Could We Be God’s Alternate Personalities?

If the Trinity blows your mind, hang on for this new article from Scientific American, which posits that multiple personalities may be the key to the “hard problem of consciousness”, i.e. how the capacity for subjective experience can arise from purely physical processes. Computer engineer and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup, psychotherapist and historian Adam Crabtree, and neuropsychiatry professor Edward F. Kelly argue in the affirmative for the question, “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?”

To summarize: Brain imaging shows real physical state changes corresponding to dissociated identities, compared to no changes in a control group of actors pretending that they had multiple personalities or “alters”. For instance, sight receptors were switched off in the brain of a sighted woman when her blind alter was in charge. “There is also compelling clinical data showing that different alters can be concurrently conscious and see themselves as distinct identities… The massive literature on the subject confirms the consistent and uncompromising sense of separateness experienced by the alter personalities. It also displays compelling evidence that the human psyche is constantly active in producing personal units of perception and action that might be needed to deal with the challenges of life.”

Meanwhile, philosophers of science have been at a loss to explain how the brain produces the mind. If we have to describe everything in terms of physical causes (no magical or supernatural dualism), how could consciousness arise from combining particles that lack this quality? Some philosophers have posited that all matter does possess awareness. But then how do these billions of fragments cohere into higher-level unified beings? We don’t experience ourselves as a multitude of self-aware electrons.

This is where it gets wonderfully weird:

The obvious way around the combination problem is to posit that, although consciousness is indeed fundamental in nature, it isn’t fragmented like matter. The idea is to extend consciousness to the entire fabric of spacetime, as opposed to limiting it to the boundaries of individual subatomic particles. This view—called “cosmopsychism” in modern philosophy, although our preferred formulation of it boils down to what has classically been called “idealism”—is that there is only one, universal, consciousness. The physical universe as a whole is the extrinsic appearance of universal inner life, just as a living brain and body are the extrinsic appearance of a person’s inner life.

You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize the obvious problem with this idea: people have private, separate fields of experience. We can’t normally read your thoughts and, presumably, neither can you read ours. Moreover, we are not normally aware of what’s going on across the universe and, presumably, neither are you. So, for idealism to be tenable, one must explain—at least in principle—how one universal consciousness gives rise to multiple, private but concurrently conscious centers of cognition, each with a distinct personality and sense of identity.

And here is where dissociation comes in. We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

Moreover, as we’ve seen earlier, there is something dissociative processes look like in the brain of a patient with DID. So, if some form of universal-level DID happens, the alters of universal consciousness must also have an extrinsic appearance. We posit that this appearance is life itself: metabolizing organisms are simply what universal-level dissociative processes look like.

This made me want to stand up and cheer. Is it heresy, for religions that believe that “God is One”? Not necessarily. This model still posits a universal consciousness that is, in some sense, more fundamental than the appearance of fragmentation. Many mystical traditions suggest that the divine unity voluntarily scattered into many forms to produce the created world, while retaining some overarching transcendent power.

For those who recoil from the idea of attributing a “negative” mental health diagnosis to God, it might help to learn that numerous folks in the multiple-personality community don’t see their condition as a disorder that should be cured by integration into a single “front” identity. The blog Ex Uno Plures and cartoonist LB Lee’s Healthy Multiplicity site are excellent sources of #ownvoices education on this topic. These authors offer philosophical and experience-based reasons why dissociation is not always, or only, a trauma symptom. Em Flynn’s piece “Plurality for Skeptics” is a good place to start:

The problem with “integration evangelism,” as many people here call the idea that all systems must integrate, is that there’s an assumption that everyone is born “normal,” and should be returned to “normal.” It’s similar to the fundamentalist Christian idea that gay people are “fallen heterosexuals,” and the cissexist idea that transgender people are altered members of their assigned gender, rather than members of their identified gender (or nongender, as the case may be). In this worldview, everyone belongs to a set of idealized “types” that are viewed as universal, and any variation from that type is either pathology or an attempt to be “different” to seek attention.

Besides, I wonder if the entire way that Western philosophy privileges monism is bound up with our besetting sins of imperialism, exclusionary religion, and totalitarian ideology. All these failures of empathy share the presumption that singularity is saner, purer, and holier than diversity. If dissociative identities are not a flaw in God, we don’t have to insist that everyone worship the same alter, or that the highest form of worship is to surrender and erase our personal wills within God’s will.

Trauma theology might be the most orthodox theology there is.

August Links Roundup: Love and Dark

Happy Lammas! This month’s harvest of links is loosely bound together by the theme of category reversal and overturned binaries (no surprise).

Over at Stay Woke Tarot, a blog that brings author Rashunda’s African-American heritage and political concerns to bear on topics in alternative spirituality, the post “Are you afraid of the dark?” challenges the color-prejudice in our conventional metaphors for good and bad. In this corner: enlightenment, “love and light”, angels in white robes. In the other: black magic, shadow side, a dark (hopeless) outlook. Rashunda’s poetic reversal of our typical language reminds me of my favorite lines from “The Phantom of the Opera” musical (LOL problematic fave): “Turn your face away from the garish light of day, turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light, and listen to the music of the night.”

Light for me doesn’t mean goodness. Or my true self. When I think of “light,” sometimes I think of the bright light of interrogation.

Someone flicking that bright overhead ceiling light on when you’re dozing off into a gentle sleep.

The searing hot sun in the desert, drying out and cracking the soil. Burning. Glaring. Parched land.

Dehydration.

The sun-bleached bones of a dead animal.

Interruption. You’re doing something “wrong” so let’s shine a light on it. Get it out into the open.

Judgement. A Renaissance-blonde angel clothed in sparkling white, ready to blow his trumpet and send us to Hell.

But “darkness” – for me – represents deep, rich fertile soil.

A womb.

Looking at a beautiful night sky.

A large, inviting void just waiting to accept creativity. Ideas.

My mom.

Having a pure black heart.

In the literary journal TriQuarterly, the personal essay “Both and Yet Neither” by novelist and essayist B. Pietras troubles a different boundary, recounting the struggles of his adolescence as a feminine boy, and his love-hate relationship with the myth of Hermaphroditus. Pietras shares how, even after he embraced his differences through cross-dressing and discovering androgyne role models in classic literature, his desires attached to conventionally macho, straight or straight-acting men. His uniqueness and his shame centered on his voice–a fraught problem for a writer, in particular, since “voice” is another word for the maturing writer’s distinctive style or viewpoint.

During my first week of college, I read a centuries-old love poem addressed to someone said to be a hermaphrodite. Published in 1688 by the poet and playwright Aphra Behn, “To the Fair Clarinda” praises a person who seems to be at once a “beauteous Woman” and a “Lovely Charming Youth.” Behn’s speaker relishes the ambiguity of her subject, claiming first that, although Clarinda’s female friends might be attracted to her, they can commit no “crime” with her—that is, they can’t actually sleep with her. But then the speaker pivots, slyly suggesting that if by chance such a crime is possible, Clarinda’s “form excuses it. / For who, that gathers fairest flowers believes /A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves?” (Who indeed? Only after examining the footnotes did I understand the phallic connotations of the snake.) The poem closes by celebrating Clarinda as a “beauteous Wonder of a different kind,” and—for any readers who might still be confused—by alluding to Hermes and Aphrodite.

Behn’s three-hundred-year-old poem made me sit up very straight in my seat, my mind rinsed with wonder, awed at two of the messages it seemed to encode. The first had to do with history. Clarinda was proof that people who broke the rules around gender had existed for centuries: There was a we, and we had a past. The second had to do with desire. Clarinda was proof that androgyny didn’t have to be seen as an awful, freakish thing; to some, it was a marvelous quality. Seductive, even. For the first time, I considered the possibility that “hermaphrodite”—the word I hated, the slur that had hurt me so deeply—could be a caress.

As part of my journey into maleness, I’ve been trying to pitch my voice lower on the phone when I call strangers: my legislators, customer service, political phonebanking, and so forth. I don’t know if it’s fooling anyone, but it makes me feel more confident. I think twice about every habit of speech–does it sound feminine, and is that synonymous with pleasing, deferential, childlike? Can I dial that back, without sounding unnecessarily brusque or robotic?

Captain Awkward, the world’s greatest advice blog, gives the definitive list of reasons for not sharing that “Trump is crazy” meme, in “Rule Explainer: Why We Don’t Diagnose People Over the Internet”. Besides the often-cited problem of perpetuating mental health stigma, this point really stood out for me:

Even if internet stranger diagnosing could be accurate and didn’t cause stigma, it would still be a bad idea. As soon as we distract ourselves from the harm the victim is experiencing and transfer that attention to trying to figure out the psychology of the perpetrator …who we conveniently don’t have access to and can’t question …we start leaving the victim behind…

Why the fuck

did anyone decide

that the most important thing

a victim of bullying could do

is to understand

and take care of

the mental health

of the person who is harming them? 

Why is it even a thing we think people should do? Like, at all?

Why are we trying to solve the life problems of the person who didn’t write in?

And why do we think that’s the work of our community, to the point that people know the rule about diagnosing and we still have to remind everyone (including myself!) not to do it?

I have a theory about why (you knew I had a theory):

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

One source of this addiction is “The Prodigal Son” story from the Christian Bible. Which, depending on where you live in the world, you don’t have to believe in or follow or even have ever read that book and its stories for it to have a profound influence on your culture and the stories it tells. It’s one of those sticky stories that sticks to things.

And right now we’re stuck with it.

The bare bones version: Rule-following brother was cool all along? That’s just what they should have been doing, no big deal. Rule-breaking jerk brother suddenly decides to be a little bit cool for five minutes? LET’S THROW A PARTY! Rule-following cool brother is like, hey, wait a second here, where’s my Not Being A Jerk party? Story: Yeah, you are great and everything, but let’s really appreciate this other person’s shiny new momentary coolness for a second. Cool brother: Ok, I guess. :continues following rules:

The story itself, as it’s intended to be read, is of course much more complicated and beautiful than that. The wayward son in the story has returned home of his own volition, he apologizes, he is not repeating the bad behaviors, he asks permission to return, and doesn’t think he’s entitled to anything special. The welcome he gets is a gift, freely given. The message is: Fairness is good, but kindness is much better, and we can afford to be kind. We love you and you’re still in this family even if you fuck up sometimes.

Beautiful, right?

So, is it petty to point out that his bad behavior in the story is “I was irresponsible with my inheritance” and not “I serially raped and harassed my coworkers for decades” or “I molested a bunch of the kids in my pastoral care” or “I beat the shit out of my wife behind closed doors” or “I swindled a whole bunch of people on the TV” or other crimes with actual living breathing victims?

Victims fuck up the parable, my friends. If Prodigal Son used to beat up the other brother every chance he got when they were growing up, does that brother still have to shut up and enjoy the party and rejoice and be glad his abuser is back in the fold? Are we still like “I know you never hurt anyone, but your brother temporarily, as far as we know, stopped hurting people, and he stopped squandering his money and that is really the most important thing! Stop moping and pass the hummus!” 

I just want to give that son, the not-Prodigal one, a hug so bad. Especially since I keep meeting him again and again in the letters I get here, in families and social groups where someone is mean and the answer is “just ignore him” or “get over it, already.” “Forgive him.” “Invite him to the wedding.” “Keep the peace.” “We’re a faaaaaaamily.” “The Earth Needs That Water, Besides, He Has Depression.” “What if it’s just Asperger Syndrome?

Somewhere in the game of telephone that became our cultural meta-narrative, this lovely little story was reforged into something where, if you are a certain kind of person and you abuse and bully other people, you don’t really have to apologize for abusive things you did, we as a community don’t have to have a reasonable expectation that you will stop doing those things, you can still be a repulsive entitled dangerous ass-boil of a person, but if (on the off chance you actually get caught) for one shining second you act like you might sort of try to do better, if you can make a case that you might not have completely meant it, if you can choke out some lip service that sounds even vaguely like “I’m sorry…”

We skip straight to the part where we throw you the goddamn party.

We start writing articles about how soon you can “rehabilitate your career.”

We talk about your addictions, your struggles, and we endlessly diagnose the reasons that might have made you behave like you did, literally anything that might not be “asshole made series of asshole free will asshole decisions, hurt others.”

And then we tell your victims that they can pretty much suck it.

While we’re on the subject of survivor-centered redemption and healing, check out the blog Fundamentally Free, which amplifies stories of folks who have left spiritually abusive and repressive Christian traditions. In the post “Violence and the Redemption of the Soul”, Jerry Proctor describes how he found an unlikely post-Christian spiritual path in martial arts, channeling his anger into tests of endurance.

I discovered competitive combat sports in my 30s. I’d been raised to avoid fighting. Be peaceful. Aggression was wrong. Blessed are the peacemakers. When my faith crumbled, I was left with a dearth of tools to build the person I would become; the man I wanted to be. I accidentally discovered boxing, and I loved it. The bug bit me on the first day. It shaped the man I became.

I didn’t approach the sport for any reasons I could articulate. I needed exercise. But week after week, as I went back, I knew I found something I needed. It fed something more. Only looking backward can I understand what drove me. There was so much unresolved anger. There was an absence of spiritual structure, and I needed a wordless way to rebuild my soul devoid of pomposity. That’s what you get from a lifetime of submerging rage, frustration, and disappointment inside. When your only tools are pious catch-phrases and Bible verses, the anger has no place to flow. It builds up. All those constraints were gone. Fortunately, I found my training…

As a student of theology who eventually walked away from it, I acquired an allergy for bullshit metaphysics. I love the physicality of the martial arts. It changed me without a lot of talking. My strength, my reflexes, my timing, my cardio. Training changed me without a lot of verbiage wrapped around why I wanted to change, or what I wanted to become.

Real Social Skills is a very smart blog about boundaries, power dynamics, resisting ableism, and thriving as a neurodivergent person. Their post “Don’t order people to feel safe” pinpoints a subtle kind of manipulation and doublespeak in social justice workshops, a problem that I’d sensed but never been able to articulate.

Social justice workshops often open by demanding that everyone consider the space safe and put absolute trust in the person leading it. For instance, workshop leaders will often say things like “This is a safe space. No one will feel unsafe here — but you might feel uncomfortable confronting your privilege. Understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.”

“Everyone will be safe” is a promise we can’t keep. “Everyone must feel safe” is a demand that we have no right to make.

No workshop is actually safe for everyone. Sometimes, people are going to feel unsafe. Sometimes, people are going to *be* unsafe. People who feel unsafe need to be welcome in our workshops — and all the more so, we need to welcome those who are taking significant risks in order to learn from us.

When we tell people who are feeling unsafe that it must just be their privilege talking, we make the space much more dangerous for everyone in the room. Sometimes, people who feel unsafe are responding to real dangers. If we demand that participants who feel unsafe ignore the possibility that they are right, we are demanding the right to hurt them. That’s not something we should ever do…

…We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters.

People have the right to manage their own safety. Our students have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they trust us, and how far they trust us. They have the right to revoke that trust at any time.

Riffing on J. Halberstam’s book title The Queer Art of Failure, columnist Laurie Penny at The Baffler teases out the implications of my favorite comfort TV in her post “The Queer Art of Failing Better”. Last year, Netflix rebooted the early-2000’s makeover show “Queer Eye”. The Fab Five’s interventions are not just for straight guys anymore; one of my favorite episodes was devoted to a black church mama and her shy gay son. But there are plenty of interventions for their original constituency: stalled-out straight dudes who need to be taught how to groom themselves instead of waiting for their wives and mothers to do it. It’s this burden-shifting of female emotional labor that Penny sees as the show’s real subject:

On the surface of things, it’s a straightforward quest for “acceptance,” supposedly of homosexuality, dramatized via the no-longer-so-outlandish vehicle of sending five gay men on an outreach mission to small-town Georgia with a vast interior design budget and a vanload of affirmations. What it turns out to be, though, is a forensic study of the rampaging crisis of American masculinity. In each new installment of the reboot, queerness is gently suggested as an antidote to the hot mess of toxic masculinity under late-stage capitalism. I am absolutely here for it, as long as we all get paid…

…What the Queer Eye guys seem to be gently teaching their subjects (and, by extension, their viewers) is that it is possible to live well without a woman to take care of you—and if you’re lucky enough to have one offer to do so anyway, maybe you should show her some consideration by picking up after yourself and learning how to apply the business end of a comb. When you put it like that, it sounds simple. But two thousand years of socialization and half a century of profit-oriented self-dealing throw up a few mental hurdles.

This show isn’t about how to win at life, but how to fail with style. It’s about giving straight guys permission to be more gracious losers. It helps that the show doesn’t actually have winners. This is not the ruthless, dick-smacking, alpha-primate pursuit of victory-for-victory’s sake that provides a plot line for most American reality television as well as for American politics, presuming you can still see clear water between the two. No, this is an oddly compassionate exit interview for the middle-managerial caste of straight dudes who are no longer steering a culture that prizes their skill set above everyone else’s…

…The crisis of capitalism is also, as theorist Nancy Fraser puts it, a “crisis of care”—of reproductive labor. The work that the world most urgently requires is work that women have traditionally done for low wages or for no wages, and this is work that cannot be effectively automated or subsumed within the profit model. Someone has to do the dishes.

This is not to say, of course, that the subjects of Queer Eye are first-order victims of global capitalism’s concerted campaign to hollow out working-class life. These men are not marginalized, but they are nonetheless living in the margins of the lives they had perhaps expected. There are people with far more pressing problems than simply having no idea that clothes don’t live on the floor. In their own way, though, these men are quietly drowning, and a lot of the people who love this show the hardest have spent years of our offscreen lives trying to serve as—or at least to inflate—the life-rafts.

Actual queers in today’s America, on the other hand, often have more serious problems than learning to use a laundry hamper. For trans and gender-nonconforming people, along with right-wing efforts to roll back civil rights at the state and federal levels, we have to deal with left-wing “contrarian” thinkpieces disputing our identities. Trans writers and well-informed allies (including the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBTQ activist organization) roundly condemned Jesse Singal’s Atlantic Monthly cover story on desistance and the supposed pressure on trans kids to make irrevocable medical decisions. Now, journalist Noah Berlatsky has compiled a list of links debunking the biases and inaccuracies in this prominent feature story. See, for instance, Alex Barasch’s response piece at Slate, asking why we continue to privilege cis parents’ anxiety over life-saving care for the majority of trans youth who don’t freely choose to revert to their birth-assigned gender:

[O]nly a specific subset of detransitioners—namely cisgender women and girls who misinterpreted mental health issues or more general gender nonconformity as signs that they might be trans, only to realize later that this was not the case—are of interest to Singal and the media writ large. Those who are intimidated back into the closet, those who are battling intense stigma both internally and institutionally, those who begin the process only to find that their insurance won’t cover their transition—none of these people are given a voice. I know more than one trans man who might have been counted among Singal’s tomboys who were saved from themselves if profiled in their mid-teens—never mind that they were repressed, miserable, and would in fact go on to transition. But such is the double standard of the piece. A fourteen-year-old who outgrows her dysphoria is celebrated, her self-knowledge taken as definitive; a fourteen-year-old who seeks to transition is still in flux and must be given time to change their mind.

Finally, to end on an upbeat (?) note, for fans of this blog’s Murder Ballad Mondays. At CrimeReads, an affiliate of Literary Hub, detective novelist Mark Billingham explores “Why the Best Country Music Is Crime Fiction”: “At its best, country music…seems to me to do what the very best mystery fiction can, and arguably should do. It can tell dark, dark stories, and wrap them up in an entertaining package, turning an often twisted narrative into an earworm. It can reveal unpleasant truths while it keeps your foot tapping.”

 

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.

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“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.