An Un-Chosen Person: My Jewish Way of Being Christian

A few weeks ago, I forwarded an article on the New Atheism to a longtime friend with the message, “This seemed like something you would appreciate, as a historian and ex-Christian!” My friend is a scholar of the history of science and its intersection with religion and politics. He grew up in the evangelical heartland but is highly critical of its beliefs and emotional dynamics. He replied:

“How could I claim to be an ex-Christian after I was indoctrinated to be a Protestant fundamentalist and have spent most of my life in Christian circles and societies? Only by defining a Christian abstractly and intellectually as an adherent of certain doctrines would it be possible to say I’m not a Christian, i.e. that I do not or no longer subscribe to a certain creed or screed of metaphysics. Sociologically, ethically and even to some extent intellectually, how could I be other than a Christian? The same can be asked of you, Adam [my now-Buddhist husband] and all my atheist Jewish friends in relation to a different religious heritage—how could y’all not be Jews (whatever else you may also be)?”

This brilliant, unexpected twist on self-definition set me wrestling once again with my complex feelings about my heritage. Even calling Judaism a “heritage” is difficult for me for two reasons. For one, I was not raised Jewishly enough to fit in and follow along when I tried to take up Jewish observance in my early 20s. I didn’t have the shared memories of youth camps, ethnic recipes, rites of passage, or the general sense of unquestioned membership in an extended family. I was like an adoptee who goes back to her birth country, only to find that she’s too Americanized to blend in with the people who look like her.

The second reason for my unease relates to the blending of religion and ancestry. I chafe against the implication that I’m not allowed to discover my own religious worldview, the one that solves the problems of my life. “Heritage” suggests that my parents’ and grandparents’ beliefs are the filter I must see through, or the weight that I’m obligated to carry on my journey. It gives other people the right to intrude on my most private and sacred relationship (with God), simply because I share their genetic material.

And yet, ironically, this objection is so powerful for me because of my psychological heritage as the child of a narcissist. A freethinking narcissist, to boot, who didn’t expose me to synagogue and Hebrew school because she’d found those institutions oppressive and lifeless during her own youth. My bio mother was “spiritual but not religious” before it was cool.

She also got me a passport when I was born, to escape to Israel if America ever turned against the Jews. She told the story of FDR refusing to accept boats of refugees from the Holocaust. She said Jews were outstanding in society because we valued education, debate, and questioning.

I have strong emotions about the endless conflict in Israel but no useful insights, so let’s leave that topic aside. If I have anything like a Jewish identity that I’ve taken into my Christian life, it consists of this outsider consciousness and the spirit of free inquiry that was formative in my upbringing. Because Jesus was Jewish, too, it seems like a legitimate perspective from which to critique the authoritarian and unworldly features of Gentile Christianity that cause me so much distress.

For instance, when I feel the dead hand of the past suffocating me in debates about Biblical inerrancy, I recall the Talmudic story (Baba Metzia 59b) where two factions of rabbis are debating a point of kosher law. One group successfully calls on God to do miracles as a sign that their position is correct. But the other group wins the day by countering that the Torah is on earth, not in heaven. Having given the law to humankind, God has to step aside and let us figure it out! Delightfully, the story ends with God laughing that his children have bested him.

Going back to my scholarly friend’s distinction between identity and beliefs, I also think often of the Jewish emphasis on spiritual practices when I become angry or frightened at the Bible passages in my daily prayer liturgy. Not to put my situation on a par with his, but I take comfort in Elie Wiesel’s anecdote from Auschwitz, where the prisoners put God on trial and found him guilty…then said the regular evening prayer.

The phrases, images, and rituals of the Book of Common Prayer are part of me at a level deeper than agreement or disagreement. Sometimes that makes me feel helpless. I chose to become a Christian, it’s true, but I was also responding to the fact that Christianity was already a part of me, through immersion in Western sacred art and music. Who can explain why my family’s trove of Jewish-American literature and Isaac Singer folktales didn’t speak to me so personally? Was my conversion a response to God’s call, an assimilationist desire to break my family’s isolation, a rebellion against an overbearing parent? Perhaps it only matters because the abused child in me is still desperate for freedom, triggered by the idea that an all-powerful being would initiate a relationship with me. Was I ever free to refuse consent?

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door…” (Rev. 3:20)

At the end of all this reasoning, I don’t genuinely doubt that Christianity was where God wanted me to be when I converted. Do I still belong there? I’m going to pray my way into the next step. My (Jewish) Jesus likes people who keep asking questions.

Two Poems from Ruth Thompson’s “Woman with Crows”

Of the numerous poetry books I’ve read this year, Ruth Thompson’s Woman with Crows (Saddle Road Press, 2013) is the most personally meaningful to me. I just turned 42, undeniably middle-aged, and my son starts preschool this fall. All around me, it seems, are warnings and laments that youth is fleeting, and we must cling to each moment lest it pass us by unnoticed. Woman with Crows is an antidote to fear.

This poetry collection, earthy yet mythical, celebrates the spiritual wisdom of the Crone, the woman with crows (and crows’ feet). Because of her conscious kinship with nature, the speaker of these poems embraces the changes that our artificial culture has taught us to dread. Fatness recurs as a revolutionary symbol of joy: a woman’s body is not her enemy, and scarcity is not the deepest truth. For her, the unraveling of memory and the shedding of possessions are not a story of decline but a fairy tale of transformation. One could say that, like Peter Pan, she expects that death will be a very big adventure!

If this all sounds terribly sentimental and “uplifting”, don’t worry. She’s not a sweet, neutered old granny. There are fireworks here, and snakes, and “ooze shining and blooming and with sex in it.”

Ruth has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. “Fat Time” was first published in New Millennium Writings as the winner of their 2007 poetry prize. Visit her website for more great work.

Fat Time

Under purest ultramarine the raised
goblets of trees overrun with gold.
We should be reeling drunk and portly as groundhogs
through these windfalls of russet, citron, bronze, chartreuse.

Everywhere color pools like butter, like oil of ripe nuts,
like piles of oranges under a striped tent.

Oh, let us be greedy of eyeball,
pigs scuffling in this gorgeous swill!
Let us cud this day
and spend the winter ruminant.

Let us write fat poems, and be careless.

Let us go bumbling about in wonder, legs
coated with goldenrod and smelling of acorns.

Let us be unctuous with scarlet and marigold,
larder them here, behind our foreheads
to glow in the brain’s lamps
in the time of need.

Each tree a sun!
Let us throw away caution,
emblazon our retinas
with the flare and flame of it

so that in the unleavened winter
this vermilion spill, this skyfall,
these oils of tangerine, smears of ochre and maroon
will heat a spare poem, dazzle the eye’s window,
feed us like holy deer on the blank canvas of snow.


Travel Instructions for Elmwood Avenue

You leave the sepia light of the tea restaurant,
lapsang and peony, earth and green twig,
continuo of quiet human voices.

Outside is rain, fat frying, damp exhaust, sputum,
spit of tires on a wet street, brakes tuned
to the pulse of streetlights: green, amber, red, green.

You blunder, glasses fringed with rainbows,
until your own hands swim out before you—
greeny in the headlights, strange as ectoplasm.

Light laps from shattered planes of reflection,
emerges and re-emerges from sheeting brilliance.
Dimension becomes dimension, a turned fan.

Now darkness hums like a bowed string,
anchored somewhere you cannot see,
one end floating here in the spinning world

and what has always sung from around the corner
is no longer apart from you—
it is here, upon you—that blaze of tenderness!

Religious Rights and the Common Good

I grew up in a high-rise on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The dominant group in our micro-neighborhood were Orthodox Jews, though there were also numerous Hispanic families and some Irish, Asian, and liberal Jewish folks (like my family). Our building had 20 floors with seven or eight apartments each. Many modern Orthodox Jews interpret the prohibition on lighting a fire on Shabbat to forbid activating electrical devices. You may have heard of the tradition of the “Sabbath goy”, the non-Jewish person who helps his Jewish neighbor by turning on her light switch or oven on Friday night. In our building, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, one of our two elevators was set to run continuously, stopping at every floor on the way up and the way down, so that observant Jews wouldn’t have to push the buttons.

This arrangement irritated me, perhaps unreasonably. It’s hard to separate my judgment from my general feeling that the Orthodox in our neighborhood acted superior and unfriendly to those outside their tribe. (See, for instance, the recent New York Times exposé on how Rep. Sheldon Silver and his Orthodox supporters blocked low-income housing for Hispanic families for 40 years.)

The Sabbath goy routine, legal fiction though it be, potentially builds interfaith friendships. It might foster gratitude for the kindness of strangers, and awareness of one’s dependence on the goodwill of others. The Sabbath elevator imposed that role on all of us without asking. The impact on the environment could be considered selfish as well, though maybe they offset their carbon footprint by not driving cars on Shabbat. A longer wait for the elevator on Friday night is a relatively minor imposition, but symbolically, it felt like a statement that some people thought they were more important than their neighbors.

On the other hand, every accommodation of someone’s rights may come at a cost to someone else. My church is undertaking a major capital campaign to make the building handicapped-accessible. We also hire a sign language interpreter for every 10 AM service. A skeptic could say that’s money being taken from “the rest of us” to benefit “a few”. However, we recognize that the space and priorities that we may have considered normal are designed to benefit the majority and ignore others, and that’s not acceptable for a community whose motto is “Given to Hospitality”. The Orthodox in my old building may have felt marginalized and handicapped in the wider society, where they had to work hard every day to maintain their purity boundaries. They wanted one place where they would have the privilege of not thinking about how to get from point A to point B.

The complex power dynamics of the Sabbath elevator are on my mind because of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling on religious exemptions for employers, which I blogged about in my last post. We’ve reached a peculiar juncture in Free Exercise Clause law, where the right to do something religious has morphed into the right to make someone else do something, for religious reasons. That is to say, at what point are you offloading so much of the burden of your religiously motivated behavior that it is no longer “your” free exercise?

The many Sabbath observance rules, adapted for modern times, stem from the central directive to let yourself, your servants, and your animals rest and honor God. But if you’re causing another human being to work on Shabbat, isn’t that worse than making a machine work? Or does he matter less than a machine because he’s a goy?

Classic case law on the free exercise of religion involved personal choices that were at odds with bureaucratic uniformity. No third parties were being burdened by the observance. Even then, religion didn’t always win. In Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), the Court said the Air Force could forbid an Orthodox Jewish officer from wearing his yarmulke while in uniform. In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court said the government could ban sacramental peyote use under the generally applicable drug laws, notwithstanding the Free Exercise Clause. While these specific outcomes seem too harsh and rigid to me, they stand for a principle that today’s Court has all but forgotten: Sometimes you have to play by the rules of the wider society and eat the cost of your difference, because civil society would become ungovernable if every law were vulnerable to a thousand individual carve-outs.

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to restore a more generous standard of review for Free Exercise claims than the court had applied in Smith. RFRA affirms that Free Exercise challenges apply not only to laws deliberately targeting religious practices, but also to neutral laws that incidentally burden a person’s exercise of religion. Hobby Lobby brought its objection to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate as a RFRA claim.

RFRA expanded the class of laws to which Free Exercise objections could be made. Meanwhile, this Court has been stretching the definition of religious practices to encompass virtually any behavior that is religiously motivated. Together, these trends exacerbate social inequality and fragmentation.

How is it “your” freedom of religion to fire disabled workers, or prevent your employees from unionizing, or impede women’s access to healthcare? Why should the state help you shift the cost of your religious preferences onto nonbelievers? This takes Free Exercise too far beyond the personal acts of worship or ritual observance that the Founders likely envisioned. The logic of the Hobby Lobby exemption is the logic of theocracy, where there is no legitimately secular realm of human action. Maybe that’s your sincere religious worldview, but it’s not the worldview behind our system of government. The Constitution is meant to preserve a separation between church and state. It’s bad faith, in every sense of the word, to exploit the Bill of Rights to reach a result hostile to its values.

Hobby Lobby’s Questionable Theology

Last month, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the US Supreme Court issued the controversial ruling that Christian owners of closely held for-profit corporations had a religious liberty right to deny contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Hobby Lobby and two other companies had sought exemptions from the section of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) that required birth control coverage at no extra charge to the employee. The company owners claimed that they believed life begins at conception, and therefore it would violate their beliefs to facilitate the use of birth control methods that sometimes prevent implantation of an embryo. The Court ruled in favor of the employers, holding that corporations are “persons” for purposes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a statute that prohibits government from indirectly burdening the free exercise of religion).

I am 42 years old, apparently infertile, happy with my current number of children (one), politically pro-choice but morally troubled by abortion. I depend on birth control to manage a reproductive health condition that would otherwise be severely disabling. This court case reminds me how privileged I am to work for a nondiscriminatory employer (myself) and to have enough money to pay for birth control out of pocket. I don’t have to be afraid of having more kids than I can support, or of losing my job because of disability-related absences. That’s precisely why Hobby Lobby angers and frightens me, as a woman and a Christian. The gospels tell us that basic security shouldn’t be the privilege of the few.

Let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that abortion and contraception are sinful. Is it theologically appropriate for Christian business owners to leverage the power of the state, and the economic power of employer over employee, to avoid being tainted by participation in these sins? I don’t believe so.

Note that the plaintiffs were not arguing that their exemption would actually result in fewer women using birth control (although this is clearly what they want). The Court assumed that the Obamacare mandate was valid and a compelling government interest. They were just dickering over whether there was a way to implement it while allowing Hobby Lobby’s owners to keep their hands clean.

Jesus denounced the Pharisees for obsessing over personal religious purity at the expense of socioeconomic equality. After Hobby Lobby, who is going to have the most difficulty accessing the medications they need? Women who are too poor to pay out of pocket, who have fewer job skills and opportunities to find a different employer. The Hobby Lobby exemption is a private-sector version of the Hyde Amendment prohibiting Medicaid funding for abortions; both create one law for the rich and another for the poor.

I don’t believe Christians should take advantage of economic inequality to enforce what we believe to be God’s will. Coercive shortcuts reveal our lack of faith. We’re not willing to make personal sacrifices to bring about the outcome we desire, like the Pharisees who laid heavy burdens on others that they didn’t bear themselves. Instead of cutting off their employees’ family-planning options, Christian-owned corporations should go out of their way to ensure that their employees have adequate childcare and wages to support a family.

Jesus portrayed the kingdom of heaven (on earth) as a place where everyone has food, shelter, health, and safety, not because some more powerful person thinks they deserve it, but because everyone is a child of God. That kingdom is far from our current reality. Workers depend on employers for basic survival needs. That power gap is evidence of our fallen world, not something to be exploited and widened in the name of “Christian values”.

Poetry by Helen Leslie Sokolsky: “Friday’s Dress”

Helen Leslie Sokolsky’s distinctive new poetry chapbook, Two Sides of a Ticket (Finishing Line Press, 2014), contains a portrait gallery of urban characters. Their alienation is healed, momentarily, by the author’s mature and compassionate re-imagining of the lives she glimpses in passing. These narratives show us recognizable scenes made fresh by Sokolsky’s original metaphors. I first discovered her work when she won third prize in our 2012 Tom Howard Poetry Contest at Winning Writers for “The Coat“. I’m happy to share a poem from Two Sides of a Ticket below. “Friday’s Dress” was selected for publication by Mary Oliver when she was on the editorial board of Poet Lore.

Friday’s Dress

One day I put on
Friday’s dress ( but you not liking the
color asked me to leave)
saying I could strut the streets.
I left my shoes behind to be mended
drew the shades on books face down
and frosted glass
taking with me
the child who was; soaking my feet in
untouched soil I have learned
to live on flowers
my hair grown wild slathered
with sea. Each day I go
and gather
berries, climbing later
with them and my dreams
to touch and toast the sunset
(not content to live on hills you
know I had to look for mountains).
They tell me that my shoes are mending
and you are holding them
turning them over. Should you
want to bring them with you, it may
be hard for you to find me
for I am always barefoot now.
Try to look back and see if you can,
a child running loose
her arms open wide
with the stain of ripe berries
smearing her hands.

Reiter’s Block Reloaded and New Poems: “Polish Joke”, “Mis Numeros”

Welcome back, patient readers, to my redesigned blog! Goodbye GoDaddy, hello WordPress. Kudos to web designer Derek Allard at Tunnel 7 and programmer Ryan Askew.

What’s new: Social media sharing buttons on each post. Wider columns for proper formatting of reprinted poems. Color scheme upgraded from “Colonel Mustard in the library” to “Expensive box of chocolates”.

Plus, I now have a Contact form. Please use it if you’d like to send me a private message, or have a question that isn’t directly related to the discussion in the blog post comments. Normal rules of right speech apply.

Regular posting will resume this week on the usual topics of poetry, Christianity, abuse survivor activism, gay male romance, prison reform, and toddlers.

My poems “Mis Numeros” and “Polish Joke”, which address at least three of the above topics, were recently published in the anthology Tic Toc from Kind of a Hurricane Press. Enjoy, comment, share!


Polish Joke
This circus has been in our family
forty years, no,
round it up to a hundred—
from the days of us bundled and stowed
out of the old country faster than horses,
lucky as a round number,
one skinny papa with two zero eyes.
You wouldn’t have believed to look at us
that we were carrying a circus.
Back then, it was just fleas.

But what gets you across the ocean
except a conjurer who pulls
scarves of red battles, blue hills and yellow butter
out of his memory hat
for weeks in the seasick dark?
Who charms fat rabbits
out of an empty cupboard
except a dame hard enough
to tango with pythons
and disappear a sword down her throat?

Later, when we had enough eggs to juggle,
we added some new members
you might recognize:
The girl who jumps from high places,
that versatile girl
who is not really sawed in half,
who is not really rising asleep from her bed
snagged on invisible wires.
The bickering family with flapping shoes
and greasepaint smiles red as borscht,
honking up in their tiny car
through the middle of somebody else’s ballet,
laughter sticking to them like flypaper.
The young fellow with eyes black as magnets
who combs out golden manes,
leads tawny bodies through caged tricks,
but makes the anxious ladies wet their handkerchiefs
by sticking his head for a moment
in the whipped animal’s jaws.

Our greatest addition was the strongman:
Even forty years,
no, call it a hundred
since he’s been gone,
his sausage-armed sons
and their sons after them
are still pounding that mallet
against the target at their feet,
sweating to make that same bell ring
loud enough to shatter
the old man’s perfect score.


Mis Numeros

Una lagartija, one
spun in the vernal womb, you turn
on my lap to gum this page,
dos hojas, two
leaves like your double tree
of names, mothers, she
(me) who waited and she who grew
you, the reason we learn
to try these words on our tongues
like the wet fruit you mash in your fist,
tres fresas, three
strawberries, why is death the color of kisses,
quatros corazones, four
hearts that never banged
against baby ribs like the good ringing
of your spoon on wood,
cinco zanahorias, five
carrots sunrise splattered, scattered
brothers in a fairy tale,
your other father’s sons
baptized in Colombian rain—
him salamander again, gone to ground
to work without a name,
paperless, surviving in the cracks, as
seis serpientes, six
snakes of my lean years whispered praise
for quiet rooms, bare cellars, battle-rest
that you laugh at each dawn, silver
rattle crash that shakes
siete estrellas, seven
stars from the sky over two nations,
four ancestors, unnumbered questions
you will bellow, my April ram,
when these words become yours.


[Inspired by the bilingual picture book "Mis Numeros" by Rebecca Emberley]

Trigger Warnings in Education: Some Reminiscences and Suggestions from a Survivor

The NY Times, the New Republic, and a slew of feminist blogs have recently been debating whether it’s appropriate for educators to put trigger warnings about potentially traumatic material on their syllabus. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has taken the tack that students should expect to be challenged and disquieted by new ideas in the classroom, not shielded from the upsetting facts of life. It’s hard not to see a gendered value system behind this attitude, in which students’ dispassionate intellect (male) reins in their emotional reactions (female) so they can “properly” analyze horrific topics.

Jacqui Shine’s xoJane piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Trigger Warnings” should be everybody’s starting point for required reading. Shine myth-busts the nasty stereotypes about survivors that recirculate like a bad penny whenever the topic comes up. I’ll post a short excerpt below, then share some personal memories and suggestions based on my time in academia.

Shine writes:

…Among the assumptions that come up and go unchecked are that trauma survivors are the ones asking for trigger warnings to be broadly applied in the first place and that, whether or not they are, asking for consideration means that there’s an imminent threat of a culture war-style takeover by a cabal of survivors who want to curtail our civil liberties or the exchange of ideas or the free expression of artists. (Honestly, it escaped my notice that we’re living in a world that slavishly caters to the needs of trauma survivors. If someone had told me, I would have made a point of enjoying it more!)

I’m also baffled by this assumption that trigger warnings are meant to prevent us from having to see or feel anything difficult–that the only way one responds to a trigger is by falling apart. Being triggered doesn’t mean you fall apart or are overcome by stereotypically feminized hysterics. Trauma responses can include a huge range of reactions, including physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations and emotional ones, like anxiety or numbness. Sometimes being triggered looks like getting really quiet and sitting through something until you can get somewhere safe to take care of yourself. Sometimes it looks like someone going on as though nothing has happened at all and then having a really terrible nightmare that night.

Likewise, I’m not sure why a trigger warning has to imply censoring someone or stopping something. A “warning” is just that, and if you know what to expect–that you’re about to see something upsetting–you can plan in advance how you’ll handle it and how you’ll get through it. And we often warn people when they are about to see things that might be disturbing, whether we know them to be trauma survivors or not…

The following is just my personal perspective. I don’t make any claim for its universality. I completely support professors and students who have found that TWs make their classroom environment healthier. But I would hate to see the conversation start and end there, because the real issue is survivors’ right to an accessible education, not the merits of one particular access ramp. We need to experiment with a wide range of strategies for different situations.

Would TWs have improved my experience in academia? On what kind of material? I can’t imagine it, because I’m so different now, and my triggers in those days were more global than content-specific. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, every university should have “TW for bullshit and abuse of power” emblazoned above their entrance gates.

From early childhood to two years after I graduated law school, I was living in an abusive home. Currently, my life is fantastically psycho-free. Yet I find myself much more triggered by specific media content than I was then. I don’t know why.

I have a huge collection of horror fiction that I no longer read. More than half of the literary fiction that I pick up makes me feel gross inside because the author doesn’t seem to recognize how unhealthy his characters are, or that their deluded condition isn’t inevitable. I’m more quickly overstimulated by rapid-paced violent action in movies (though special effects have also become much more overpowering in the past two decades). With my feminist 3-D glasses on, I become dizzy watching romantic comedies because I see that the protagonists are nothing but stalkers and wounded childen. As for theology, once my favorite genre, a lot of it gives me a headache because I encounter chilly abstractions where empathy and personal narrative would be more relevant.

All of this is to say that it’s hard to imagine how TWs would have helped me in high school, college, or law school. I was too numbed-out to be triggered!

Seriously, though, I think I managed all right despite my raw mental state in those days because of two factors: I could predict (from the course topic or the book’s reputation) what kind of upsetting material a book might address, and I was smart enough to get decent grades despite not reading all of it. (Heck, I boycotted entire novels in senior year of high school because I didn’t approve of stream-of-consciousness–bite me, Andrey Bely!–and Mr. Everdell still passed me. Talk about being coddled.)

An example of successful trigger-management from my law school career: I chose to take an elective seminar called “Law and Politics of Pornography”. One of the required books consisted of scene-by-scene descriptions of numerous adult films, grouped thematically by chapter. I think this book, which was actually somewhat boring, was an excellent choice on the part of the professor, because it gave us a working knowledge of what these films depicted, in a format that wouldn’t overwhelm us sensorily. I’ve always feared mental contamination by images merging sex with violence. The author considerately grouped such films in the S&M chapter, which I pretty much skipped over. The chapter title was a sufficient TW for me.

Sensitive topics become show-stopping triggers because of surprise and sensory intensity. TWs developed to help people manage the unpredictable flood of data on the Internet. When I pick up a textbook on 20th-century history, I expect to come across pictures of Hiroshima victims and dead soldiers, and I’m mentally prepared. When I scroll down my Facebook wall, and those same images pop up between LOLcats and baby pictures, I’m triggered. I could be forced to see something horrible at any moment, from any quarter; there’s no refuge. This panicked conclusion shuts down the mind, making the viewer afraid to explore any media that isn’t completely predictable. Hmm, might the explosion of random, agitating images in every TV commercial break (sex! guns! speeding cars! insults! drunken frogs!) have some connection to America’s closed-minded and polarized politics?

Similarly, TWs on blogs perform the same function as book cover blurbs and reviews, a quick heads-up about content for readers who are unfamiliar with the author’s preoccupations. The sheer volume of writing by unknown authors on the Internet, far more than in your average bookstore, means that readers are taking a risk every time they navigate to a new page. And isn’t that what education is all about–guiding people to risk discovering new ideas, by giving them the tools to orient themselves in an unfamiliar place? So don’t waste my time with your free-speech arguments against TWs.

In the debate over
TWs, we need to distinguish between challenging ideas and overpowering experiences. The former are integral to education, the latter are not.

The very fact that we’re discussing triggers in academia is a radical, positive step. As I’ve said in my “Survivors in Church” posts, trauma awareness is an often-overlooked component of accessibility and diversity training. Finally, we’re acknowledging that students are not floating heads but affective human beings who feel personally implicated in the narratives they read in class.

However, a trauma-management tool borrowed from the Internet may not be as helpful in the classroom. Rather than telling students what they probably already know (“Romeo & Juliet: TW for suicide”), educators should watch out for unnecessarily traumatizing material in their curriculum choices. It’s the difference between posting a sign “Warning: Hazardous Waste” versus not dumping the damn thing in the first place. Which do you think is more effective?

Does this mean avoiding all painful topics? Certainly not. Teachers already balance such factors when important texts contain racist ideas or slurs. For example, schools assign Huckleberry Finn despite its controversial use of the N-word, because the value of learning about American racism outweighs the pain of hearing the slur. However, it would be irresponsible and unnecessary to re-enact scenes from Huck where one student would have to call another student “N-word”. Verbal abuse is not a legitimate teaching tool. That’s what I mean about challenging ideas versus overpowering experiences.

How might this work for other common triggers? Well, if you’re an English teacher choosing between two novels that both fit the course requirements, consider assigning the one without the graphic rape scene. Or assign the one where rape is presented in a context that facilitates critical discussion of rape culture, rather than one that gratuitously eroticizes the assault or minimizes its moral significance.

If you’re a history teacher, have a presumption in favor of low-stimulation media when studying violent events (e.g. written descriptions as opposed to videos). Show violent images sparingly to make a point that couldn’t be made otherwise. Don’t fall into “Operation Rescue” tactics of using bloody photos to shock students into paying attention. Pro-actively acknowledge the students’ need for self-care and normalize their feelings of distress instead of projecting an ideal of emotional detachment. Students who are allowed to empathize and grieve about atrocities will learn the moral lessons of history better than ones who dissociate in the name of objectivity.

Whatever your subject area, don’t radiate contempt for your students’ foundational beliefs and intellectual defenses. Why was I an aesthetic reactionary in high school, turning up my nose at Mallarmé and Ezra Pound? Because I was unconsciously triggered by chaos, be it moral relativism, absurdist art, or an undisciplined classroom. I couldn’t get perspective on this in an academic culture that assumed that all students were safe and complacent, and that the teachers’ job was to epater le bourgeois. My first-year Intro to Legal Thought professor spent our last day of class haranguing us for our cowardice. He’d been giving us bombs to smash the system, he raved, but we’d let them all fizzle out. But some of us come to education seeking a bomb shelter from our shell-shocked lives. We were already born in the ruins; we crave a vision of order and harmony, and the tools to build it.

TWs alone won’t make academia survivor-friendly, any more than campus speech codes ended racism. A deeper values-shift is needed. But anything that breaks the silence around trauma is a good start.


Unconventional Mother’s Day Blogaround

The girly pink explosion of sweetness that is Mother’s Day will soon be upon me again. Do I have a problem with that?

I love this little guy, and I love pink.

But when I think about being a mother, the images that come to mind are not sugary, soft, and girly. I channel the power of a mother tiger protecting her cub. I am a warrior, proud of my battle scars. I feel some kinship with the Hindu goddess Kali, who is one of the incarnations of Mother Durga, creator and destroyer of all things. In Sanskrit, “Durga” means fortress. As a mother, I hold psychic boundaries around my home to make a sacred space where my child can grow safely.

I want to celebrate motherhood in a way that doesn’t erase the difficulties of embracing femininity under patriarchy. I want space to grieve the brokenness of my memories of my own mother. In time, Shane may have complicated feelings about Mother’s Day, too, because it encompasses his birthmother’s loss as well as my gain.

If, for whatever reason, you’d like to add some emotional nuance to your observance (or boycotting) of this holiday, the readings below may be of interest.

At the excellent blog Women in Theology, Janice Rees reviews a documentary about a teenage daughter and her mother’s gender transition to male:

The film’s questions around trans identity helps us to push the motherhood category, or rather, to see it in its normative form. That is, for bodies with wombs that have borne children, an alleged and drastic ontological shift is enacted, and a new normative way of being embodied is established.[3] No longer women (which continues to be the norm for wombed childless bodies), these bodies, from all accounts, take on a new status as ‘mother’. To be a mother is to be caught up in this new quasi-subjectivity. I write this as a parent, one who almost always hesitates on this capital M word, this form that overwhelms me with its situated concreteness. Now, having endured the kind of discrimination and expectations placed on mothers, I find it hard to see a future in motherhood, or any sense in its usefulness as a term…

…Ultimately, this fixed category of mother becomes a foundational lens in which we not only read the quasi-subject (who is mother) but through which other, childless subjects, may emerge in more fluid identities. That [the daughter] Billie’s story becomes the primary lens in 52 Tuesdays is hardly surprising…yet James continues to subvert his status of mother – not due to the supposedly obvious implications of transgender transition, but because of his trans-formation back into a person who wants to be someone. And if having a womb and or being a parent has a future – at least for those of us who feel marginalised and oppressed by the normative categories of gender, and this peculiar ‘mother’ status – then there is something profoundly liberating in James’ subversion…

Dr. Karyl McBride, author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, writes on the Psychology Today blog about the painful double standard that this holiday can bring up:

Mother’s Day is approaching and this time of year discussions about mothers explode, but of course the roaring voices describing maternal narcissism are hushed to the background. We hear the praise and celebrations about good mothering, but simultaneously the complete stillness and silence about inadequate mothering…

…If adult children of narcissistic parents discuss their upbringing, they are usually met with disdain. “Good girls or boys don’t hate their mothers!” “There must be something wrong with you, if you are not connected with your mother.” “It must be your fault.” So, this population of people goes into hiding. They go back to what they were taught and practice superficial pretending which does not help their own recovery process. They are told once again to “put a smile on that pretty little face and pretend that everything is just fine with this family.”

But here’s the misnomer. If a narcissistic parent raised a daughter or son, it means that the parent was not capable of empathy and unconditional love. So, that child did not receive the bonding, attachment and maternal closeness from that parent. The issue lies in the disorder of the parent. It does not mean that the daughter or son is not capable of loving or that they don’t love that parent. In fact, these adult children have spent their entire lifetimes trying to get attention, love, approval, and nurturing from the narcissistic parent to no avail. What I have seen in my research and work is that adult children who come from narcissistic families dearly love their parents and the issue is that the parent is not capable of loving them back. Therein lies the need for acceptance and grief for the adult child and this is the first step in their recovery process. But, because the adult child is reacting to the lack of maternal love, they are seen as the one who does not love the parent. This misnomer is not readily understood…

…So let me ask you this: Because you see the disorder in the parent and you are reacting to it and working your own recovery, do you think that means you don’t love your parent? Or are you simply standing in your truth, accepting your reality, and working on your own mental health?…


Finally, let’s remember that before Mother’s Day became a showcase for perfect performance of gender roles, it was a rallying point for women’s activism, as Christian scholar Diana Butler Bass explains in this HuffPo article, “The Radical History of Mother’s Day“:

..In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother. One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers. Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations — like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association — picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law. Thus began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.

For some years, radical Protestant women had been agitating for a national Mother’s Day hoping that it would further a progressive political agenda that favored issues related to women’s lives. In the late 19th century, Julia Ward Howe (better know for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) expressed this hope in her 1870 prose-poem, “A Mother’s Day Proclamation” calling women to pacifism and political resistance…

Years later, Anna Jarvis intended the new holiday to honor all mothers beginning with her own — Anna Reeves Jarvis, who had died in 1905. Although now largely forgotten, Anna Reeves Jarvis was a social activist and community organizer who shared the political views of other progressive women like Julia Ward Howe.

In 1858, Anna Reeves Jarvis organized poor women in Virginia into “Mothers’ Work Day Clubs” to raise the issue of clean water and sanitation in relation to the lives of women and children. She also worked for universal access to medicine for the poor. Reeves Jarvis was also a pacifist who served both sides in the Civil War by working for camp sanitation and medical care for soldiers of the North and the South.

My awesome mom-of-choice, Roberta, marching with OLOC at Northampton Gay Pride 2014.

Becoming Church: My Field Trip to an Intentional Christian Community

In late April, I attended the Second Acts Conference in Washington, DC, an initiative of the intentional Christian community and social justice coalition Becoming Church. Becoming Church is an umbrella organization for small-group churches (a dozen people maximum) that follow the Church of the Saviour model of “journey inward/journey outward“. Grounded in their faith in Christ, members support each other’s personal spiritual transformation and work together on service projects in their city.

Their vision for social change is both radical and humble. Radical, because they want to be used by the Spirit to attack systemic injustice. They’re not content to provide palliative care to the less fortunate, or as they prefer to say, “the under-resourced”. Humble, because they try to operate on God’s timetable, not their own, and eschew ambitious arms’-length initiatives in favor of intensive long-term relationships with a few needy individuals at a time. The combination reminds me of Partners in Health.

The topic of this year’s conference was criminal justice reform. Mass incarceration (mostly of poor people of color) due to the War on Drugs, and the legal disabilities placed on ex-offenders, have created a permanent under-class with few opportunities to re-enter society. People with a criminal record, or sometimes even an arrest record, can be legally discriminated against in housing and employment. They’re ineligible for most professional licenses, both white-collar and skilled trades. Essential federal benefits, including food stamps and public housing, are unavailable to them and their families. In many states, they have no right to vote. Barred from the legal economy, many ex-offenders predictably return to prison. (Look for a future blog post about Michelle Alexander’s devastating book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which was a foundational text for our conference.)

Becoming Church is working toward an ideal of 0% recidivism. They acknowledge that not every “returning citizen” will choose to turn his or her life around. But that doesn’t diminish our collective responsibility to remove every obstacle to their re-integration into the community.

Becoming Church has adopted a multi-pronged approach of prayer, activism, and social service. Their latest activist project involves buying stock in the largest private prison companies and speaking out at shareholder meetings. The small church groups in DC and Baltimore that spearheaded the conference operate “Strength to Love” halfway houses for returning citizens. These houses offer a structured and sober environment, skills training, spiritual support groups, and community gardens where residents can grow and sell fresh produce. We held our Sunday morning worship service in one such house in Anacostia.

You can find out more about their criminal justice reform work (donate! volunteer!) at their spin-off website, Why We Can’t Wait.

For the remainder of this post, I want to reflect on some striking differences between the Church of the Saviour model (as I briefly experienced it) and the mainline churches I usually attend.

Spiritual Growth, Not Church Growth

When a Church of the Saviour community grows beyond a dozen people, they’re supposed to split off. The accountability and support relationships among members are so intensive that it would be unwieldy to build that kind of trust in a larger group.

Contrast that to the endless bragging or hand-wringing about membership numbers in traditional churches and denominations. Our churches keep score by the numbers. We treat growth as a verdict on the rightness of our theology or political views, relative to other churches that are shrinking. Or we let ourselves be led by economic imperatives to fill the pews so that we can maintain our buildings and staff.

The Church of the Saviour groups do own a number of properties, but as I understand it, these are mainly for the benefit of the community, not worship spaces. Examples include a hospice care house for homeless people, an arts center for youth, the Strength to Love houses, and several small apartment buildings for low-income tenants. In most cases, each service project is spun off as a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The needs of the neighborhood drive the church groups’ ownership and use of real estate. The property is a resource for the neighbors, whether or not they attend church. By comparison, a traditional church has its own property which needs financial infusions, and invites neighbors to join so they can contribute to it. (Yes, I’m being cynical, I know we also want to spread the gospel, but the structure of the institution tells a different story.)

Inner Work Comes First

For Church of the Saviour communities, personal spiritual formation is the foundation on which the social gospel is built. Members help each other remain emotionally honest and open to God’s presence. Like a writing workshop or a Weight Watchers group, they bolster each other’s commitments to the spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, journaling, tithing) that might otherwise go the way of so many New Year’s resolutions.

This is because they understand that God does the work of transforming the world, not us. We’re just the “donkeys” who devotedly carry our little piece of the great burden.

Now, I’ve only spent three days with these folks, so I can’t say whether they’d start piling on the “shoulds” during a more long-term relationship. I can only observe that I never once felt burnt-out, pressured, guilt-tripped, or commanded to serve others in a particular way. Instead, during the support group check-ins and prayer times, the facilitators constantly invited us to share what the Spirit was doing in our lives. We were given opportunities to be educated about social problems, and encouraged with detailed case studies of successful outreach. Then it was up to us to discern our personal path to discipleship.

On several occasions, one of the conference leaders proposed that Christians are not spiritually prepared for the work we have to do. We haven’t taken stock of the sacrifices and suffering that might come our way when we stand up for justice. We aren’t sufficiently plugged-in to God’s love to be able to respond with compassion and equanimity when wrongdoers lash out at us. Our first priority must be knowing Jesus in our hearts.

By comparison, the liberal church frequently preaches Jesus as the supreme giver of homework assignments. We’re told that we should tackle huge structural injustices through individual good deeds (some of which, to me, sound strategically ineffective as well as inadequate) because “Jesus cared about the poor”. We don’t hear nearly enough about spiritual practices that would replenish our strength, ways of reconnecting to God’s love and getting support from our church family.

Church of the Saviour appears to understand that superhuman challenges require superhuman assistance.

I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay, but Maybe We’re Okay

Friends who’ve been through 12-Step programs have quoted these wise maxims to me: “You’re only as sick as your secrets” and “Don’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides”. I didn’t hear these exact phrases at Becoming Church, but these principles inform their accountability practices.

Church of the Saviour was conceived as a community of racial and economic reconciliation. Participants undertake to let go of the status markers that keep us separated from one another. Money can
easily become an enabler of ego-defenses and falseness. It makes us feel superior or simply allows us to hide dysfunctional aspects of our private lives.

Therefore, Church of the Saviour offers a more intensive membership track (in addition to spiritual support groups) where you make your financial statements transparent to the group, and accept guidance from them about developing a spiritually balanced relationship to money. Members also hold each other accountable for sticking to regular prayer practices, and try to keep each other on track in their personal lives, such as guiding a married couple through a rough patch. Members choose annually whether to renew their commitment to this intensive track. There’s supposed to be no judgment attached to the decision either way. It’s my understanding that they can still remain in the small group.

This is the part of Church of the Saviour that I have mixed feelings about. I don’t think I would adopt this model for my future Christian community for trauma survivors. People with my kind of history have been trained to submit to others’ judgments instead of developing our own sense of right and wrong. We are hyper-sensitive to emotional cross-currents in social situations, and can have trouble hearing our inner voice over the noise of others’ expectations. Reclaiming our privacy is a big part of our healing. This ties into a larger problem with Christianity–assuming that everyone’s main problem is taming an inflated ego rather than rebuilding a crushed spirit. (Or both at once, since parts of the self typically become inflated to protect other vulnerable parts.)

Based on some remarks from the conference, the accountability program seems based on notions of “objectivity” and self-suspicion that are quite mainstream in traditional Christianity, but that I have come to reject. Participants expressed the view that left to her own devices, the individual will be selfishly biased in her own favor, but her fellow group members have no motive to misjudge her.

In my experience, this is not true. Bias against a particular person isn’t the only obstacle. Most of the time, we have trouble even seeing that person through the fog of our own projections and pre-existing opinions. I mean, that’s what racism is, right? I don’t want to have negative stereotypes of African-Americans, I don’t hold that as an ideology, I try to overcome racist beliefs when I notice them, but I probably still make a lot of subconscious assumptions about people based on their looks and cultural markers.

My false diagnosis by adoption clinicians currently has more traumatic charge than memories of my abusive childhood. I don’t take the latter so personally, since I thoroughly understand the suffering that clouds my mother’s mind, but part of me is still tempted to internalize the former, because I can only speculate what (other than my “objective” presentation) made them see me as so repellent and damaged. The belief that they had “no reason to be biased” seriously messed with my head for years.

On the other hand, the companionship of two dozen grateful, devout, and grounded people inspired me to envision a time when my options would be less constrained by my trauma history. I had moments when I was able to perceive that God’s power was so much greater than the power of the people who hurt me. I still think I’m too much of a loner introvert to join this kind of group, for the same reason that I don’t usually join writing workshops, but I wouldn’t be motivated by fear anymore. And I can imagine that an accountability group with good boundaries might be an interesting opportunity for some survivors to face their fear of intimacy.

Church of the Saviour has a refreshing humility about, and lack of attachment to, any specific institutional format. Their attitude (in theory, at least) is “this seems to be working right now, but go ahead and change it as needed”. I’m really grateful to these folks for helping me open my heart and mind to new possibilities.

Here’s a hymn we sang at the conference that made a big difference to me. Lyrics here.

New Poetry by Conway: “City Elegy VI”

I’m pleased to share the next installment of my prison pen pal Conway’s “City Elegy” poetry series below.

This weekend, I’ll be attending the Becoming Church conference, a project of the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC, which will focus on Christian activism for prison reform.

My other purpose in attending is to research models for intentional Christian communities, so that I can create a theology working group for trauma survivors. Church of the Saviour is known for bypassing the standard congregation format in favor of intimate small groups based on 12-Step (AA). Group members commit to mutual spiritual accountability and social justice work. Watch this space for my post-game report. Meanwhile, enjoy the poem.

City Elegy VI
by “Conway”

About two years and counting…
 The city left a window open for me
  a muddy puddle of spiraling sights
  that twist and turn a knife named memory.

This wall presses against my core
  it is a cellblock of scornful spent shells
  hungering to be crushed into a new mold.
The brusharound, or flushed down sound–
of this walk. Every step behind
the moment, looking, mapping.
    On a pathway passing tipsters–
playing a pose (straight incognito).

I pretend to crawl away, from war
untried by the tolling sigh, the taste.
The touch torn, as if I am the thorn.
A beggar swelling to be born.

If I could lift the moon…
  emerge from this strangling forest of metal.
  My goal is not these burial stones under foot,
  lain out before my only path.
On narrow steps, gnashing in silence, I wait.
I kneel before a vanishing door.

Here, in these strange woods
my wounds find refuge. But time
cannot lead me to be seen, over the fence.

Here is the entrance, reason for contrivance
as storm clouds bring a newborn saline.
Another downpour of brilliant jewels.

Shimmering topaz eyes blaze everywhere
 tint the brief shadows in amber.
 batting those lashes like a paramour.
  While the streets still rush and hum. (Conspire.)
   Heavy lyrics that spark like a hotwire.

{Do-do-do walk, march into our fire
No-no don’t talk, cops pay their liar
Hang me from that dirty noose of smog
cut me loose from this frustrating fog}

I ride on, day upon day and night in my mind…
Roads descend behind a false mirror, of others–
not there. I dream of my old shovelhead (Rolling again.)
hidden away like a skeleton.
It has taken twenty plus years to get, from nowhere
to here. Amongst the settling shades of memory.

A good woman waits somewhere else instead;
Some said “for a husband, as if he were’nt dead.”
I palmed her hand on a cold window-visit’s caress.
Ceremony sees us deserving such torment.

I taste a scent of gallows…
  The ink under my skin, folded under my jumpsuit
  burns under scrutiny.
    I stand; Ready to be judged.
    I am what I am, no mask.
    I am not what I was;
      Just ask…