Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Gary David Comstock’s Gay Theology Without Apology (Wipf & Stock, 1993) is a radical, important essay collection that uses the experiences of gays and lesbians in the church as a foundation for democratizing and diversifying our methods of interpreting the Bible. As he says in the introduction, “Christian Scripture and tradition are not authorities from which I seek approval; rather, they are resources from which I seek guidance and learn lessons as well [as] institutions that I seek to interpret, shape, and change.” (pg.4) Comstock is a UCC minister and Wesleyan University chaplain. His essays re-imagine key Christian concepts and Bible passages to help us develop “a relationship with Scripture that is modeled on friendship rather than parental authority.” (pg.6) The chapter that spoke most to my present concerns was “Leaving Jesus: A Theology of Friendship and Autonomy”, so I’ll be focusing on that essay, but I recommend reading the whole book.

When support for gay rights brought me to a crisis of faith in my moderate-evangelical orthodoxy, I had two choices. I could join the ranks of Christian scholars explaining why the affirming position was supported, or at least permitted, by a reasonable interpretation of the Bible. Or I could be honest about the fact that I would continue to hold that position, regardless of what I could find in Scripture. Having chosen the latter course, I’m stuck with the liberal’s dilemma: If the Bible is not my highest authority, how is it relevant? What does it add to the values I already live by, or the process by which I make decisions?

I greatly respect Comstock for confronting the sleight-of-hand that we progressives engage in when we try to remain under the Christian umbrella while pointing it in our preferred direction. It was so refreshing to have permission to walk away from this power struggle over “WWJD?” In the “Leaving Jesus” essay, he writes:

I think we need to stop using Jesus as our trump card in waging the struggle for peace and justice. First, because it is opportunistic; we use him as we wish for our own ends. Second, because we really do not mean it; I do not think we are involved in movements for social change because Jesus would have been with us, but because we want, need, and think we ought to be involved. Jesus gets tagged on as a rationale or support for what we know or have decided we should do. And third, because it is not an effective strategy; the organized, mainstream church has more power for establishing the prevailing image of Jesus than do marginalized people within or outside it. The history of Christianity has shown that Jesus is up for grabs; and whoever is most powerful determines the prevailing image of Jesus. (pg.93)

Now, this is not to say that every Christian is treating Jesus as an afterthought to their personal preferences. Probably most of them feel they have had genuine encounters with Jesus through prayer and Scripture, and that those encounters are guiding them to certain positions on social issues. That’s equally true for the priest of my liberal parish who supports gay rights, and for my conservative Christian former mentor who opposes them. It was true for me when I had the revelation at the 2006 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing that led me to write Two Natures, a project that blew up my relationship with Christian orthodoxy.

We should tremble at the presumption of declaring that our opponent’s God-encounter is delusional, just as we refrain from undermining their sanity by disputing what their heart and body tell them about their sexual orientation, gender identity, or trauma history. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:4, NIV)

And yet, don’t these contradictory theological results reveal the insufficiency (or possibly over-sufficiency) of the concept “Jesus” to restrain wrong actions? Comstock has anticipated this issue as well:

That the Bible is a resource for defining and lending strength to the formation of various faith communities that believe and act in various, and often conflicting, ways is not easy for those whose faith community is predicated on being right and changing others. To acknowledge and allow for a multiplicity of expressions may be to tolerate forms of Christianity that are unacceptably oppressive. But to argue for the primacy of one form, our form, over another is to become engaged in a contest for which there is no winner. Each community can claim a biblically based Jesus who supports it. (pg.95)

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

To be occupied with arguing over the correct image of Jesus is to be caught up in establishing and recognizing him as a master. Over and over we end up with a “top man” in whom we put our hope and trust, instead of giving ourselves and each other the power to decide and do what should be done, instead of taking responsibility for claiming and doing it ourselves. (pg.98)

…[Jesus] does not seem to have wanted to found an organization that would be preoccupied with fawning over him and perfecting his image. A friend bids us well, not holding on to us with last-minute conditions about loyalty and preserving his name, but trusting and expecting us to love one another–a rare and wonderful example of rescinding patriarchal privilege, and perhaps one that many would do well to follow. But its value and power lie not in proposing yet another example of how wonderful Jesus is, but settles on us the task of being our own example, of finding out from each other how wonderful we can be for each other. (pg.99)

Revisiting this essay, for the purpose of this blog post, has clarified why I feel stuck and heavy-hearted in my current prayer life. I grew up in a home where the opposite values were modeled. Life with my bio mother was all about one-way loyalty; protecting the family’s public image at the expense of the facts; proving that my way was the “right” way before I’d be granted any autonomy; never growing up; and acting grateful for love that was supposed to be unconditional but actually depended on meeting the above conditions perfectly. The only way to break that pattern was to end the relationship completely. So on a gut level, when I think about accepting some aspects of the Biblical Jesus and refusing others, I’m terrified of abandonment and punishment. My childhood instincts tell me that it’s all or nothing: either submit to the commands I don’t believe in, or forfeit my claim to any love, help, or approval from Jesus. This tears me in two.

I’d like to stay friends with a Jesus who embodied God’s overcoming of all divisions between clean/unclean, spirit/flesh, divine/human. I want to continue drawing hope from love’s triumph over death and humiliation in his Resurrection, without accepting the dogma that the universe runs on the blood sacrifice of the innocent. I’d like to believe he would listen and learn from my feedback about situations where “turn the other cheek” and “forgive 70 x 7” can impede healing and justice for the abused. It would be great to feel that he trusts me to figure things out and will forgive me when I mess up. And finally, if it turns out that Jesus is not the image that channels God’s love to me most clearly, I wonder if I can ever feel that he sends me on my way with a blessing, as scarcely any of my mentors and parental figures have been able to do.

What would make the progressive church a place where I could grow into this kind of friendship with Christ? First, more awareness of and stepping back from the struggle for narrative dominance. If we were truly secure in our freedom to relate to Jesus in our own ways, we wouldn’t need to appeal to a selective reading of Scripture as if it were the only right one. Second, sermons that dare to reject or critique the Bible passages presented in the weekly liturgy, instead of leaving them there like undigested lumps. I find it hard to handle the cognitive dissonance of being confronted with controversial texts that we then avoid in the rest of our worship experience. Third, guided conversations as a community about how our psychological baggage affects our theology. The church willing to take on this challenge would truly be a model for a counterculture of love and equality.

The Dark Door: C.M. Royer’s Spiritual Abuse Survivor Memoir

I owe Caleigh Royer a debt of gratitude because her blog inspired me to start studying Tarot last year. I found her online some years ago through one of the spiritual abuse survivor blogs for ex-fundamentalist Christians, probably No Longer Quivering or Love, Joy, Feminism. When I saw on her Facebook page that she was writing a memoir about her journey to independence, I eagerly pre-ordered the e-book of The Dark Door, and was not disappointed. In fact, though I thought I’d worked through most of those old memories of my oppressive upbringing, Royer’s sincere, vulnerable storytelling went straight to my heart and reminded me of the pain and fear of living with narcissistic parents.

Royer is only in her mid-20s but she is strong and wise beyond her years. The Dark Door recounts her break for independence at age 18 when she dared to fall in love with and marry a young man against her parents’ wishes, and her subsequent de-conversion from Christianity as she processed the ways that religion had been used to keep her under her abusive father’s thumb. Unlike some of the other bloggers in this genre, she did not become a rationalist or atheist, but instead is developing a personal spiritual practice based on psychic intuition, spirit guides, Tarot, and universal values of love and fairness.

What’s striking is how much our stories have in common, despite the different religious backgrounds. Abusive families are depressingly alike, regardless of ideology, and a dysfunctional religious community is just the family system writ large.

Caleigh grew up in a fundamentalist subculture where fathers had spiritual “headship” over their families. A girl could not spend time with, let alone date or marry, a boy unless her father gave permission. As the oldest daughter in a large family, she was pressed into the role of caretaker and disciplinarian for her siblings. It didn’t matter what her own dreams and interests were. Because of their patriarchal belief system, the church elders gave the family no support in dealing with her father’s violence and pornography addiction. Caleigh was required to submit to his will no matter what. When she fell in love with a young man from their church, she was in for the fight of her life–which she won, at the price of severing ties with her biological family. It didn’t seem that her father had any basis for objecting to her engagement to Phil; the man simply craved total control over his child’s life, which was threatened when she found another object for her affections. This reminded me of how it drove my bio mom completely mad when I found the man I would marry, and later when we planned to have a child. Narcissists hate competition.

After she and Phil succeeded in getting married, with his parents’ support, the honeymoon period was overshadowed by her chronic illness (eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia) and depression in the aftermath of trauma. She was insightful and brave enough to realize that she needed therapy to change the bad patterns she’d learned at home. Reading this part, I thought of the brilliant closing moments of the film The Graduate, where Elaine and Ben’s elation at pulling off their romantic escape from her mother turns to shell-shock and withdrawal from one another. Once the adrenaline rush of battle subsides, perhaps they start to doubt whether they can break their parents’ pattern and have a happy marriage, and the programmed guilt of filial disloyalty kicks in. All of this happened to me as a new bride.

I can also relate to the heartbreak of her realization that the religion that had sustained her in the depths of her abuse was no longer the right place for her to continue her healing. She went through guilt, bereavement, fear of the unknown, and fear of disappointing and losing her friends, but never stopped testing the evidence and logic for Bible-based Christianity as she’d always understood it. Ultimately she concluded that for her, the Christian God was too intertwined with the image of her earthly father and the male religious authorities who’d justified his abuse. That isn’t really my issue, but some of her other reasons completely hit home for me. Trauma healing for both of us has meant valuing ourselves and trusting our personal experience, which puts us in conflict with the authority-based, self-sacrificing worldview of historic Christianity.

“There was no place for a story that ends badly in Christianity,” Royer observes, recounting how her church small groups couldn’t handle her abuse narrative. It posed too much of a challenge to their sentimental ideal of family. After she de-converted, she felt relief that “I no longer felt any obligation to apologize for being angry. I could be angry at my parents and their abuse without being reminded to forgive ‘as God has forgiven you.’ I was free to take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions and I had no fear of offending an unseen God.”

A little further on in this account, she says that “To trust my gut was the least Christian thing I could do. I was told it was trusting myself instead of God.” One can certainly see how predators could deploy this doctrine to suppress their victims’ warning signals. In my progressive church culture, I haven’t found such a stark opposition between revealed and empirical knowledge, but to my mind we emphasize external political or charitable activities at the expense of teaching people to cultivate their spiritual discernment. Mystical intuition is not denigrated so much as neglected, and somewhat limited by what can be plausibly squared with the Bible. I’m with Caleigh when she says, “Reaching into Tarot has healed the distrust I had in myself.”

Royer is a young self-taught author whose style is simple and direct. The memoir had some recurring grammatical errors and typos, which one more round of copy-editing would have cured. But if this story resonates with you at all, you won’t mind the rough patches. Get yourself a copy today.

February Links Roundup: I Am Whatever I Say I Am

Happy February, readers! It’s a leap year, so we get an “extra” day. For hard-headed moderns, it’s only a bureaucratic quirk of the calendar, a minor annoyance to remember to write February 29 instead of March 1 on our checks. For the magically minded, it could be an opportunity to step out of chronos into kairos, an auspicious day to envision goals and abilities beyond our here-and-now limitations, and maybe do a ritual to support that intention. For me, it’ll probably mean a day’s reprieve from the negative self-talk: “It’s already March and I haven’t [cleaned my office, finished my short story collection, won the Pulitzer Prize]!!”

In reality, we have as much time as we have, no matter how we divide up the calendar. Nowadays I’m constantly balancing how much time to give my own writing versus time to read and support other writers. Sometimes I’m fortunate to come across articles that not only educate and entertain me, but re-equip me to do my own work with more self-acceptance and insight. Let me share a couple of those with you.

Ozy’s blog Thing of Things offers a unique perspective on neurodiversity, sexuality and gender, and utilitarian ethics. With a fine-tuned analytical mind and humble self-aware humor, Ozy picks out the inconsistencies and complex side effects of our ideologies, yet adopts a “live and let live” attitude to everyone’s imperfect efforts to discover what happiness means to them.

One interesting fact I learned from Ozy is that there are people who identify as “otherkin”: they believe they are part animal, analogous to a genderqueer person believing they are partially male and partially female. In their January 25 post, “On Otherkin and Trans People”, Ozy disputes the argument that otherkin make transgender people seem less credible. I love this post because it basically sums up my philosophy of respecting people to be the authority on their own experience. Ozy’s logic also applies to those who disbelieve trauma survivors because their stories are not perfect in every factual detail, or because their reported experience sounds too grotesque and extreme to be true. (Boldface below is mine.)

As an advocate for the rights of trans people and neurodivergent people, I think the world would be a better place if we all collectively adopted this rule: if someone is being kinda weird, but they are not causing direct, measurable harm to anyone else, leave them alone and move on with your life.

Imagine if instead of harassing trans women on the street, people said, “well, that outfit’s rather odd, but it’s really none of my business.” Imagine if instead of discriminating against trans people in housing or the workplace, people said, “well, I can’t imagine why a man would want to be a woman, but she does good work and pays her rent on time and that’s what matters.” Imagine if no one ever wrote a long screed explaining why you are secretly a girl pretending to be a boy because of your traumatic past, your internalized homophobia, or your deep-seated desire to be Special.

Furthermore, I think we should all adopt the rule: if someone is describing an experience that is really fucking weird, your default assumption should be that they aren’t making it up.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re describing their experiences accurately, or their explanation of why they feel the way they do is worth a pound of dog shit, or that no one ever makes anything up. But start from the assumption that– however distorted– the person is doing their best to describe something that is actually happening in their lives, and that if you’re going to keep interacting with them, you should listen.

I mean, shit, if people responded to gender dysphoria with “I don’t get it, huh, brains are weird” rather than “I don’t get it, you must be faking and I am going to come up with all kinds of elaborate reasons to explain why”, transphobia would basically be solved.

Consider the costs and benefits of these rules. If otherkin is not a real thing and you leave them alone, then you weren’t a dick to someone who’s going to feel really silly in a couple of years. If otherkin is not a real thing and you listen, then you didn’t make them become defensive or feel like they couldn’t question their identity without being attacked, and maybe you helped them come to the realization that it isn’t real. If otherkin is a real thing and you don’t follow my rules, then you took someone going through a tremendously painful experience and made it worse for no reason.

Continuing on the theme of identity and inclusion, progressive theologian and seminary student Daniel José Camacho finds an ethic of radical welcome in the description of the Trinitarian Logos in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. In this January 5 article from The Christian Century, “John’s prologue and God’s rejected children”, Camacho finds it significant that “in the midst of rejection, the text also speaks about this rejected one giving power to people to become children of God on a basis that transcends biology and purity.”

The borderless nature of God’s manifestation in Jesus helped Camacho make sense of his hybrid identity as a second-generation Afro-Colombian immigrant, and become an ally to LGBTQ Christians whose families rejected them for so-called Biblical reasons. “While the text was saying that being a child of God was based on faith and not based on blood or procreation, I saw many churches basing faithful Christian identity precisely on biology, on heteronormativity, on the ability to procreate in a ‘heterosexual’ marriage.”

Later on in the essay, Camacho notes parallels between John’s Holy Spirit and the female-personified Sophia (Wisdom) of Jewish tradition, to suggest that the Logos is genderqueer:

Whether John intended it or not, I see the Logos as enacting a gender-bending performance. The man Jesus Christ who is the eternal Logos was/is also thewoman Sophia. This is a good reminder that God transcends the gender binaries and essentialisms that humans have sharply defined. John’s prologue depicts Jesus as transgressing not only what distinguishes the human and the divine, but transgressing gender norms. As such, I think it is right to see Jesus as a transgressive “border-crosser” in multiple ways. For some time now, feminist scholars such as Elizabeth A. Johnson have highlighted the importance of Sophia in Christological gender-dynamics. Is it a stretch to see the Logos as bending gender? I don’t think so. If we consider the rest of the prologue, the rest of John’s Gospel, and the rest of Jesus’ life, this is consistent. Jesus’ family is non-traditional; it is not based on simple “biology.” Jesus’ life is not necessarily emblematic of a “straight” lifestyle…

Logos Christology needs to be unhooked from the Eurocentric rationality of the West which has sexually, racially, and economically classified people so as to produce and reproduce rejection and inequality.

In the Incarnation, the Word experiences the “No’s” that some of us hear. No, you are not truly American enough. No, you are not Latin American enough. No, you are not sexually normal. No, your societies are not developed. No, your culture/civilization is not rational enough.  Entering into humanity’s rejection of itself, the Word then demolishes the harmful ways in which we have internalized purity, nationalistic and gendered essentialisms, and Eurocentric rationality to define what it means to be human. As such, the Logos is the disordering ordering principle who destabilizes the violent means by which we narrowly define humanity and carry out rejections of our own people and peoples around the world. The Wisdom of God is not the progression of rationality from the Greeks to the Romans to the Europeans to the United States. Sophia is the disordering ordering force of life who deconstructs what we deem “natural” in order to make room for a creation that is different and far richer than we imagined.

At the online magazine Mask, Johanna Hedva’s manifesto “Sick Woman Theory” is a long-read well worth your time. To a lesser degree than the author, I also struggle with chronic disability from endometriosis, compounded by the shame and silence that society wraps around “female troubles”. Hedva re-frames the conversation around disability and political resistance, arguing that the activism of personal survival is as valuable as anything that happens on the barricades. I like how she uses “woman” as a nonbinary symbol of solidarity with all marginalized bodies.

Sick Woman Theory is an insistence that most modes of political protest are internalized, lived, embodied, suffering, and no doubt invisible. Sick Woman Theory redefines existence in a body as something that is primarily and always vulnerable, following from Judith Butler’s work on precarity and resistance. Because the premise insists that a body is defined by its vulnerability, not temporarily affected by it, the implication is that it is continuously reliant on infrastructures of support in order to endure, and so we need to re-shape the world around this fact. Sick Woman Theory maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy. It is that all of our bodies and minds carry the historical trauma of this, that it is the world itself that is making and keeping us sick.

To take the term “woman” as the subject-position of this work is a strategic, all-encompassing embrace and dedication to the particular, rather than the universal. Though the identity of “woman” has erased and excluded many (especially women of color and trans and genderfluid people), I choose to use it because it still represents the un-cared for, the secondary, the oppressed, the non-, the un-, the less-than. The problematics of this term will always require critique, and I hope that Sick Woman Theory can help undo those in its own way. But more than anything, I’m inspired to use the word “woman” because I saw this year how it can still be radical to be a woman in the 21st century. I use it to honor a dear friend of mine who came out as genderfluid last year. For her, what mattered the most was to be able to call herself a “woman,” to use the pronouns “she/her.” She didn’t want surgery or hormones; she loved her body and her big dick and didn’t want to change it – she only wanted the word. That the word itself can be an empowerment is the spirit in which Sick Woman Theory is named.

The Sick Woman is an identity and body that can belong to anyone denied the privileged existence – or the cruelly optimistic promise of such an existence – of the white, straight, healthy, neurotypical, upper and middle-class, cis- and able-bodied man who makes his home in a wealthy country, has never not had health insurance, and whose importance to society is everywhere recognized and made explicit by that society; whose importance and care dominates that society, at the expense of everyone else.

The Sick Woman is anyone who does not have this guarantee of care.

The Sick Woman is told that, to this society, her care, even her survival, does not matter.

The Sick Woman is all of the “dysfunctional,” “dangerous” and “in danger,” “badly behaved,” “crazy,” “incurable,” “traumatized,” “disordered,” “diseased,” “chronic,” “uninsurable,” “wretched,” “undesirable” and altogether “dysfunctional” bodies belonging to women, people of color, poor, ill, neuro-atypical, differently abled, queer, trans, and genderfluid people, who have been historically pathologized, hospitalized, institutionalized, brutalized, rendered “unmanageable,” and therefore made culturally illegitimate and politically invisible.

The Sick Woman is a black trans woman having panic attacks while using a public restroom, in fear of the violence awaiting her.

The Sick Woman is the child of parents whose indigenous histories have been erased, who suffers from the trauma of generations of colonization and violence.

The Sick Woman is a homeless person, especially one with any kind of disease and no access to treatment, and whose only access to mental-health care is a 72-hour hold in the county hospital.

The Sick Woman is a mentally ill black woman whose family called the police for help because she was suffering an episode, and who was murdered in police custody, and whose story was denied by everyone operating under white supremacy. Her name is Tanesha Anderson.

The Sick Woman is a 50-year-old gay man who was raped as a teenager and has remained silent and shamed, believing that men can’t be raped.

The Sick Woman is a disabled person who couldn’t go to the lecture on disability rights because it was held in a venue without accessibility.

The Sick Woman is a white woman with chronic illness rooted in sexual trauma who must take painkillers in order to get out of bed.

The Sick Woman is a straight man with depression who’s been medicated (managed) since early adolescence and now struggles to work the 60 hours per week that his job demands.

The Sick Woman is someone diagnosed with a chronic illness, whose family and friends continually tell them they should exercise more.

The Sick Woman is a queer woman of color whose activism, intellect, rage, and depression are seen by white society as unlikeable attributes of her personality.

The Sick Woman is a black man killed in police custody, and officially said to have severed his own spine. His name is Freddie Gray.

The Sick Woman is a veteran suffering from PTSD on the months-long waiting list to see a doctor at the VA.

The Sick Woman is a single mother, illegally emigrated to the “land of the free,” shuffling between three jobs in order to feed her family, and finding it harder and harder to breathe.

The Sick Woman is the refugee.

The Sick Woman is the abused child.

The Sick Woman is the person with autism whom the world is trying to “cure.”

The Sick Woman is the starving.

The Sick Woman is the dying.

And, crucially: The Sick Woman is who capitalism needs to perpetuate itself.

Why?

Because to stay alive, capitalism cannot be responsible for our care – its logic of exploitation requires that some of us die.

“Sickness” as we speak of it today is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, “wellness.” The “well” person is the person well enough to go to work. The “sick” person is the one who can’t. What is so destructive about conceiving of wellness as the default, as the standard mode of existence, is that it invents illness as temporary. When being sick is an abhorrence to the norm, it allows us to conceive of care and support in the same way.

Care, in this configuration, is only required sometimes. When sickness is temporary, care is not normal.

Here’s an exercise: go to the mirror, look yourself in the face, and say out loud: “To take care of you is not normal. I can only do it temporarily.”

Saying this to yourself will merely be an echo of what the world repeats all the time…

…The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honor it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice community. A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care.

 

January Links Roundup: Disobedient Woman Facts

This blog usually tackles (or is tackled by) serious subjects, so let’s start the year with a little humor. Over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sandra Newman’s list of “Woman Facts” satirizes gender roles and those clickbait lists of dubious scientific trivia. For instance:

A woman is born with all the exclamation points she will use in her lifetime.

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When cornered by a predator, a woman can swell to three times her normal size, but won’t because it is unladylike.

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The “period” is a myth devised by the 1810 Ladies’ Secret Conclave. Tampons actually serve to prevent the genie from escaping.

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Large numbers of women can be caught by baiting a trap with a crying infant. Though only one woman may fall into the trap, hundreds of others will gather to criticize everything she does with the child.

On that note, I recognized so much of myself in this May 2015 post from British evangelical feminist Hannah Mudge’s blog, “Searching for Sunday: Motherhood, Guilt and Disillusionment”. Our sons are about the same age. I thought I was the only one who suddenly felt overburdened by the demands of church membership once I had a baby:

In 2012 I became a mother. It hardly seems possible that Sebastian is three this week, a hilarious, much-loved little ball of energy. Motherhood hit me like it hits most other women; I mulled over the shift in my identity incessantly, felt incredibly lonely, struggled with anxiety and felt as if I’d left my brain somewhere else for months on end as I cared for a child that Did Not Sleep. Unsurprisingly, I totally disengaged from church. With one eye on the baby and my weary mind struggling to cope with the noise and the crowds and the intrusion, I zoned out. When I wasn’t zoned out, all I could feel was guilt.

The modern church can be incredibly effective at making you feel guilty because you’re insufficiently involved, insufficiently on board, insufficiently motivated to do more, give more, be more. There are always more programmes, more opportunities to serve, another reminder to get better at quiet time or outreach or prayer. When you have a baby your priorities change. This doesn’t mean that you have no desire to give more, to learn more; in my case, motherhood coincided with the beginning of a deep desire to know more about theology, to delve deeply into scripture, and a growing sense of revelation in the everyday, in conversations with friends and rigorous self-analysis. But what it does mean is that you almost certainly have no time to actually do it.

In 2012 I became a mother. My mental health has had its ups and downs. I returned to work full time when my son was nine months old and I love my job. I’ve had a thirst for deep friendships, but my introvert’s brain doesn’t do well with small talk and crowds and distractions. I’ve longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the sacred and to simply be left alone. And for a good few years, I’ve been sold the idea that showing up on a Sunday, getting enthusiastic about joining in and getting something out of it is paramount. But by and large I’ve felt nothing, learnt nothing, wished for more free time and more focus, wished I’d stayed at home or gone for a walk or read a book instead.

Deep down I know that looking to find everything in 90 minutes on a Sunday isn’t the right thing to do. But I’ve still expected something – and when I’ve failed to gain anything from those 90 minutes on a Sunday, I’ve felt disillusioned and angry. Excluded because I’m not ‘on board’ and don’t even want to be, apprehensive because I’ve been desperate to talk to someone about it but worried that doing so would make me a troublemaker, get me labelled as bitter, problematic, a contentious woman…

…What if you’re reading this and thinking “This is me”? Bring it all back to God and your place in the Kingdom and where you’re at, right now. Not what you feel you should be involved in and saying yes to and not how you think you should be continually striving to do better and give more of yourself. Invest time in your family and your friends. Listen to God when you feel prompted to explore ways of worship or study or churches you might feel at home in. Remember the fact that Christianity doesn’t mean being assimilated and being just like everyone else at church, or all your Christian friends on Facebook, or having to like everything you hear on a Sunday. When that headspace starts to come back, use it wisely. And know that you are not alone.

For me personally, since I stopped saying the Daily Office this past November (with some guilt about breaking my 8-year tradition), I don’t feel as burned-out on Bible verses by the time Sunday comes around. Keeping up the connection with my church friends a couple of times a month feels right. I know that I need a new private devotional practice, Christian or otherwise, but I have to start by choosing to do less. My number-one New Year’s resolution is to spend more time in the bathtub watching Netflix.

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son in response to God’s command, is one of those Bible stories that make me doubt whether Christianity can be made survivor-friendly. Characters in my new novel-in-progress grapple with this text as they try to make sense of family trauma and religious belief. Fred Clark at the progressive Christian blog Slacktivist persuasively argues that “divine command” doesn’t exempt us from moral discernment, in this 2014 post, “Obedience is Always About Epistemology”:

I’m hearing voices. I’m hearing a voice in my head that’s telling me to kill a child.

The possibility that this is the voice of God testing my faith isn’t even going to be among the first thousand possibilities worth considering. The thousand other possibilities are all Very Bad, of course, but that one’s even worse — including and encompassing all the Very Bad possibilities that go before it.

Initially, though, I’d do what anyone would likely do if a voice in my head commanded me to kill and burn a child. I’d ignore it, desperately hoping it would go away, fearful of telling anyone that I’d ever even thought of such a thing lest they think — rightly — that I am a monster.

And if it didn’t go away? Well then I’d have myself committed. I’d remove myself from the presence of chlidren, driving to the nearest inpatient facility to inform the nice people in admissions, as calmly as possible, that I believed I was becoming a danger to myself and others. I’m hearing voices. The voices want me to do Bad Things.

No, no, no, the “pastors and apologists” say — that violates the spirit of the story. It’s about obedience, not epistemology. For the sake of the story, you must accept that you receive this command from God as an unambiguous revelation: You know with certainty it is a command from God.

But that just restates the problem, it doesn’t solve it. Obedience is always about epistemology. I cannot respond to this “divine command” as such until I know that it is, in fact, a divine command. It is not humanly possible to engage this story unless the story can explain just what it would mean to be able to know with certainty that this was an unambiguous bit of divine revelation, a clear command clearly from God.

And I cannot imagine any form of direct revelation that could convince me of that. I cannot imagine any way in which I, as a human bound by my finite human reason and my fallible human senses, could ever have access to such inhuman, infallible certainty.

The “voice of God”? Auditory hallucinations. Hearing voices in your head is a textbook symptom of many well-documented forms of mental illness. We’ve already covered what hearing such a voice giving such a command would mean and what it would require me to do.

And, no, it doesn’t make any difference to try to distinguish between a “voice in your head” and a voice outside your head. All voices are in your head — the “real” ones just as much as the delusional ones. That’s what’s so terrifying about actual auditory hallucinations. They do not sound like hallucinations — like something that’s “only in your head.” They sound exactly like any other voice you’ve ever heard.

How about giant flaming letters carved in the sky? No good. Everything we’ve just said about auditory hallucinations is also true for visual ones.

Well, what if other people hear God’s voice as well? What if everyone else hears it?

That’s to be expected, isn’t it? All of this is just confirming the likeliest possibility: I’m a very, very sick man. Paranoid and delusional, and now imagining that everyone else is saying the same horrible thing as the voice in my head.

There simply exists no form this divine revelation could possibly take that would exempt it from the fact that I, as a finite and fallible human, would be required to perceive it. And so it would always be possible that I was perceiving it wrong — that I was misperceiving it.

And one doesn’t want to kill and burn a child based on a misperception.

One doesn’t generally want to kill and burn a child at all — which brings us to the second problem here. It’s not just the form of this divine command that is a problem, it’s also the substance. The repugnant substance of this alleged divine command reinforces all of the formal reasons stated above for doubting it. The substance of the command presents a whole Wesleyan quadrilateral of reasons to conclude that it cannot be divine. Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all scream that it cannot be so.

Imagine again that scenario in which a unanimous horde of witnesses confirms that I have, in fact, been given a divine command that I cannot ignore or deny. Just what would these witnesses attesting to this divine revelation say? “God is speaking to you, Fred. God wants you to kill and burn this child. You need to do what God tells you to do.”

Whatever part of me wanted to cling to my own sanity wouldn’t reasonably conclude that this means God wants me to kill a child. A more reasonable conclusion would be to realize, in horror, that I’d stumbled into some terrifying Wicker Man scenario. These “witnesses” must be speaking of some other God. And the voice I was hearing and the fiery letters in the sky would force me to realize that their God was real.

C.S. Lewis toyed with the idea that something like this might be true. So did H.P. Lovecraft. So did whoever wrote Psalm 82. And now Molech or dread Chthulhu or raging Talos or three-crowned Cyric or whichever child-eating deity it was is after me.

So at that point, I’d be praying like I’d never prayed before, asking God — the God I worship, the God of Abraham, the God of the Gospels and the creeds – to deliver me from this evil lesser god who was attempting to claim me for his own. Monotheism would no longer be an option, but I’d still be monolatrous — faithful only to the God of gods and Lord of lords, the God revealed in Jesus, the God described in 1 John as “God is love” and the God mocked by Jonah for being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Or perhaps there could be a less radical theological explanation. I don’t believe in a “literal” Satan — mainly because I don’t see such a character literally present in the biblical literature — but this overwhelming experience of voices and witnesses and flaming letters would likely cause me to re-evaluate that conclusion. If the voices and signs and wonders and attestations weren’t all just delusion, then here would be apparent evidence of the reality of some supernatural, evil being very much like the Satan figure we find in Dante and Milton and Stephen Vincent Benét and all the other canonical sources of this doctrine.

This is the most reasonable, defensible and biblical second possibility. If the voices and signs and wonders telling me to kill a child are not a form of delusional madness, then this must be Satan speaking to me.

No, no, no, say the pastors and apologists — it’s not Satan, it’s God. This is, they stress, the whole point of the story — that it’s God — and undeniably God — telling me to kill and burn a child.

I’ve got it backwards, they say. The story isn’t about Satan pretending to be God. It’s a story about God pretending to be Satan.

I’m don’t think that helps.

The bottom line here is that for all of these self-proclaimed defenders of God’s sovereignty, this story is not at all about obedience to God. It’s about obedience to them.

Because obedience, remember, is always about epistemology — about the possibility of knowing, with certainty, what it is we are commanded to do, and the possibility of knowing, with certainty, the source of that command.

They like to talk about God’s sovereignty, but the real substance of their claim has to do with their own certainty. Their own ability to access certainty and to proclaim it to and for others. We know what God has commanded, they say. We know. And therefore you must obey [what God has commanded as articulated by] us.

I appreciate this post for highlighting the connection between theology, sanity, and social control. When you persuade people to suspend their common-sense moral intuitions and empathy, this not only makes them vulnerable to authoritarian religious leaders, but also prevents them from recognizing and healing from other abuses of power in their personal lives. Because if you can’t be sure that child sacrifice is wrong, you can’t be sure of anything. To quote King Lear, “That way madness lies.” And he would know.

November Links Roundup: It’s Supposed to Hurt

I just finished a philosophy book that I loved in 1999, and found it equally rewarding to re-read from a new perspective. Marxist-feminist philosopher Robin May Schott’s Cognition and Eros: A Critique of the Kantian Paradigm (Beacon Press, 1988) challenges the body-mind split that has constituted “objectivity” for the Western religious and intellectual tradition. I hope to devote a whole post to this book later. At the moment, I want to focus on how the ideal of dissociation from one’s body and emotions plays out in academia. Schott observes that women’s exclusion from educational institutions has been justified by the paradigm that identifies women with embodied emotion and men with dispassionate intellect. Though Schott doesn’t discuss racism, this form of discrimination relies on the same projective identification of nonwhite people with a lower physical realm. The diversity of bodies is particular and contingent, therefore beneath the so-called universality of true knowledge.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when members of historically excluded groups describe the trauma of ongoing discrimination in their universities, the liberal intellectual response is “Grow up and stop whining.” Bringing your whole emotional and embodied self into a discussion automatically undermines your intellectual credibility–even when the discussion is a debate over whether bodies like yours are fully human. Emotion-shaming works because of this centuries-old tradition of defining knowledge as that which cannot acknowledge the interpersonal.

Miles Johnson’s Slate News article from Nov. 10, “People Don’t Hate Safe Spaces, They Hate the People They Protect”, looks at this dynamic in the context of the University of Missouri students’ recent anti-racism protests. Many pundits criticized the black students for limiting press access to some of their events, while others noted that black activists have a well-founded fear of being misrepresented by the media. It’s become fashionable among the former camp to ridicule “safe spaces” as an immature demand from entitled, sheltered college kids. Johnson counters:

…how quickly we all forget that safe spaces are nothing new. Safe spaces belong to a tradition with roots extending far beyond the borders of college campuses, and is something that dominant, mainstream society is infamous for routinely imposing.

In May of 1989, the New York Times reported the complete eradication of graffiti in subways. Graffiti had long filled train cars, platforms, and tunnels, but, as a staple of hip-hop culture dominated by young black people, was seen as a public scourge. In fact, in a New York Times piece that would be published seven years later in 1996, graffiti artists are described as “vandals armed with cans of paint.” The removal of graffiti from subways was, quite literally, the creation of a safe space. You could hypothetically entertain an argument about whether graffiti constitutes speech or is simply vandalism, but that would require coming to the insurmountable conversational road block that goes something like, “graffiti is vandalism because we say it is.” The mere act of spraying paint onto a surface is not inherently malicious, but dominant American culture in the 1980s and 90s decided that it was—so it was…

Some would argue that using the preservation of the MTA’s karma as reason to spend public money to hire thousands of workers to clean trains is both hilariously ironic, and rather flimsy. Perhaps those sheltered New York subway riders should have just been able to confront a point of view different from their own, rather than cower in fear simply because it was not presented to them in a way they found tasteful. The graffiti was removed from inside trains (a quasi-public space, like the University of Missouri’s quad) to make riders, specifically those who found spray-painted messages to be inherently menacing, feel safe…

…after the state of Arizona rejected a proposal to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday in 1990, Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get to Arizona,” released the following year, was played once on MTV before being banned. The censoring of speech orchestrated by MTV was, undoubtedly, to create a safer, more pleasing brand of MTV for its viewers and listeners—but safety for whom? Safety for fans of Public Enemy, or for people who would find the band’s criticism of the state of Arizona distasteful?

The examples are nearly endless.

Augusta National Golf Club refused to admit black golfers as members before 1990, and prohibited women from becoming members until 2012. What is a golf club that refuses membership to black men or any women but a safe space for white men?

I wish Schott’s history of emotion-suppression in religion hadn’t stopped at the Reformation, because I could see a straight line from ancient thinkers’ neurotic mind-body splitting to contemporary Christianity’s valuation of doctrine over psychological well-being. Tell Me Why the World is Weird is the blog of an American woman who moved to China for Christian missionary work, then began to question and reject her old belief system. I could quote all of her Nov. 17 post, “Church is Supposed to Hurt”, with an Amen! The blogger was attending an evangelical small group that made her feel depressed and unsafe, but felt duty-bound to keep going, until she thought about the problem from a different angle. Highlights are below:

I wasn’t paying attention to my body. I wasn’t paying attention to how I felt. My body and mind were telling me about my own needs (specifically, that it’s not healthy for me to put myself in that kind of Christian environment) and I didn’t realize it. (Until I actually wrote it all down.)

Because the church trains us to ignore our own needs. The church teaches that following God is supposed to be hard, and that we need to obey even though it will hurt…

…People come to small group and say “I haven’t been reading my bible because I wanted to sleep instead” or “because I wanted to watch TV in the evenings” and they feel as if those things are shameful and selfish. NO! Listen to your body. You need sleep. You need to do relaxing things like watch TV. We’ve created this culture where people claim to believe “spending time with God” is the most important thing, but then they don’t do it because their mind/body/emotions tell them it’s not actually worth it, and they can’t be honest about it. They feel bad and come to small group and talk about how weak and selfish they are, how they have to work harder in the future to ignore their own needs and do what the church taught them is the right thing for all Christians to do.

The same thing is true about going to church. Samantha Field’s post, the not-so-ridiculous reasons people leave church, does a great job with this topic. She writes about the memes and blog posts that get shared by Christians, mocking the reasons that people quit going to church. Those awful posts are all about how pathetic and selfish you are if you stop going to church because you don’t like it, or because it wasn’t actually a good thing for you, or because people judged you, etc.

Reality check: If you don’t like something, why on earth would you do it? But the church teaches it doesn’t matter how you feel- if you’re a Christian, you HAVE TO go to church. And if you don’t, you’d better have a damn good excuse, or rather, haha no excuse is good enough, you’re just being selfish.

Because we’re taught that our own feelings and our own needs don’t matter. If the church is hurting us, or if every week we think “this is pointless, why do I keep coming here?” it doesn’t matter. You have to just keep doing it, and eventually God will help you learn to like it.

Which is why it’s taken me so long to realize that, hey, since this church group is pushing me toward depression, I should stop going.

In a similar vein, I could see many of my current struggles reflected in the final post on Hännah Ettinger’s post-fundamentalist Christian blog Wine and Marble, “Love, Fundamentalism, and Endings”. Ettinger begins with the bell hooks quote: “Love and abuse cannot coexist.” Following the implications of this axiom, she came to see that what went by the name of “love” in her Christian upbringing was anything but:

In fundamentalism, ideology and hierarchy > person and emotional healthy relationships. Every. Damn. Time.

bell hooks writes that “abuse and love cannot coexist” because (as Christian theology teaches) love is about considering another person’s best interest.

…Love should not be mutable, but the terms of the relationship will be in order to be consistent with love. Love respects the other as a separate, autonomous individual with unique needs. Love does not require the other person to fix your emotional problems. Love is considerate, respectful, ethical, generous. Love is not craven, demanding, or manipulative.

This cuts two ways. Loving others well is easier (and probably better) the better you are at loving yourself well. It’s hard to love someone else well if you are abusive toward yourself, and if you try you’re more  likely to expect the other party to love you the way you should be loving yourself, and then resent them for not fixing your emotional disassociation with yourself. No person, no religious belief, no creature comfort will be able to fix the fundamental need for self-acceptance. I’ve been learning this, and it’s not easy. I can deflect and distract myself, but there is no substitute for sitting with my own emotions and owning them to myself and accepting that the me I’m living with is messy and not quite all who I want to be. I have to live with (and learn to love) me in real time, as I grow and learn, and not with my idealized future version of myself. This means also recognizing when I’m in unhealthy relationships or situations and being responsible for standing up for myself, and not expecting others to read my mind or know my needs and rescue me. Boundaries, communication, and actively engaging my day-to-day life and owning my responsibility to and for myself: these are ways I can engage in loving myself well.

Loving others well is an extension of understanding how to love myself. I need to respect the fact that others need different things and that what is good for me might not be good for them, that my perception of reality might not be their story, that they may be growing and learning faster or slower than I am. I respect them as individuals and not as caricatures or emotional food sources for myself, and that paves the way for healthy relationship.

This means: I cannot demand my more fundamentalist friends to change their beliefs on things, because their emotional needs (and reasons for holding on to various positions) are different from mine. I can, however, write about what I’ve learned and how various elements of religious fundamentalism have been harmful. I can also limit the ability of their more negative positions to affect me personally by reducing my exposure to toxic relational dynamics, and I can also appeal to their desire to love others when I see them hurting people close to me and ask for them to change how they treat people based on our shared assumption that they care about the other person’s best interest.

…In my pilgrimage to understand love and to heal, I’ve had to reconcile myself to the fact that church and Christian culture are antithetical to my emotional and mental stability. The solvency of Christianity for some, I believe, is viable and good. I think the church can be better and radically change lives for good. I think the teachings of Jesus are precious and radical and good. There is much that I love, but I have had to remove myself from it and remove it from me in order to be kind to myself. All things are lawful, etc. For me this means: I’m not a Christian anymore.

The damage done to my brain by code-switching in Christianese and by tiptoeing around emotional land mines from my time in the cult outweigh the worth of holding onto the Creeds for the Creeds’ sake. If Jesus is the Christ and all of that is true, then I’d rather be a Calormen in the end and be sound of mind and live ethically and love well than be a martyr for something that has fostered so much suffering.

I do not recant anything I have written. I still love the things I have always loved. I still believe in the power of radical love to transform. I still believe in the magic of community and the mystery of burden-bearing and communion. I still love justice and mercy and crave light and truth.

But it is the learning of the loving that calls me to keep exploring, and so I’m discarding things that are impotent or emotionally destructive. I’m not merely disassociating from the label of “Christian”or organized church in pursuit of being a “Jesus-follower.” I am closing that chapter completely.

 

September Links Roundup: The Faults of Forgiveness, Graduating From Church, and Other Radical Ideas

I keep having to come out on this blog. As a gay-affirming Christian, as an abuse survivor, and now as something I don’t have a name for. “Spiritual but not religious” doesn’t fit. I’m finding God in more traditions, even as I loosen my identification with a single one. Christianity remains important to me as one avenue for connecting with God, but I have to confess that I no longer regard it as authoritative.

Don’t put me in the camp of ex-Christian rationalists, or those who proclaim that “all religions basically say the same thing” (they don’t). I believe in magic. What I no longer believe in is all-or-nothing relationships. I used to think I had to choose between tying myself in knots to accept oppressive doctrines, or being cut off from the face of God that I encounter in Christian art and worship. But I’ve discovered that all traditions contain contradictions, a very human admixture of poison and cure, so that staying within the same “brand name” (so to speak) is no guarantee that all the components will be compatible or equal in quality.

If I have a particular doctrinal sticking point these days, it’s the gospel messages of forgiveness and nonresistance to evil. Setting aside all the corruptions of religious texts and institutions, I can’t honestly call myself a follower of Jesus, because my life doesn’t line up with some of his core teaching. Not just that I find it too hard, but that I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Psychologist Sherrie Campbell’s 2014 Huffington Post piece “The 5 Faults With Forgiveness” succinctly lays out the case against the moral-religious command to forgive abuse and atrocities. (Hat tip to the Feminism and Religion blog for the link.) She distinguishes forgiveness from the healthier goal of accepting reality and having all of our feelings about it: “In acceptance the healing is about you. In forgiveness the healing is about the perpetrator.”

I especially liked her fourth point, debunking the catchphrase that “a lack of forgiveness places you in an emotional prison”. I frequently hear this from liberal spiritual folks who want to square the modern concern for personal well-being with an ancient religion that had different priorities. One benefit of having a non-authoritative relationship to Christianity is that I no longer have to twist words out of their common-sense meaning in order to salvage both the doctrine and my sanity. Campbell writes:

Much information is out there about how if we don’t forgive we will only live in an angry, hateful place, and therefore, we have no power and are, in essence, giving our perpetrators even more power. We are shamed for having the naturally occurring feelings we should have based on our circumstances, because if we have them, accept them and express them we are told we are giving the person, situation or circumstance even more power and we are only hurting ourselves. This causes self-punishment. We feel guilty or weak for feeling our natural emotions. In reality there are things in our lives which happen to us which may always trigger a bit of anger as we think about them, but to be told we are responsible for making someone else powerful with these natural feelings only makes us feel inadequate, and it forces us away from the organic grieving process. This forcing of our feelings away creates what we are trying to avoid: a constant state of anger. In trying to keep our power we end up losing our power.

Progressive evangelical Christian blogger Zach Hoag wrote this risky, heartfelt piece this past summer, about the death of his old identity as a church planter and maybe even a church member in the typical sense. “On Graduating” asks us to acknowledge that a spiritual path may be God’s best plan for us now, yet have a natural finite lifespan–an especially bold realization for someone from a Christian culture that prizes inerrancy and universal truths. I identified with Hoag’s revelation that his shame from an abusive childhood was keeping him from growing and moving on spiritually.

It’s time to accept fully the experiences that have brought me to this point. It’s time to shed fully the season, the identity, the dream that has more to do with who I am supposed to be than who I really am now. It’s time to allow whatever additional elements of allegiance to an institution or organization or a form of religion to die, so that I will not stay too long, so that this will not need to become a messy(er) divorce.

Lastly, I want to recommend the online theology journal The Other Journal, Issue #25, whose theme is Trauma. It’s so refreshing to find intellectually rigorous work on trauma theology that’s not behind the paywall of an academic journal. Of special note is “The Spirit’s Witness: An Interview with Shelly Rambo”. Her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining is now on my wishlist. In this piece, the Boston University professor describes being troubled by the way that traditional apologetics forced survivors’ stories into a single narrative arc:

I was aware, however, that there was this triangle of clinical practice, literary theory, and Christian theology, which I found to be a very unique way of thinking about suffering, a distinctive phenomenology of suffering. I brought it back to Christian theology, and I asked more of those complex questions that my faith tradition had danced around with apologetics. How do we think about suffering, given the Christian plot—the story of creation, fall, and redemption? What happens when the human story and the story of our lived experience doesn’t fit the linear pattern of that Christian plot? What happens when there are certain dominant ways of telling that story which undercut many of our stories? More specifically, I came to believe that it is important to ask why certain ways of thinking about what happened on the cross come to be the one way of thinking. I brought all of the trauma readings, and all of these questions, back to Christian theology, and it led me to my doctoral work on the interdisciplinary study of trauma and to a corresponding theology of Holy Saturday…

…God’s Spirit is never separated from us, but experiences, such as trauma, can render this love—which is the central attribute of the Spirit and which still remains with us—altogether lost. Yet the pneumatology of Holy Saturday says that when all is lost the Spirit surfaces through the textured witness of those who remain. This is where the connection between God’s Spirit and the human spirit is most critical; the witnesses surface this love. Here I am pointing back to my comments about the surface of skin as significant, because I want to emphasize that this work is not just about words or language but, in very concrete terms, about tending to bodies. The theology of Holy Saturday is oriented less to those who experience trauma than to those who accompany others in this journey through the swamp. Finding one’s way in the swamp requires others who can witness it.

What I hope to emphasize about the descent into hell in the Spirit during Holy Saturday is that we have not yet known that Spirit before. And it appears distinctively here, just as the animating breath appears as the breath of life in Genesis. I highlight this distinctive vocabulary for the Spirit, which occurs in the Gospel of John, setting it apart from the Spirit of Pentecost, because it takes a different form. So I mean to demonstrate that it is not just that the Spirit appears in this part of the story but that the witness is a distinctive form of presence. The swamp, as you present it, may be a very real experience of God’s absence, yet the Spirit in hell is discerned not as pure presence but through the witness of the disciples.

And so that Spirit is always present, yet it has to get reanimated. You can go back to Ezekiel and the dry bones. You think these bones are the driest bones ever, that there is no life possible in them, but they just need to be summoned and given life again.

The Non-Personhood of Children in the Bible

The Daily Office, the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy and Bible readings for morning and evening prayer, provides some uncomfortable juxtapositions with current events. Shortly after watching the first TV debate among the Republican presidential candidates, I was presented with this reading from 2 Samuel 12:1-14.

King David has just arranged for his loyal soldier Uriah to be killed in battle because David coveted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan now tells him a fable about a rich man who had many flocks of his own, but seized a poor man’s only pet lamb to eat. That’s outrageous, says the king; that’s you, the prophet shoots back.

13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan said to David, “Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.”

(Boldface emphasis mine.)

So…not only was Bathsheba taken from her husband by King David (whether she wanted it or not, she couldn’t safely refuse), now she’s going to suffer the death of her child…at God’s command? And the innocent child, why does he get punished for the king’s adultery and murder?

The GOP candidates last week rushed to outdo one another in pledging to protect unborn children. They cupped their hands in tender gestures and invoked their Christian faith to support banning abortion, even when the pregnancy results from rape or endangers the mother’s life.

But what does the Bible actually say about children’s rights? At least in the Old Testament, children’s lives are not sacred. Their subjectivity and autonomy have no inherent importance. Like women, they are possessions that keep score of the male characters’ virtue or success. Besides this passage, notable examples are Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, God’s plague on the Egyptians’ first-born sons, and the divinely commanded genocide of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15.

Jesus ups the value of children in his invitation to them in Matthew 19, and his statement that one must become like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven. Even so, the God who warned Joseph to hide the Holy Family in Egypt did not intervene to protect any of the other infant boys slaughtered by Herod in Jesus’s stead.

My conclusions from this are two-fold, and both are kind of disheartening. First, that the Bible can be proof-texted or idealized to justify many positions that are quite a stretch from the original story, which seems to diminish its usefulness as a source of clear moral boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the sacredness of all infant life is a great evolution beyond the values of the ancient world, though I am pro-choice as a matter of legal policy. I just don’t see how you get “every sperm is sacred” from the Old and New Testaments.

Second, for me personally, it’s feeling like too much of a struggle to mesh my survivor-centric liberation theology with the Biblical writers’ very different assumptions about parents’ ownership of children and how this also maps onto God the Father’s creation and destruction of His children. I respect Christians who can find enough liberating material to stay within the Biblical framework and bracket the bad parts. Sometimes, I envy you. I am trying to shift my faith orientation in the most non-hegemonic way possible. It’s not my intention to take away from others the comfort that I no longer find in this tradition. But it is too jarring for me right now to have my healing and activism constantly interrupted by micro-aggressions from religious authorities who remind me that women’s and children’s lives have always been devalued.

Stations of the Cross: Mental Illness

Christian artist Mary Button’s annual series of “Stations of the Cross” collage-paintings depict the torture and execution of Christ in the context of a social justice issue. For instance, last year’s Stations took on the injustice of mass incarceration in America. The 2015 series is devoted to mental illness. In the artist’s words, it “addresses the cross-cutting theological implications of the treatment of people with mental illness. Individual stations address both the special gifts and insight of people living with mental illness as well as social justice issues such as race, gender, homelessness, and stigma.” Read her interview about this year’s project in the Huffington Post.

Each image, with artist’s commentary, can be viewed on Flickr. I was struck by the fact that these pictures are gorgeous with color and creative energy, while also being chaotic and sometimes scary. Button portrays the creativity of mania, the allure of the special and mysterious chambers of the mind, as well as the cost of getting lost in that labyrinth. Surely many of Jesus’s contemporaries must have thought he was crazy! Those who explore the frontier of spiritual experience often seem so, especially when their confidence in their inner truth sets them at odds with their family and their society’s interpretive authorities.

Some of these pictures show Jesus sharing the suffering of depression and schizophrenia, while others, such as “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”, critique the mental health system’s complicity in sexism and other oppressions. Several deal with suicide as a political consequence of racism and veterans’ PTSD. I would have liked to see childhood trauma and its aftermath explicitly included, but even so, survivors can certainly find a lot to identify with in this series.

Our Lady of Milk

One nice thing about the Christmas season is the visibility of the divine feminine in the person of the Virgin Mary, in contrast to the entirely male or abstract representations of the sacred during the rest of the liturgical year. Perhaps this partly explains why even non-Christians feel moved and comforted by the imagery of this season.

Feminists have mixed feelings about Mary nowadays, the criticism being that a woman shouldn’t have to be asexual to be holy. But the Holy Mother was not always portrayed in such a bloodless fashion. Medieval and folk art include luscious representations of her breastfeeding the baby Jesus, a sweet reminder that ours is an incarnational faith. The artwork below is one of 20 such images collected at the blog St. Peter’s List. Read additional reflections on this topic at Jesus in Love.

If my astute readers know of any Christmas carols or hymns that reference the Virgin Mary breastfeeding, please share them in the comments.

My Poem “The Name-Stone” at Utmost Christian Writers

My poem “The Name-Stone” just received an Honorable Mention in this year’s contest for Christian poets at Utmost Christian Writers. This Canadian website has been very supportive of my work over the years. Read all the winners here. (Some are still in the process of being posted as of today, April 18. Check again in a few days if you don’t see a link to the one you want.)

The poem was inspired by a discussion in my church’s adult education group about a verse from the Book of Revelation: “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” One of our members, a retired Anglican priest, said this could refer to the ancient Near Eastern practice of friends making a keepsake at parting. They would write their names on a stone or lump of clay and break it in half, each one retaining a piece that uniquely fit the other.

The Name-Stone

(Revelation 2:17)

I will give you a stone
with a secret under it.

As children in the Galilee
wrote friendship’s names on both ends
of such a shard, and broke it
and went away, each to his own desert.

Dirt-born,
nothing to give one another
but a ragged edge
that, fit
to its companion, meant love.

Where do the gouged letters lie,
in temple midden or the royal road’s thorns?
What hands crushed the clay?

I will give you a piece
of unmarked earth.

Not the name
your mother pressed onto your lips
to seal the scroll of her sorrows.

Not the name
your father spilled
like an ox-dragged harrow,
a plow with no sower.

They only know the name
that decoy, death,
reared above the spot
where you left this ground.

Granite praises granite,
butchers weep
over the marble lamb,
speak both parts
of the absolving script.

But I will give you a riven rock
to drink from its flood heart,
the rock I broke myself
to fit you.