Why Believe in a Need-less God?

Televangelist Victoria Osteen took some flak in the Christian blogosphere last week for a video clip where she says that we should worship God and do good because it makes us happy, and God wants us to be happy. Osteen and her husband Joel are regular targets of critique from other evangelicals who say their message is too upbeat, sin-free, and self-serving. In response, Eric Reitan, a progressive Christian philosopher whose work I admire, wrote this post suggesting that Osteen (in her simplistic way) was putting forth a legitimate Aristotelian theory of true happiness as being in harmony with virtue, as compared to the Kantian view that we’re only virtuous when we act from pure obedience and ignore our own happiness.

I’m Team Aristotle all the way, but that’s another post. What struck me, this time, was that Reitan, Osteen, and probably most of her conservative critics share the common assumption that God does not need anything from humanity. I often hear it said that prayer is for our benefit, not God’s. On this point, evangelicals who emphasize God’s sovereign perfection find common ground with liberal Christians who have trouble believing that prayer could supernaturally alter the course of events. Here’s Reitan’s characteristically clear restatement of this widespread doctrine (boldface emphasis mine):

Here’s what I think Victoria Osteen gets right: When you worship and obey God, you aren’t doing it for God. Doing it for God’s sake makes no sense, because the infinite creator of the universe doesn’t need anything from us in order to be fulfilled. God doesn’t need to be glorified by us, as if God is somehow diminished by failing to be properly fawned over. If there is a need here, it’s our need. We can’t be fully actualized human beings if our priorities are wrong…

…On Christian metaphysics, Victoria Osteen is exactly right when she says we don’t worship and glorify God for God’s sake. We do it for our own. God needs nothing from us, least of all our worship. But if we think God is worthy of worship, then failing to worship God displays a disorder in our value system that will compromise our ability to love others and find joy in life. And if God is the infinite source of value, then connecting with God in worship becomes a way of communing with the good, of letting it enter into us, in a self-actualizing way.

I believe that the boldfaced statements above seriously overstate the case. It’s a leap from “God doesn’t need Hir ego stroked”* to “God doesn’t need anything from us.” This doctrine, which we take for granted as orthodoxy, has hidden negative political and pastoral consequences. Because of what I’ve learned from feminist and disability theology, I am compelled to question the equating of “need” with weakness, imperfection, or immature egotism.

*(I’m trying out the gender-neutral pronouns “zie” and “hir” to refer to God, rather than locutions like “Godself” which I find awkward. Respectful feedback welcomed.)

My analysis is indebted to the philosopher Sara N. Ahmed, who blogs at Feminist Killjoys. Ahmed’s posts often riff on a word that has been negatively applied to a marginalized group, teasing out its complexities with a poetic technique of free association, and turning it on its head to ask whether the shunned trait is properly attributed to the person who “fails” to fit, or the social environment that fails to be welcoming. See, for instance, her thoughts on fragility, imposition, and how a person becomes classified as a stranger.

Though human psychological categories only capture one aspect of the infinite God, we Christians have been invited to relate to God in human terms through the Incarnation. Any concept of a personal God contains value-judgments about the best kind of person to be. These judgments then affect how we treat people who seem different from that ideal. (For instance, the mainstream depiction of God as white and male reinforces some Christians’ sexism and imperialism.) That’s why I think it’s legitimate to ask whether a God without any needs would be a good Person to love, or be loved by.

Where does it come from, this idea of strength as not-needing? What kind of relationship can one have with a Being whose superiority is defined thus?

The need-less God doctrine is partly a product of classical Greek philosophy, in which an entity that is changeless is considered more perfect than one that changes, and an un-caused entity is more perfect than one that is contingent or dependent. However, the Christian’s “personal relationship with God” was not part of this philosophy. These ancient thinkers were looking for a nobler and more mature alternative to the anthropomorphized Greek gods, who were petty, ego-driven, and lustful.

Centuries later, Enlightenment philosophers levelled the same charge against the Old Testament God. To modern people in a pluralistic society, Yahweh’s smiting of Baal-worshippers doesn’t make sense. We are, or should be, burdened by the memory of genocides that claimed Biblical justification. So we read these stories and only see an insecure tyrant. This is the argument that Reitan references when he says God doesn’t need to be fawned over. Reitan wants to salvage the Biblical God by placing Hir above human foibles.

But narcissistic needs are not the only needs. Not-needing, in fact, can be just as egotistical. Imagine God as a parent–something the Bible encourages us to do. “Here, Daddy, I painted you a picture.” “Thanks, but I didn’t need that.” What a cold response to our heartfelt offerings. God is already perfectly fulfilled without any gift from us. Some of you may know what it’s like to have a parent like that. It doesn’t lead to a life of freedom and grace. It breeds perfectionism and self-doubt. Another variation is the caretaker personality who always has to be the giver, not the receiver, because pleasing others is a way to stay in control.

Equality is not necessary for a healthy relationship (e.g. parent-child, God-human), but mutuality is. If our acts of worship are not fulfilling to God as well as to us, the relational aspect fades and the very presence of God becomes needless, a mental placeholder, a merely theoretical component of our religious practices.

As an activist for trauma-informed care in the church environment, I come up against need-shaming all the time. Like any minority group seeking inclusion, our concerns get dismissed as “special needs”. This formulation assumes there is a normal way to navigate the world and I am demanding an exception. In fact, “the world” is just one possible arrangement that works acceptably for the current majority who have a voice in the system. To not have needs, or not be perceived as having needs, or not have to meet your needs in a way that involves other people–is this really a virtue of self-sufficiency or unselfishness, or is it mainly good luck that you have the kind of needs that are met by your environment?

The church will never truly resist domination by the “special needs” paradigm until we stop need-shaming God. We stigmatize each other’s dependence and vulnerability when we recoil in horror at the idea that God could ever experience these states with respect to us.

And yet, the crucified Christ hangs on our wall.

Jesus was needy and vulnerable from his birth as a human baby to his death on a cross. We often talk about this episode in the life of God as though it was temporary, like a journalist slumming among the homeless to show solidarity and gather information. The wounds of the risen Christ tell a different story. What if everything we fear about “neediness” was really an eternal part of God’s essence?

I think mainstream theology is wrong both about what God would need (if Zie needed anything), and what happens when God’s needs aren’t met.

As for the “what”, the prophet Micah said it succinctly: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. We’re just not used to thinking of these as needs, as well as commands. But a loving God would feel pained, would be diminished, when we don’t act lovingly ourselves. In Matthew 25, Jesus puts himself in the position of the beggar: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” He has to spell it out for the disciples because they can’t imagine seeing the Messiah sick or hungry or in prison.

And what actually happens when God’s needs aren’t met? Does Zie have a narcissistic tantrum and kill lots of innocent bystanders? Well, the Book of Judges might give that impression, but there the real problem is the primitive feudal concept of what God needs, as well as the unskillful means. Or does Zie collapse into a big pile of weepy tissues, leaving no one in charge of the universe? (God is a girl, she’s only a girl…)

These are the two hurtful stereotypes that come up when survivors advocate for our own needs. We are made to appear simultaneously tyrannical and weak. In reality, people who face their own pain and take care of it are the most self-sufficient and safe people to have in your community.

Instead of need-shaming, let’s imagine that God feels pain and lack because of human sin, and still carries on with love, strength, equanimity, and nonviolence–just like a trauma survivor who’s doing her healing work.

Summer Reads: Some Gay Romances

One perk of having a Kindle is the unlimited supply of M/M romance e-books that I can now enjoy, free from concerns about privacy and shelf space. I’ve read a couple of standouts that I’ll discuss below, and meanwhile have been thinking about some peculiarities of the genre.

I was never really a fan of hetero romance novels–I didn’t look anything like the girls on the covers, and more importantly, I wasn’t attracted to the kind of meaty alpha males who conquer these ladies with a blast of pheromones. I don’t relate to the genre’s near-universal construction of female sexual response as surrender, or the notion that falling in love happens on an instinctual level where chemistry overpowers rational free choice.

I’d guess that this critique resonates with the large population of semi-straight women, like me, who read and write stories about two men in love. Besides our simple enjoyment of the male anatomy, maybe we’re looking for alternatives to the genre’s traditional gender hierarchies. We might appreciate some fantasies where we’re just spectators, not worrying how we measure up to the leading lady.

Gay men in love, at least in theory, have the opportunity to meet each other as equals. Because homophobia is often one of the obstacles to their eventual happy ending, the characters are compelled to be more reflective about the nature of desire–how do they know what their “real” feelings are, and how much weight should they give to eros compared to other moral and social values? Not all M/M romances allow political consciousness to intrude, but the best ones, in my opinion, allow it to deepen the story.

The funny thing is, though, that M/M frequently carries over some of the weird patriarchal themes of the old bodice-rippers. Our imaginations are so thoroughly conditioned that we don’t take full advantage of the genre’s potential for gender liberation.

I first noticed this phenomenon in yaoi, the Japanese manga subgenre also known as “boys’ love”. These romance comics featuring male couples are primarily written by and marketed to women. However, the gender hierarchy is alive and well. There are generally clearly delineated “top” (seme) and “bottom” (uke) characters, with the latter being drawn as a more effeminate or androgynous youth. In fact, sometimes the uke is literally a teen boy involved with an adult man, which echoes another problematic theme of traditional romance fiction–the borderline non-consensual sex that the victim winds up enjoying.

Among the yaoi books I’ve read so far, Tetuzoh Okadaya’s The Man of Tango distinguished itself because both partners are depicted as adult men who switch roles, in bed and out, mutually guiding one another to open up new dimensions of themselves. As for the sex, let me just say that this book was sold in a sealed shrink-wrap and totally lived up to it.

Okadaya’s fellows also have a close female friend who is a sympathetic, three-dimensional character. The same cannot be said for a lot of works in this category, such as Youka Nitta’s hot but silly Embracing Love 1 & 2, about male porn stars who go gay for each other. Too often, women in M/M are either absent or mere foils for the men. They’re needy girlfriends, cold ex-wives, or disposable sex-dolls, who only enter the narrative to prove the male character’s virility and the inadequacy of the relationships preceding the male leads’ pairing. Considering that women are in charge of this genre, why are we building “GIRLZ KEEP OUT!” clubhouses for our sexy boys?

This brings me to another odd trope of gay romance, so common that it has its own acronym: GFY, or “gay for you”. (My mom-of-choice, who has become an expert on foreign lesbian soap operas on the Internet, reports that it’s all over the place in girl-girl plots too.) A typical romance pairs an experienced, comfortably out gay person with a partner who has never had a same-sex lover. The more plausible books (relatively speaking) at least set up some backstory that the GFY had previous gay desires but didn’t act on them because of spiritual conflict, social pressure, or trauma.

In Jamie Fessenden’s amazing Billy’s Bones, for example, the man exploring his first adult same-sex relationship is alienated from his own sexuality because of repressed memories of child abuse. Not only doesn’t he know what he wants, he doesn’t remember what he’s already done. His partner, a therapist, has to learn how to support his recovery without caretaking and controlling him. The result is a genuinely egalitarian partnership between adults. I can’t say enough good things about this book’s responsible, well-informed, and compassionate treatment of a topic that is usually sensationalized or shrouded in denial. Check out Jamie’s blog for insightful discussion of love between men, in books and real life.

Another beautiful novel, Tim Bairstow’s The Shadow of Your Wings, explores the mentor-novice theme via a love triangle among three men with a fraught relationship to the Church of England. (The book takes place in England in the 1990s, when gay priests had to be celibate, although straight priests could get married.) Jack is an elderly monk whose life has been warped by repression of his same-sex attractions. He becomes obsessed with Felix, a beautiful, virginal youth who is staying at the monastery to prepare for ordination to the priesthood. Felix has never dared to act on his sexual orientation. The third player is Jonas, the groundskeeper, a savvy young man who loves Felix and helps him see through Jack’s spiritual manipulations. This book is not heavy on the sex; it spends far more time mapping the emotional terrain of love, self-knowledge, and spiritual awakening. A must-read for theology nerds everywhere.

Felix’s loss-of-virginity plotline, the GFY trope, and the plethora of coming-out stories in M/M made me reflect on how a romance novel establishes that the central relationship is “special”. Here, too, I smell the lingering influence of purity-based morality from traditional heterosexual norms.

Romantic convention provides two main tracks for setting up this specialness, both of which I find problematic. The more experienced partner (the male in hetero romance) has had a lot of meaningless flings, but now he’s going to behave better because he’s found The One. (E.g. Jonas in Shadow, Angie in Man of Tango.) The less experienced partner is letting down his defenses for the first time because he’s found The One.

In hetero storylines, I call this the “not like other girls” delusion–an actual quote from high school stud Jake’s pursuit of virginal Marley on the TV show Glee, which consciously referenced John Travolta’s pursuit of “Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity” in the musical Grease. In both cases, he tries a little harder not to be a dick because she is purer than other girls, not because…uh, every girl should be respected? Being a dick is bad? In real life, this is not a man who is ready for a healthy relationship. He hasn’t done any of the inner work to transition from pick-up artist to husband. The clever but frustrating Steve Carell rom-com Crazy Stupid Love makes this point, but then throws it away in the interest of tying up all the plotlines with a happy ending.

“The right person will change you” is apparently very deep-rooted in the romance genre, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. While I enjoy these books, I think it’s disappointing that gay men (and their female fans) aren’t given more role models for relationships between two sexually experienced, mature adults.

Then again, my sample is limited. More research is needed. Gee, is it getting hot in here…?

On Finishing (Sort of) the Endless Novel

Dear readers, join me in the happy dance:


(*a good major revision of)

(**Book One of Two in the series)


Paraphrasing French author Paul Valéry, the poet W.H. Auden famously observed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” This quote sticks in my mind as I sort through my many feelings and questions about reaching this milestone in the writing process. Questions like: Do I have the right to say it’s “finished” when I know there will be more edits from my critique readers and my (as yet hypothetical) publisher? Can I celebrate publicly even though someone is sure to find imperfections in the manuscript? I keep expecting someone to spring out from behind a tree and taunt “Ha-ha!” like the bully Nelson in “The Simpsons”. How could you ever imagine this was good enough? Who do you think you are?

Rather than “abandoned”, I like the word “released”. This manuscript is ready to be given a little freedom to fend for itself, like my son going off to preschool next month. In both cases, the freedom is carefully bounded. A two-year-old by himself can’t choose trustworthy companions and roam the neighborhood with them. I have to select an environment that looks safe, stay involved, remain grounded in my own authority, and pray for the best. Similarly, I think that a fledgling manuscript needs to meet the world in stages, not all at once. I’m taking the advice that I give to aspiring authors all the time: choose only a few critique readers, selected for their sympathy to your style of work and their ability to give ego-free feedback, and remember that you are the ultimate authority on what feels right.

This is counterintuitive advice in a culture where we’re accustomed to ranking everything on the Internet. Much has already been written about how the Facebook “Like” button flattens and trivializes our responses to the world on our screens. This single option is supposed to be an equally adequate reaction to a funny cat picture and a news story about police brutality. Plus, social media’s built-in expectations of “liking”, re-tweeting, pinning, and voting can give us a false sense of entitlement to judge others.

I got a Kindle Paperwhite for my birthday, which I like very much, but every time I finish a book, it invites me to rate it from one to five stars on Amazon. Online reviews are very useful–sometimes more entertaining reading than the book itself–but the star system, standing alone, has begun to strike me as absurd. What does it even mean to rank The Goldfinch and an upright vacuum cleaner according to the same metric?

The Buddha spoke of the Eight Worldly Winds: pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, and ill-repute and fame. The enlightened person seeks equanimity no matter which wind is blowing, not being tossed about by every change in circumstance. Her self-concept is larger and more flexible than any one instance of praise or blame, for example.

For a quick exercise in equanimity, check out the Amazon or Goodreads reviews of any book that you really loved or really hated. You’ll find equally passionate one-star and five-star reviews, sometimes based on the same exact thing about the book.

So I am going to celebrate, and have faith that my book will reach the right people at the right time. And always support it with a mother’s love, even if it poops its pants on picture day.

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.