July Bonus Links: Open Borders Edition

Hello again, fans. The fascist nightmare engulfing our country merited its own links post, so here you go. At the risk of putting myself on a government watchlist, I must say, never have I felt less enthusiastic about the patriotic celebrations of July 4th. I believe in what America ought to be, but am realizing that–structurally, intentionally–that is not what America is. (White person discovers the obvious, Episode N+1.)

My readers probably don’t know that “Jendi” was not my legal name–until last month, when the Hampshire County Court made my 40-year-long dream a reality. (Long story, of course having to do with my mother, not the point.) Now I am in the middle of the arduous process of changing all my official documents, which must be done at various far-flung government offices in a particular order and sometimes at ridiculous expense. Folks, I am shitting bricks till my expedited passport comes back from the State Department. Not because I plan to go anywhere, but because it’s suddenly occurred to me how creepy it is, that we are all technically imprisoned within the borders of the nation-state where we happen to be born.

George Mason University economics professor Alex Tabarrok makes “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders–Completely” in a 2015 article in The Atlantic. After citing statistics that immigration raises GDP, Tabarrok adds:

Immigration unleashes economic forces that raise real wages throughout an economy. New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike. The immigrant who mows the lawn of the nuclear physicist indirectly helps to unlock the secrets of the universe.

What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?

No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other, but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.

Economic data is easy to massage to fit one’s political views, certainly, but it’s worth questioning why conventional wisdom and government policy currently encourage the free movement of capital but not the free movement of workers.

At the leftist political journal Jacobin, Domenic Powell lays out a program for the Democrats to implement meaningful immigration reform in his article “How to Abolish ICE”. The piece suggests strategies we can try at the local level, such as pressuring our law enforcement agencies to stop sharing data with ICE and to end agreements whereby ICE rents space to detain immigrants in our jails. The article also recommends that Congress set up an immigration court system that is independent of the Justice Department, to stop treating all undocumented people as presumptive criminals.

If you’re in Massachusetts, call your state representatives and Governor Charlie Baker to pass the Safe Communities Act, which cleared the Senate in May. Also see this article from Colorlines about “How You Can Support Detained Immigrant Families”. From protesting to donating to making phone calls, there’s something for nearly everyone to do. I’m hosting a birthday fundraiser through Facebook for the National Immigration Law Center.

Meanwhile, white evangelical Trump supporters are doing their best to destroy what’s left of Christianity’s reputation. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions justified tearing immigrant children from their parents by citing Romans 13, saying that everyone must obey the laws because “God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Progressive Christian blogger Fred Clark, a/k/a Slacktivist, deconstructs this interpretation in “Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address”:

[N]ote the full enormity of what Sessions is doing there. He’s not just invoking the Bible to justify this one policy, but to justify — as beyond question and beyond criticism — any and every policy. Yes, specifically he’s claiming the divine right to put children in cages, but more than that he’s claiming to be an agent of God and therefore that whatever he does is divine, and that we mere mortals have no choice but to submit and obey…

…The idea of “the government” that Sessions is asserting — and attempting to sanction with scripture — is not compatible with the idea stated by our greatest Founding Father, Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Slacktivist remarks that most Christian political philosophy, be it liberal or conservative, makes the mistake of treating “the government” as an entity separate from “the people”, something that was true in St. Paul’s time but not in our modern democracies. (As humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote at the end of his political satire Parliament of Whores, “In a democracy, the whores are us.”)

We don’t have a king or a Caesar, we have usWe are, in this time and place and in this system — however imperfectly realized — the authorities appointed as servants of God to do good.

We must not irresponsibly reject that appointment by reading Romans 13 as though we were first-century subjects of an all-powerful emperor. We shouldn’t be reading that passage for wisdom about our accountability to government, but for wisdom about our accountability as government.

Otherwise we’re conceding the argument to Jeff Sessions and other would-be rulers claiming a divine right to demand our submission. That will make us accountable to him to obey whatever he tells us about children in cages. We need to turn that around. We need to demand that he be accountable to us, and that if what he does is wrong he should fear us, for we have authority and we do not bear it in vain.

It’s been a disappointing year for progressives at the Supreme Court. I’m especially worried about how the Court has been chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, because the Republicans have been trying for decades to rig the system by disenfranchising poor and nonwhite voters. In the Husted case, decided last month, the Court narrowly upheld Ohio’s shady plan to purge voters from the rolls based on their lack of response to an easy-to-miss mass mailing. Over at Slate, commentator Mark Joseph Stern describes the battling jurisprudential philosophies of Justices Sotomayor and Alito in “Sam vs. Sonia”. He thinks the conservatives are winning:

In the legal battles between state officials and Americans who believe their suffrage is under siege, whose voices matter most? Those of lawmakers complaining about the difficulty of performing their duties, or those of minorities who feel their most fundamental right has been suppressed? Which side deserves the Supreme Court’s empathy? Through Alito, this court has clearly picked a side, elevating the voices of state officials who insist that their purges and gerrymanders do not block equal access to the ballot. Its favoritism will have dire consequences for decades to come.

Poor judicial decision-making comes as no surprise to the folks at the socialist journal Current Affairs, such as writers Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni, who explore the quirky and arbitrary power of individual bench-sitters in their article “Judging the Judges”:

Knowledge of the individual personalities of judges is such an important feature of the legal system that it operates as a skill in a lawyer’s toolkit, one that can be paid for. Supreme Court clerks who choose to go to big law firms after clerking on the court receive massive bonuses, often hundreds of thousands of dollars. The main asset they bring to their new firms is their firsthand knowledge of the intricacies of a particular Supreme Court justice’s mind. Large firms understand the strategic value of knowing a judge personally—what they like, what they dislike, what considerations will make them most likely to agree with you.

With judges wielding such concentrated and individualized power over cases, courtrooms quickly become stages for bizarre legal farces. Lawyers make arguments they don’t believe, that the judges know the lawyers don’t believe, but everyone has to play along. Only the judge has the power to decide when the game will end, and how. Let’s say, for example, that your client lost a case because they didn’t show up for a previous hearing. They likely missed that hearing for some reason that a normal person would find totally understandable: They didn’t have a lawyer at the time, they don’t speak English that well and didn’t understand what the hearing was for, they couldn’t get time off work, the bus got stuck in traffic on the way to the courthouse. But under the applicable statute, it’s likely that none of these perfectly rational and comprehensible explanations are admissible. In this situation, you know, and the judge knows, the real reasons the client missed the hearing. But you’ll have to try to make an argument about something totally different, something that this particular judge might choose to accept, even though they know that your argument has little to nothing to do with the reality of the situation.

At times, this peculiar trade in niche arguments feels thoroughly demented. If the judge wanted a bribe, that would at least feel normal. Everyone wants money. But what judges want is some strange intellectual product. Maybe they want you to cleverly contort the facts into some tiny legal box. Maybe they want to be convinced that doing whatever you’re asking them to do will quickly vanish the case from their docket and free the judge up to go to lunch. Or maybe the judge made up their mind about the case the second they glanced down at the paperwork, and is now simply idly watching you dance.

The fact that legal arguments are usually completely divorced from reality is partially a function of the law itself, and not solely the judges. That said, nothing prevents judges from acting like rational, normal people instead of playing games with people’s lives and making lawyers jump through hoops.

What, then, is the answer? Not “impartiality”, which the authors believe is an impossible ideal. They argue that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum should put less faith in the judiciary to drive social change:

If we aspire to a form of democracy where there is an actual connection between the organizing efforts of the general public and the subsequent behavior of our elected officials, pushing for reforms to make our elected government more responsive to popular concerns is a better route than relying on distant elites to undo the mistakes of other elites. When you put power in the hands of unaccountable elites, you never know what they will do with it.

While it’s not a cure-all, it would also help to reform and diversify legal education, so that judges are not so out of touch with the real lives of the ordinary people before them:

Part of the problem, of course, is that judges are separated from poor litigants by class and, often, race. If we want more judges to exercise discretion in an empathetic direction, it seems crucial to diversify the pool of judges, perhaps directly through quotas, or indirectly by reducing social and financial barriers to entry in the legal profession. Also important is changing the dominant ethos of legal education, which overwhelmingly privileges the pet concerns of legal academics and corporate clients over the kinds of issues that affect the vast majority of the people caught up in our courts.

I second that remark about legal education. Personally, my journey from young libertarian to armchair radical began 21 years ago when I started a clerkship with a New York State appeals judge. He happened to be a progressive, which made my transformation smoother, but what really opened my eyes was the case summaries themselves. Our staff attorneys would write summaries of the legal briefs and the trial record, so we could quickly handle the cases that didn’t present any important legal issue and focus on the knottier ones. For the first time, I was reading true stories of what it was like to live in dangerous public housing, or be sentenced to 5-10 years for selling $10 worth of crack. Relative to my peers in elite schools, I’d felt underprivileged; now I saw how privileged I was compared to other people in my neighborhood, let alone the city. We never read those kinds of stories in law school. That’s outrageous. I do think we brought about some positive changes and did justice in our limited way during my 3-year tenure. The courts alone won’t save us, but wherever you are, do what you can.

July Links Roundup: Repent, Harlequin

So many links this month, we’re doing two rounds: literary and political.

Notable science fiction and horror author Harlan Ellison passed away last week at age 84. A giant in the speculative fiction community, Ellison was also controversial for his verbally abusive outbursts and the sexual violence in some of the stories he wrote and championed. There’s no question that he’s one of my problematic faves. This memorial essay by Cory Doctorow focuses on the positive side of Ellison, while other writers on Twitter reminded us of his history of mistreating women, such as groping author Connie Willis onstage at WorldCon in 2006 (see these threads by Bogi Takács and Jasmine Gower, for example).

I see both sides of the man in his work when I reread it now, 30 years after he first blew my mind with “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. (One of the scariest stories I’ve ever encountered, right up there with Lisa Tuttle’s “Closet Dreams”; read at your own risk.) My husband and I both tried to get through Ellison’s iconic Dangerous Visions anthologies a couple of years ago, and had to quit because we were nauseated by the pervy-ness and rapey-ness marketed as bold innovation. On the other hand, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, his classic tale of quixotic but meaningful resistance to tyranny, inspires me in a whole new way as our country comes closer to fascism than ever before in my lifetime. And when I worry that my life is meaningless, I remember the defiant existentialism of “The Cheese Stands Alone” and resolve to move forward anyhow.

As the debate over Ellison’s literary legacy shows, interpretation of a text is never fully open-ended nor fully closed. In the space between, a community of readers develops: people joined by a common sentiment that the text is worth debating, critiquing, and absorbing into their lives, but differentiated by the unique alchemy between that text and their personal imagination. I don’t picture the exact same “Harlequin” that you do when you read the story, and the life circumstances that the story illuminates for you may be similar, but not identical, to mine. In their Harvard Divinity Bulletin article, “What the Gospels Share with Fanfiction,” MDiv student Jade Sylvan suggests this is also true about Scripture, which is one way to explain why we have four canonical Gospels instead of one. Like queer fans who write and share Kirk/Spock slash fiction to reappropriate a mainstream story for an under-represented group, early Christians told varying stories of Jesus to make him relevant and liberatory for their particular audiences.

If scripture is seen as a dialogue, it stands to reason that it would require being embraced and reimagined by different authors in different times and places—even by authors with different points of view. As I have learned about Luke’s pagan slant (e.g., the divine insemination) and Matthew’s messianic additions and how their calculated redactions suited their unique conditions writing in the Roman Empire during the first or second century, I have wondered if we might also see the synoptic Gospels as creations of authors who loved and respected the traditions that came to them. They were taking up the story and filling in the gaps to find the truths that their specific communities want and need…Likewise, in contemporary fanfiction, authors reimagine stories and texts to find the truths their communities need. In doing so, they feed the subculture so that it might grow strong enough to become self-sustaining, to upset the mainstream, to remake the world.

Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery epitomizes the trope of the fan who takes enthusiasm a little too far: furious that her favorite romance writer has killed off his main character, she kidnaps the author and tortures him into resurrecting the character in a sequel. However, on the Ploughshares blog, Natalia Holtzman invites us to rethink the moral calculus of this famous novel, taking a closer look at the protagonist’s aesthetic snobbery and contempt for his fans. Is it actually a projection of the writer’s worst fears about himself, that makes Annie appear so monstrous? This post made me want to read fanfiction from Annie’s point of view. King’s plot is attention-grabbing because of the unlikely gender reversal. In real genre-fiction fandom, it’s far more likely to be male fans having violent tantrums because Dr. Who is female and Star Wars has a black hero.

We’ll end this link-around with some writing advice from two well-regarded contemporary authors. I have not yet read Rita Bullwinkel’s story collection Belly Up (A Strange Object, 2018), described in this interview by Sadye Teiser at The Masters Review as “deadpan disaster” fiction, but I felt liberated by her depiction of her creative process. I’m working on embracing both the obscurity of my literary “brand” and the weirdness of my writing. In response to a question about her “craft choices”, Bullwinkel said:

I don’t think of writing fiction as a series of choices. I think of it as compulsive, and something I can not help but do. I would write if no one told me to, and, indeed, let me be clear, no one is telling me to write, no is making sure that I write anything but me. And, I think, because of this, because writing is a thing I do to please myself, to remind myself that I am living, that I don’t allow my mind to get in the way with how my writing should or should not be. It is, simply, the things I am circling, written in the style in which I circle them. Even my earliest stories had some of the same mannerisms, and were circling some of the same things. It’s not that I think I haven’t gotten better. One must believe they are getting better, that their mind is becoming sharper, but, I’ve never had a conscious thought while writing about what kind of style I wanted to write in. The brilliant writer, Diane Williams, when once asked why her stories are so short, replied something like, “I am a pear tree. I make pears. I would be equally happy if I bore walnuts, but I don’t. Only pears to see here.” I feel similarly.

I am a huge fan of Alexander Chee’s novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and am looking forward to reading his new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, sometime this summer. In this interview by Santiago Sanchez at Lambda Literary Review, he shares wisdom on many topics, including the market for queer art, your imagined audience versus your real one, and the pressure to represent your minority group and/or be confined to your personal identity demographics when writing fiction:

I don’t know how we can preserve our complexity in life and in art by not being willing to write about the world around us. I am not against people who are not me writing a character like me—I just want them to do it well, and for it to exist alongside my own work. And not to replace me, or speak for me.

The book exists in part because I have always felt the question “How autobiographical is this?” has been a way of not talking about what a book is about. A way of focusing on the writer that is a way of not focusing on the writer, that neglects what the writer has done in favor of a narrow psychological interpretation. I was approached by so many young writers of color for interviews and I kept saying to them, “please write about me instead.” To review me, not just interview me. And many have as a result. So that’s another way to preserve our complexity—to ask our communities to not just see us but to give us witness on the page, to write criticism, to be the queer critics of color we need.

Sometimes, when I read a truly outstanding book, I’m tempted to say, “That’s it. I’m hanging up my pencil. I thought I was writing fiction, but I can’t write like this, so why bother?” Then, I remember that this is exactly the opposite reaction I would want people to have to my work. I don’t want to induce competitive despair! Few responses make me happier than hearing that I inspired someone else to write. Chee feels the same way:

I think once you think of yourself as a public figure telling a story, you start to believe you don’t owe the reader what you owe them. You lose some of your humanity, and possibly the part that makes you a writer. What makes me happiest in this is that so many people have found their way to writing after reading my work. So for me it is about that only. I made some good people feel possible to be themselves, and that’s the best thing there is.

Follow Chee on Twitter and listen to his guest appearances on the Food 4 Thot podcast.

June Links Roundup: Trust Me, I’m a Policeman

The police, a small presence in our family’s everyday lives, occupy a large territory in the imagination of the Young Master, now age 6. Storylines about catching robbers emerge from his daily playtime with Lego Batman and the superhero’s assorted friends and enemies. Internet cartoon series like Chu Chu TV, friendly uniformed animals in “Zootopia” and Richard Scarry’s Busytown, and gifts of police-themed clothing reinforce the message that police are fun and friendly people with cool noisemaking vehicles.

Meanwhile, his parents’ perspective on the police is evolving in the opposite direction, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and radical history books like Lies My Teacher Told Me. We are sometimes at a loss about how to impart a nuanced point of view to such a young child. On the one hand, we want him to feel safe approaching an officer for help, if he’s ever lost or in danger in a public place. On the other hand, we don’t want him to buy into the myth of benevolent state power that went unchallenged even in our progressive urban secondary schools.

I’ve taken the opportunity, on a few occasions, to put the Lego cop in our handmade brick “prison” and tell Shane that officers have to obey the law like everyone else. If they don’t, they stop being cops and become ordinary people who go to jail. (The shockingly low percentage of grand jury indictments, let alone convictions, is a discussion for another day.)

This week in The New Republic, in his article “Rough Justice: How America became over-policed”, political columnist and bestselling author Mychal Denzel Smith reviews two books on the history of modern policing and its troubling roots. The first professional police force, in Victorian Britain, grew out of efforts to quell Irish uprisings against the English colonizers. In America, the earliest uniformed officers were hired by Southern cities to prevent slave revolts and enforce laws against black literacy.

The motto “to protect and to serve”—adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955 and later used by others around the country—has been a highly effective public relations tool for the police, as it obscures the main function of their work, which since its inception has been to act in an adversarial manner toward the wider community. “Police often think of themselves as soldiers in a battle with the public,” Vitale writes, “rather than guardians of public safety.” This has held true through the last century and up to the present: in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which the Chicago police killed ten protesters during a steelworkers’ strike; in the raid of the Stonewall Inn in 1969; in the killing of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man whom the Sacramento police shot at 20 times on March 18, 2018, in his grandmother’s backyard. No matter what other responsibilities police have assumed, they have consistently inflicted violence on the most marginalized people in society and maintained the economic, political, and social dominance of the ruling class.

The literature reviewed in this essay does not call for abolition of the professional police force, but instead argues that we have gone astray by making the police the first or only responder for social problems caused by poverty and poor mental health care. “Most perceived threats to Americans’ safety—urban gun violence, foreign terrorist attacks, immigrant crime waves—result, in fact, from American policies or are created wholly out of our imaginations.”

Perhaps the most feared law enforcement arm at this moment is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal agency with a more recent and dubious pedigree than your neighborhood patrolman. In a March feature at The Nation, Sean McElwee argues convincingly that “It’s Time to Abolish ICE”.

ICE has become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives. Moreover, abolishing it would only take us back to 2003, when the agency was first formed.

ICE was a direct product of the post–September 11 panic culture, and was created in the legislation Congress passed in the wake of the attacks. From the start, the agency was paired with the brand-new Department of Homeland Security’s increased surveillance of communities of color and immigrant communities. By putting ICE under the scope of DHS, the government framed immigration as a national security issue rather than an issue of community development, diversity or human rights.

That’s not to say America’s deportation policies only got bad in 2003, nor that it hasn’t been a bipartisan project. When he was a senior advisor to then-President Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel wrote that Clinton should work to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” When Republicans gave Clinton the chance to do this with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, he jumped at it.

IIRIRA set up the legal infrastructure for mass deportations and expanded the number of crimes considered deportable. Clinton’s blessing also harshened the political atmosphere around immigration. As recently as 2006, Democrats still explicitly used anti-immigrant sentiment as a campaign tactic. During his failed Tennessee Senate run, Harold Ford Jr. ran ads warning that “Every day almost 2,000 people enter America illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way, handing out jobs that keep illegals coming. And every day the rest of us pay the price.”

Even Barack Obama, while he made pains to distinguish between “good” and “bad” immigrants, presided over aggressive deportation tactics in his first term in order to build support for a path to citizenship that never came.

The central assumption of ICE in 2018 is that any undocumented immigrant is inherently a threat. In that way, ICE’s tactics are philosophically aligned with racist thinkers like Richard Spencer…

…Next to death, being stripped from your home, family, and community is the worst fate that can be inflicted on a human, as many societies practicing banishment have recognized. It’s time to rein in the greatest threat we face: an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

American law enforcement seems to be getting it wrong on both ends: destroying innocent families, but not taking the threat of misogynist violence seriously, despite the fact that the eventual perpetrators of mass shootings nearly all started with harassment or assault of intimate partners. In her October 2014 Harper’s essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps”, prominent feminist writer Rebecca Solnit (you may know her as the originator of the term “mansplaining”) details how warnings of societal dangers go unheeded when they come from a woman. Environmentalist Rachel Carson, Freud’s incest survivor patients, Woody Allen’s stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, and Anita Hill were among the many truth-tellers deemed “hysterical” for challenging the status quo.

We are still in an era of battles over who will be granted the right to speak and the right to be believed, and pressure comes from both directions. From the “men’s rights” movement and a lot of popular misinformation comes the baseless notion that there is an epidemic of groundless accusations of sexual assault. The implication that women as a category are unreliable and that false rape charges are the real issue is used to silence individual women and to avoid discussing sexual violence, and to make out men as the principal victims. The framework is reminiscent of that attached to voter fraud, a crime so rare in the United States that it appears to have had no significant impact on election outcomes in a very long time. Nevertheless, claims by conservatives that such fraud is widespread have in recent years been used to disenfranchise the kinds of people — poor, non-white, students — likely to vote against them.

On the subject of sexist double standards, I resonated a lot with Jaya Saxena’s article last month in the literary journal Catapult, “The Rose Quartz Ceiling: When It Comes to Love, Men Are Praised for What Women Are Simply Expected to Give”. Now, I know it’s not fair to blame my perceived gender for all the emotional labor I get hornswoggled into providing, but there’s a reason why it only takes a 10-minute ride for me to hear about my Uber driver’s difficult childhood. (The writer in me may be sending mixed signals: “Tell me more!”)

Writing about the stated moral of the film “Moulin Rouge”–“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”–Saxena observes:

The only people who sing that line in the film are men—lovestruck, idealistic men who are championed for being so emotionally open. But as women, we slowly learn, the greatest thing we are expected to do with our lives is love and be loved in return. No matter what else we might want to do, this is the height to which we’re expected to aspire. Men who love are enlightened beings, heroes of musicals. Women who love are just doing their job, what we were born to do. And so we hit the rose quartz ceiling.

While some interpretations of crystals vary from source to source, the rose quartz is always the stone of unconditional love. Its pale pink translucence is said to pull at the heart and fill you with light and softness; remind you of your love for others, your love for yourself. It also “carries a soft feminine energy,” as opposed to the “masculine,” aggressive energy of other stones.

These ideas are intertwined, that it is the realm of the feminine to love and be loved. The rose quartz is the stone of motherhood, the ultimate archetype of a love that is supposed to be constant and freely given, no matter if it is ever reciprocated or even acknowledged. Whether or not you identify as a woman or a mother or in any way feminine, to associate the binary of love and hate with any other binary assumes that it’s only naturally accessible to some, requires a leap for others. Even the most generous readings of the crystal’s properties, which say we all have both masculine and feminine energies in us, still buy into there being a dichotomy. It is always the feminine side that is expected to sacrifice, to love without condition…

…To be a good mother, the supposed higher calling of any woman, is to love no matter what. The giver of unconditional love has to do the work of love, and it has to be given freely and openly and constantly regardless of what she receives in return.

This is reasonable to expect of parents, both mothers and fathers. But it’s also easy to use the act of “unconditional love” as an excuse to treat the woman giving it like shit. Kind, soft, giving: That’s just how women are. Whether you’re arguing from witchy empowerment or benevolent misogyny, the conclusion is the same. Love is feminine—not just a woman’s job, but her nature. Why expect anything else of her if this is what she was made for?

I asked my partner if there were conditions to their love for me. “Yeah, like, if you murdered my parents, I’d probably stop loving you,” they said. I love them. I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine a life for myself in which we do not love each other. But I do know there are actions that would make loving them impossible. Maybe I would still feel something like love for them, but I would stop loving as an action. There are conditions to my love. There are things that would make me abandon it, not because I wanted to, but because I had to.

Because the only person I want to have unconditional love for is myself.

Hat tip to Jess Zimmerman, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, for the link. Follow her on Twitter.

As I wrote in my last post, I have a love-hate relationship with the daily meditations from the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality course that I’m teaching this summer. This week, not so much love. Trauma recovery is walking a tightrope between blaming the world and blaming the self; between the victim mentality that caused some of my family to turn into real-life Miss Havishams, and the Christian doctrine (espoused in today’s meditation by no less than Kierkegaard and Joni Eareckson Tada) that God tears us down to nothingness in order to rebuild us. I won’t worship a God who acts like a cult leader, breaking and brainwashing us to soften us up for his “love”.

Laura LeMoon’s post last month on the social justice blog The Establishment, “Why Me? Incest, Suffering, and Why God Isn’t My Answer”, addresses the failures of this theodicy.

There is a common thread amongst most major religions that god knows best and god has a plan. To an abuse survivor, this is like being told to accept being out of control when we often feel like having no power got us abused in the first place. Trust and surrender are hard for people who have experienced an egregious breach of trust and that “surrender” means giving up agency or the ability to fight back or say no. And while I’m sure there are many abuse survivors who have been able to surrender, I am not one of them, and it should not be required for us…

…When religions tell us as survivors that “god knows best” or “just let go,” it sounds like reasons abusers give children as to why they must inflict pain and suffering upon them. When god calls for us to blindly trust, how could an adult abuse survivor not think of when their abuser told them “I’m doing this because I love you; I’m doing this because you wanted me to; I’m doing this to help you.” It can’t be an expectation of abuse survivors that they just let go and accept that god knows best, because we might feel like this is something that allowed us to be hurt in the past. For whatever reasons god “allows” incest to happen, we will probably never know while we walk this earth.

Maybe everything that happened to me was just random; like a tornado that skips one house only to eviscerate another. With a number of years of intensive therapy under my belt, I’ve learned that the “why” becomes not nearly as relevant as the “how.” How are you going to move on? How are you going to let go of suffering, of victimhood? How are you going to believe you’re worthy of a healthy, safe, happy life and people in it who treat you accordingly?

That’s how I feel too. In today’s journal, I wrote, “Suffering doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just an experience.” I still believe in the benefit of looking at religion through a survivor liberation theology lens, but mainly to deconstruct what isn’t healthy, not as a new foundation. What does that imply for the Cross–is Christianity inherently limited by making a trauma story its central image? Refocusing on the human life of Jesus, as liberals do, doesn’t help me, because the problematic values we draw from that story, the moral ideals of passivity and self-erasure, are still (in my view) dictated by the Cross as the supreme interpretive guide, and by our own unprocessed histories of victimization. And yet, I continue to pray.

Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave

Posting has been light in the past month for a number of reasons, including course prep for my church group and attending my 25th college reunion. (What is it with the false modesty of our alumni going out of our way to avoid saying where we went to school? We’re not fooling anyone. Harvard Harvard Harvard.) I am exactly halfway through the 40-day book of Bible meditations that accompanies our Emotionally Healthy Spirituality course, and I’m feeling all kinds of ways about it.

The helpful overall premise of the course is that our spiritual life is too often unconsciously dictated by family patterns and other people’s opinions of us. We’re encouraged to spend quiet time with God in which we pull back from these worldly manifestations of our identity and seek security instead in God’s unconditional love for the unique person that God created us to be. This practice has been deeply sustaining right now, because a situation in my personal life has been forcing me to confront my codependence and what I used to call self-salvation or works-righteousness. The desire to be “good” can make me afraid to be honest with myself and others about what I can willingly offer, and what I can’t or shouldn’t.

Alongside this fruitful process, however, old wounds of betrayal by the church are reopening. I’ve heard it all before: the invitation to listen to the Holy Spirit, the fine-sounding pronouncements that God doesn’t want us to stifle our true self in conformity to social pressure and secular norms. Well, I did that, I found out I was queer, and they tried to make me believe that all the fruits of the Spirit in my life had been a lie. The author of this course is a conservative, presumably non-affirming pastor. I imagine he would say that queerness couldn’t be a true self because gay and trans identities don’t exist; in the evangelical worldview, these are just sinful behaviors. This inconsistency doesn’t invalidate the insights I’m getting from the course, but it makes me depressed at a time when I’m already struggling with trust issues in relationships.

A surprising outcome of daily journaling is that I get bored with writing my objections to evangelical theodicy and hermeneutics over and over again, and eventually find something insightful and positive (however tangential) in grappling with those brief excerpts from the Bible and Christian writers. (A fan letter I’ll never be able to send: “Dear Pastor Pete, your Daily Office workbook really helped with my gender transition! Thanks.”) I hope the selected musings below have some value for my readers.

Mark 11:15-17

What secondary things keep me from being silently present with God? Mainly the need to be “productive” to prevent anxiety from rushing in.

Surrendering control over my own importance feels like depression and annihilation because my mother’s sad defeatism was contagious (old insight) and because living with an engulfing narcissist meant that I was constantly battling to hold onto my realness, my separate and desiring self (new insight!).

How does God, or some kind of connection to Spirit, provide a better way to preserve myself? This is not an answer I can find in the evangelical framework of surrendering one’s will to the Big Daddy in the Sky.

God is not absent from us. We are walking inside God’s body, the beautiful world where everything is growing and alive. We are inside God when we stand on the earth and look up at the trees full of life force.

Luke 10:38-42

Wondering if there’s an interpretation of Mary versus Martha that retains Jesus’ point about priorities, without shaming Martha for doing what women have been told they have to do since the beginning of Western civilization in order to support the higher calling of (mostly male) contemplatives. Yet, in what ways am I passive-aggressive like Martha, blaming structural forces for my lack of courage or energy to claim my contemplative time as valuable? Am I really constrained, or am I not doing what God calls me to do because I’m afraid of displeasing people?

The pop-culture antidote to anxious busyness feels too close to existential purposelessness. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff”–well, then why get out of bed at all? Better to try believing it’s all big stuff. Everything I could do today is sacred or sufficient, going for a walk or writing or frying eggs, so no worries about doing the wrong thing.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

The thorn in St. Paul’s side: what would be an alternative to self-blame and shame, that wouldn’t make me fake positive feelings about being a fat queer loon, and doesn’t play into the creepy evangelical concept of God sending us disabilities and disappointments so we don’t get uppity? Perhaps Ariana Reines‘ idea from her reading of my astrology birth chart, that my unique nature is part of a cosmic pattern where I have a role to play, but not like someone up there intentionally put obstacles in my path to change me!

That’s what is so coercive and doublespeak about thorn-in-side theology. It’s supposed to be saying, accept your flaws, but it’s simultaneously telling you that God sent you a burden because you couldn’t be trusted with the power of being whole and free.

Christianity is like the female clothes in my closet. I keep trying it on, because it’s right there and I used to like it, but it just gives me bunions.

Exodus 3:1-5

Perhaps it’s trite to snark at the suppressed homoeroticism of prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”, but heteronormative evangelicalism’s refusal to admit the pleasures of abjection leaves no other way for this imagery to be read except as rapey. It’s as though, like chaste ladies in an old-fashioned romance novel, they can only allow themselves to bottom for Jehovah if it’s cast as a painful punishment against their will.

Genesis 12:1-3

On trusting in the slow work of God, and giving up control over the outcome: When I pictured what it would be like for an abusive parent’s soul to be purified in Purgatory, I had a (previously unknown till this moment) awareness of a Love so secure and powerful that it could hold that person in every moment of their lacerating self-awareness and make it bearable, even a blessing overall. And how, then, can I start to live this life with the consciousness that a Love so great surrounds my poor little old ego in every moment, so that nothing I do or have done to me should ever make me afraid of myself??!!

 

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.”

The Binding of Isaac and the Sacrifice of the False Child

Next month my church class starts an 8-week series on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, based on the book by NYC evangelical pastor Peter Scazzero. Pre-watching the DVDs, I’m already feeling more clarity and spaciousness around difficult emotions that I often avoid through busy-ness. I dare say it’s a sign of my increased spiritual health that I’m able to be surprised and inspired by many of Scazzero’s insights, despite their being wrapped in a theological framework that differs from mine on significant points. Put another way, I wasn’t expecting my heart to be moved so often, since I’ve approached this church teaching job from the perspective of a sympathetic scholar of Christianity, no longer a full believer.

Personalization is both the strength and the weakness of evangelical Bible study. I welcome the focus on psychological introspection, contemplative time with God, and the challenges of following Jesus in our ordinary careers and relationships. These inward concerns are often shortchanged in progressive churches in favor of the social gospel and a hands-off, destigmatizing approach to parishioners’ personal lives. On the other hand, conservative exegesis can fail to challenge–or even acknowledge–the problematic power dynamics of stories where only some characters get to be fully human protagonists. In adapting the EHS worksheets, I’ve had to do some creative massaging of materials that (for example) cite the genocide of foreign tribes as merely a backdrop for the Israelite king’s spiritual development. As far as I’m concerned, in Christ there are no redshirts.

Another such opportunity arises in the materials around the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. According to this story, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac–kill him on the altar!–in order to prove his faith. Faith in what? In the promise that God would make Abraham the father of many nations, even though Isaac was his only legitimate son and Abraham and Sarah were pushing 100.

From the Biblical writers’ viewpoint, Abraham is the only “ethical subject” of this story. Isaac and Sarah don’t have to give consent. Since women and children were considered property in those days, the writers are not as troubled by the moral issues that (hopefully) make this story a showstopper for us moderns.

I’ve been thinking about ways to mine some value from this story, from a trauma liberation perspective. (In fact, my second novel-in-progress is a sort of midrash on the Binding of Isaac.) One possibility came to me as I contemplated a central theme of the EHS course: the fact that our spirituality is often unhealthy because we’ve concocted a false self to please others and avoid our painful emotions. Religious virtue can really be codependence if we’re seeking human approval instead of trusting God’s unconditional love. The course guides people to look at dysfunctional family patterns of stuffing down, projecting, or acting out our feelings.

So I thought: What if the son that Abraham has to kill is not his real son? What if he’s being asked to kill his agenda for Isaac–the mindset in which Abraham values his child not because of who Isaac is, but because of the role he’s expected to play in securing Abraham’s worldly importance? Narcissistic parenting is the idol that Abraham lays on the altar.

Viewed this way, the singular focus on Abraham is not a bug but a feature. God is telling him to die to precisely that mindset that we find offensive about the story today–the belief that children’s lives belong to their parents. God has to lead Abraham up to the brink of the ultimate consequence of his error, in order to reveal that this path leads to the opposite of God’s plan and Abraham’s deepest wish. Only by giving up control over his offspring’s fate, can Abraham become part of a family that endures.

Conversely, in our world today, we see many families that are estranged because of the elders’ refusal to honor their children’s personhood and autonomy. Maybe it wasn’t part of their plan to have a queer child, a neurodivergent child, or a child who married outside their religion or race–so they have none at all. They have sacrificed the wrong child, the real child, and live alone with their nostalgia for someone who never existed.

Two Poems from Nancy Louise Lewis’ “Girl Flying Kite”

Nancy Louise Lewis is a retired journalist and college professor, and the founder of Legalities, Inc., a nonprofit that helps low-income litigants afford access to the court system. Her self-published debut poetry collection, Girl Flying Kite (2018), came across my desk via Winning Writers subscriber news, thanks to her diligent publicist at Author Marketing Ideas.

The subjects of this visionary, God-haunted book could not be further from the innocent quotidian scene suggested by the title. In fact, the title itself is our first clue to the menace and mystery Lewis finds beneath the surface of daily life, as it refers to a child victim of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the shadow of her last playful moments forever burned into the wall. Other poems draw inspiration from the author’s Appalachian childhood, stories of father-daughter incest, and enigmatic encounters with a divinity whose presence we can neither completely discount nor rely on. Lewis is most at home in the liminal space between belief and doubt, like the constantly eroding and re-forming shoreline of the ocean that appears in many of these works.

Lewis’ distinctive voice and ambitious metaphysical questioning are evidence that great talent exists outside the gatekeeping of traditional publishing. There were a couple of areas in which the book might have benefited from an outside editor. At times it felt overly lengthy and repetitive, and lacked a clear narrative movement or structural progression. A few poems were a little too enigmatic for me, but that’s true of a lot of work that comes out of university presses, too! Overall, this collection showed a maturity of thought that is unusual in a first book of poems. Read the mesmerizing selections below and see for yourself.

Moon

Like my mother’s eye,
its diameter is extreme, haunting—a certain
breadth that denotes coldness. And in its light

pollen and rabbits appear everywhere.
When I was ten, I looked out the window
and said to God, “If you are there

let a rabbit appear,” and one did.
But you can’t put any credence
in it. She just looked at me

and said, “Get the celery dish
out of the sideboard.” So many
things, you know, just dispel

rumor of the most awful kind as
remnants of humanity loom about
looking for reward…

I never expected it,
never asked for it. It was simply
the bag of grain given me at my birth.

Meanwhile, all expands toward a semblance
of what I thought. One yearns
to be the same no matter what

perspective one takes, disregarding
the angle of forethought
that looped one to it

in the first place. A boomerang!
I’d gone out on the rift
hoping for the barest glimmer

to open closed minds, a nectar of the
purest sort. But
there was never a hint

of a precept to follow, and I sensed
it was falsity. No matter where
one wanders, there is the odor

of permanence, the look of
a winking eye. And how
to end seepage? How

to look the thing straight
in the eye and say
it’s only geometry?

****

Ever Easter

The moon charts a course one can
believe in, a form
which offers hope
that an escape hatch exists: a hole
into some other universe of
knowing one merely intuits,
but senses bodily almost. I mean
to say that
if any circle can beckon one
with its promise of release,
then this full moon
is no less than
the epitome of guarantee: a resurrection
just out of sight
one can rely on every bit as certainly
as the curt edges
confronting one at this juncture.
But if reason
prolonged belief interminably, would
a requirement be this surfeit? Why
question? Why the mind’s constant
foreplay
when fulfillment is unobtainable, at least
here, now? Why torment oneself
with the tease that the unseen is
immutable, irrefutable,
when proof to the contrary is ever
present? Take, for instance
the way the tides humble
themselves
to its bidding,
forsaking a permanence of aspect
for this
ebb and flow,
putting faith on the line even
on a moonless night. Yet
why center the debate here,
when the proof is always
washing ashore somewhere, doubt
circling the globe
close behind, but never narrowing the gap
between mere speculation
and formal reconciliation, the worshipful
waves ever kneeling down, then
rising up with alleluias?

“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.

April Links Roundup: You Can Handle the Truth

Happy Easter and Passover, readers! I’d wish you a happy spring, too, but it’s been snowing all morning here in Paradise City. Ah, New England…

There are many links this month, and they have no theme. Let’s get started.

I have awesome friends who are all completely unfazed by my journey to not-female-ness. My best guy friend forwarded me links to excellent TED Talks by drag king performer Diane Torr (“Man for a Day, Woman for a Day”) and Rev. Dr. Paula Stone Williams (“I’ve lived as a man and a woman, here’s what I’ve learned”). Williams was a conservative Christian pastor before her transition, and now heads the psychotherapy and pastoral counseling organization RLT Pathways.

On her blog last month, Williams shared some wise advice about spiritually mature Biblical interpretation and “Knowing What You Know”. Children start with an “external locus of control”: they rely on their parents or primary caregivers to teach them what is true and morally right. Healthy adulthood means developing an internal locus of control. However, unhealthy families train people to keep on relying on secondhand guidance into adulthood. And churches have colluded with that program by taking over the role of the controlling parent, instead of encouraging believers to develop personal discernment. This happens, for instance, when anti-LGTBQ Christians disregard the promptings of their empathy and personal experience.

I have since realized when my understanding of Scripture causes me to reject what my heart, mind and soul are telling me, the problem is not with my heart, mind and soul. It is with my understanding of Scripture.  The problem is that I have made my heart, mind and soul subservient to my tribe.  When your tribe’s interpretation of Scripture violates your own conscience, the question you should ask yourself is why you have opted for an external locus of control.

For religious people, the answer is often that we have been taught that our bodies are evil and not to be trusted. Our sin causes us to deceive ourselves. Since we cannot trust ourselves, we must submit to an external power. Of course, this is great news for the tribe. It guarantees its ongoing existence. If the tribe can make us afraid of our own conscience and common sense, it can maintain the control necessary to remain in power.

It is interesting that when people talk about our sinful proclivities, they often quote the writings of the Apostle Paul. But when I look at the writings of Paul, particularly in his letter to the church at Rome, I find Paul more concerned about the sin that encompasses us when tribal rule takes over than the sin zipped up inside our own beings.

Over at Ruminate, a faith-oriented literary journal, fiction writer Mindy Misener discusses another challenge in developing an internal locus of control, regarding the issue of why we write. In “I Don’t Like Writing About Writing, But This Is Overdue”, Misener describes her slide from personal to career-oriented motivations, a choice she likens to Jesus’ warning that we can’t serve both God and Mammon: “I entered an MFA program wanting to write and left the program wanting to get published.”

I developed the same problem when I shifted from poetry to novels. I wrote poetry mostly for myself, to discharge and analyze my deepest feelings. Winning prizes was fun, but it didn’t affect what I wrote about or my motivation to keep writing. But fiction, a more popular genre, involves other people, on the page and in the market; someone might actually read it. Two years of marketing my debut book further eroded my ability to write without hearing the voices of imaginary critics. Like Misener, I have to re-commit to “writing out of a desire to touch the ineffable.”

That’s a goal that I see realized in “Art Can Handle Us”, an essay by New Zealand poet and dance teacher Rata Gordon, published in January in the journal Corpus: Conversations About Medicine and Life. Her writing students, dealing with mental illness and trauma, bring the burden of feeling unworthy into their creative process. The miracle of art is that it is spacious enough to handle everything that frightens us about ourselves. The open-ended nature of poetry-making is an invitation to meditate, to be present with and curious about something that could otherwise trigger us into disconnection or reactivity.

Every time we say yes to our experience, either through writing it down, sploshing it with paint, crafting it into a play, or squishing it with playdough, we send a very important message to ourselves: ‘I matter. My experience is real’. This is a powerful antidote to the conditioned belief that there is something wrong with us, that we are somehow lacking. This is particularly significant for people who belong to marginalised groups in society, but it matters to anyone who has ever doubted their self-worth.

In my experience, finding a way to express what is arising as honestly and precisely as possible is where the best art comes from. By ‘best art’ I don’t mean art that is the most well-liked or appreciated by others (although that may sometimes be true); I mean that it is the most internally satisfying to create.

As Gordon mentions, society’s prejudices feed a writer’s internalized self-judgment. It’s not just a personal self-esteem problem to get over. In the Spring 2018 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review Online, Lili Loofbourow, staff critic for The Week, chronicles how our aesthetic standards are unconsciously dictated by “The Male Glance”. (Hat tip to poet Marsha Truman Cooper for sending me the link.)

The slope from taxonomy to dismissal is deceptively gentle and ends with a shrug. The danger of the male glance is that it is reasonable. It’s not always or necessarily incorrect. But it is dangerous because it looks and thinks it reads. The glance sees little in women-centric stories besides cheap sentiment or its opposite, the terrifically uninteresting compensatory propaganda of “female strength.” It concludes, quite rightly, that Strong Female Lead is not a story but a billboard.

The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on. It is, above all else, quick. Under its influence, we rejoice in our distant diagnostic speed. The glance is social and ethical the way advice columns are social and ethical, a communal pulse declaring—briefly, definitively, and with minimal information—which narrative textures constitute turgid substance, which diastolic fluff. This is the male glance’s sub rosa work, and it feeds an inchoate, almost erotic hunger to know without attending—to omnisciently not-attend, to reject without taking the trouble of analytical labor because our intuition is so searingly accurate it doesn’t require it. Here again, we’re closer to the amateur astronomer than to the explorer. Rather than investigate or discover, we point and classify.

Generations of forgetting to zoom into female experience aren’t easily shrugged off, however noble our intentions, and the upshot is that we still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say…

…Even when we’re moved by the work ourselves, our assumption, time and again, tends to be that the effects these female texts produce are small, or imperfectly controlled, or, even worse, accidental. The text is doing something in spite of itself.

For Mallory Ortberg, the brilliant satirist and cultural commentator behind the (now sadly defunct) online journal The Toast, questioning gender roles in literature led to a real-life gender transition. This characteristically witty interview at The Rumpus coincides with the release of Ortberg’s new book, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, an expansion of Ortberg’s “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series at The Toast.

Ortberg: Fairy tales are labeled by the nature of the protagonist. There will be entire subsets of fairy tales that are about the seventh son, or the third daughter, or whatever. There’s so many ways in which not just your gender but your relationship to your family, like whether you’re a daughter, whether you’re a son, whether you’re the oldest, whether you’re the third, whether you’re the seventh, some other significant number, shapes you. It shapes your role in a story, and it’s almost a job. The ways in which being a father in a fairy tale sets you up for one of several paths that you can be in, or being a stepmother, or being a mother, or being an older, envious sister.

Gender feels like a job that you can sort of apply for, and you could just as easily not get that job. It didn’t interest me to write about a world where gender was better, so much as —what if it was not tethered to the same things that we tether it to, what would be ways in which it would still be a trap and a fiction and a prison? Which is not to say that that is the only thing that gender is, but in the terms of things you can explore in a short story, that’s some serious grist for the mill. I was just trying to think of an imaginative way somebody else might be trapped by gender, in a world where they were not trapped in the same way that we are?

Finally, Little Red Tarot founder Beth Maiden has helped me rethink one of the most problematic cards in my deck with her post last month, “Reclaiming the Empress”. Beth’s issues with this Major Arcana character are the same as mine:

In many ways, I’ve rejected this archetype, associating it in the traditional way with ideas of maternity, fertility, motherhood. I’ve been quick to un-align myself with what often feels like a very strong gender stereotype, one which says women and femme folks should be soft, nurturing, fertile, mothering, receptive, and giving – all Empress qualities. But there are so many other aspects to this card, and so many other ways of framing the qualities I’ve listed, taking the Empress way beyond the ‘archetypal feminine’ or ‘Mother’ that I find problematic. It is more than possible to reclaim and embrace the Empress archetype in a feminist and queer context.

In my online tarot course A Card a Day, I talk a lot about the messages of self-care and nourishment the Empress brings us. Messages about the importance of listening to our bodies’ needs, of tuning in to our surroundings and consciously (and unconsciously) enriching our connection with our environments, our relationship with the spaces we inhabit.

And because it’s about relationships, the Empress is about receiving as much as it is about giving. Receiving from the earth, receiving from our communities, from the folks we love. Letting ourselves be cared for and nurtured, and showing up to offer this to others too, in turn. There is a rhythm, an ebb and flow, a cycle, to this giving and receiving, they are two parts of a whole. Receptivity doesn’t have to be a weak quality – it takes strength and vulnerability to allow ourselves to be supported and cared for.

In this illustrated post, Beth recommends some old and new decks whose artwork and guidebooks offer creative alternatives to gender-stereotyped images of the Empress. If you’re in the UK, support her online shop!

 

March Links Roundup: Fat Tarot, March Shredness, Transmasculine “Titanic”

Lots of good, mostly unrelated, stuff this month! If, like me, you are on the lookout for diverse imagery in Tarot decks, you may have been disheartened by the narrow range of femme body types in typical artwork. The Gaian Tarot is an exception among decks that have mainstream popularity. In too many others, the idealized femme characters are white, young, and thin as any Hallmark-card fairy.

Cathou, a new contributor to the blog Little Red Tarot, writes about this issue in her inaugural column, “Queering Tarot in a fat liberation perspective”. Queerness and fatness, as political identities, challenge power structures that privilege some demographics over others (e.g. cis-hetero, thin, abled) via appearance and beauty standards. “Queerness is so much more than sexuality and gender identity. Queerness renders it impossible not to look at how bodies are constructed and coded.” Tarot has a similar radical potential, in that it is anti-hegemonic. There is no one creed, pope, or scripture of Tarot. It “weaves stories in ways that don’t need to rely on dominant discourses: no literature, no psychology, no philosophy is required.” However, when deck creators are not conscious and critical of our society’s oppressive body-coding, Tarot replicates problematic stereotypes:

An old person is associated with wisdom and a child with innocence. A fat woman is associated with fertility or abundance. A visibly trans body is associated with fluidity or overcoming all binaries. All disabled bodies are referring to obstacles and overcoming them: in a wheelchair because you’re stuck, blind because you’re either in denial or able to follow your third eye, and so on. Black women represent wildness, Native American people an archaic wisdom, Arab women lust or a Scheherazade of some sort, and it goes on.

Cathou exhorts us to prioritize body diversity when designing or shopping for cards. New and forthcoming decks I’m excited about: the Delta Enduring Tarot, the Numinous Tarot, the Urban Tarot.

Who’s wonderful? Adam Rippon is wonderful! The first openly gay U.S. athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics, he won a bronze medal in the 2018 games. Rippon’s ease and brilliance on the ice are matched by his quick wit and charm (and political snark) on the Internet. He famously snubbed Vice President Mike Pence at the ceremonies, to protest the politician’s support for psychologically destructive “gay conversion” therapy. And did I mention that he’s beautiful? He wore bondage suspenders to the Oscars, for goodness sake. Adam, I surrender to you.

The progressive evangelical magazine Sojourners has been cautious about supporting LGBTQ rights, trying to maintain a space for Christians who are left-of-center on economics and the environment but not ready to endorse the sexual revolution. In our polarized nation, it’s doubtful whether there are many such Christians remaining. So, fortunately, Sojo has manned up and given a platform to Austen Hartke, creator of the “Transgender and Christian” YouTube series, to educate their readers about “6 Common Ways Christians Stereotype Transgender People”. His article is responding to an anti-trans essay by Christian writer Nancy Pearcey. The comments are about 80% supportive to 20% transphobic, which is better than I expected. All of Austen’s points are great; I’m quoting this one because we also often hear it from the trans-exclusive “feminist” Left:

Misconception: If we don’t claim gender based on our physical sex characteristics, then we end up perpetuating social stereotypes about what makes a man or a woman.

In her article, Pearcey argues that when we don’t take our self-concept of gender from our physical sex characteristics, we have no other solid foundation on which to base it. She laments, “To discover whether you identify as a man, you must first define manhood,” which may push us to conform to stereotypes: “Do you act stereotypically masculine? Then you must be a man.”

Pearcey gives examples of young people who questioned their gender because of the original way they expressed themselves. For one teenager, the problem was that he was sensitive and gentle, and that he enjoyed spending time with girls rather than boys. Because our society sees this kind of gender expression as feminine, this teenager wondered if he might be transgender. Pearcey reports that after he saw more examples of men who were gentle and enjoyed activities we associate with women, he realized that he did identify as male. She uses this example as proof of a number of transgender kids who could be convinced to accept their assigned sex if we could only get rid of those pesky gender stereotypes.

In making this claim, Pearcey leaves out two things. First, she appears not to know the difference between gender identity and gender expression. While gender identity is something internal and intrinsic, gender expression is the way we visually articulate our sense of masculinity or femininity or androgyny to the world. Our gender expression includes our clothing, hair, voice, and mannerisms, among other things. This distinction helps everyone, regardless of whether you’re transgender or cisgender, to understand that you can be just as much of a man if you have long hair and enjoy The Great British Bake-Off, and you can be just as much a woman if you shave your head and ride a motorcycle. While this distinction can be complex, there are many transgender young people who understand this difference, and who are still very sure about their gender identity. Just because the examples Pearcey used eventually identified with their assigned sex doesn’t mean that all other people will.

For the past sixty years or so, Christians have been a major driving force behind gender stereotypes. One only has to Google “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” to realize that too often we’ve been the ones telling people that they’re “not man enough” or “not woman enough.” Pearcey suggests that we shouldn’t base our ideas about gender on cultural stereotypes, and I totally agree! Now, if only we could stop using our Christian megaphone to amplify those same stereotypes, we’d be another step forward.

I discover everything important 30 years too late. This month it’s hair metal. The avant-garde literary journal DIAGRAM has chosen “March Shredness” for the theme of its annual music-criticism bracket. Go here to vote for your favorite videos and read semi-ironic nostalgic essays about them by literary rock stars like Amorak Huey and Ander Monson. In some ways, the genre flips the old devil-sign finger at gender stereotypes, with those perm-haired boys in mascara throttling their phallic guitars. Boring toxic masculinity is also very much on view, with the obligatory shots of lubricious models as rewards for the male singers’ rock-godliness. But I will forgive much for the campy sweetness of LA Guns’ “Ballad of Jayne”. So much leather! So much schmaltz!

Following up on a legal issue I blogged about last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit just ruled in Zarda v. Altitude Express that sexual orientation is covered by the ban on “sex” discrimination in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This is yuge, to quote the Cheeto-in-Chief. According to BuzzFeed reporter Dominic Holden:

A federal appeals court on Monday ruled that a 1964 civil rights law bans anti-gay workplace discrimination. The decision rebukes the Trump administration — which had argued against a gay worker in the case — and hands progressives a win in their strategy to protect LGBT employees with a drumbeat of lawsuits.

The dispute hinges on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, also bans workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation.

The Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled Monday, “We now hold that sexual orientation discrimination constitutes a form of discrimination ‘because of . . . sex,’ in violation of Title VII.” In doing so, the court overruled a lower court — and a precedent from two previous court cases — and remanded the case to be litigated in light of their reading of Title VII.

The decision holds national implications due to its high tier in the judicial system, and because it’s seen as a litmus test of the Trump administration’s ability — or inability — to curb LGBT rights through court activism. The Justice Department had injected itself into the case even though it wasn’t a party to the lawsuit and doesn’t normally involve itself in private employment disputes.

The case was heard in New York City by all 13 judges in the 2nd Circuit, known as an en banc hearing, which leaves the Supreme Court as the only avenue for a potential appeal.

The ruling comes soon after another major gay-rights ruling in 2017, thereby giving momentum to the argument that anti-gay discrimination is prohibited even without a federal law that explicitly says so.

In reaching its decision Monday, the court pointed out that anti-gay discrimination would not exist “but for” a person’s sex. That is to say, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals would not experience this type of unequal treatment had they been born a different gender, or were attracted to a different sex.

On another subject close to my heart, speculative fiction writer Ada Hoffman has written a standout essay on “Autism and Emotional Labour”, parsing the complexities of respecting and asserting boundaries across the autistic/neurotypical divide:

Emotional labour is the mental and emotional work we do to maintain relationships with other people, whether that relationship is an intimate one, or simply coexisting with strangers in a public place…

…Autism makes many forms of emotional labour difficult!

Many of the complaints that NTs have about autistic people boil down to the fact that autistic people are not doing enough emotional labour for them. Whether it’s little things like not making the right facial expressions to put people at ease, or big and intimate things like not knowing how to express affection the right way in a relationship.

As autistic (or autistic-friendly) feminists, how can we ask for reciprocal emotional labour in a way that doesn’t toss autistic people to the curb?

…I’m going to talk about forms of emotional labour that are more difficult for many autistic people, but also about forms that many of us are good at – and I’m also going to talk about special forms of emotional labour that are only ever asked of disabled people.

Then I’m going to talk about some ways we might fix some of this.

I can’t summarize all her excellent recommendations here, but I’ll highlight a couple of points I haven’t seen in other pieces on the topic. Hoffman notes that autistic people are actually extra skilled at some forms of emotional labor, and should get more credit for this. Examples: educating others on their special topic, being orderly, being great listeners, taking time to research and understand the rules of their environment. Moreover, neurotypical people don’t always appreciate the extra emotional labor that Aspies do to fit into ordinary social situations. But regardless of our neurotype, mutuality is essential for good relationships. We may do different kinds of emotional labor for each other, but we each have to do some. When we find that our needs are incompatible with what the other person can give, it doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong.

Finally, to end this long post on an entertaining note, the humor magazine Cracked makes an oddly convincing case for reading Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack in “Titanic” as transmasculine. In “The Much Better Movie Hiding in Titanic”, Ryan Menezes notes Jack’s androgynous clean-shaven look (out of character for a homeless bohemian in the era before electric razors); the fact that he’s never shown shirtless and his chest is blocked from view during sex; and the drag-costuming feel of the scene where Kathy Bates’ character dresses him in a tux for dinner in first class.

Now look at the additional layer this brings to the climax. Women and children board lifeboats first, which means Jack can theoretically board with Rose, but only by coming out to the crew. Could Jack do that if it meant saving their lives? And if so, is there even a way to do it without causing a riot and maybe even getting shot? I repeat: This would be a way better movie.

Jack makes the choice to stay behind. Then Rose abandons her lifeboat and returns to the ship, which would do nothing to help the situation, unless it’s to try to convince Jack to admit the truth and board the next lifeboat with her. It winds up being moot. Everything goes to hell right after that, and the two end up in the water together. Jack tells Rose to grow up and have babies — if she does choose to marry a man and have a family, that’s fine — and to promise to go on living and “never” give up. Because Cal and her mother weren’t her only issues, so she must pledge to deal with them all, for she will surely feel suicidal again.

Maybe, if only in a version of the story that never left James Cameron’s head, what came next was a reveal that brought all of that subtext to the surface. Old Rose could have said, “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets,” and then gone on to say (or show in flashback) exactly what that secret was. It would have been the boldest twist in blockbuster cinema, and Titanic would have gone down as a whole other kind of milestone. “But,” James Cameron would presumably have thought, “will this movie make $2 billion at the box office?”

Fan-fiction writers, take note!