Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.

March Links Roundup: Sacred Arts, Imperfect Mediators

Just as today we debate “separating the art from the artist” when an influential creator’s bad behavior comes to light, the early Christians were split over the standards for mediating their own sacred inspiration. A purist breakaway group in North Africa in the fourth century contended that clergy had to be morally blameless, or else their ministry, prayers, and administration of the sacraments were not effective. Because church authorities (rather conveniently) rejected this position, we know it as the “Donatist heresy”.

The official line has pragmatism to commend it: it’s bad enough when “all your faves are problematic”, but if you have to start worrying that your baptism or absolution is invalid, your eternal fate might depend on the unknown misdeeds of your priest. That’s too much stress and uncertainty for the flock. On the other hand, I think we’re seeing nowadays that the clergy abuse crisis is retroactively undermining many Christians’ experiences of God in church. The truths they thought they knew, the love they felt in the worship and sacraments–was it all a lie? When someone or something formative for us is exposed as predatory, we may even doubt the goals, beliefs, and affections that once seemed synonymous with our “self”.

In this October 2018 article from Vox, Constance Grady asks some literary critics to weigh in on “What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster?” On social media, there’s a predictable cycle of declaring that some creator is “cancelled” because of anything from an unfortunate remark to serial predation, followed by a flurry of equally simplistic rants against political correctness. Separating art from artist was the premise of early 20th century New Criticism, which has stuck with us because it makes English-class papers easier to write without historical background. Postmodern “death of the author” theory, meanwhile, can empower readers to reclaim the text from its problematic origins. I see a similarity to the way that progressive Christians claim personal authority to talk back to oppressive Bible passages and carve out a place for marginalized people in the tradition. On the other hand, New Historicists warn that the reader is also embedded in a context that may include the same vices that plagued the creator, like racism and rape culture. We need to look at ourselves as critically as the text.

The critics differed, however, on the question of whether it’s ever reasonable for a critic to decide not to engage with art made by a predator. There are two basic arguments here. One of those arguments…says that engaging critically with a work of art is completely different from endorsing the morality of the artist… The other argument says that our time is limited, we cannot devote equal critical attention to every work of art out there, and it’s reasonable for critics to curate their choices a little…

The issue here is not just “Is this artist monstrous?” but “Is this work of art asking me as a reader to be complicit with the artist’s monstrosity?” It’s the same argument that has come up repeatedly with R. Kelly, who writes songs about sex and consent and age differences between lovers, and who has also been accused of sexually assaulting very young women and girls.

I agree with Grady’s conclusion that there’s no one-size-fits-all theory that’ll determine when to disengage from questionable art or artists. Like a dysfunctional family where love is also possible, or a church that can be both oppressive and liberating, staying or going is a very individual decision.

Over at Into Account, a new blog for lifting up the voices of abuse survivors in church, Stephanie Krehbiel has a message for anyone who’d override that discernment process: “Godly Men, Be Quiet”. Conservative church leaders lately have been making noise about #MeToo because they can’t ignore it, but their pronouncements aren’t followed by structural change or repentance. Survivor-led reform isn’t happening. Too bad:

The vast majority of church leaders have absolutely no business trying to be leaders in the movement to end sexual abuse. Part of how church leaders mess up–particularly in strongly patriarchal traditions invested in male headship (and let’s get real, for all the change that’s happened, that’s still most of Christianity)–is in assuming that they do.

Their business is not to lead; it is to follow. Not for a designated period of penance. Not as part of a healing ritual that they can subsequently advertise. Not as a finite disciplinary sentence.

FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

Patriarchal Christian masculinity is a powerful drug. It makes many church men believe that the world desperately needs their perspective on everything. It makes their followers believe that asking such men to step aside from leadership is somehow tantamount to cruelty. God is always calling these men to lead someone or something, even when what they know about that thing may be approximately two cents less than nothingParticularly in the evangelical world, the spiritual quality that seems to most define men like this is their ability to imagine that they hear God in the voice of their own ambition…

I am not asking men in church leadership positions to do nothing about sexual abuse. I’m asking them to devote themselves to the task of following people who have less social power than they do.

Which, you know, sounds a lot like what Jesus told us to do…

In the New York Times last month, Elizabeth Dias’ investigative feature on gay Catholic priests, “It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage,” is a heartbreaking look at scores of mostly-anonymous clergy trying to live their vocation while crushed by hypocrisy, secrecy, and loneliness. Being sexually active, apparently, is less scandalous than being honest about one’s orientation while celibate. The atmosphere is even more stifling now because church leadership is erroneously scapegoating gay clergy for the sexual abuse crisis.

Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent…

…The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.

This topic is in the news again because of the new book In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, an exposé by French journalist Frédéric Martel. On the Nonviolent Atonement blog, gay Catholic theologian James Alison offers a sensitive and well-thought-out analysis of the problem and the way forward. Alison’s work helped me tremendously a decade ago when I was tormented by the gay/Christian question.

Alison describes the book, for which he was interviewed, as “the first attempt of which I am aware at a properly researched answer to the question: ‘How and why is it that the principal institutional obstacle to LGBT rights at the worldwide level appears itself to be massively staffed by gay men?'” This is not a book about the child abuse crisis per se, but rather, about how a culture of duplicity and blackmail is conducive to all sorts of abuses and cover-ups. Most people in the system are not even aware of the big picture:

We’re not talking about one single big lie, where all these men butch it up in public until they get back behind the Vatican walls ― at which point all can relax together in a theatrical green room, let down their hair and call each other Monica, Morgana or Mechthilde while swapping hot takes about their respective beaux. Rather we are talking about endless small lies, defensive manoeuvres, acts of hiding of self, adoptions of positions, fear of loss of livelihood, betrayals of friends, disguises of love, hints of blackmail, bizarre alliances, coded exchanges and resilient creations of habitable bubbles. We are also talking about the ways this system of mendacity reproduces itself through newcomers joining in playing the game. All involved are lying to and about themselves and each other; and yet, at the same time, they both know and don’t know what each other knows.

Furthermore, many are tortured by their own duplicity, not yet having achieved the perfection of polished cognitive dissonance at which some of those whom Martel interviews have obviously arrived. This matches what I have myself observed: the most venomous anti-clericalism and hatred of the Vatican comes from the mouths of its own clerical employees.

Meanwhile, the cognitive dissonance is amplified as sexual diversity has become mainstream in the outside world. Honest discussion of sexuality is the norm–except in the Church. Alison notes (a point that also emerged in the New York Times article) that unlike heterosexual men, many of the gay priests took their vows of celibacy without real understanding of their sexuality or options for healthy romantic partnership.

Church authority still teaches that a young gay person cannot appropriately be socialised into the humanisation of their emotional and sexual urges while dreaming of being married to someone they love. Indeed, far too many Catholic high schools, especially in the United States, are viciously legalistic in their attempts to apply these teachings to their employees and young charges. Further the authorities teach that such a young gay person does not have freedom of choice concerning whether to opt for marriage or a single life. They have a solemn obligation to singleness, with the threat of Hell a powerful enforcer….

Yes, the authorities really do deny there to be such a thing as an emotionally and psychologically balanced openly gay person who, therefore, might make a free choice between marriage or celibacy and so become a straightforward, honest candidate for seminary.

Now, that the official position is a lie is obvious to everyone, and scarcely applied anywhere. Even hard-line Bishops claim that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but instead on the basis of something they call “emotional and affective maturity.” But that effectively means that they do not believe their own teaching, for they are admitting people who their own official teaching claims not to exist. Such candidates are automatically implicated in the dishonesty of their superiors simply by being there. Furthermore, any gay candidate need only learn how to pretend not to be gay, for which many of them have had a whole adolescence-worth of training, and they will certainly find enough seminary officials who will induct them into playing “wink wink, nudge nudge,” having themselves become masters at the same game.

In short, long before any issue of a candidate’s sexual practice comes up, whether in the past, the present or the future, he finds that the one thing that is impossible is straightforward, first-person narrative honesty.

…Imitation is a much stronger force than instruction, and any gay candidate for seminary will see many others like himself already in the seminary, and will be interviewed by others like himself on the seminary staff. If in the midst of this he is presented with the instruction “You are required to be honest about being gay, and if you are gay and honest, your vocations counsellor is required to tell you that you cannot join,” he is not really being presented with a straightforward moral choice. In context, he is being presented with a hurdle, and his capacity to jump it will show whether or not he will be a suitable game player like all the others. Just in case the hurdle seems a little high, and if the vocations director likes the candidate, he may suggest that the kid is not really gay, just suffering from a transitory form of “same-sex attraction” or some other ecclesiastically convenient fiction. If the vocations director doesn’t like him, then, indeed, the fact that he is gay can be used to keep him out.

A dishonest system cannot demand honesty from its recruits, since in a dishonest system even the demand is dishonestly made and will be dishonestly received.

Alison concludes with a call for the Church to be honest with its children about God’s love for them regardless of orientation, and to bring its doctrines in line with the current evidence of science and psychology that queerness is a “regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.”

I’m afraid I’m not optimistic. But if Christianity survives as anything worthwhile, it’ll be because of folks like Alison.

Rest in Power, Rev. Dr. James Cone

The Reverend Doctor James Hal Cone (1938-2018), the founder of the Black Liberation Theology movement, passed away last week at age 81. From the Liberation Theologies website:

The hermeneutic, or interpretive lens, for James Cone’s theology starts with the experience of African Americans, and the theological questions he brings from his own life. He incorporates the powerful role of the black church in his life, as well as racism experienced by African Americans.

Cone’s theology also received significant inspiration from a frustration with the black struggle for civil rights; he felt that black Christians in North America should not follow the “white Church”, on the grounds that it was a willing part of the system that had oppressed black people. Accordingly, his theology was heavily influenced by Malcolm X and the Black Power movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also an important influence; Cone describes King as a liberation theologian before the phrase existed.

Cone’s thought, along with Paul Tillich, stresses the idea that theology is not universal, but tied to specific historical contexts; he thus critiques the Western tradition of abstract theologizing, by examining its social context. Cone formulates a theology of liberation from within the context of the black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed, the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation.

Despite his associations with the Black Power movement, however, Cone was not entirely focused on ethnicity: “Being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”

Our Episcopal church’s small group studied his pioneering work, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969), this past autumn. I’m not alone in wishing we had contacted Dr. Cone to tell him how his book challenged and inspired us. I think I was afraid of seeming like a would-be white ally in search of cookies. It’s a lesson not to let embarrassment stop us from reaching out to our heroes and prophets. After all, as Ijeoma Oluo says in her essential new book, So You Want to Talk About Race (Hachette Book Group, 2018), people of color don’t have the option to not deal with racial tension. White folks have to accept that we’ll screw up many of our interracial conversations, and just sit with the discomfort.

Below are some highlights from my analysis of the book for our small group curriculum. (If you would like to use the whole curriculum in your church, email me.) Text in quotes is by Cone, other text is my summary of his arguments. It’s quite sobering to see that many of the white counter-arguments he debunks are still deployed against contemporary civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter.

****

“Black Power” is a phrase that provokes strong reactions. Cone defines it as “black people taking the dominant role in determining the black-white relationship in American society.” In other words, black people acting as subjects instead of objects, creating a value system that centers their wellbeing and particular experiences in society—just as white people have always done.

Some Christians, black and white, see it as too radical a departure from Christ’s message of love and unity. However, for Cone it is “Christ’s central message to twentieth-century America.” Where else would Christ be, if not in the midst of our country’s most urgent social justice struggle?

Cone criticizes would-be allies who say they support racial equality but not “violence”, or who call for “objectivity”. There is no neutral position on our complicity with oppressive social structures. Theology can’t set feelings aside, because feelings—specifically the pain and anger of black people—are essential data about the moral issues involved. “Dispassionate, noncommitted debate” is the privilege of someone who has no stake in the matter.

Though it makes space for feelings of anger and even hatred toward the oppressor, Black Power is fundamentally not about hate. Black people are not trying to take something away from white people, but to force recognition of what all people—black, white, and other races—already have: human dignity and equality. “Therefore it is not the intention of the black man to repudiate his master’s human dignity, but only his status as master.”

Throughout the book, Cone develops parallels between the anti-racist liberation struggle and the sacrificial life of Christ and his followers. The true ally enters into the condition of the oppressed, to such an extent that their stigma also falls on him—just as Jesus did for sinful humanity. The true ally is willing to risk her life for black people’s freedom—because black people are already risking their lives. Protests, violent or nonviolent, may be a modern version of martyrdom for a spiritual ideal that is more important than life itself, namely that all people are created in God’s image.

The primary expression of love for our neighbor is to proclaim the gospel of freedom and to work against the powers that hold people captive.

Christian love is a motive, not a checklist of actions. The human condition is messy and uncertain. Neighbor-love sometimes looks like confrontation, because it’s loving to try to bring our neighbor back into right relationship with God and others. It is loving to insist on the God-given dignity of all people, which is poured out equally as a gift of grace.

With respect to the ideal of nonviolence in Christianity, how we define “violence” already says a lot about racial politics. We take it for granted that certain kinds of self-defensive or even aggressive violence are justified in a Christian society. When the disenfranchised rise up, we call that violence and ask how it’s consistent with Jesus, but we accept the authority of the police to use force against such uprisings, or the nation’s right to use violence in defense of its international interests.

“The attempt of some to measure love exclusively by specific actions, such as nonviolence, is theologically incorrect.” We act from Christian love when God is the essence of our lives, but because of our limited human understanding, the right choice in any given situation may be unclear. Loving action involves risk and ambiguity.

Being “born-again” occurs when a person becomes “repelled by suffering and death caused by the bigotry of others,” even to the point of being ready to die in solidarity with the oppressed, as Jesus did. And that person may not be explicitly “Christian”—it’s manifested in their actions, as in Matthew 25. Salvation is not a formula to win God’s approval. It’s an inner sense of being aligned with The Real.

“There are no rational tests to measure this quality of being grasped in the depths of one’s being. The experience is its own evidence, the ultimate datum. To seek for a higher evidence, a more objective proof—such as the Bible, the Fathers, or the Church—implies that such evidence is more real than the encounter itself.”

All theology is grounded in the life situation of the group that writes it. Their lives matter, and their experiences determine which questions are important and how to answer them.

Up till now, only white people have had this authority within Christianity—the power to make theology that centers their point of view and their wellbeing. “Black Theology” is not any less universal than the white Christianity we already have. Black people will not be completely free until they too claim the authority to do theology from their own standpoint, with their full humanity as the goal and underlying assumption.

White Christianity has spent a lot of time debating the ultimate source of religious authority. For instance: the Pope versus Martin Luther’s sola scriptura (Bible alone), or fundamentalists’ infallible Bible versus liberals’ appeals to reason. But these abstract debates often fail to have any impact on people’s daily lives.

For Black Theology, the core question of authority is: Does this doctrine free us or not?

Because the essence of Christ is his identification with the oppressed, this is still a Christocentric standard of authority.

“Black Theology knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself… Concretely, this means that Black Theology is not prepared to accept any doctrine of God, man, Christ, or Scripture which contradicts the black demand for freedom now.”

“Everything Must Burn”: Thoughts From My Lenten Journal

Spoken-word poet Emily Joy went viral on Twitter in 2016 with her powerful video “How to Love the Sinner & Hate the Sin: 5 Easy Steps”, a satire that indicts the heartlessness of anti-LGBTQ Christians using their own catchphrases. “Religious freedom means never having to say you’re sorry/ You can love people and take away their rights.” She’s also been a prominent critic of sexism and victim-blaming in Christian purity culture.

For my Lenten discipline this year, I wrote in the journaling workbook she created, Everything Must Burn: A Spiritual Guide to Starting Over. Designed for survivors of fundamentalism and spiritual trauma, the simple 8-week program covers topics such as Sexuality, Shame, Hell, and Creativity, with brief questions that prompt us to articulate our old and new beliefs, and affirmations of God’s inclusive love. Here are a few of my musings, lightly edited for clarity:

What do you believe about the nature of God?

I often believe that God is unknowable and too tremendous for our consciousness to interact with without exploding. (Very Lovecraftian!) When I try to live into the hope that God is a goodness and love that wins out over cruelty and entropy, the closest I can get to awareness of that God is…the “deep and dazzling darkness” of Henry Vaughan’s poem.

…I’m not ready for God’s heartbreaking love. To feel the grief of not being loved that way for all of my youth.

…I’m going to try to be less fearful of God by identifying “God” with the magic-filled universe.

What is the place of anger in your spiritual and creative life?

In my creative life, anger is often the dynamite that knocks down the writer’s block of self-doubt and shame. That Anaïs Nin quote about staying in the bud being more painful than blossoming–for me it’s like, the time comes when my hair is too much on fire to give a flying fuck what anyone thinks of me.

…I’m angry that I no longer trust spiritual teachers and religious institutions because I feel they’re trying to sell me something–the belief that their system or community is complete and necessary for my well-being. At bottom, they all want me to feel unable to live without them and guilty of disloyalty for drawing on other support systems–just as my mother did! Am I just triggered? No, I am genuinely angry at hegemony as a human impulse.

…I feel really sad when I reflect on all of this. I sense in myself a deep need to be seen, consoled, and vindicated (Psalm 17). In the olden days, I’d say “God is the one to meet that need”, but now I react with suspicion to that facile doctrine–it’s a handy excuse for other people to avoid mutuality in relating to me–or for me to despair of asking for support from anyone outside my own head. And I guess I’m angry that there’s no venue or vocabulary in mainstream church culture or progressive theology to even address this as an issue.

Do you believe that God is the sort of being to send creatures they love to hell? What were some of the messages you received about hell growing up?

I’m lucky that I was never raised with the concept of salvation/damnation dependent on what religion you believed in… I didn’t need any worse concept of hell than being seen for my true self and deemed unworthy of love. Hell was being cast out from the presence of love, inescapably confronted with the truth of my loathsomeness forever.

I didn’t pick up this primal dread from Christianity, but Christianity found a hole in me for this fear to root in. I was vulnerable to this shitty theology that grace is merely a legal fiction (simul justus et peccator) whereby God pretends not to notice how awful you are.

That’s not love, but Christianity manipulates you into thinking you have to settle for it–then blames you for not feeling loved or loving God back. Negging as evangelism!

…I think that hellfire theology motivates you to see the worst in people because you know deep down how unfair it is–so you have to look for reasons why every sin is a bigger deal than it really is.

Do you see a difference between shame and guilt? Do you think God wants you to feel shame?

Can we distinguish, more than “grace alone” Protestants do, between shame and guilt? Grace sets us free from shame by telling us that our essence isn’t repulsive and nothing can separate us from God’s love. But if we say it also sets us free from guilt, we shirk the responsibility to make amends and take our sins seriously. I don’t think God wants us to feel shame, because shame is so intolerable for the ego that it takes away the base of safety that we need to change our ways.

…My faith, as I once knew it, can’t recover from the realization that my shame was the product of abuse, not genuine depravity. Protestantism will never let people actually live in the grace that it promises, because of its false claim that we are right to be ashamed–that self-loathing is factually based in unspeakable guilt, instead of being an illusion from imperfect parental attachment.

What do you believe love is?

Two things I have a problem with in how “love” is deployed in Christianity: (1) “Love” as an excuse to say coercive, scary, erasing things to people “for their own good”; (2) “love” as obligatory toward, or more praiseworthy when directed toward, people who intend harm to us.

Today I took a walk on the bike trail to enjoy the spring sunshine. I admired a young woman’s cute little dog. The woman, with a teary joyfulness, told me she takes every opportunity to talk to people about her near-death experience and how Jesus cured her cancer, because she now knows Jesus is the only way, and she’s worried I won’t make it to heaven. I thanked her pleasantly and noncommittally, and walked away feeling sad, breathless, homesick for a kind of peaceful certainty I’ve never had. What is God’s love, really? It’s the shameless innocence of the dog running through the woods, oblivious to the fearful system his mistress has embraced to solve a self-created problem.

…Now I feel like taking a page from this woman’s book and commemorating Transgender Day of Visibility by standing on a street corner and asking people if they’ve read the Good Word of Judith Butler. “I just want everyone to know that gender is socially constructed! The truth will set you free!”

…It’s so fucking hard to love one’s friends and family properly, I’ve got no time for hugging neo-Nazis! Cynical aside: perhaps for some people it’s easier to “love” an enemy because there’s no feedback mechanism. It can all be a self-flattering illusion. Your enemy can’t call you out, like a real friend does, because you’ve already decided to ignore their opinion of you.

What does it look like to live creatively?

To live creatively is to trust myself to follow my instincts into unknown territory. To pursue what excites me (or take a rest when I need it) without having to know how it turns out or explain why this is what I’m doing.

I fear that “creativity” gets confused with “productivity” such that my self-image as a creator must be constantly proven with output. Or that creativity becomes a burden, like the “devotion” my mother supposedly gave me–a privilege that can never be repaid, a duty to prove that I’m grateful all the time and not squandering my potential.

…I try to follow Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice in Big Magic that I should revel in the freedom of my unimportance, but that doesn’t work well for a naturally depressed person. I am still searching for what it would mean for my work to “matter”–what’s a healthy, non-egotistical, inner-directed way for that need to be met? I sense that as long as I look to someone else for that validation, I’ll live in fear–even if the someone else is God, because a good parent God would not base their love on my achievements. What would make my work matter TO ME?

Jack Gilbert (no relation) had it right–go live on a fucking island with your goats and your three wives and let your friends drag you out to publish a book every 10 years. He was like the Ron Swanson of poetry.

…I’m starting to develop evidence-based faith that I can manifest changes in my life that I once despaired of. And that is creativity–thinking outside the limits of what the literal mind takes to be impossible… Being trans is one of the most creative and magical things I’ve done. I’m willing a new gender into existence.

VaLENTine Poem: “To Roses You Shall Return”

Happy Valentine’s Day and a blessed Ash Wednesday to my readers. For the first time since 1945, the holidays fall on the same date. I wrote the poem below in 2014, when they were one day apart. This blog template has trouble with indents, so imagine that the second line of each stanza is indented. Or buy a copy of Bullies in Love and read it in proper format!

I’m giving up being female for Lent. Hit me with some pronouns, let’s see which one feels right.

To Roses You Shall Return

When I see petals on the pavement
on the day after Ash Wednesday

May there be a pause in my hearing of tongues
of torn-out girls

When crinkled crimson holds the kiss
of boot heels

May I walk on
no trail of barefoot flight

Let there be no broken lips
or shadow of palms

Pierced in spring
let me infer only the generous florist

Scattering the currency of coupling
on the stony path to his fragrant store

 

Remember that you are dust
and to dust you shall return
KISS ME

 

When you see ashes on my forehead
on the day before Valentine’s Day

Will your torched ancestors still whisper
of riders in spotless robes

Will the flooded firstborn mouths
give up their bubble songs

When you see my face marked
by the dirt cross I chose

Will you only bend deeper
to the slap of your imitation sacrifice

Will you stuff your crone’s mouth with roots
as ordered by pig-roast priests

Tell me the seven wounds of roses
let our arms become the burnt horizon

Let our foreheads be graves where laughing girls
paint their sisters’ legs with mud

 

Almighty and everlasting God
you hate nothing you have made
BE MINE

December Links Roundup: Femme Faces of Spirituality

December is the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar, a four-week season of spiritual preparation for Christmas, as well as anticipation of the Second Coming and Last Judgment. (You won’t hear any songs about that in the mall–at least not in the liberal Northeast.) In Protestant churches, the lead-up to Christmas is also the only time of year when an important holy woman, the Virgin Mary, is depicted in our religious scenes or named in our songs. Even then, as I discovered while researching my small-group curriculum on sacred music, there are no hymns with Mary as the main character in the “Christmas” section of the Episcopal Church’s 1982 Hymnal.

At her blog Love Joy Feminism, evangelical-turned-atheist Libby Anne marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by considering “What Women Lost in the Protestant Reformation”. Libby Anne passed through Catholicism on her journey out of Christianity. Although Catholic doctrine on women and gender is still problematic by modern liberal standards, the historic Church offered more religious role models and life paths for women than did its Protestant competitors:

During the middle ages, numerous female mystics and theologians made an impactin religious faith and practice. Julian of Norwich, an anchoress, is an excellent example, but she is not alone. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, wrote theology. Bridget of Sweden wrote an extremely successful book on her revelations and founded a religious order. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrud the Great, and many others wrote books and outlined visions. Catherine of Genoa changed the Catholic conception of purgatory.

With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, religious vocations that had offered women the opportunity to study, contemplate, and write disappeared, replaced by the expectation that all women marry and spend their time in childbearing. The Protestant Reformation circumscribed women’s options, leaving them with just one—submission to an individual man who would be their lord and master.

No longer could a woman become an abbess, gaining some authority over others in her sphere. No longer could a woman eschew marriage and choose instead devotion to religion and learning. Certainly, convents were not perfect. In some cases wealthy women were sent away to take religious orders if her parents did not have enough for a dowry, whether that was their choice or not. The availability of options did not mean that choices were not circumscribed. They were. But with the elimination of options, their choices became only more circumscribed…

…The Protestant Reformation changed the very nature of women’s space. It changed the terrain on which women negotiated their role in society. No longer could a woman go to the pope and petition to create her own religious order. No longer could a woman opt to spend her life in contemplation and study rather than domestic labor. No longer could a woman live in a space dominated by other women, rather than in a domestic household in obedience to a father or husband. To be sure, the options women had were never perfect—but they were options…

…There is something else women lost to the Protestant Reformation, too—the Virgin Mary. Under the Reformation, religion became much more masculine. Gone was Mary, the Mother of God, and gone were the female saints, whom women had related to, asked favors of, and drawn strength from for centuries. Compare the stained glass windows and images in a Catholic church with those in an old-style Protestant church and you’ll see what I mean. We talk about representation. Mary wasn’t perfect, but she provided that.

For me, the Virgin Mary, like the Cross, is a potent double-edged symbol. It’s all a matter of emphasis. One can critique the sex-shaming involved in equating virginity with moral purity, and the restriction of women to the domestic sphere. However, this is not a flaw in Mary, as much as a side effect of patriarchal tokenism, which puts too much pressure on a limited number of female role models to be all things to all people. Looking at Mary in a positive light, she can represent women’s creative power, independent from men and heterosexual reproduction. Like Jesus, this teenage unwed mother voluntarity took on social stigma to follow her own perception of God’s call.

I relate fondly to Mary as a fellow human being, a nurturing figure in my spiritual pantheon. A mother goddess, on the other hand, triggers me severely, with its implication of a perpetual power imbalance and infantilization of her devotees. At the social justice blog The Establishment, this 2016 article by Amelia Quint explores “How Wiccan ‘Mother Goddess’ Worship Disempowers Women”. Quint, a former Catholic, shares that her decision to remain childless made her feel excluded from the traditional Wiccan archetype of Maiden-Mother-Crone.

The prominence of the Mother Goddess archetype in Wicca is not to be understated; in fact, she seems at times to be an intentional foil to the Father God of Christianity…Though many maintained that this motherhood could be symbolic, of creative works or businesses or your own life, I still couldn’t understand why the spiritual equivalent of the prime of my life had to be expressed by an experience I’d opted out of…

…The growing popularity of spiritual accoutrements and consciousness on social media invites the question: Is emphasizing motherhood really reclaiming the agency we’ve fought so hard for? Feminists have fought for the right to flourish outside the home, yet feminist spirituality in many ways returns them to that sphere. The mystique of alternative spirituality is alluring, but as more women embrace Goddess-centered forms of worship, it’s tough to reconcile the fact that many of these practices emphasize the divinity of masculine and feminine archetypes, keeping traditional gender roles intact.

Quint cites some modern practitioners who are working on making the tradition more inclusive, such as Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess, which imagines a fivefold Goddess archetype based on talents and life stages other than procreation. Quint also consults philosopher and spiritual counselor Briana Saussy, who posits that the common thread of maternal divine figures in world religions is that they help themselves and others heal from great loss:

Isis had to knit her beloved Osiris back together. Demeter had to search the Underworld for her daughter, Persephone, who had been kidnapped and raped. Mary watched Jesus suffer a violent death.

For Saussy, it isn’t the motherhood that takes center stage; it’s the survival of trauma. Unlike generativity or nurturing, losing something we hold dear is an experience that transcends every social construct. A less literal interpretation might have the “mother” be that which puts us back together again. Saussy agrees: “What these various goddesses really tell us is how to move through those losses and see them for what they are.”

Faith-centered trauma healing is the mission of Rebecca Davis’ website Here’s the Joy, a Christian blog that supports survivors of abuse in churches and critiques abuse-enabling theology. For instance, she advises believers to “suffer intelligently”, that is, to beware of martyrdom theology that romanticizes submission to mistreatment:

There is still suffering in the loss of a relationship and recovery from a betrayal, suffering that will remind us to turn our eyes to Jesus Christ for our hope and healing. But this is not the willful suffering of putting oneself under cruelty on purpose, thinking that it will somehow refine you.

There is only one Refiner. It is Jesus Christ. There is only one way to be refined. It is by faith in Him.

Sometimes suffering is completely unavoidable. Sometimes suffering is a path we must go through in order to attain a vital goal. But instead of assuming that all suffering is desirable, we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us discern. Is this suffering completely unavoidable? Is this suffering to be endured for a vital goal?

Or is this a suffering that we can and should escape?

Davis writes that she began to focus her blog on these issues after seeing her church’s failure to help a friend in a domestic abuse situation. I see the femme face of divinity, nurturing and fiercely protective, at work in projects like these.

 

 

Book Notes: Queer Virtue

This fall, our church had the honor of hosting the Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman, presenting her new book Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press, 2016). Edman is an Episcopal priest and political strategist and an out lesbian. She proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. The first half of the book argues for “the inherent queerness of Christianity”, using parallels from LGBTQ identity and community life to describe a faith centered on scandalous intimacy and countercultural family formation. The second half surveys virtues that LGBTQ people have had to cultivate for their survival–such as authenticity, hospitality, and healthy pride–and holds them up as an ethical role model for Christians.

I want to get my one disagreement with Queer Virtue out of the way first, because if unaddressed, it could overshadow the treasures otherwise to be found in this book. In my last post I discussed the fallacy of trying to prove that one’s preferred image of Jesus is the “real” Jesus. So I was disappointed that in a book devoted to barrier-breaking, nonbinary spirituality, Edman begins by drawing a distinction between “nominal” and “authentic” Christianity (pgs.xii-xiii). Nominal Christians are the broader group: any people or institutions that call themselves Christian. Authentic Christians are that subset who are following “a lived faith in keeping with the ancient tradition that has been handed down in the Western canon of scripture and from the early (especially pre-sixth-century) church.” Within that tradition, Edman says she will focus on the aspect of Christianity “as a spiritual journey that prioritizes the ancient Christian impulse to rupture simplistic binaries, especially those pertaining to the relationship between Self and Other.” (pg.xiii)

Okay, so that is the impulse that led me to become a Christian in the first place, and it was thrilling and validating to finally find another Christian who defined our core commitment this way! But… I have been involved with churches, small groups, and theology conferences for two decades, and this perspective that I share with Edman is very unusual. To be rather simplistic, conservatives adore binaries (holy/sinful, male/female, infallible/depraved, sovereign God/obedient subjects) while liberals fail to tap the nonbinary potential of the Trinity and Incarnation because of their skittishness about supernatural metaphysics.

I think Edman is begging the question that queer Jesus is the dominant strain in that ancient tradition. (If only that had been my experience!) That may be his chief significance for us, but casting shade on other Christians’ priorities will, I fear, only confirm non-affirming Christians’ anxiety that LGBTQ inclusion undermines doctrinal fundamentals beyond the one issue of sexuality. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, in my opinion, but let’s have the courage to say we’re putting our wine in new wineskins instead of overstating the historical record.

Now that’s over with, let’s move on to what is awesome about this book. Pronouns: Edman uses gender-neutral Ze/Hir for God, and alternates among male, female, and neutral pronouns for humans. I like this challenging reminder of God’s strangeness, Hir transcendence of human gender categories, even as we retain the well-loved Biblical metaphors of God as loving father, brooding mother hen, Son of Man, and so forth.

Another great development is the invitation to shift from defending homosexuality as an issue, to celebrating LGBTQ lives as spiritual role models. This person-centered, love-oriented approach seems in keeping with a religion founded on relationship with God-become-human. “Queer individuals are called to perceive a truth inside themselves, name it as an identity marker, reckon with it, tell the truth about it even in the face of hostility, find others who perceive a comparable identity marker, and build community for the betterment of all of us… In my faith tradition, we refer to this as a call. It is a vocation.” (pg.9)

Indeed, for me, awareness of my sexual or gender identity feels like it uses the same faculties of perception as my experience of Spirit. It’s a sort of deep resonance in the heart that can’t be explained to everyone, but is the foundation of whatever else I know about myself. Both can require the same kind of trust in my intuition and body-knowledge, and the fierce self-love that resists intellectual gaslighting.

I wonder, though, does a vocational community formed around Christian faith permit as much respect for each other’s inner truths as a community formed around queerness? To walk the path of queer virtue, all I have to do is believe in my own experience and respect others’. To be a Christian, on the other hand, can I avoid passing judgment on my fellow Christians who are “doing it wrong”? Does the doctrinal or ethically prescriptive aspect of religious community always force us somewhat in the direction of conformity, in a way that’s not true of LGBTQ community?

Edman goes some way toward resisting religious conformity with her celebration of “scandal” as a virtue common to queers and followers of Jesus. LGBTQ people and other minorities face constant pressure from respectability politics, i.e. buying acceptance by assimilating to majority mores and judging other members of the minority group who don’t do the same. For instance, gays and lesbians in the church have mainly fought for inclusion within the ideal of monogamous marriage, rather than making a theological case for respecting the other forms of sexual relationship that their communities have developed. By contrast, Edman cites Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal for the ethical vision of not pretending to be above the indignity of bodies and their desires. In sex-soaked gay male culture, where there is the most flamboyance, the most carnal abjection, there may also be the greatest humility and openness to one another. Similarly, Jesus shocked even his followers by touching outcasts and submitting to all the vulnerabilities of the flesh, including being eaten–symbolically, or literally, depending on your view of the Eucharist! The word for Communion, koinonia, meant both “common” and “defiled” in the Greek of Jesus’s day. (pgs.80-82)

Perhaps the greatest scandal is the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which reverse our deepest notions about power and mortality. If I believe anything about Jesus, it’s this:

For Paul, this is a cosmic shattering of something that operates as a stranglehold on humanity: the idea that death is the most powerful thing we know. The scandal of the cross means that death and its affiliates–terror, torture, physical and spiritual agony–lose their potency as the ultimate stumbling block, the ultimate bait and trap, the ultimate outrage.

Paul sees clearly that this shattering opens up a horizon of ethical possibility, an ethical vision that in some ways parallels what Michael Warner sees in queer experience: the ability to learn the most from those you think are beneath you. (pgs.85-86)

The scandalous way of queer Christian virtue declares that shame has no power to suppress our true selves or separate us from God. That ethical path is not as simplistic and one-sided as casting off shame entirely, because people do sin and need prompting toward repentance. It’s a call to be careful and politically conscious about what we consider shameful and how we enforce it. (pgs.88-89)

These insights are picked up in Edman’s later chapter on the balance that LGBTQ Pride can bring to a Christian tradition that’s been focused on ego-resizing of the arrogant and privileged, at the expense of those whose self-worth needs shoring up.

In times like these when people are sensitive to the ways that words can do harm, it makes sense to lift up Christian disparagement of pride and ask churches to cut it out. We have no business asking queer people for whom Pride is a life-and-soul-saving concept to stand in a church and disparage the term. It would be useful if Christians could begin dismantling and rebuilding liturgical components such as prayers and hymns and replace the word “pride” with language that more accurately characterizes the problematic behavior… [such as] those who hoard power or who profit by appropriating resources from others….

…Imposing such a definition of sin [as pride] on human beings is one of the biggest hammers in the ideological toolbox of empire that Christianity was born to dismantle. This is ironic, because you’d think that defining pride as aggression and hubris would serve to contain imperialistic tendencies… But in practice, universalizing this definition of pride is one way the privileged Self absorbs and renders invisible all those less-privileged Others. Demonizing Pride is, in fact, one of the most effective ways that Christianity has ended up serving those who conquer and dominate, contributing to the disempowerment of people the world over. (pgs.114-15)

I’ll end with one last favorite passage in which Edman smartly dismisses accusations of moral relativism against queer liberation theology:

Because we have thrown off the moral absolutes that unequivocally condemn queer sexual behavior, the thinking goes, we have no real ethical grounding. Those who make these claims say that there isn’t anything we truly believe; our ethics blow with the prevailing wind.

This simply is not true. Queer people do not categorically reject absolute truth. We do view the concept of “absolute truth” warily, and we tend to take great care in our claims about truth. This caution is not a symptom of moral relativism, but is born of our awareness that callous, ill-informed appeals to “absolute truth” have caused vast suffering. It is true that we don’t usually get very deep into moral reasoning before someone asks, “How does this principle affect real people’s lives? Whose story does this take into account, or ignore?” We don’t do that because our morals are constantly in flux; we do it because we recognize that people’s lives are. Indeed, the impulse to take people’s real lives seriously is itself a moral absolute for many LGBTQ people. This impulse is an essential, characteristic strength of our ethical thinking. (pgs.126-27)

Let the church say Amen! The Jesus I see in the Gospels was always asking who benefits from a religious norm and who has the power to set these norms in the first place. (Jesus, the first deconstructionist!) All theology is standpoint-based. Queer Virtue demonstrates this in language that non-philosophers can understand. I am very grateful for this book.

Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: Cross Purposes

When visiting a friend in Toronto last month, I had the pleasure of discovering Glad Day Bookshop, the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore. One of my purchases was this 1989 essay collection, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn. There are too few books devoted to reworking Christian theology from a trauma perspective, so I’m always happy to find another. This one shares some of what I perceive to be the limitations of Second Wave feminist theology: binary thinking about gender, and a tendency to imitate the universalizing attitude of their opponents, assigning a single oppressive or liberatory meaning to an image (e.g. God the Father) that is actually experienced in a more complex way by diverse believers. That said, it’s an invigorating and necessary book that doesn’t hesitate to break taboos in order to be firmly on the side of survivors.

Not every essay resonated with me enough to blog about, but I’ll be posting about it now and then, to pull out the insights that meant the most to me. Today I’m looking at the first entry in the book, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker’s “For God So Loved the World?” Parker later expanded this critique of Atonement doctrines into Proverbs of Ashes, the hybrid memoir/theology book she co-wrote with another contributor to this volume, Rita Nakashima Brock. I’ve never gotten around to blog-review Proverbs because the theology is so interwoven with the narrative that it’s hard to summarize, so the executive-summary version here is a real help.

Brown and Parker state the central problem: women have a hard time realizing they are oppressed because they’ve been convinced (by religion, among other forces) that their suffering is justified. “The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus.” (pg.2)

As long as Christianity glorifies suffering, Brown and Parker say, women who stay in the church and try to reform it from within are like battered wives who believe they can change their abuser. Whether or not you agree with this strong statement of the case, they correctly, in my view, identify some dangers of the various Atonement doctrines that Christians have accepted.

In classical orthodox theology, the suffering and death of Jesus were required to save us from sin. The three main formulations of how this works are Christus Victor, Penal Satisfaction, and Moral Influence. “[T]hough the way in which suffering gives birth to redemption is diversely understood, every theory of the atonement commends suffering to the disciple” and therefore can keep Christians trapped in abusive situations. (pg.4)

The Christus Victor theory sees the Crucifixion as a supernatural confrontation between God and the forces of evil. In the Resurrection, God reveals that the power of love and goodness is stronger than that of sin and death. This is my own devotional approach to Jesus and the Cross. As I understand it, Jesus’ martyrdom was unique to his role as a divine being, not something we are supposed to emulate. Brown and Parker don’t give this theory the complex treatment it deserves, even in a short essay. They do make the valid point that in preaching and writing about Christus Victor, the reality of human suffering is often minimized as an illusion or a necessary prelude to a person’s spiritual rebirth.

I think they overstate the case when they say that “victimization never leads to triumph” (pg.7) and we should always refuse or fight instead. This isn’t actually an option for every abuse victim. In our haste to build a movement, let’s not set up a hierarchy of “good survivor” behaviors. Also, sometimes refusing suffering in the short-term means enabling it in the long-term, e.g. by not setting boundaries in a relationship before it reaches a tipping point of dysfunction. I don’t believe that submitting to suffering is a virtue in itself, but a mystical sense of oneness with Christus Victor helps me endure the suffering that is a by-product of my choice to resist abusive people and systems.

Penal substitution is the Atonement theory you’ll hear in evangelical churches and probably most Catholic ones. Liberal churches don’t talk about it much, but they generally don’t spell out an alternative, so the congregation absorbs it anyway through the hymns and lectionary readings. The average person thinks “Christ died for your sins” is the Gospel, because that’s the number-one point that televangelists and street preachers want to make you believe. Brown and Parker are ready to drive a stake through the heart of penal substitution, and I applaud that.

In brief, substitutionary atonement means: Sin is an offense against God’s goodness, but we are too flawed to be able to repay that debt, so Jesus, who was perfectly good, was the only one who could satisfy it by taking the punishment we deserved. What’s wrong with this picture?

First, it depicts God as a tyrant who is more concerned with offenses to his honor than with reducing the amount of suffering in the world. (We can see from the U.S. prison system that an emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation has made our society more unjust and violent.) The theory reflects medieval, monarchical norms that are not our political ideal today.

Second, purification through blood sacrifice is a concept taken from ritual practices in the ancient Jewish Temple. Is this framework as relevant to us as it was to Jesus’ audience? Brown and Parker additionally argue that it is a patriarchal displacement of the reverence we should have for the truly life-giving blood, which is women’s menstrual blood and birth flow. As an infertile woman in chronic pain from endometriosis, I feel like a second-rate female when I read this argument (talk about spiritualizing away suffering!), but if you have a better relationship with your uterus than I do, it’s worth thinking about. The authors are correct that patriarchal religions have sanctified certain kinds of bloodletting while projecting uncleanness onto the kind associated with women. On the other hand, the ability to participate in the blood/fertility archetype through symbolic means, when you can’t do it literally, can be a liberating way to “queer” fertility and divinely embodied creativity.

Third, Brown and Parker expose the abuse-enabling assumptions behind penal substitution. For me, that’s where this essay really shines. I remember making a journal entry about 6 years ago, when I’d just begun thinking of myself as a survivor: I suddenly realized that the relationship between God, Jesus, and humanity in Martin Luther’s simul justus et peccator doctrine was exactly like being the child of a narcissistic parent. The real me is sinful humanity, unacceptable and in line for punishment if I try to be authentic. Jesus is the false self I project in order to get “love” and be considered good: the perfect, obedient, enmeshed child, of one being with the Father. But this goodness is only imputed to me through a fiction we both collude in. It never feels like real acceptance.

Brown and Parker write:

The imitator of Christ, which every faithful person is exhorted to be, can find herself choosing to endure suffering because she has become convinced that through her pain another whom she loves can escape pain… But this glorification of suffering as salvific…encourages women who are being abused to be more concerned about their victimizer than about themselves. Children who are abused are forced most keenly to face the conflict between the claims of a parent who professes love and the inner self which protests violation. When a theology identifies love with suffering, what resources will its culture offer to such a child? And when parents have an image of a God righteously demanding the total obedience of “his” son–even obedience to death–what will prevent the parent from engaging in divinely sanctioned child abuse? (pgs.8-9)

The third traditional Atonement theory they critique is Moral Influence, first proposed by medieval theologian Peter Abelard as a rebuttal of Anselm’s penal satisfaction model. This is the one I hear most often in liberal sermons. Abelard contended that the obstacle to reconciliation is not God’s wrath but our unwillingness to believe in God’s mercy. Jesus’ willingness to die for us should be conclusive proof that God loves us and deserves our grateful obedience.

On the surface, Moral Influence seems humanistic and empowering, with its promise that our peaceful forbearance in the face of mistreatment can inspire wrongdoers to repent and reform. But this theology can resemble the false beliefs that make us try to salvage harmful relationships: If I never lose my temper… if I love him more unselfishly… if she sees how much she’s hurting me… they’ll stop the abuse. Moral Influence is perpetrator-centric, and it is least likely to work on the worst offenders because they are incapable of empathy or honest self-assessment. Politically, it also implies that marginalized people’s suffering is ours to consume:

Theoretically, the victimization of Jesus should suffice for our moral edification, but, in fact, in human history, races, classes, and women have been victimized while at the same time their victimization has been heralded as a persuasive reason for inherently sinful men to become more righteous. (pg.12)

…In this pattern of relationship, communion is maintained through the threat of death. The actual deaths or violations of women are part of the system just as necessarily as the death of Jesus is part of the system that asks for us to be “morally persuaded” to be faithful to God…

…To glorify victims of terrorization by attributing to them a vulnerability that warrants protection by the stronger is to cloak the violation. Those who seek to protect are guilty. Justice occurs when terrorization stops, not when the condition of the terrorized is lauded as a preventive influence. (pg.13)

Brown and Parker conclude by surveying some contemporary attempts to rescue Atonement theology from its oppressive past. They give qualified support to the Suffering God theory developed by Ronald Goetz, Edgar Brightman, and the process theologians. “God is unfinished. Suffering occurs because of the conflict between what is and what could be within God. Hence, God participates in the suffering of all of the creation, groaning together with the creation in the travail of perfection coming to birth.” (pgs.15-16)

The problem is that solidarity is not necessarily liberation. We’re still left with the question of why Jesus’ death, or anyone else’s, should be effective, especially when the suffering in question is not an “act of God” (disease, natural disasters) but deliberately caused by human beings. Perhaps a partial answer is that God’s willingness to be wounded by empathy is a role model for us to come out of denial and into true relationship (pg.17). Nonetheless, Brown and Parker would prefer an emphasis on choosing the goodness of life, with suffering as a by-product:

Redemption happens when people refuse to relinquish respect and concern for others, when people refuse to relinquish fullness of feeling, when people refuse to give up seeing, experiencing, and being connected and affected by all of life. God must be seen as the one who most fully refuses to relinquish life… The ongoing resurrection within us of a passion for life and the exuberant energy of this passion testifies to God’s spirit alive in our souls. (pg.19)

I think this part of the essay would have been more successful if they’d acknowledged the paradox of suffering: that we need theology both to help us reject and resist unjust suffering, and to help us find meaning and dignity when suffering is unavoidable. Now, how do we discern which situation is which? Abstract, universal theories can’t substitute for our personal intuition and the guidance of our trusted friends and teachers. No theology is abuse-proof.

Since I’m not attached to calling myself Christian anymore, I can say somewhat more objectively that the authors’ redefinition of “Christianity” as a kind of humanism that rejects all of the faith’s core distinctives–Christ’s divine nature, redemption through the Cross, original sin, the need for salvation, and the historical Resurrection–is almost as crazy-making as it was when I aggressively believed in all those doctrines. Just be a vegan, don’t argue with everyone that your mushroom is a steak.

Maybe this doublespeak is an unfortunate side effect of the authors’ determination to stand and fight rather than suffer. I feel it’s kinder and wiser to take the hit, to grieve for my loss of a home in the church, than to turn the church inside-out so it becomes what I need. I can critique the worst of the abuse-enabling doctrines while accepting the fact that the basic orientation of Christianity, even at its most liberal, is more self-denying than I want to be, and therefore not something I can “reform” my way back into. Do it if it works for you. I’ll visit sometimes.

Reading “The Lorax” in Lent

To my relief, this month the Young Master has moved on from conformist 1940s Little Golden Books to another genre of indoctrination more congenial to his Gen-X progressive parents. I’m talking about Dr. Seuss. Shane’s current favorite is The Lorax, a still-timely 1971 environmentalist cautionary tale about a greedy manufacturer, the Once-ler, who destroys a pastoral paradise. (I hope our boy remembers this when he finds out that we spent his college fund on litigation to save our neighborhood’s wetlands…)

dr-seuss-lorax-thneeds_510On about the tenth re-read, Shane asked me why the Once-ler is only ever shown as a pair of green hands. This is actually pretty unusual for Dr. Seuss, who never seemed to run out of ideas for depicting unique creatures. Shane thought maybe the Once-ler had no head, but some of the other pictures show his eyes peeking out through the slats of his abandoned workshop. So I brainstormed other possibilities. A 4-year-old’s “Why?” will lead you somewhere deep if you let it!

I said maybe the Once-ler did not feel connected to anything around him. He just made things without listening to his head or his heart, or paying attention to his environment. He didn’t take responsibility for what his hands were doing. He let himself become part of the machine of consuming, producing, and selling.

But I sensed that the alienation of the worker under capitalism was still too abstract a concept for the Young Master. So I tried again. “Maybe he doesn’t show the Once-ler’s face because the Once-ler could be all of us. We all have to be careful not to do what he does, not to be greedy and chop down too many trees and make the animals sick.”

As I spoke, I heard the echoes of a troubling concept we’d discussed in our church small group. We’ve started a video series by an evangelical pastor on the last words of Christ from the cross. That first week, we talked about “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Explaining the traditional doctrine of the atonement, the pastor said that “We are the ‘them'”. Past, present, and future are all one to God. Each of us, because of our sinful nature, crucified Christ and is forgiven by him from the cross.

That formulation no longer sits well with me, for two reasons. One is that I don’t think guilt feelings are the most skillful motivator for turning our lives around. Hopefully we feel bad enough about our actual sins without adding a cosmic crime on top of them–and if we don’t, there’s a good chance that the extra load of guilt for Christ’s death will only harden our ego-defenses. The second reason is that I’m looking to move away from theologies that romanticize scapegoating, because on some level they validate an abuser’s belief that splitting off her shadow side onto a victim is effective. During the time when I most fervently defended this atonement theory, I couldn’t have conceived that the universe could operate any other way; I was just grateful for Christ to take the hit on my behalf, like Winston in Orwell’s 1984 begging the torturer to hurt his girlfriend instead of him. I don’t believe in a totalitarian cosmos anymore, because I have a different kind of family now.

Nonetheless, these two myths, the gospel and Seuss, converge in reminding us of our universal temptation to sin and our interdependent responsibility for the kind of world we make. When we see a tree cut down, or an innocent man hung on one, none of us can stand apart and say “That’s not my problem.”

Valentine’s Day “Special of the Day” Poetry by Donal Mahoney

I celebrated Shrove Tuesday, a/k/a Mardi Gras, in traditional Episcopalian fashion yesterday with amazing chocolate chip pancakes at Miss Florence Diner. The waitress in this Valentine’s Day poem from Donal Mahoney would be right at home there. And in case you’re wondering, I still observe Lent, and this year I’m giving up self-doubt about my writing and skepticism about my spiritual practices. Let the magic begin.

Special of the Day

It’s Rocky’s Diner
but it’s Brenda’s counter,
been that way for 10 years.
Brenda has her regulars
who want the Special of the Day.
They know the week is over

when it’s perch on Friday.
Her drifters don’t care about
the Special of the Day.
They want Brenda instead
but she’s made it clear
she’s not available.

Her regular customers tip well.
Long ago, they gave up
trying to see her after work.
After awhile her drifters go
to the diner down the street
to see if the waitress there

is any more hospitable.
Brenda’s regulars don’t know
she has three kids her mother
watched every day until Brenda
took a vacation out of town,
then came back and helped her

mother find a place of her own.
Now Brenda’s back at the diner,
serving her regulars and
discouraging her drifters,
while Marsha, her bride,
watches the kids.