catechisms (like the Westminster Catechism), then it was “folk theology.” In a way, this made sense to me. My experiences had showed me the harm that can be caused by reckless, inconsistent, pick-and-choose theological structures. I didn’t assume that every “systematic theology” was immune from problems because it was supposedly all-encompassing, holistic, and internally consistent; however, I thought systematic theologies had value because they at least had the benefit of being well thought-out.

I started seminary a few months before the election, and threw myself headfirst into as many theology classes as I could take. I became familiar with the theologians who were known for developing progressive systems and tried to absorb as much as I could about the structures and interconnecting ideas that shaped feminist, liberation, and queer theologies.

***

One thing that 2014 me would be surprised to learn is that I’ve almost completely changed my mind about both folk and formal theology.

I’ve loved (almost) every second of seminary and every day feel blessed to be able to access the wealth of knowledge and experience at United. I have learned and grown so much, and the sheer breadth of perspectives I’ve been introduced to is breathtaking. I will be exploring some of these authors and fields for the rest of my life, probably.

One thing I’ve come to realize through all these books and classes and discussions is that a heavy-handed emphasis on “systematic theology” is inherently oppressive. Most of the well-known “systematic theologies” are incredibly Eurocentric, and nearly all of them were developed by straight, white, upper-middle-class (or upper class, or noble) men … and it all comes with the implication that straight, white, well-to-do men are the only objective source of theology. Now, when I hear someone expounding on the importance of adhering to systematic theologies all I hear are empty words from someone who is afraid of engaging with varied and diverse experiences, or of allowing the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups into their theological conversations.

Systematic theologies tend to generalize the specific, make universal the contextual, and strip the humanity from our sacred narratives.

Many of the kinds of theologies I’ve been exposed to in seminary would fall under the “folk theology” umbrella I heard condemned in those video classes, but what I’ve discovered is that there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom in concrete, experienced, lived-through, lived-out theologies. A phrase that’s stuck with me came from one of my professors, Dr. Alika Galloway, who said she always preaches “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”

The upside of “folk theology” is that it is endlessly adaptable. It’s the theology that we make work for our lives, fit into our contexts, and shape around our experiences. It’s flexible, and practical, and real. Sure, a lot of it can go off the rails and loose all grounding in logic or fact, but the obverse is true of formal theology: experience and compassion can be sacrificed on the altar of internal and hermeneutical consistency.

I went into seminary thinking I’d come out on the other side with Samantha Field’s Very Well Thought Out, Consistent, Progressive, and Universal Theological System, and instead I’m going to leave seminary with Screw It, Believe What Works For You.

Photography by Tim Wilson
Feminism

I was arrested for protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination. Here’s why.

The image at the top of the post shows me being arrested at the #cancelKavanaugh direction action organized by the Women’s March and the Center for Popular Democracy Action. You can see my head just beyond the woman in orange.

There’s still a lot to process from yesterday, but I wrote down what motivated me to be willing to do that for Sojourners, in “A Christianity that Makes Room for Rage.”

The rage I began expressing scared many of the people who knew me, who cared about me. They came from the same faith tradition I’d been brought up in, a tradition that teaches that “negative” emotions like rage, despair, sadness, anger, and bitterness have no place in a Christian’s life. My rage deeply concerned them, and I began receiving a consistent stream of worried messages, texts, emails and phone calls. They all tried to persuade me that I could only be healed if I let go of my rage, but I knew deep in my bones they were wrong. Rage was the only sensible path forward, the only roadmap I had to recovery.

I slowly came to understand that if I was going to remain a Christian, I needed to find a path that had room for the rage and grief I carried with me as a rape survivor. Rage is the only human and rational reaction to the trauma I’d experienced, and I could not smother my humanity in order to remain a Christian.

Read the rest of it here.

Photography by PBS.

Feminism

being cannon fodder in the war on women

I turned 31 the day I found out about the first allegation against Brett Kavanaugh. Two days later, I read Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story for the first time, although she was still reluctant to be identified.

It has been fourteen days of hell.

The second I picked up my phone and saw the headline from the New York Times in my notifications, I felt myself instantly brace. My stomach became a bottomless, yawning pit and every muscle in my body tensed. I closed my eyes and felt my soul begin to prepare for the coming barrage. Emotionally, the closest image I’ve been able to conjure that captures what it’s like is “Bastogne” from Band of Brothers. The words from that headline screamed into my heart like the piercing whistle of an incoming shell. Old battlescars, like the one his watch made when it dug into my knee as he blooded me for the first time, begin to ache.

I wasn’t ready for this. I’m never ready for this. Every time, I believe I’ve gotten a little bit better at handling all of it, that I’m a little more battle-hardened. For about a week I even fooled myself into thinking that I was managing. Looking back at the last two weeks, though, I have not been even anywhere close to calm. The evening of the 17th was the first sign of the damage I was taking, the first time I was forced to acknowledge the shrapnel ripping through my body. I got a migraine, so I implemented my first line of defense, a stronger version of naproxen or ibuprofen. By the next morning, those defenses had crumbled so I buffered them with a dose of frovatriptan, a medication that costs $547. Two hours later, I needed another.

It didn’t work, and by that night I was clutching my head, digging my fingers into my scalp, and all I could do was lie in bed, rocking myself back and forth, and moan through the endless, agonizing hours of the night. The groans I couldn’t keep inside belonged in a frontline medical ward, not in my comfortable suburban home. The next day, I tried another two doses of frovatriptan … but nothing helped. Finally I was able to drag myself into the hospital, where a nurse stabbed me in the leg and injected a massive dose of toradol straight into my bloodstream. I limped back to my car, and barely managed to drive home. The bruise I have, days later, is a dark mottled eggplant two inches across.

I haven’t been able to sleep. Each day for the last two weeks I’ll lay in bed until exhaustion eventually drags me back into my nightmares just as the sun rises. Every hour I desperately try to dig my foxhole just a little bit deeper, give myself just a little more cover. But nothing can block out the constant whine of bombs, the sharp punch of gunfire. Innocent until proven guilty drops down and sends a scattering of dirt and rock into my face. This is obviously a political hack job goes off like a grenade and I can practically hear my sisters, my comrades-in-arms, screaming in anguish. She’s lying, and I flinch as that one lands just outside my meager shelter and I don’t even really feel the pain until I feel the blood trickling over my skin.

But then my world is rocked and I can’t tell down from up as an crushing shockwave blasts through me. What boy hasn’t done this in high school? and I know I’m screaming, I know it because I can taste the blood in the air and I can feel my throat ripping itself apart, but I can’t even hear it.

Valiantly, at first, I load my weapon and charge into the fray. Innocent until proven guilty doesn’t apply; we’re not demanding that he be stripped of all his rights and sent to prison, just that he not be rewarded with one of the highest offices in the land– we are allowed to use all of the evidence available to us to practice sound judgment and discernment in selecting a Justice nominee. I’m horrified as I watch this volley practically bounce off the enemy combatent’s armor. But I know my duty, so I keep going, keep trying. Here’s a study about false accusations and the kinds of person who make them, Dr. Ford doesn’t fit that pattern, she’s a credible eyewitness. Still, I’m pressed on all sides. Isn’t it important for our elected representatives to consider a serious allegation like this, no matter where it comes from? And it’s like my well-honed arguments turn to dust in my hands. None of it matters. Nothing makes a difference.

So I retreat, and hunker down, and hope to wait out the storm of bullets and fire raining down from the sky. But I can’t, not when What boy hasn’t done this shatters me. It breaks me, and now all I can do is try to drag my wounded body away from the front lines, crying out for help, begging someone, anyone, to get me to safety.

My partner comes home and I’ve managed to prepare a meal for the first time in over a week and I try to eat the roasted chicken and vegetables I usually love but everything tastes like sawdust and churns in my gut so I leave half of it uneaten. I am tired. Weary. Struggling. Again, there’s a pop from a distant rifle and my phone screen is like the light from a muzzle flash. Senate Democrats Investigate a New Allegation of Misconduct and I look up to see Deborah Ramirez climb down beside me and for the first time I feel a glimmer of hope.

It’s just a glimmer, though, and the night is dark, and long, and terrible. For the first time since the battle began again I scream aloud, and rage, and beg my partner for an explanation– any explanation that could comfort me in a world where people hear Christine’s story and aren’t drawn to their knees in compassionate surrender, but level the field with a warhead like what boy hasn’t done this. I see it puff up into a mushroom cloud as my local representatives join the chain reactionif what Brett Kavanaugh did was that bad, I wouldn’t even qualify for office! Vote to confirm him!

My partner holds me as I shake, and sob, and he shores up the only desperate defense I have left: what the fuck?! How the fuck is this possible?! How can they do this?

HOW THE FUCK CAN THEY DO THIS?!

How do you hear about a young woman, a little girl, being dragged into a room and forced into a bed, then mounted by a man several years older than you and you’re screaming, begging, for him to stop, for someone to help you, and he silences your cries, silences his conscience, and begins to tear the clothes off your body?

My screams turn into whimpers, and the sobs quiet into tears that pour down my cheeks without wracking my body to get out.

***

I am still suffering. I still have not been able to sleep. The migraine is mostly gone, but it hovers, waiting to strike at the first sign of weakness. But tonight I rallied– I joined a conference call to plan a direct action at the Capitol on Thursday, and polished my battle armor once more. It lays on my dining room table now, two pieces of posterboard that still smell faintly of ink. Dr. Ford is an American Patriot and Christine is my Hero will be both my battle cry and a missile to cast into the halls of Congress when I join my band of sisters in those whited sepulchres. On Thursday, I’ll be joining Christine in No Man’s Land while she takes all the fire.

I hope, I pray, that we will emerge victorious.

Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: pumpkin spice edition

September is the best month.

In most of the places I’ve lived, September is usually balmy, filled with a chaotic mix of sunshine and thunderstorms. It signals that the long, hot days are over; it makes me remember everything I love about summer while whispering that autumn is winding closer. I’ve always experienced September filled-to-brimming-over with anticipation and this year is no different. I’ve started seeing cocoon cardigans and blanket scarves in my pinterest and tumblr feeds, my birthday is just around the corner, and crisp Friday nights make me want to light a bonfire in my yard and keep candles burning.

For ten years, September has also brought scholarship and learning back into my life after lazy summers, and I’m a little bit sad that this will be my last year in college and I’ll never need to order textbooks or read a syllabus again after I graduate. It makes sense that I’d feel this way in September, which has always been synonymous with change and beginnings– both of which require me to let go and move forward.

This is also my first week back to seminary, so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been enjoying, mulling over, and carrying with me.

Reading

One of my seminary textbooks this semester is Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, and one of the readings we did this week included excerpts from her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plain, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives. We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society.

As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”

I went and read the rest of the article and … I think this article might be one I reference for the rest of my life. It struck a chord in my soul that makes me ache, wonder, long, and rejoice. It’s been a few days since I’ve read it and every time I read it again, especially the last paragraph I quoted above, I feel … expanded. Reading this feels like Sophia Wisdom brushing my hair back from my face and touching her lips to my forehead. I read this and know something deeply true. I learned, somehow, something I always knew.

***

I’ve been promoting “Cravings” by my friend, Hännah Ettinger, since it went up at Autostraddle in July. I mentioned it in my post about how whiteness absorbed my family’s cultural heritage, but if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet … it’s beautiful and powerful. I just read it again looking for a quote to help draw you in and again I’m moved and crying.

“I’d say, it’s my grandmother’s favorite cake, the one we make for her birthday every year, and tomorrow is her birthday. It’s my mother’s scone recipe, it’s like small sweet cakes. This is cornbread for me to take to Talas City tonight; it’s a volunteer’s birthday and she misses her mom making this for her. These are snickerdoodle cookies, my brother’s secret recipe. He called me last night.

I would not say: I remembered the way my skin felt one night in Zoey’s arms, and I have to touch other things to distract myself from the crackle running up and down my spine. Never: I missed my parents and I cannot talk to them the same way anymore, but I still miss when I believed were all safe together, and when I believed that, I used to eat food just like this. We made this spice cake together, just like this.

***

The last two years have been excruciating as we careen wildly from incident to scandal to catastrophe and back again. As a kid I loved arcade racing games, and like many kids I adopted a form of “steering” that made heavy use of guardrails, bouncing back and forth between one side of the track to the other, and using walls to turn corners. My dad aptly named this youthful style as “bang-bang driving” and I’m reminded of it every time I think of everything we’ve been through since the election. It’s hard to keep track, but there’s one article that’s been really helpful to me in putting everything into a cohesive, coherent timeline and context. “Will Trump be Meeting with his Counterpart– Or his Handler?: A Plausible Theory of Mind-Boggling Collusion” puts a lot of things all in one place, in one narrative. I’m still not sure what I think of Chait’s argument, but it was still eye-opening to see everything together.

***

Chris Stroop is one of the most brilliant and incisive writers I’m aware of, and I respect the hell out of him and his work. He’s incredibly good at demystifying fundamentalism and the pervasive influence it wields in American culture, and I think “Educated Evangelicals, Academic Achievement, and Trumpism: On the Tensions in Valuing Education in an Anti-Intellectual Subculture” is a good place to start with his work.

“Fundamentalism is authoritarianism in microcosm, or on the margins. Fascism is essentially fundamentalism in power, and it continues to nurse a sense of being “the moral majority,” as well as a sense of being “beleaguered” and “treated very unfairly” – at the same time.”

***

I spent my summer mostly playing video games and reading, and the best of the books I’ve inhaled over the last few months have been: The Hidden Sea Tales by A.M. Dellamonica, The Liveship Traders set by Robin Hobb, and the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness.

Watching

I finally watched Interstellar and it is as good as everyone says it is. If you haven’t see Miss Sloane I highly recommend it– it’s one of the very few movies I’ve actually decided to buy.

Iliza Shlesinger’s Elder Millennial made me literally shriek with laughter, and at this point anyone who hangs out with me has to watch John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous at Radio City for half of what I say to make any sense. I’m going to join everyone else on the internet in saying Nanette by Hannah Gadsby is a must-see. Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King is equally as incredible as Nanette IMO and I wish it got as much press as hers did. W. Kamua Bell’s Private School Negro was also hilarious and amazing.

… and I watch a lot of standup.

I rarely ever subscribe to YouTube channels, but Natalie Wynn’s ContraPoints is one of the best things on there. Her videos The West,” “Jordan Peterson,” and “Incels” are the sort of YouTube-video-essay-with-costumes-and-set-pieces-that-refute-conservative-arguments that I feel like my blog would’ve been if I could make myself not hate video editing so much.

***

And that’s all I’ve got for now. As always, I’m curious to see what has kept y’all busy this summer. Give me your recommendations! (Also, if you know of any historical romance-ish fantasy-ish bodice rippers that you think I’d enjoy, toss those recommendations my way! I need light and fluffy reading material in between Black Theology and Black Power and Sisters in the Wilderness.)

Photography by Silvia Viñuales
Feminism

redemption for rapists: a how-to guide for predators, abusers, and churches

[content note: discussions of sexual violence]

When I first started writing this blog at Defeating the Dragons, I initially intended to never talk about the fact that half a dozen men had sexually assaulted me. I didn’t want to reveal that I had been raped and sexually abused. I didn’t want to talk about it at all … but I quickly realized that deconstructing my faith experience meant I was going to have to be honest about what these men had done to me. For me, there was no way forward in my Christian path without coming to terms with rape and its presence in my life. I was abused by Christians, and Christians used our religion to cover it up and silence me through intimidation and shame.

For the past five years I have wrestled with my spirit, with God, and with Scripture. There have been sleepless nights when putting my faith back together felt like repairing a shattered mirror, when trying to collect the broken pieces meant feeling the knife-sharp bite of jagged glass.

Remaining a Christian, for me, has been a deliberate choice to make room for repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. I am drawn to Jesus and Christianity because of God’s love for the marginalized, for what I believe is an intrinsic call for liberation and justice. I stay because of the Incarnation, because I believe in resurrection.

I am challenged by the expansiveness, the sheer breadth, of God’s mercy.

I don’t want there to be a way back for abusers. I want the men who violated me, who exploited their position and the institutional cover most churches provide, to be forever cast out and forsaken. I want them to suffer– to be like Esau, to “find no place of repentance, though they seek it carefully with tears.”

As I’ve healed, though, I have become open to the idea of redemption for abusers. I’ve inched closer to forgiving the men who harmed me. However, as I’ve begun understanding those concepts in the context of my Christianity, I am growing ever more furious with anyone who abuses the God-given grace of redemption as just another tool to protect abusive men.

So if redemption doesn’t look like a pastor who raped a teenage girl, begged her to cover it up for him, and then getting a standing ovation from his church for admitting he’s predator while his victim tries to bring some measure of justice … or a comedian sneaking back onto stage less than a year after admitting that he harassed multiple women and damaged their careers … what does it look like?

Here’s my answer, nine years after being ordered to repent for causing a man to rape me, eight years after telling the first person who compassionately listened, seven years after a three-day bender I went on to avoid facing the depth of my hurt, six years after a counselor informed me that being a victim means I’m a “poisoned well” and shouldn’t date anyone, and five years after receiving the first of many death threats for talking about it in public. It’s an answer that has come slowly and at times painfully, but has been shaped by almost a decade of learning to forgive.

***

Step 1: Repentance

I have a lifetime of experience in many different types of Christian communities: from fundamentalist to evangelical, Reformed to Arminian, conservative to progressive. Unfortunately, I’ve found the same thread woven through every single one of them, and it is the belief that repentance is limited to acknowledgement and forgiveness means absolution. In order for a person to repent in these circles, the offender should grant the public a mea culpa along with some version of the phrase “please forgive me” or “I’m truly sorry.” Depending on the community, this acknowledgement has no need to be specific, and can often incorporate a measure of blame and fault on the person they’re ostensibly apologizing to.

This is not repentance. This is Apology Theater. It’s public relations. It’s image management.

When a Christian uses this form of repentance, it’s to change the narrative. When someone accuses Savage/Hybels/Gothard/Driscoll/Mahaney/Tchividjian/et al of abuse, all these men have to do is shallowly acknowledge the accusation, perform a few palliative acts of contrition, say the words “forgive me,” and then six months later slip the mantle of power back onto their shoulders. Any further criticism can be dismissed by the community because of the repentance narrative: stop criticizing them, they served their time, they repented, exile shouldn’t be forever, God forgave them why can’t you, etc. Tullian Tchividjian’s recent “Grace for the Disgraced” post is an excellent– and disturbing– example of how this works.

This isn’t, in my opinion, biblical repentance. I’ve written a few posts about repentance before (one on communal repentance, another on transformation), but I’d like to focus on what repentance should look like in the context of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. My thinking on this subject has been informed somewhat by the Jewish articulation of teshuvah, and I believe repentance has several parts:

  • confess all of what you did in a holistic, encompassing way
  • understand not just why you harmed someone but how you were able to do so
  • take the necessary precautions to ensure that you do not ever harm someone that way again

Confession is not just a bare-bones acknowledgement of sin. If a rapist wants to seek redemption, their journey should start with the complete picture, a soulful and spirit-filled understanding of the harm they caused. When John* forced his penis inside me, the harm wasn’t limited to that specific action, that single event. The harm was the sexual violation and it was ruining my ability to trust romantic partners, the damage to my faith, the nightmares, the shame, the fact that I will probably flinch any time I see someone who looks even vaguely like him, the fact that I can’t take a shower in an unfamiliar place, that I have fibromyalgia likely as a result of trauma. The confession can’t be a mere “I’m sorry I hurt you,” it has to come with the realization that you are responsible for all of the destruction your actions led to– emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual, physical.

Second, abusers need to spend a lot of time digging through all the elements that permitted them to sin in this way. What ideas do you have about women, about gender roles, about sexuality, that numbed your conscience to sexual harassment or assault? What beliefs allowed you to see your victim as nothing more than an object that you could control? What systems, institutions, structures, gave you the ability to harm them? How did you get the power to drive a teenage girl down a dark road, tell her it’s for a “surprise,” and then shove your dick in her mouth? Who gave that power to you, and why did you want it?

Finally, and this is absolutely essential: an abuser must never allow themselves to enter any of those structures again. A teenage girl trusted you because you were her spiritual guide, her youth pastor? You must never serve in that role, ever again. You harassed a woman you hired, who worked for you for years, who trusted and respected you because you were widely esteemed and celebrated? You must never allow yourself to be put on that pedestal, ever again. You manipulated parents to let their pretty, blonde daughters come work for your ministry and then install them in your office for “counseling” so you can be alone with them and put your hand up their skirt? You must never lead a ministry or think you are capable of “counseling” anyone, ever again.

Step 2: Restitution

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times the amount.”

And Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” ~ Luke 19:8, Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

I can’t make pronouncements about what restitution will look like, since I believe every case would be different.

In my own story, restitution would look like paying for the hotel rooms that have pictures of updated, spotlessly immaculate bathrooms (and that are usually $70 more per night). He’d pay for five years of therapy. He’d quit his job as a pastor and find a career path that makes sure he’ll never have power over women or girls. He’d go back to PCC and tell everyone in the administration that he’s a rapist, I tried to tell them so, they should have listened to me, and that he will not stop fighting for them to change every single one of their policies that continue to retraumatize victims. He would go back to every single one of our college friends and tell them he was the monster and how he tricked them into making my life a living hell because he wanted revenge for not taking him back.

Whatever it is, restitution is when an abuser shoulders the responsibility for what they did. It means taking over the work of living with their sin, instead of leaving their victims to deal with years–decades– of emotional, spiritual, and physical labor on their own.

Step 3: Redemption

Churches, abusers: you cannot grant this. It cannot be taken by a repentant sinner, it cannot be given by a magnanimous community. It cannot be claimed when atonement seems odious and interminable, or when a church has forgotten the enormity of the offense.

I am not necessarily arguing that every predator or abuser should be shunned by every church until their victim is ready to welcome them back. That may never happen, and should never be forced to happen. However, I think it’s critical that we as Christians understand that redemption and restoration are not the same thing.

Bill Hybels will not be redeemed when he inevitably falls back into his position as an evangelical figurehead somewhere else in American Christendom. Driscoll was not redeemed when he moved to Arizona and started another church. Tchividjian is not redeemed now that he’s back to writing for The Gospel Coalition and has another book coming out.

I believe that for these sorts of men, redemption could come when they are held accountable for their sin, when they assume responsibility for what they did, and then use that to do transformative work in themselves and in their church communities. Redemption would come when these men refuse to let the church be a haven for other abusers like them. Redemption would come when they let their own souls, and the souls of their churches, be cleansed.

Redemption for all these men could come if, by their repentance and restitution, no one else is hurt.

Social Issues

World History and Cultures: The Middle East

I sat down to start working on this week’s World History and Cultures post at 2pm. It is now almost 5– that’s how long it took me to factcheck seventeen pages, not including writing this review.

Inaccuracies:

Wild Assertions:

  • The Enuma Elish was written “in order to exalt Babylon and its chief god, Marduk” (23).
  • Babylonian scientists were “too immersed in the naturalistic superstition of astrology to develop the science of astronomy.”
  • “Without laws and a governmental structure to enforce them, it would be impossible for people to live together peaceably.”
  • “Justice is the use of authority and power to uphold what is right, just, or lawful. It reflects the principle that every man is responsible for his own actions and should be treated accordingly” (24).
  • “Unbelieving critics, including the French infidel Voltaire, ridiculed the Word of God and insisted that no such nation [Hittites] had ever existed.”
  • “The name Assyria became synonymous with terror, cruelty, and oppression among all the peoples of the ancient Middle East” (25). (This is also an inaccuracy, since this “reputation” appears among 20th century scholars and has been discredited.)
  • “…the ruins of Babylon bear testimony to the judgment of God against the pride, idolatry, and immorality of the once proud city” (26).
  • “The Persian Empire prospered for over two centuries, probably because of its tolerant, generally beneficent treatment of God’s people, the Jews” (27).
  • “Although the Persian kings practiced the false, pagan religion of Zoroastrianism, they had a much higher regard for the sanctity of law than did the haughty Assyrian and Babylonian monarchs.”
  • Moses is “one of the greatest men in world history” (28).
  • “Byzantium was increasingly threatened … by the rise of a fanatical, militant new religion in the Arabian Peninsula—Islam” (34).
  • “Muhammed combined elements of a corrupted Judaism and a distorted Christianity in a legalistic religion that looked to him as its ultimate authority” (35).
  • “Because Islam is such a fanatically anti-Christian faith, the progress of modern Protestant missions in the Middle East has been extremely slow and difficult.”
  • Britain took control of Palestine, etc, “in order to prepare these Arab states for independence” (36).
  • “…the Middle East will continue to be a center of international tension and conflict as the world nears history’s last great battle, the Battle of Armageddon” (38).

Assumptions:

  • Not only does the Bible relay accurate historical information, what it relays indicates the significance and superiority of its contents over other cultures, nations, cities, persons, and events.

***

This was my face as I read this chapter:

I knew when I started WHAC that things were bound to get interesting, and I suspected that their chapter on the “Middle East” was going to be … is there a word that combines “hilarious” and “troubling”?

I think the most important point to highlight about chapter three is this: how much time WHAC gives to certain items is indicative of its point of view. I mentioned above that they see the biblical narrative as not just accurate, but as a source for understanding God’s priorities. If God didn’t mention it in the Bible, then it’s not that important– and if he did, well then it must be incredibly important.

We see this in their section on the Hittite Empire: the Bible exalts the Hittites to a fabled, mythic stature. They’re portrayed as allies of Israel (Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband, is one of David’s mighty men, and the Empire is the source for many of the building materials for the Temple), and as powerful allies at that. Consequently, Abeka makes a mountain out of their iron forging ability, even though from the research I did indicates it’s likely the Hittites only had access to a form of wrought iron, which is not that much stronger than bronze. The historians I was reading pointed to Assyria, not the Hittites, as using iron weapons successfully … but that doesn’t align as well with the Bible’s recorded emphasis on the Hittites, so WHAC lies. They also call Voltaire an “infidel” for being skeptical of its existence, which … alrighty then.

Not only that, we also get two entire pages on the Old and New Babylonian Empires and not even a whisper about some of the other empires that existed in the same time frame. It’s obvious from their constant references to Scripture that they’re giving this much space to Babylonia because the Bible does.

Another example is that we get two paragraphs about some missionaries that I feel like I’d never even heard of, even though WHAC was my textbook in highschool … and a single half-sentence on the Iranian Revolution. WHAC spends five pages giving us an “Update” on the modern near east, but one of the most significant events in modern history, something that has had massive consequences on world politics for decades, the Iranian Revolution, gets 12 words while four little-known missionaries get 121. That is literally ten times as much attention.

The text is also incredibly Islamaphobic. I didn’t even know what Islamaphobia was when I was reading this in high school, but it’s no wonder that I thought the worst possible things about Muslims, given what I was told. They make Islam seem beyond absurd– their “explanation” of Islamic theology is reductionist in the extreme as well as being actively deceptive. They claim that Muslims have to repeat the shahadah (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”) 125,000 times in order to be saved from hell, a claim I could find absolutely nowhere else. They also do not correct anything they’ve lied about in the third edition, published 12 years after 9/11.

They’re not just being biased against Islam the way we’ve seen hundreds of our religious and political leaders be over the last 15 years, they’re lying. For all they claim that the 10 Commandments are “universal” and “eternal principles” in this chapter, they must not think that applies to “bear no false witness against thy neighbor.”

Students are required to memorize and regurgitate the text’s Islamaphobia, as well. Of the 78 review questions, 28% ask students to answer questions like “Describe the origin of Islam and its effect on the Middle East” or “define Islam.” The answers: “Islam’s fanatical anti-Christian beliefs don’t allow missionaries to spread the gospel” and “Islam is a man-made religion that teaches people to rely on their own efforts” (35).

***

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I did want to direct your attention to one of the “wild assertions” above:

“Justice is the use of authority and power to uphold what is right, just, or lawful. It reflects the principle that every man is responsible for his own actions and should be treated accordingly.”

If you’ve ever wondered why Christians are so comfortable completely abdicating their responsibility to love their neighbor, or are completely oblivious to God’s emphasis on liberation, or believe that the United States has every right to slaughter Black men and women and call it justice–

This is why.

***

Lastly, I want to bring out something that may seem rather minor compared to the flagrant Islamaphobia, Eurocentrism, and racism in this chapter. When talking about the Persian Empire, they assert that “Darius established the world’s first postal service over the numerous roads he built to connect the empire.” This point gets six more lines, including a quote from Herodotus.

They completely ignore that there’s some uncertainty on who, exactly, expanded couriers into an early mail system. Many historians say it was Cyrus, and use a quote from Xenophon, a Greek historian, to back them up. Some others say no, it’s Darius, and argue the Herodotus quote (“neither snow nor rain…”) applies to his reign. Most of what I was reading say things like “It’s unclear whether…” when discussing this subject, and relay the above information.

World History and Cultures, however, can’t do that.

In the authors’ framework, there is nothing uncertain about history. There is no place for doubt, no place for questions, no place for exploration and growth. In a previous chapter they made the claim that a single man near-miraculously “cracked the code” of Sumerian cuneiform, instead of rightly attributing it to many scholars and the work of decades. In their world, there’s no slow progress from not knowing to we think this is right, at least the best answer we have right now. We are haplessly ignorant until God reveals the answers, and then those answers are incontrovertible.

This perspective even gets projected onto their philosophical opposition: Voltaire’s skepticism isn’t the result of a person who doesn’t believe in things there’s no evidence for, and would have gladly changed his mind if he’d been alive in 1906, when Winckler uncovered Hattusa. It’s not that historians study and grow and learn and expand knowledge; instead, they “deny God’s truth” because they’re “infidels” until God sees fit to “vindicate” the Bible.

This is why I’m arguing that World History and Cultures doesn’t exist to educate, but indoctrinate. They’re not interested in giving students a sense of wonder, curiosity, or learning. All they want is to make sure students stay inside the fundamentalist ideological box.

Feminism

Christians and the whisper network

My parents began attending a new church before I graduated from college, and I only had about eight months at home before I was off to attend graduate school so the new congregation never really felt like a home to me. I made a few friendly connections, though, went out to concerts and the movies with the over-20 women’s group, and generally participated in the church’s traditions.

One of the friendly connections I made was with a man around my parent’s age who had also attended Pensacola Christian and was mildly critical of it– mostly because of the way the college had treated some of his college buddies who had become instructors. Besides that, we also shared a few common interests, like an obsession with nerd culture. So when, over my holiday break, he and his wife threw a 2011 New Year’s Eve party for the young adult group from church, I was excited about attending.

That night, over cups of root beer and non-alcoholic wassail, a few of the women took a moment to pass along a warning. They noted that I was friendly with our host and then remarked that “he could be … a little too friendly, sometimes.” The look that followed conveyed what their words couldn’t: danger, danger Will Robinson.

Just a few hours later, I experienced a little bit of that too-friendliness when he came and found me alone outside by the fire pit and started a conversation that felt over-familiar and inappropriately intimate. I quickly found a way to escape back inside and then spent the next several years walking a mental tightrope: sure he’s a little creepy, but he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t mean anything by it, right?

Fast forward to Christmas 2013: I’m married and visiting my parents, and I’m excited about attending the annual “Cookies and Carols” event the church throws every year. By the time I make my way to my family’s table after saying my hellos to everyone, Mr. Too-Friendly is already seated there. He gets up to great me and gestures for a hug, which I accept– I don’t mind hugs, and I don’t want to navigate the why-wouldn’t-you-hug-me-I’m-so-confused-and-hurt cultural shoals, so I hug him.

Except it’s not a hug. He kisses me, full on the mouth.

It is big and wet and sloppy and I feel like I’m being strangled by him and my own nausea. I’m shocked, and furious, and hurt, and the night was already going badly (dying my hair bright purple and wearing a fingertip-length skirt with tights and slouchy boots had been a bridge too far, apparently, for the women in my over-20 group) and I just wanted to get home without making a scene. I sat at that table, seething and violated, and left the event as soon as I possibly could.

As I sat out in the dark, unheated van, I thought back to the carefully-worded warning I was given. I realized I hadn’t seen any of their faces in a while, and I connected the dots. The women who had been bold enough to warn me had also been bold enough to dye their hair, wear short(er) skirts, date non-Christians, embrace sarcasm and ribaldry … to be their own person. It struck me that they’d probably been ousted like I had that night, otherized and shunned for defying fundiegelical conventions. He’d also probably assaulted them the way he’d assaulted me, knowing that we were vulnerable in that church community. We were the “wild” women, the ones with the too-loud laughter and the too-bright hair. They’d done their best to protect me, and even after they were proven right the very same evening, I still wanted to dismiss them. Yeah he was too friendly, but ultimately harmless, really.

After all. I’d been told all my life that gossip is a sin, and that listening to it– let alone acting on it– was just as sinful. It was my job, as a good Christian, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

***

I could fill a book with all the examples I have of Christian pastors spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on feminine-coded “sins” like vanity or gluttony, and the focus on the particularly womanly sin of talking to other women about stuff that matters, i.e. “gossip,” would probably take up half its pages.

Today, looking at a practically endless wave of #metoo and #churchtoo stories coming out of Christianity– from the Pennsylvania Catholics to Willow Creek–I no longer think the focus on “gossip” is merely a natural consequence of sexism in Christian culture (although that’s clearly part of it). I’m convinced that when pastors go out of their way to vociferously condemn “gossip” or “the rumor mill,” they’re doing their dead-level best to dismantle the whisper network. They want to render one of the few tools women have to protect themselves from their violence ineffective.

Over the last several months, especially, as a cleansing light has finally begun to pierce the morally bankrupt, cowardly cloak many Christian communities have wrapped themselves up in, I’ve seen the following question at least once on every post: how could this have gone on for so long? How could it be so systemic? My answer is usually a remixed version of this response:

Abuse, even sexual abuse, is not hermenuetically or doctrinally aberrant in conservative Christianity. Abuse is woven into the fabric of Christianity, and has been true since the first millennia, since misogynistic men ripped The Way out of women’s homes and made Christianity a tool of the Empire. It’s not that churches want to cover up their crimes, it’s that churches seek out the qualities abusers have and award them with leadership. This is why criticizing church leadership is often painted as criticism of the Church: if abusers lose their authority, so does the religion they preach.

Many of the men who are drawn to ministerial work take it up precisely because Christianity gives them the license to abuse and call it mercy.

Think about that the next time you find a sermon or podcast or blog post about how women bloggers are destroying the church with our bitterness and rumor-mongering or how we shouldn’t listen to gossip.

It’s not “godly teaching.” It’s not “biblical.”

It’s self-preservation.

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Photography by Oliver Dodd

 

Social Issues

what we lost: white supremacy, immigration, and food

Several years ago, I began to notice the patterns and connections that bind up cisheteropatriarchy with toxic masculinity. Patriarchy, with all its queerphobic and femmephobic boundary-keeping, inevitably hurts many men as it strives to keep a certain kind of man in power. Around that time, I also began arguing that one of the reasons that patriarchy should be resisted and eradicated is that it represents a nearly incomprehensible loss of opportunity. What could we have, right now, if it weren’t for patriarchy? What advancements could half the human population have contributed if they hadn’t typically been treated as property and kept chained to a stove?

It didn’t take me long to see that similar patterns exist in white supremacy and racism. What has humanity lost because of white supremacy? What have white people lost in our bigoted, racist quest for power?

For me, personally, the answer has often been: food.

If you were to meet me in “real life,” in my home– in my kitchen– you’d quickly notice that I am pretty obsessed with the entire concept of food. One of my favorite books is Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni, a thick and delightful tome I read cover-to-cover in a single sitting. I love trying new recipes, and adapting cuisines from all over the world to meet the needs of my diet and allergy restrictions. The Great British Bake Off (known in the US as The Great British Baking Show) is one of my all-time favorite things– I have watched and re-watched every single season, some of them multiple times. Nothing brings me quite as much joy as cooking for my friends and family, watching them relish roast chicken con fit or my delectable and toothsome gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.

I also read about food. A lot. I inhale foodie magazines and I’m catching up now on Anthony Bourdain’s show after reading “What Anthony Bourdain Meant to People of Color” by Joumana Khatib. Some of my favorite articles I’ve ever read and that have made a lasting impact on me have been about food: “The Struggles of Writing about Chinese Food as a Chinese Person” by Clarissa Wei has become one of my touchstones and an oft-cited resource. “How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food, then make it trendy” by Ruth Tam is what I direct people to in order to help them understand cultural appropriation. “What’s The Difference Between Ethnic Food in America vs the Homeland (And Does it Matter)?” and other articles like it, covering the immigrant experience through food, is basically a genre all to itself and one I’ll always read.

Articles that treat food as a metaphor are also a favorite. “Hunger Makes Me” by Jess Zimmerman has stuck with me for years, and the most extraordinarily, achingly beautiful article I’ve read this year is “Cravings” by my friend Hännah Ettinger.

***

I hope you’ll bookmark all these and read them later, because now I’m going to talk about a travesty of an article I read yesterday: “How Millennials Killed Mayonnaise” by Sandy Hingston, accompanied by the hilarious subtitle “The inexorable rise of identity condiments has led to hard times for the most American of foodstuffs. And that’s a shame.” I don’t often read the “How Millennials Killed _____” articles until they hit tumblr and have been properly eviscerated first, but this one was about food … so I clicked it. And then read it aloud to Handsome as we drove home from the airport, laughing so hard I cried. It’s so badly written. If I were still teaching writing, this would be the example I’d force all my students to read so they can identify purple prose.

It’s also insidiously white supremacist.

My first thought was “geez lady, so people don’t like your potato salad, get a grip.” I was also entertained by the thought that all millennials hate mayo because I use it all the time, and the people I know– mostly millennials– gobble up my deviled eggs and potato salad like they’ll never eat again. How she’s extrapolating her personal experience onto an entire generation is beyond absurd. However, I wouldn’t be writing about her today if she hadn’t written the following:

My mom was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, born in the era in which huddled masses clambered ashore at Ellis Island, their pockets stuffed with kielbasa and chorizo and braunschweiger and makanek and lap cheong, and were processed in the great American assimilation grinder, emerging to dine happily ever after on Hatfield hot dogs and potato salad. …

America in the 1950s was full of strivers like Mom, desperate to forget family legacies of latkes and boxties and bramboráky, poring through the pages of Family Circle and Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day for stars-and-stripes recipes that repped their newfound land. They wanted all their strangeness to dissolve into the sizzling pot of Crisco that crisped their french (not French) fries. …

Besides, the impetus seemed righteous. In a world torn asunder by the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and two World Wars, our citizenry needed to come together, be united, rally behind a collective vision of what it meant to be an American: You lived in a single-family house, you drove a station wagon, you wore bowling shirts and blue jeans, and you slathered mayonnaise on everything from BLTs to burgers to pastrami on rye. …

My mom’s side of the family have a similar history– except my reaction is not a mastubatory “patriotic” celebration, but a sense of longing and grief. I don’t see the fact that my family’s cultural heritage was beaten out of us by decades of racism and bullying as a good thing like Sandy does. It’s a horrible reality that surviving in America as an immigrant often means exchanging kifle, csirke paprikash, and dobos torte for Waldorf salad and Spam.

My great-great grandparents immigrated from eastern Europe after the death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my great-great grandmother brought with her the recipes of her homeland. My great-grandfather taught us to make kifle for Christmas one year the way his mother used to, in pinwheels instead of little rolled crescents. She’d gotten tired of making the individual cookies for the entire family and decided to cross kifle with another Hungarian desert: beigli. For years, I made csirke paprikash by adding corn to the tomato-sour cream sauce and cooking it all up in a pressure cooker because that was how Grandpa did it: it was quick, and he liked corn. It surprised and delighted me when I found out csirke paprikash doesn’t traditionally include corn– it was what happened when my immigrant grandfather grew up in Ohio. Another family favorite is my grandmother’s spin on halupki: stuffed cabbage in a creamy bechamel instead of tomato sauce.

But so much else has been lost. My grandfather had a cookbook his mother had put together with her Hungrian/Czech/Polish neighbors, and even as a teenager I was thrilled with the discovery. I peppered him with questions: how often did she make this? What does this taste like?

It was a difficult conversation, because his answer often was “I don’t know. She’d stopped making it by the time I was old enough to remember.”

One of my grandfather’s most vivid memories is his mother shouting at his father when he occasionally reverted to Hungarian: “We’re in America now! We speak American!” There is also a thread of resentment woven through his childhood: he grew up being labeled a “Hunky” and eventually anglicized his name from “Vincze” to “Vincent” when he joined the Army Air Corps during WWII. White supremacy burdened both him and his mother with a desperate need to conform– to become bland, homogenous, and uniform. In order to be safe and successful in this country, they had to give up a centuries-old “perfect blend,” as Sandy would put it, of paprika, sour cream, and stewed tomatoes for jello molds and mayonnaise.

***

I fight white supremacy through my cooking.

There’s nothing wrong with mayonnaise– I love my potato salad, made with orange and red peppers instead of celery, and sour cream and paprika mixed with the mayonnaise– but I know in my bones that I have been robbed. White supremacy stole a whole legacy of flavors and dishes and enrobed my family’s meals in a banality of beige.

So, now I cook the delicious food we lost. The recipe I shared above for csirke paprikash is a show-stopper, and easily transformed to be gluten free (Jovial’s GF egg noodles work great). I plan on making dobos torte for my birthday in a month, and can’t wait to indulge in layers upon layers of chocolate and caramel. I’m still struggling to adapt kifle, since yeast-driven rising methods are difficult to accomplish with gluten-free flour– but I swear I’ll get there, and it will be delicious. My family also just discovered that one of my grandmothers immigrated here from Sicily as a mail-order bride, and now I’m happily buried in Sicilian-American recipes.

Arancini seems like a great place to start.

Photography by Windslash
Theology

sin is not just a “heart issue”

If you’re a person who has frequented the internet over the last month, you’ve probably heard, seen, or read discussions around whether or not companies or governments should “ban” single-use plastic straws. On one side you have people who believe that we should eliminate– or at least reduce our reliance on– single-use plastics, and disposable straws are their current target. On the other side, disability activists argue that there aren’t good alternatives to single-use plastic straws and that disabled people’s need to stay hydrated without dying due to anaphylaxis or aspiration is more important than the 0.025% of plastic floating around in our oceans, especially when abled people can just stop using disposable straws if they want to.

Another facet of the discussion has tried to point out that if you actually want to tackle the problem of plastic waste polluting our oceans, we should look at elements like industrial fishing methods, since 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is plastic fishing nets and the rest is almost entirely other pieces of fishing gear. Any environmental or climate change concern is going to have similar elements: the bulk of the waste and pollution is caused by entire industries and corporations; altering individual behavior is good but ultimately ineffective. If we actually want to address plastic waste in our oceans, we need to change the behaviors of industries and entire economies, not whether or not Deborah gets a straw in her mocha frappuccino.

Unfortunately, changing the course of an entire industry is much more difficult than telling me, individually, not to litter or use plastic straws– and it is difficult because corporations have a vested interest in making it difficult. Moving away from single-use plastics will hurt their bottom line, so they throw money at lobbyists and politicians and regulators to make sure they can keep strangling our planet with their garbage. Starbucks can announce that they’re going to phase out plastic straws and get plenty of kudos and accolades … and keep on using unrecyclable plastic-lined paper cups to the tune of 4 billion cups per year. They could start using biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable cups, but they won’t.

Industries and corporations continuously point fingers at individual consumer habits so they don’t have to make any substantive changes. Take the “Crying Indian” ad from 1971– it was paid for by a conglomeration of some of the biggest polluters in the country in order to take the focus off packaging and throw-away containers and put that focus on individual consumers. That’s the whole point: make the conversation about Deborah’s frappucino and not how Proctor & Gamble is packaging its shampoo in the Philippines.

***

All of the above functions extremely well as a metaphor for the common American Christian articulation of sin as a “heart issue.” Maybe like me you’ve noticed a pattern of influential Christian ministers referring to racism or sexism as a “heart issue,” and found it as frustrating as I do.

Framing racism or other systemic social problems as a “heart issue” accomplishes a few things. First, it centers Christianity in the conversation. If racism is a “heart issue,” then the solution is conversion or repentance– all the individually racist person needs to do is repent and allow Jesus to change their heart. If a racist person accepts Jesus into their heart and once they’ve done so, follows the Spirit’s guidance away from prejudice and towards acceptance– then racism is solved with the Christian religion. Saying racism is a “heart issue” means that we don’t need affirmative action, we need Evangelical Jesus.

Second, it allows people and their communities to escape any feeling of responsibility or guilt. If racism is truly a single person’s heart issue, and the resolution is for that person to repent, then there’s nothing that Bob or Susie is responsible for when Jim is a racist turd. If Jim is a Christian, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit will handle it. If he’s not, then there’s nothing more for Bob or Susie to do– they just have to continue being Jim’s friend so they can be a “good witness” for Christ in his life. What good would it do to tell Jim that he’s being racist, if it’s a heart issue? No, we just need to “love on him” more and “be the only Bible he’ll ever see.”

Lastly, if racism is an individual’s “heart issue,” then it’s not systemic. An indiviudal’s heart issue does not require a church, as an institution, to change. Heart issues do not ask the Church to examine itself or shift course; in fact, if racism is a heart issue than most Christian churches are doing the exactly right thing by harping on a “personal relationship with Christ” and telling its members to repent of private, individual sin.

If we were to communally acknowledge that racism or sexism or ableism is systemic, then we’d have to commit to a massive undertaking. We’d have to take a hard look at how our seminaries and ordinations and denominations and alliances and conventions operate and be honest with ourselves for the first time in history. We’d have to overhaul power structures, ordination tracks, and hiring processes– and everyone who currently enjoys all the cultural power, who wield all the political influence, would lose their access and prestige. The leadership would have to admit that it’s not God who brought them to the position they hold, not their commitment to the faith, not their hard work, but systemic, structural practices that marginalize anyone who isn’t a cis, white, heterosexual man.

It’s not coincidence that the people who stand to lose the most power, influence, and money are the ones claiming that sins like racism are an individual problem and the solution is to maintain the status quo.

Photo by Kish
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: Sumer

I am hoping that, in the future, I will be able to do more than one chapter at a time. For health reasons, though, I have to limit myself to just one for today.

Inaccuracies:

Wild Assertions:

  • Pyramids, ziggurats and Maya Temples are supposedly so similar because there was a single culture that spread from the Tower of Babel.
  • Sumerians studied astrology because “they rejected the natural revelation of the one true God,” and “turned to the stars and planets for knowledge of the future” (19).
  • “the religion of the Sumerians led to hopelessness and purposelessness” (20).
  • Civilization cannot occur without “mastering the food supply” through “effective agricultural techniques” like crop irrigation (17).
  • WHAC says history cannot be preserved without a written language; however, we know that indigenous peoples in Australia have an accurate oral history that extends as far back as 10,00 years.

Assumptions:

  • The Garden of Eden was located in the Fertile Crescent.
  • “Writing has a conservative influence on culture,” and conservatism is crucial to development of civilizations (16).
  • Cultures can supposedly be ranked and categorized, from undeveloped to “highly developed” (17).

***

The most cursory and briefest of glances through my “Inaccuracies” section reveals a fundamental problem with World History and Cultures: in order for it to be internally consistent and to stay true to its claim that their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is historically, literally accurate, they are required to lie. They cannot tell students the truth about almost anything regarding the ancient world– to be honest, they’d be forced to acknowledge either that a) their interpretation and application of the Bible is flawed or b) the Bible is not accurate.

The chapter launches with a huge whopper of a lie: the “Rise of Sumerian civilization” was in 2300 BC– a full two thousand, two hundred years too late. However, they’ve already stated that the earth was created around 4,000 BC, which is five hundred years after the beginnings of Sumer.

They also have to assume that the Garden of Eden was a physical, historically real place and that it was located in Middle East. From there, Noah had to have landed in Turkey, and his descendants had to have traveled down the rivers to Mesopotamia and spread their culture from there. The fact that calendars, languages, schools, and technologies all arose independently in multiple cultures around the world proves that their understanding of history is not possible … so they have to lie. They have to deliberately mislead their students into believing that Sumer and only Sumer was the first to achieve lunar calendars, the wheel, schools, etc.

That they are willing to do this, and to go to this extent– 10 falsehoods in a single chapter, more than one lie per page– is disturbing.

***

In the section where they discuss the Sumerian government, they claim that Sumer was a “primitive democracy,” and then use Samuel Kramer to argue that power was in the hands of “free citizens,” that decisions affecting the entire city were made collectively. In the next paragraph, they say that “it became necessary for the city-states to adopt a strong, monarchial [sic] form of government” (19).

Untangling this actually took some digging, but first I want to point to the logic chain here. When Sumer “faced internal dissension and external threats,” a strong monarchy “became necessary.” To break it down: civil unrest and threats to national security make “strong” leaders– kings, tyrants, dictators– both necessary and, from the surrounding context, a good thing.

Again, I’m looking around at my country right now and thinking well that explains a lot. These authors aren’t just relaying history, they’re teaching a philosophy of government that bends toward authoritarianism.

There’s also a second thing happening here that isn’t immediately visible– you have to go fact-checking to discover this. They use the term “primitive democracy” to describe early Sumerian government. However, the “free citizens” who had political power in the first cities? They were they men who controlled the military power. They were the men with access to weapons and and who led fighting units. I won’t deny it makes sense that those sorts of men would control the political power in an early culture like Sumer, but it is interesting that WHAC describes this system as a democracy and not the “primitive oligarchy” it actually was. Not every person residing in the city-state had a political voice, and the authors think that this is enough to call a system a democracy.

No wonder they have no qualms oppressing voters, gerrymandering, or denying suffrage to whole classes of people. They think “democracy” and “oligarchy” are the same thing.

***

One of the main goals of this chapter is to teach that civilizations are only civilizations when they look and act like European civilizations. They give a definition of civilization that students are asked to write down verbatim several times in the section and chapter reviews:

A civilization comes into being when a people’s culture begins to include a specialized division of labor, a written language, a written code of laws, an organized form of civil government, and the developement of arts and sciences. Before any of these developments can take place, however, there must be a mastery over the food supply. All civilizations begin with the development of effective agricultural techniques. (17)

Lots of scholars argue that only one of these is necessary: writing and keeping written records. Some add other components, like social stratification or architecture. Abeka’s sticking point is “mastery over the food supply,” and they describe Sumer’s crop irrigation system at length. It’s not enough for WHAC that large groups of people can feed themselves, they have to do it in a particular way. That way looks like irrigated fields and the steady planting and harvesting of crops. It doesn’t include, for example, the way many Native American tribes practiced forestry before the arrival of European colonizers. North America wasn’t an “untamed wilderness” before the arrival of the colonizers; it just didn’t look suitably “mastered” to white people.

Abeka’s whole concept of “civilization” is deliberately exclusive, and it will be important to identify exactly who they’re excluding and why.

I didn’t identify any changes in the 3rd edition. The Fertile Crescent map in Since the Beginning is slightly more accurate; there is also more discussion of the evils of secular humanism in Sumerian culture than appears in the 10th grade version, as well as more focus on Abraham’s story.

*Some of these items are more recently discovered than the publication of World History and Cultures 2nd Edition, but have not been corrected in the latest edition.

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