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Social Issues

at dawn, look to the east

One of my favorite scenes from almost any film is at the end of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, from The Two Towers. They’ve retreated from the walls, and you can feel the hope fading. You feel the same shocked horror as Eowyn when she realizes the end is coming, and coming quickly. When everything seems to be at its most dark and desperate, King Théoden looks at Aragorn, frozen, shocked, despairing.

We’re approaching the end of a horrific week, and at times I feel like we’re facing an unending, teeming horde of Uruk-Hai– but instead of facing a concrete enemy with clattering armor and raised swords, the evil we’re fighting is systemic. Police brutality, like the Uruk-Hai, is just one manifestation of the evil the One Ring represents: the temptation in all men to possess power.

On days like today, I’m reminded of why I originally named my blog Defeating the Dragons. I was referencing a Neil Gaiman paraphrase of a G. K. Chesterton quote:

Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

I was reminded of it yesterday as I witnessed white people all over social media ask Théoden’s question: what can men do against such reckless hate? There was despair and hopelessness- helplessness. The police have killed 566 people this year– that we know of– and 2016 is barely half over. When a problem is this big, what can we do? When it’s seemingly in every state, in every justice department, in every police force, in every prison?

But, Théoden’s crushing despair isn’t the answer in this scene. The answer is delivered through Aragorn, who isn’t removed, isn’t separate, from Théoden’s fate. He meets Théoden’s eyes unflinchingly and says “Ride out with me.” Théoden assumes that Aragorn is envisioning a last ride of blazing glory, but Aragorn contradicts him: “For Rohan. For your people.

Of course, the audience knows what Théoden doesn’t– that Gandalf told Aragorn “Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east.” Aragorn is trusting Gandalf to pull some miracle out of his robes, but Theodan isn’t aware of that.

Today, we need to be Théoden listening to Aragorn. To ignore our feelings of helplessness that could push us into desensitization and apathy. We could try to retreat through the passage into the mountains– or we can ride out for our people. Apathy and helplessness are beckoning, I won’t deny it– especially since, as white people, it’s not just possible but easier for us to pretend like the Uruk-Hai and the malice of Sauron isn’t a real threat to anyone. If we’re not Théoden, in the trenches at Helm’s Deep, we could be any one of the blissfully ignorant nations who believes that Saruman the White is just some puttering old wizard who mostly just hangs out in his tower. Him, trying to destroy Rohan? That’s laughable!

Turns out, though, that’s exactly what him and Wormtongue want us to believe. Empire and its oppressive power wants us to remain apathetic, is trying to convince us it’s not really our problem. Alton Stirling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland— aren’t they just minor aberrations and not worth getting ourselves worked up about? They probably did something to deserve it anyway. As long as the only people the police are routinely gunning down don’t look like me, then our police force acting like something out of a post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare is fine. Our lives are comfortable, unruffled by the constant fear of the police. They’re our thin line of blue, after all– the ones sworn to protect and serve. They couldn’t possibly be burning down an entire forest to forge weapons and turning Orthanc into a war machine.

It’s our responsibility to banish Wormtongue– his lies and his apathy– from our holds. To listen to Aragorn even when it seems hopeless. I won’t make false promises– maybe it is hopeless. But I choose to believe that nothing is truly hopeless unless we let it be, that evil can only win if good men do nothing.

***

In this extended metaphor of a post, as white people in a country with a militarized police force and a racist legal system, we’re not actually Théoden and his men. I know it seems like we’re the ones facing a monstrous force working to crush us, but we’re not. We’re not the ones fighting for our lives against the Uruk-Hai, struggling to hold out for just one more day, one more dawn.

We’re the Rohirrim. We’re the ones with the power to do something. It’s against everything good and just that we have this power in our hands, but we have it. But we have to show up– we have to be there at dawn on the fifth day, willing to face the Uruk-Hai when we could have been running away and pretending that the fate of Helm’s Deep has nothing to do with us. Without us, Théoden falls. Without us standing up for the people of color who are our sisters and brothers and siblings, our fellow children of God, then Helm’s Deep is lost.

They can’t fight this battle on their own. They need us.

***

So, practically, what does this look like, since of course it’s not going to be one glorious moment of us rushing downhill in a single magnificent charge. Maybe we’ll have those victories, but it’s not just the Uruk-Hai. It’s not just Saruman. Those are only puppets, really, symptoms. But, we have to start somewhere.

First, start with educating yourself. Acknowledge that as a white person you do benefit from a racist system. Keep educating yourself. Stay aware, and pay attention. Listen to people of color about their experiences. Cultivate a mind and heart that responds with compassion and grief.

Then, look into what needs to be done to reform our police forces. Get involved, and listen to brown and black people about where you should direct your energies and focus. When it comes to the police, local government is crucial. Delve into the histories of the people who serve as your judges, your sheriff, your mayor. Research the histories of those running for those positions and hold them accountable. Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote. Communicate with your city councils, your district attorneys. Call your state senators and representatives and make it clear that police reform is a priority for you, their constituent.

If you can, see if you can get involved in politics– and that doesn’t necessarily mean running for public office. You can work to make sure police reform is a part of your party’s platform on the state level. You can meet up with the local Democratic or Republican committee and convince them to make police reform an important issue in your county politics. You can be the persistent widow.

Ride out with us– not for death and glory, but for our people.

For the least of these, the widow, the prisoner, the orphan.

Photo by New Line Cinema
Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: June edition

The picture for this post is of the book haul Handsome and I brought home from our county library book sale– which is “The Event of the Year” as far as anyone down here is concerned.

Articles

I’m a big fan of the Washington Post— I read it fairly consistently, and I love that they run pieces like “For the poor in the Ivy League, a full ride isn’t always what they imagined” by Nick Anderson fairly often. This one was especially good because it puts to bed the tired argument that minority/poor students can just “get scholarships” to solve their problems. Sure, you might have your tuition covered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can buy food, or textbooks. Heaven forbid you want to major in a STEM field, where the textbooks are constantly updated and can cost hundreds of dollars.

I’ve been reading the blog-zine Women in Theology for several years, and I recommend them in general– they’re one of the reasons why I’m going to seminary. “A Reasonable Violence: Why the Third Way is the Worst Way” by Amaryah Shaye is a good example of the work they do. I’ve shared my own opinion on the “Third Way” perspective before, and Amaryah’s argument, I believe, is incredibly compelling. I kept wanting to grab a few pullquotes, but all of it is just too good.

My friend and colleague, Sarah Jones, wrote “The Strange Story of Sewanee, the KKK, and a Franklin County Gay/Straight Alliance” for Scalawag and it’s fully worth a read. bell hooks first coined the phrase white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy — and while it’s certainly a mouthful, it elucidates the reality we all unthinkingly live in: that misogyny, racism, homophobia are all tied up in each other. Each oppressive system perpetuates the others.

This is Why we have Women-Only Spaces, and I Don’t Want to Hear Your Complaints” by Clementine Ford wrestles with the impossible-to-meet demands women face that constantly contradict each other. I think the thesis of her piece is here:

The only conclusion I’ve been able to draw from this is that women, despite being constantly told what we MUST do to avoid danger, are actually not allowed to be in control of what those preventative actions might look like.

Bust can be a hit-or-miss feminist magazine for me, just like Jezebel and a few others– but “Why ADHD is a Feminist Issue and What Happens when its Overlooked” by S.B. Casteñeda is short, but excellent, and is a good introduction to this issue. Girls also tend to be under-diagnosed for a lot of things, like autism, and we need to keep demanding that the medical establishment corrects its misogynistic bias.

The Reluctant Memoirist” by Suki Kim is probably one of the best things I’ve read this month. She’s an investigative reporter, but yet when she tried to share her investigative journalism on North Korea — one of the most badass things I’ve ever heard of — it got billed as “memoir.” Argh gablargh. Anyway, you should read it. She’s a lot more eloquent than “argh gablargh.”

Bitch magazine, unlike Bust or Jezebel, is a publication I have a lot of respect for. When I saw that Kameron Hurley– one of my favorite authors– seriously, go read The Mirror Empire right now–had written “In Defense of Unlikable Women” for them I squeed. It’s one of the essays from her book The Geek Feminist Revolution which I’m going to buy as soon as I’m able. Two of her women characters in Mirror Empire are everything she’s arguing for in this piece, and they’re some of the best-written “unlikable women” I’ve ever encountered in literature. If you think I’m trying to get y’all to become Kameron Hurley fans– you’re right.

Books

As I mentioned above, I brought home a literal trunk-full of books from our library’s book sale, and I’ve been tearing through them. I picked up The Magician’s Apprentice by Trudi Canavan and enjoyed it so much I bought her other two trilogies in the same universe– The Black Magician trilogy and the Traitor Spy trilogy. She has an interesting plotting style, and I enjoyed the pacing of her books. Traitor Spy has a bisexual woman and a lesbian as two of the main characters, and they get a happy ending. No Bury Your Gays here. Black Magician has a side-ish/main-ish character who realizes he’s gay toward the end, and he become a main character in Traitor Spy, and wheeee I’m so happy when I read books that resonate with my lived experiences. Made me realize how tiring it can be to read about exclusively straight characters the rest of the time.

I also grabbed all of Karen Miller’s books from the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker universe. She’s a genuinely good fantasy writer, and I’m really enjoying them, but I do have one complaint: in a world where the main religious icon is a woman, you’d think there’d be other women in the books. There’s four women total in The Awakened Mage. Innkeepers, servants, stable hands, secretaries, guildmasters, guards, teachers … they are all men. The only exception is the queen, the princess, one woman who shows up for a few pages during a court hearing, and the main character’s friend. It’s frustrating that even in a fantasy novel written by a woman, the male gender is treated as the default.

I also read The Black Jewels trilogy by Anne Bishop in basically a single sitting because I’m a complete sucker for books written about insanely powerful women; but, I will warn you that while the second two books are decently entertaining, there is a lot of sexual violence in the first book– Daughter of the Blood. And I mean a lot– against women and men and the main character, who’s a child in the first book. It’s a complicated system to explain, but there’s a lot of gender essentialism and then there’s the interesting little factoid that a woman can be “broken” on her “Virgin Night” and lose her magical powers. The same is not true of men, although I think this might have been Anne’s attempt to balance out the fact that women tend to be magically stronger than the men. But …  bleh. Anyway, truly entertaining books and I liked how they referenced vampires and gargoyles without specifically invoking those archetypes … but yeah. Complicated feelings. The next two books respond to the sexual violence the main characters endured delicately and appropriately– Anne doesn’t ignore the trauma or its consequences, and there’s an organic healing process, but, like I said … it’s complicated.

I also read the Selection series by Kiera Cass, which is in that young-adult dystopian genre with the interesting twist that it’s about royalty. Again, I’m a sucker for princess-themed books, so I read them all. Not the best in the genre I’ve read, but cute. There’s four books and I think it probably should have just been two, but I understand the rationale of stretching it out a bit for younger readers.

***

I’m throwing a barbecue this weekend that I’m very excited about– hence why you’re getting a “stuff I’ve been into” post. I wish everyone a very jolly weekend, and if you’re an American citizen, happy Independence Day!

Social Issues

yes, you hate me: Christians and homophobia

[content note for bigotry and homophobia]

If you’re anything like me, this is a conversation you’ve probably had with your parents:

“Ugh! I just hate her! She’s so awful!”
“Samantha, don’t say ‘hate.’ Hate is a strong word.”
“Fine, then, I strongly dislike her.”

I always felt like I was being particularly witty, since “intense or passionate dislike” is the dictionary definition of hate. Colloquially, hate does have a connotation that “intense dislike” just doesn’t encompass, but Christian culture has bent and twisted the word hate until it’s practically meaningless. When a Christian looks me in the eye and says “of course I don’t hate you!” what they actually mean is something akin to I don’t personally want to assault you with my bare hands. To a conservative Christian, unless they’re actively and personally wishing you —personally– harm, than you can’t possibly accuse them of hating you.

That’s how Thabiti Anyabwile and the people who agree with him can say this:

Return the discussion to sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth … In all the politeness, we’ve actually stopped talking about the things that lie at the heart of the issue–sexual promiscuity of an abominable sort … I think we should describe sin (and righteousness) the way God does. And I think it would be a good thing if more people were gagging on the reality of the sexual behavior that is now becoming public law, protected, and even promoted in public schools

That sense of moral outrage you’re now likely feeling–either at the descriptions above or at me for writing them–that gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, “I feel dirty” moral outrage is the gag reflex.

… and then infuriatingly believe that their explicit perpetuation of an active and intense dislike isn’t an act of hatred. They can do it because they’ve intentionally forgotten that hatred is “intense dislike” with just slightly more oomph– the oomph of thinking “I feel dirty” or “those people are so sick!” They can do it because they’ve lost their sense of communal responsibility. To your average evangelical Christian, sin is personal and it is individually committed. They are blind to systems, to institutionalized hatred. They blatantly refuse to acknowledge how every single one of their homophobic actions and beliefs feed into a system of hate.

It leads to these, which are just a handful of the awful comments on Rachel Held Evans’ post where she reminded us that “there was a body count before Sunday”:

facebook comments

Or these, from Jen Hatmaker’s post where she said “We cannot with any integrity honor in death those we failed to honor in life”:

facebook comments 2

“It’s not hate, it’s a disagreement.”

They say it over and over again and are just so utterly baffled when I choke on rage, frustration, and despair. They’re just so very confused when they look at me and say “I disagree with your very existence because of my pet biblical interpretation, but that clearly can’t be hate. If I hated you, I’d want to punch you or something. Since I don’t want to punch you in the face, that must mean what I’m saying is loving!” and all I want to do is rip my skin off and gnash my teeth at them.

Believing that I don’t have the right to exist exactly as I am is hatred. Fighting against my civil rights is hatred. Believing that Romans 1 applies to me and that I’m therefore “worthy of death” is hatred. Referring to my existence as an abomination— which has happened to me multiple times over the last few days– is hatred. One man on my public facebook page told me I was abomination, that my existence was just as evil the eyes of God as mass murder, but then two comments later said that he “loved” me and “mourned the deaths in Orlando”!

IT rage gif

Not only have they twisted the definition of hatred into something so deformed it’s beyond recognition, they’ve done the same thing to love. Here’s the thing, though: when Jesus said they shall know you by your love, it comes with the pretty basic assumption that your “love” should be recognizable to people who don’t share all your pet theories. If people who don’t share your interpretation or your faith look at your actions and say “that looks an awful lot like hate to me,” your response shouldn’t be “oh, it only looks that way to you because you’re not a conservative evangelical like me!” It doesn’t make any sense.

On top of that, Jesus also said this:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Raca literally means “to spit.” It’s a reaction of disgust, of revulsion– in the words of Thabiti, it’s the “gag reflex” at work. And Jesus compares that reaction to murder. John, later, makes the connection explicit for anyone who might not have gotten it:

Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.

I’ve seen hundreds of Christians over the last four days protesting against the connection that my LGBT community has been making: this is on you. You’re responsible for creating him and the homophobic culture he breathed in every single day of his twenty-nine years. You weren’t the gunman, but you’re the culture that built him. You’re the bullets in his gun.

To be honest, I never really, viscerally, understood Jesus’ indictment of hatred until Sunday. I understood the larger point of the sermon on the mount, that sin isn’t a matter of rules and regulations but begins in the hearts and minds of men. I understood that he was reorienting a culture away from their preoccupation with the Law and focusing them on their beliefs and perhaps deeply-buried motives. But saying that anger and disgust and revulsion were on par with murder seemed so extreme–surely this is one of those times Jesus was speaking hyperbolically?

I don’t think he was. I think he was talking about systems. He was talking about the creation of a system where Robert Dear could walk into a Planned Parenthood clinic and open fire while shouting “no more baby parts!” and then declare “I’m a warrior for the babies!” The hatred that stirred the “Center for Medical Progress” into slander prompted Robert to commit murder. Just a little bit ago James Dobson practically begged for someone to shoot LGBT people, trans people in particular, with a desperate plea of “Where is today’s manhood? God help us!” Thirteen days later someone in Florida decided that he was enough of a man to actually pick up the gun and go do something about those abominations.

You have hated us for years. You have been killing us for years. Now, it’s time for you reconcile yourselves to us, to seek diallassoa change of mind, a change of heart.

Photo by Julien
Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: May edition

Articles

Hookup culture is bad for women– so why do we force ourselves to participate?” by Leah Fessler was interesting to read. I’d add the two thoughts: “hookup culture” is a little overblown in the general imagination. It exists, but the research says it’s made too much of. However, I’ve talked about a related concept– raunch culture– and my problems with it, so I think the criticism Leah makes is valid. Second thought: she talks about how women are “emotional,” but doesn’t ever clarify what she means so it plays into the “women are emotional, but men aren’t” stereotype, even though her research indicated that men wanted intimacy and commitment just as often as the women.

Stop Trying to Choke Me: The Rise of Rough Sex Culture” by Rose Surnow was thought-provoking. I have a nuanced view of pornography– I think porn could, theoretically, be a good thing if it is ethically made and treats human beings with dignity. However, that’s not often the reality and I’m troubled by the thought that people are being exposed to the relentless degradation of women when they consume porn.

Service Work is Skilled Work” by Hanna Olsen is fascinating. I’ve been reading a lot about the future of America’s labor force and I think we’re going to experience … no one seems to have any clear idea of what but all signs are pointing toward something big. I’m firmly convinced that trying to bring back manufacturing is both fruitless and problematic– the men and women building our cars in Mexico are making $10 an hour, and that’s a “good job” for them. Why do we feel the right to take back that labor from them so we can pay our manufacturers here $30-50 an hour? I’m very much feeling a Workers of the world, unite! sentiment, and for that we need both free trade and to change our perceptions of “burger flippers” here at home.

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” by Dave Eggers and Níneve Clements Calegari got a bunch of fist-pumping from me. As an education major, I once had to read a book that advocated paying teachers the minimum wage and specifically hiring married women so you could justify paying them less, I shit you not. One of my peers qualified for food stamps during the years she taught. That’s not ok.

Why Do We Give Robots Female Names?” by Laurie Penny was good. So good. Read it. It’s really stuck with me.

Re-examining Monica, Marica, Tonya and Anita, the ‘scandalous’ women of the 90s” by Sarah Marshall was fantastic and a little bit mind-boggling. I was a kid during the 90s– I was 13 when they ended– so everything I absorbed about these women’s stories was the extremely tricked-down version. It’s amazing to me how much hate and misogyny I inherited through hearing about them … especially concerning Tonya Harding, who I knew the most about because I was figure skating-obsessed as a teenager.

Books

I stayed up all night last week to finish Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. The magic concept is essentially a good way to start discussing race, segregation, civil rights … and I don’t want to spoil too much so let me just say that there’s also an amazing jumping-off point to talk about problems with a certain kind of “ally.” It wasn’t the most amazing book I’d ever read, but it was interesting and entertaining.

I just started A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass is a variation on a theme that Howard Zinn started with A People’s History of the United States. Christianity isn’t a monolith, and never has been. “Orthodoxy,” for all it means “having the right opinion” isn’t the same thing as truth, which no one person has an absolute claim on.

Television and Movies

Still re-watching The West Wing, still loving it especially now that Sam is off in California. Interestingly, I”m tending to agree less with CJ, too, who tends to have a narrow focus. Yes, the young pianist should be allowed asylum, but it’s not like trying to make sure North Korea doesn’t sell its nukes to Iran is bad.

We’re also really enjoying the second season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. We’ve discovered that it’s better if you don’t binge-watch it … it’s much more hilarious in smaller doses.

I have also watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens two more times since I saw it in the theater, and I think I love it more now, which I wasn’t sure was possible.

If you haven’t seen Madam Secretary, the season just finished and I’m enthralled. I can’t wait for it to start up again because TWIST. Yay. I love good twists instead of heart-shattering ones. Speaking of heart-shattering twists …

Anyone who’s seen the season finale of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’d be more than happy to have a spoilerific conversation in the comment section because FEELINGS.

Also, Elementary is still fantastic. Femme!Watson is still the best damn thing on television.

***

So basically I ran errands for much of today but didn’t want to leave you hanging, especially since there won’t be a post on Friday. My cousin is graduating high school, so we’re heading up to hang out with family for the weekend.

Photo by Jon S
Social Issues

the smell test: 5 signs of a toxic church

This weekend we drove past a billboard advertising a “Christian Center” with one of those buzzword names, like Thirst or Resurgence or Ember or Pathway or Crossover (and, suddenly, these are also names for cars). I didn’t know what a “Christian Center” could be, so I looked it up thinking maybe it was like a Christian-themed recplex or something. Turns out it was a church, with trendy, mobile-responsive design, but the copy for the website was so bad it cracked me up. I started reading portions out loud to Handsome, but one phrase (“mode of dress”) pulled me up in my tracks.

Startled, I started digging, and my feelings were quickly confirmed: the website celebrates how the pastor and his wife both went to the same fundamentalist college (West Coast Baptist, which meant nothing to Handsome but sent up a red flag for me because they’re associated with PCC), and while the pastor’s wife clearly heads up several ministries in the church, she performs those duties under the “leadership of her husband” and with no formal title.

Check and check. They’re fundies.

That experience was disconcerting, because apparently fundamentalists have gotten sneaky in the past decade. They’re making themselves look like the slightly more harmless mainstream non-denominational evangelicals. In my opinion, this is the result of the mainstream evangelical movement becoming more fundamentalist and the fundamentalist movement getting a touch more “with it,” but the end result is that people are going to wind up in an environment where they won’t know what hit them until it’s far too late.

The leopard is trying to change its spots, so I’ve come up with a few you-don’t-have-to-have-15-years-of-experience-to-spot-them Signs of a Toxic Church. Before we begin, though, it’s important to keep in mind, like with my “signs of toxic people” post, that each of these markers should be considered possible warning signs. No post like this could possibly hope to be universally applicable, so you’ll have to use your own judgement.

1. They have “Bible” somewhere in the name or organizational associations.

After my family left our cult, I had a conversation with someone at PCC about the IFB movement, where she agreed with me about its general problems. “This is why I like Bible churches,” she tossed out. Me, having never heard of “Bible” churches, was curious. She defined a “Bible” church loosely– non legalistic, but rooted in an inerrant view of Scripture. I would bump into them myself after I graduated, since the church I attended after that is a member of the Bible Baptist Fellowship. It’s not anywhere in their name, though, or on their church website; I found out about it because I saw BBFI bulletins in the lobby and asked a deacon about them.

You can see the historical roots of fundamentalism in these “Bible” churches– clinging to a fundamentalist understanding of Inspiration and Inerrancy, for one–but, if you go to BBFI’s website, you’ll note a heavy emphasis of supernaturalism in their articles of faith, a classical fundamentalist stance, which was a response to anti-supernatural scholarship.

Bible churches are a different flavor of conservative non-denominationalism. They’re not exactly “seeker friendly,” they may not have modern services or worship bands, but they’re ideologically fundamentalist and that’s going to come with baggage … baggage that will damage its members in large or small ways.

2. The leadership structure is homogeneous and isolated.

If every single last leader in the church is a white man (with the exception of “Children’s Director” or “Secretary”), I’d stay far away. Even if it’s all men but some are racial minorities I’d still be leery. My last church went out of their way to include people of color in their leadership but excluded women, with one pastor justifying that decision as “biblical” (although an elder contradicted him, and said it was politics).

More important than the gender and racial makeup, though, is how the leadership operates. The red flags I’d been seeing became a blazing inferno of run run run run when I realized that every time I raised a question about the executive pastor’s decisions the only response was to Circle All the Wagons. It took me forever to even figure out how to raise a question, because the church leadership was largely invisible– most people in the church had no idea who the elders even were. Other former members were frustrated by the fact that there was no public way to get in touch with the leadership if you had a problem or a question– all we had was a directory to the various volunteer ministries (they have since updated the website to include the names and pictures of the elders).

When we confronted the staff about this problem, they said it was intentional, that the executive pastor was “easily overwhelmed” and “needed space” and “has to be shielded” from the congregation.

nopetepus

If the leadership is inaccessible and warded against good, balanced dialogue and/or criticism, it is not a healthy church.

In contrast, although I can’t attend the local ELCA congregation, I e-mailed back and forth with the pastor and had a fairly extensive phone call before we even darkened the church door. My conversations with multiple pastors assure me that being engaged and willing to communicate is an important part of their pastoral role.

3. Their “About” Page is really, really long.

And by “really long” I mean “longer than a few paragraphs,” although I’ve seen a few that were large booklets. This sign should be taken with the appropriate grains of salt. A long “about” or “statement of faith” or “what we believe” page could simply be the sign of an enthusiastic nerd or an aspiring theologian, and nothing more. However, long “about” statements tend to be focused on laying out in exacting detail everything the leadership/pastor thinks is “correct doctrine.” If their list of “correct doctrine” is longer than “God loves you,” I’d become wary (although that’s me. I’m jaded and suspicious).

If you see lots of tertiary things on this list– like veiled references to Creationism (my last church has “nothing in nature ‘just happened’. God made it all”) or getting vaguely confrontational about dispensationalism– caution might be warranted. Maybe they’re just trying to honest, which is good, but if it seems like its all worded to weed you out rather than offering you information about them …. ehhhhh.

Also, extensive histories of their building projects, unless their church is a historical building, just seem weirdly off-putting and, in my experience, tend to be associated with narcissistic leadership. But again. Grains of salt.

4. They use language about being “called out” or “separate” or “set apart.”

Other phrases, from the research I’ve done over the past few days can be: “discernment,” “salt of the earth,” “distinctions,” “avoiding reproach,” and possibly even “sanctification”– although that last one only popped up a couple times in the context of being separated in a traditionally fundamentalist sense.

I’ve explained some about the Doctrine of Separation as viewed by fundamentalists. It’s a concept that deserves a more complete treatment than I can give it here, but in short I think it’s poison. Jesus was never separate– in fact, that was The Reason why the religious establishment targeted him in the first place! He ate with “publicans and sinners” and oh the pearl-clutching. Aside from the orthopraxic reasons for why I have a problem with Separation, it (almost) inevitably leads to isolating the membership, creating an insular and self-perpetuating environment that is ripe for abuse. The more withdrawn a church becomes from its community, the more power the leadership has over the congregation. Actively seeking that sort of power by insisting that being a “faithful follower” means cutting yourself off from the outside world … that’s dangerous.

5. They use a “membership covenant” and/or practice “church discipline.”

I had to explain “church discipline” to my grandfather once, after we’d gone to a Wednesday night service where we’d shunned a woman. The more he asked questions about it, the more I grew disgusted at what they’d done. I wasn’t a voting member so I didn’t have a hand in it, but long story short she’d been talking about the Charismatic movement, and loaning people books and pamphlets. And we excommunicated her over it. The pastor’s rationale for it made it even worse– it wasn’t that she was “spreading false doctrine” it was that she’d defied his authority.

One of my best friends is the “Andrew” in this story about “church discipline” at Mars Hill, and his experience was horrific. He left the freaking city because of what Mars Hill put him through.

In my opinion, after being a loyal member of the fundamentalist movement for twelve years, dedicated to this evolving branch of it for another four, and writing and researching about these things for another two years: nothing good can come of “church discipline.” It will be used as a weapon against innocent people for not toeing the line, for not bending their neck to narcissistic abusers. It will. It will be used to ostracize the vulnerable and silence victims. It will be used to publicly humiliate and shame women— even when her “crime” was divorcing her child-rape-watching-and-enjoying husband.

If the church makes it clear that you have to sign a “covenant” or “contract” of any kind and especially if that contract includes a line about the right to exercise “church discipline,” run as fast and as far as you can.

***

I’ve done my best to keep these broad enough to be helpful, but not so broad that they become expansively meaningless. I’d love to hear about your experiences, too– what signs have tipped you off to a possibly toxic church?

Photo by Vetiver Aromatics
Social Issues

the Crucifixion and #NeverTrump: what the Cross teaches us about politics

In case you’ve missed it, Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee for president after Cruz withdrew from the race yesterday. The news kept me up last night, mostly because my emotional state resembles something like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Handsome and I have been watching a WWII documentary recently, and the episodes describing the political movements that brought Hitler and Mussolini into power left us in dumbstruck horror. I know comparing Trump to Hitler at this point is basically passé, but it doesn’t change the fact that the comparison works for a reason.

While I’m relieved that the theocratic Dominionist-Reconstructionist fundamentalist is out of the race, I’m still terrified of a Trump candidacy and the possibility of his presidency. His campaign has already incited horrific violence against black and queer and female bodies, and I believe it’s only going to get worse. God forbid he’s elected.

As his candidacy has grown more and more successful, winning primaries by ever-wider margins, I’ve looked around at my fellow citizenry and despaired. I honestly thought we were better than him– that sure, maybe some of us were just that bigoted and racist– but certainly not enough of us to get him nominated. Watching this has been a brutal corrective and I’m far more cynical about America than I was back in September.

Aside from his hatred, lewdness, and blatant dishonesty, aside from the fact that he’s advocated for torture and war crimes and directed a miasmic bombardment at women, Trump is the representation of Empire made flesh. He is, quite literally, an anti-Christ in the sense that he stands in direct opposition to everything Jesus Christ taught us to do.

  • Trump tells us that we must fear and hate our enemies. Jesus tells us not only to love and forgive them, but to radically resist oppression through turning the other cheek, to carry the Roman conqueror’s pack not one mile, but two.
  • Trump tells us to ostracize or exile those who look different, to barricade them behind a wall. Jesus tells us that all people are our neighbors, and that our example is the Good Samaritan who sacrificially brought aid to a stranger.
  • Trump calls on us to enact abominations against women and children. Jesus says that anyone who hurts a child deserves to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.

I understand what he’s appealing to. He is a tool of Empire– he is slavering and rapacious, greedy for power, for control, for prestige, for wealth, for domination. It doesn’t surprise me that when he says “Make America Great Again” he’s pulling on the fear and lust that dwells in all our hearts. We don’t want to feel threatened. We want to feel secure. And, worse than that, we are a nation built on the principle that white men deserve land ownership, deserve enfranchisement, deserve gainful employment– and these white men were quite willing for hundreds of years to enrich themselves off the fact that they literally owned women and didn’t even recognize black people as human beings fully endowed with the imago dei.

Trump is conjuring an image of America for white men where they can have all of that again– all that power, all that wealth, because they deserve it for no other reason than an accident of birth. If they serve Empire, they’ll be rewarded by the restoration of their power.

Jesus asks us to walk a different path than this.

He said that whoever wants to be his disciple must take up their cross and follow him (Mt 16:24, Lk 9:23, Mk. 8:34). It’s clear that he was speaking metaphorically, but I think that over time we’ve lost the bluntness, the absolute starkness, of the imagery he chose for this teaching. Today we think of “bearing our cross” as a form of drudgery– it carries similar cultural weight as putting your nose to the grindstone, and has a feeling of daily wear-and-tear. Our “cross” takes on various forms, usually none of them all that weighty. Fulfilling your obligations as a parent. Chronic illness. A narcissistic employer.

We’ve lost it partly because we abandoned public executions like the crucifixion; today, as despicable as it is that we still execute people, we tolerate it because we culturally accept the lie that lethal injection is somehow humane. We don’t have the absolute brutality of crucifixion as a part of our public consciousness– it’s not something we associate with our government as a daily reminder of their authority and what they will do to us if we try to subvert their power (at least, not if we’re white). We don’t have to move about our day with crucifixion as a constant threat.

The people Jesus was speaking to, though, they did. They knew that if they put one toe out of line, that’s where they could be– hanging on a Roman cross, enduring Roman humiliations, bearing Roman torture. Jesus’ call to discipleship demands that we face that risk, that we stand in the face of Empire and say No!–no, I would rather die a horrible, agonizing death than serve the Empire and Mammon.

Handsome and I were talking about the evangelical notion that the Cross is the pinnacle of God’s love for us– like how Joshua Harris said, that “God’s perfect love for a fallen world is more clearly seen in the death of His Son.” As I argued in response, under the penal substitutionary atonement theory, this doesn’t hold true– but in some theological positions, it could. Handsome argued how God loved us enough, wanted to be with us enough to become Emmanuel, to face what they knew was coming. He said that there was something important enough to teach us that they left heaven and put on a body and walked among us… even knowing that he’d be crucified.

I think that’s true, regardless of what Atonement Theory convinces you most. Setting aside the Atonement for the moment, I think it’s important to concentrate on the “pre-Easter Jesus,” as Marcus Borg puts it. Forgetting all the theological implications for the moment, what does the Cross mean? What does it mean that Jesus suffered this form of death: an execution by the state for treason and sedition?

Like all mythical stories (and, before you clutch your pearls, mythical doesn’t mean untrue), the story of the Cross has a multiplicity of meanings and Truths tied up in it. What it means can change, can flicker, and that is one of the glorious beauties of myth. Today, as Trump ascends to the throne of the Republican party, I think that one of the things that the Cross is meant to teach us is this: we are to resist Empire with all our hearts, souls, strength, and minds. Empire is a siren’s song, luring us in with promises of security and wellness, but those are not our priorities as Christians. In fact, being a follower of Christ means that we’re willing to risk being hung on a tree right beside him because we refuse to bow to our oppressors. We will not give in to white supremacy, or misogyny, or the belief that we have the right to slaughter countless innocents because their communities oppose our nation– either through active war or passively refusing to take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I believe that’s what it means for us today to take up our cross and follow him. Are we going to do it?

Photograph by Brian
Social Issues

I’m bisexual and still just as objective as you

If you’re a living person in Christian culture, then you’ve run into the following sentiment:

I can agree with much of what she's written and I definitely think that the church has lost its way. But as much as she speaks to the motivations of the authors of the Bible you have to ask how much she's motivated by being "an out bisexual feminist"? When people live opposed to what the Bible calls sin then they will often be opposed to the Bible itself for their own reasons.

The argument goes that because we’re LGBT (or, in this particular case, also a woman who believes in equality), we have “skin in the game” of biblical interpretation. Obviously we’re predisposed toward a particular outcome, so our judgment can’t be trusted. We can’t possibly read the Bible “objectively,” so any argument that a queer person makes about Romans 1 not necessarily being about sexual orientation is intrinsically untrustworthy.

Unlike straight people, who are clearly impartial and unaffected by this issue, so they can read the Bible without being influenced by their feelings. They can come to a clear-headed and open-minded conclusion on whether or not having sex with a similar-gender person is a sin, but a queer person can’t. In short, straights are telling the LGBT community that they definitely have our best interests at heart, and they can totally be trusted not to be wrong about this.

Aside from how incredibly patronizing this attitude is, we also have some fairly definitive proof that straights do not have the best interests of the LGBT community in mind. I know that in their head, they do– I know that they’re probably aware of how their “support” looks to us. They also don’t really care. To them, all that matters is that we’re saved from our sinful lifestyles; if they have to support legislation that will harm trans people, or force destructive conversion therapy on LGB youth, or encourage parents to physically beat their children into being straight, or call for us to be stoned to death … then they will. They have to hold us accountable for our sin, and if they kill us (or encourage other people to kills us) in the process, then no matter.

And even after countless decades of the Christian right condemning our very existence as sin, like this fellow:

Your website says you are bisexual, is it true? Is it not a sin according to God's word?

… we’re just supposed to accept that straights don’t have any possible motivation that could affect their judgment. They don’t have feelings about us that could make it difficult to be impartial. No ounce of hatred, no sliver of fear. No revulsion or disgust whatsoever. They approach LGBT rights and the Bible as a blank slate, with no predispositions of any kind.

Oh, except that’s completely wrong. In fact, people like Thabiti Anyabwile have explicitly argued in favor of Christians depending on their disgust (which is, needless to say, an emotional reaction) to drive their morals and biblical interpretation. Listen to Kevin Swanson and his ilk bloviate for more than two seconds and their hatred of us comes searing through.

Sure, maybe I’m being affected by my desire for love and acceptance when I read Romans 1 … just like any straight person can be affected by their disgust or hatred or fear when they read Romans 1.

The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to the Bible, no one is objective.

I came to the Bible a few years ago, doing my best to be open and honest about what I would find. To be blunt, my thinking at the time was that if I discovered that the Bible does speak on sexual orientations and condemned similar-gender relationships, then I was going to walk away from it all and leave Christianity behind. I knew I was bisexual, and if the Bible was going to tell me that was wrong, then I was done. Obviously, I’m still here, so I must’ve discovered something different. In my opinion there isn’t enough evidence one way or the other to be absolutely conclusive, so I err on the side of loving others and doing no harm. My hermenuetic looks a bit like St. Augstine’s, actually:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.

This argument that only straight people can be trusted to interpret Scripture correctly and appropriately– because queer folk don’t want to be told we’re sinning– doesn’t make any sense. If it were true, then no one would ever be able to agree about any sin. Except we know that it’s possible for greedy people to know they’re greedy and that the Bible vociferously condemns it. Or how about the two sins that almost always get brought up in these conversations: pride and gluttony. I’ve known many people over the years that confessed to gluttony and acknowledged their belief that the Bible says that gluttony is a sin– and the same thing goes for proud people.

If straights are right about the LGBT’s supposed inability to “properly” read the Bible, then how in the world is it possible for anyone to read the Bible and feel challenged by it? Our personal experience tells us that it is not just possible, it happens all of the time. I still experience feeling “convicted,” to use the evangelical parlance, and I don’t even think the Bible is inspired or inerrant anymore.

We all bring our baggage to the Bible. That’s part of what makes our collective experience of it so beautiful. It’s a text we share communally and individually, publicly and privately. We talk, we share, and together we try to build an understanding that enriches our lives, brings us comfort, and helps us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

LGBT people shouldn’t be shut out of this conversation anymore. We bring a different set of experiences, a different way of being, a different way of seeing. When you silence anyone who isn’t white, or isn’t straight, or isn’t nuerotypical, you’re shutting yourself up into an ivory tower. It’s impossible to cut off the parts of us that make us human and still do good and loving theological work.

In my life, being bisexual puts me at a certain distance from the Bible because I’m not deliberately included in it. Because of that, my relationship with the Bible has to be more interrogative than it would otherwise be, because it’s a story we’re supposed to find ourselves in. When it’s not obvious where I fit, I have to do more digging. I’m open to discovering things that aren’t sitting on the surface. In a sense, I can benefit from the fact that I’m not the primary audience– often, I’m an outsider looking in. I can help broaden some of the narratives, bring stories into new lights and next contexts.

I can look a story that we’ve all heard a thousand times and ask questions like is it possible that Ruth is bisexual? When she abandons Moab and aligns with Noami in a speech that is often used in our wedding ceremonies; when she lives with Naomi, comforts her, listens to her, and raises a son with her … do we have to view her character as straight? Why do we assume she’s straight?

Because I don’t have the dominant experience of heterosexuality, I’m better equipped to get at the bottom of some of our assumptions. It’s my first impulse to ask why of concepts that seem long settled.

I lack objectivity. So do you. And that’s a good thing.

Photo by Murray Barnes
Social Issues

what I’ve been into: spring 2016 edition

I’m coming down with some sort of stomach bug today, so I’m doing a fluffy post. Back on Defeating the Dragons, I used a few WordPress plugin features that let me feature blogs and articles I found interesting, but I don’t have access to those plugins anymore and I haven’t found a replacement I like yet. So I’ll hit you up with some of the things I’ve found interesting and helpful recently — and, importantly, if you could let me know if you’ve seen most or all of it already. That way I know whether linking y’all to things is helpful or just a waste of time.

Books

Fiction

I haven’t been doing that much fiction reading lately, but I wanted to talk about one I just finished. I’ve been reading through the Honor Harrington series –there’s a huge galaxy of characters, so Weber has written a few spin-offs from the main series, and Crown of Slaves is, so far, the best of those that I’ve read.

One thing about Crown of Slaves: I wasn’t initially interested in reading it because my favorite thing about the Honor Harrington books is that they’re about an amazing woman. The back cover for Crown of Slaves only mentions three men, leading one to think those are the main characters. They’re not. Zilwicki’s character disappears a few chapters in, Victor Cachet’s storyline is really about his love interest, not him (and it’s told largely through her POV), and Jeremy X (yes, a reference to Malcolm X) doesn’t even show up until the last few pages.

The book is really about Berry Zilwicki, Ruth Winton, and Thandi Palane– all women. There’s so many women in this book it’s amazing. Berry’s character is especially interesting because it takes things that are stereotypically feminine and makes them incredibly powerful for the plot of the book. The one downside is that Crown of Slaves introduces the first LGBT character I’ve seen in the Honorverse– a bisexual woman– and she’s … ugh. She’s awful. Shallow and manipulative and greedy and and blah. Not the villain, thank God, but still.

Non-Fiction

I’ve mentioned this a few times, but my small group is reading Mark, and the parables have been giving us some trouble. Not reading them the same way we’ve always read them and interpreting the same way … well, it’s like being in a rut. So, of course, my solution was books.

Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi is written by Amy-Jill Levine, who is a Jewish woman and an expert scholar in New Testament studies. I cannot overstate how important a Judaic understanding of the Bible has helped me immensely in my faith– both in trying to understand the culture biblical writers were speaking from, and in seeing this sacred book as something human as well as divine.

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary by Marcus Borg. Apparently Borg is a big name in progressive Christianity, but I’m actually fairly new to that sphere so this is the first book I’ve read by him. Bart Ehrman in Jesus, Interrupted challenged me quite a bit by asking me to see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet which … both reframes and recolors the way you read Jesus’ teachings. I’d never thought of Jesus as a political figure until I encountered Ehrman and Borg, and that’s been an interesting journey.

Articles

What I Learned From Dating Women Who Have Been Raped” by Emma Lindsay is an excellent discussion of sexual coercion. Best quote:

A man wants gratification at my expense, but he tries to convince me that he cares about me so I won’t bail. He sees that I am suffering, I know he sees that I am suffering, but if we talk about it he will pretend he didn’t know. He will keep up the pretense that I matter to him so I will not cut off his access to my body.

The Sugar Sphinx” by Hilton Als. I read this when it came out two years ago, but I return to it occasionally because it is just such a good examination of the continued oppression black people face.

Do Multicultural Churches Reinforce Racism?” by Daniel José Camacho. Salient quote:

Astonishingly, multicultural churches have been better at making people of color approximate white attitudes and perspectives on race than challenging Whiteness itself … Like popular reconciliation paradigms, multicultural paradigms mistake racial separation and lack of diversity as the heart of racism when these, in fact, are symptoms.

Against Humanism” by Megan Garber, is the best breakdown I’ve read of why using “humanist” or “egalitarian” instead of Feminist is a problem.

Against Selflessness” by Ozy at Thing of Things. This post was the background to my thinking on abnegation in my review of I Kissed Dating Goodbye on Monday. Also, Thing of Things is a really, really interesting blog.

Trump is Gaslighting America” by Nicole Hemmer. I read this piece the day after I’d argued that Trump’s behavior is a lot like an abuser’s and got called “ridiculous” and told I was “over-reacting.” So, that was very validating.

Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem” at Latining. She is specifically a tabletop gamer, but I think this discussion can (and should) be more broadly applied to geek and gaming cultures in general.

I’m Not Your Token” by Toni Bell. Salient quote:

As I’ve worked to dismantle my own internalized racism and the ways that I privilege whiteness, I’ve learned to resist being “othered” through the use of language. So when someone says, “Oh, they did that to you because you’re black,” I quickly correct them with, “No, they did that because they are bigots.” This often shocks people. I can see the panic in their eyes. Sometimes, their eyes dart about. If there are lot of people, they may get quiet.

TV

The second season of Daredevil was utterly magnificent. The combination of gothic elements, religious imagery and themes, and comic book superheroes is my jam. It was more gruesome than the first season, but not too much so– and unlike most gratuitous violence, the violence in Daredevil absolutely served the story’s purpose.

We’re also re-watching The West Wing, because politics this year suck. I’ve always been heavily invested in the political process– one of the things that hasn’t changed at all since becoming progressive/liberal– and this electoral cycle is driving me batty. I’ve been a voting adult for three presidential elections now and I know, factually, that it’s been at least as bad, perhaps worse, in our history– even recent history … but that doesn’t help. Because Trump. And Cruz. Ugh.

Anyway, Handsome termed The West Wing my “happy Democrat show” the first time we watched it, and I’m enjoying it even more the second time around. The first time, I identified strongly with Sam. This time, though … I’m totally Josh. So, if you’ve seen The West Wing, who do you think you’d be? If you haven’t seen The West Wing— what have you been doing with your life?

***

So, that’s me. What have you been watching and reading?

Photo by Brian Donovan
Social Issues

a story of becoming sick

When I was at Pensacola Christian College we only had ten minutes between classes, which made crossing campus and getting to class on time a challenge. Complicating that was the fact you couldn’t just use the stairwell or elevator closest to you. You had to use the elevator or stairwell assigned to your gender, which could be quite inconvenient. All of the above meant that taking an elevator to a second or third floor in a six- or ten-story building was … well “frowned upon” isn’t a strong enough term. It was a violation of a fairly strong social norm, and violators were punished.

I went along with the culture– talking smack about “those people” who took the elevator to the second floor, mostly– until, abruptly, I was one of “those people.” My dislocated hip took months of physical therapy before I could walk without crutches. Even after that, stairs continued to be beyond me. I took the elevator to the second floor.

I was physically accosted. Papers were knocked out of my hand, my messenger bag torn off my shoulder, books stolen. My dorm room was vandalized once (“take the stairs” written in magic marker on our door). For a while I didn’t realize that people weren’t just being assholes for no discernible reason: they were being assholes because I didn’t look sick. They couldn’t see an obvious reason for me to be taking the elevator– wheelchair, crutches, walker, an obvious muscular or skeletal condition– so I must just be lazy and selfish.

***

After a semester at Liberty of doing nothing but sitting at different versions of desks I decided that I needed to move more. When the weather was pleasant I went for walks around my neighborhood. When it wasn’t, I used an elliptical at the gym twice a week.

One evening, as I concentrated on keeping my hips and knees aligned and shoulders relaxed, someone flicked my arm with the tip of her finger. I pulled my earbuds out to hear her sneer “if you’re not going to exercise then you need to get off this thing and let someone on who’s actually going to use it.”

I stared at her, dumbfounded. I was exercising. I was using it. She stared back, arms crossed and hostile. It dawned on me that she saw someone moving “slowly” as selfishly taking up valuable space. What I saw as a valuable aide for moving in a low-impact way, she saw as a tool for a full-body fat-busting workout. I wasn’t doing pell-mell full-tilt cardio, so I was just being lazy.

Timidly, I told her I would be done in five minutes. I’d planned on another fifteen.

***

My first date with Handsome was the Cherry Blossom Festival. That afternoon we walked around the Basin, from the Lincoln to Jefferson Memorials, and finished up with a quick tour of the National Air and Space Museum. At the end of the day we took the Metro back to his car and I fought with myself to contain my sigh of relief at finally sitting. I dozed on his shoulder for the entire ride, and then covered up how stiff and sore I was for the rest of the evening. The next day when I had trouble moving around, Handsome noticed and asked what was wrong. I tried to laugh it off with “Oh, my feet hurt from so much walking around yesterday.”

He offered a foot rub– and I was shocked. I hadn’t expected him to respond with generosity and kindness. I accepted, but the entire time a deep and encompassing part of me tried to cringe away. I didn’t deserve this. After all, I was just lazy. If I cared to, I could “get in shape,” and then I wouldn’t be so sore after only walking a few miles.

***

I’d started to have what my mother has always referred to as Truck Days, as in “I was run over by one.” I would wake up in the morning and my first impulse would be to groan at the pain. But, life moves on, and one day I couldn’t afford not to run errands.

While I was out, I drove around the parking lots looking for open spots close to the door, and then I would hobble up to the door and around the store or post office or bank. At the grocery store, two men were outside smoking. I kept my gaze on the ground, watching my feet, and tuned out the street harassment. After a bit I realized it wasn’t ending with “hey sexy” like it usually would. They were still talking, obviously trying to get my attention.

“Hey baby, are you ok?”

“Yeah baby, do you need us to help you with something?”

I didn’t respond, tried not to react at all. They got louder, more aggressive, started following me. I couldn’t walk fast enough to get away from them. One tried to touch me. I jerked my arm away.

“Fine. Be like that, bitch. We were just trying to help.”

***

“Is it cold outside or something?” accompanied by a laugh.

I looked up from my earnest study of the different paint rollers naps and their various applications and benefits, jarred and confused at the interruption. “What?”

“Doesn’t seems like it’s cold enough outside to be bundled up like that.”

I looked down at my puffy coat and scarf, with my hat and gloves in my hand, my warm boots– protection against the muscle spasms that would come if I allowed my extremities to get too cold on this blustery 40-degree day. I met his eyes. “It’s cold enough for me,” I laughed like it was a joke.

After the sixth time someone poked fun at me for being “bundled up,” I wasn’t laughing. The next time I was getting ready to leave the house, I desperately wished for warm weather so people wouldn’t make fun of me.

***

Yesterday I took my first real step toward filling my New Year’s Resolution. In January I’d decided that I wasn’t going to care about being “in shape,” but I wanted to be able to walk again. Over the last year I’ve spiraled down to the point where walking further than a mile can leave me unable to move for a day or more. I want to stop this in its tracks and get my body back to a place where I can go see the Smithsonian with friends or family. I’ve been officially– finally— diagnosed with fibromyalgia after fighting with doctors and specialists for the last year. I asked for a prescription for water-based physical therapy, and yesterday was my first day.

The entire time, the therapist kept encouraging me to only do the exercises at the pace and level that I felt comfortable. I did my best to heed her advice … but it didn’t stop the embarrassment I felt at moving through the exercises so slowly, so gingerly. Shame made me ignore the twinges in my hips and lower back. Last night, I needed to be carried upstairs and helped into bed while I tried not to sob from the pain.

It’s so hard to fight against the message that being “healthy” means hurt yourself, that people who really care about their health can “push through the pain” and “feel the burn” and hold to the old adage of “no pain no gain.” That my attempts to avoid pain really just make me lazy. Selfish. Worthy of public ridicule.

Being a person with an invisible illness, with chronic pain, means dealing with the shame society inflicts on you for not being “healthy.” It’s a shame you internalize because it’s so relentless, and takes on so many forms. Combined with the “sense of worthlessness” I already deal with because of my depression, it’s difficult to fight against my diagnosis making the depression worse. To fight to believe that being ill doesn’t make me a burden, that just because I’m sick in a way many people don’t understand it doesn’t mean I don’t contribute meaningfully to the world.

Before I was injured, before I got sick, I was one of those “many people.” I judged, I mocked. I thought that because I was accommodating to people with muscular dystrophy and did my best to interact with those in wheelchairs as if they were no different from anyone else that I was a nice person. I didn’t think about my sounds of disgust, my eyerolls, my condescension and judgment toward people that I saw as lazy. I didn’t think that one day it would be people tut-tutting me. I didn’t think I would be brutally awakened to just how horribly cruel I was because I thought seeing a person meant understanding their life.

Photo by afri
Social Issues

my sin is not just my own: systemic injustice and communal repentance

I didn’t understand repentance until I became a liberal.

I’d been raised a Christian, had heard sermons calling for me to repent of my sin every other week, but until I’d abandoned conservatism I never grasped the grotesque beauty and compelling horror of true repentance.

As a child and teenager I thought of repentance in strictly personal, and individual, terms– and mostly in the context of that first salvific event when I was eleven. I’d been really sorry for my sin, for all the times I’d gotten mad at my sister or disobeyed my parents, and that was that, honestly. Oh, I’d continue to be haunted for all the other sins I’d commit for the next fifteen years, but it was all so self-centered. There was some obligatory guilt about hurting people’s feelings, of course, but any time I “repented” it was to assure myself I wasn’t going to burn in hell because Jesus had already forgiven me, or I was trying to make sure I woudln’t be struck down when I took communion.

I viewed sin and repentance this way because individualism is at the heart of conservative evangelicalism. They have a personal relationship with Jesus, not a silly communal religion. They believe in personal responsibility. They eschew concepts like “it takes a village” and– where I grew up– heaped disdain on other cultures that prioritized community over the needs of the individual. This bleeds into the political of course, birthing ideas like “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “the self-made man.”

This is one of the ways I believe that evangelicalism is culturally American more than it is culturally Christian. My country is thoroughly saturated by the notion that we individually contribute to societies, that we have individual rights and freedoms. Conversely, most of us believe to our core that things like racism, misogyny, and homophobia are individual problems. If someone cracks a racist joke, no one needs to bother correcting him, because being racist is his problem, not theirs.

Which is why I didn’t truly understand what repentance means until I became a liberal and started reading things by people like Audre Lorde and bell hooks. When I encountered “without justice there can be no love” and “without community there is no liberation,” it finally clicked. I am a member of a system. That system is built on white supremacy and misogyny, and it’s not self-perpetuating. It’s continued by us communally, subconsciously, unconsciously, and actively participating in it. It’s the water we swim in.

It’s hard fighting this current. But every moment when we’re not fighting it, when we let that joke or comment slide, or when we hold onto our purses just a little bit tighter, or when we frown in disapproval at the “urban” teenager … we embrace the whole abusive system that keeps us all in place. For many of us, that system is capable of giving us power when we capitulate to it. I could embrace ageism and start babbling about those entitled millennials who don’t have a decent work ethic– I’d be amply rewarded for it with articles in GQ. I could write long screeds against feminism and be hailed a hero on Return of the Kings. I could start lecturing on complementarianism and be welcomed by John Piper with open arms. I could send out a racist tweet and get “FINALLY someone says it” from a few hundred people.

That is what we have to repent of. We must “turn from evil, and turn to do good.” We must repent of our lust for power, control, stability, and earthly rewards. And, we must do it together. I can fight against systemic injustice individually– as we all should– but one voice crying in the wilderness can only accomplish so much.

All through the Old Testament the prophets called for Israel and Judah– as nations— to repent. The prophets profoundly understood something we’ve lost. They knew that while there are a few righteous men scattered about the countryside, sin is a matter of culture as much as it is a matter of the heart. Greed lives in the bellies of all of us, as does the desire to feel like we earned the power and position we have, that we have a right to it. The prophets knew better, and tried to tell us so. And Paul tried to tell us again:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts …

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus … For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do …

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

~from Ephesians 2 and 6

But, I think, that communal repentance might be too much for many of our churches. I could not even begin to imagine the pastor of my last traditional church leading us in a congregation-wide confession of our sins. We built and sustain the beast together, but saying the words:

“We confess the sin of racism and the hatred toward people of color we have created”

or

“We repent of the violence against women we have caused with our words, beliefs, and inaction”

… seems incomprehensible for any of the churches I’ve attended.

It shouldn’t be that way. Confession is good for the soul, and it shouldn’t be limited to a private accountability partner. Forgive us, for we have sinned should be a principle part of each service, and it should be accompanied by the public commitment to turn away from evil and toward doing good.

Artwork by Dani Kelley (<– pssst, you can buy today’s header on a shirt!)