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.

May Links Roundup: Containing Multitudes

Pronouns, pronouns everywhere! For many trans and genderqueer folks, changing pronouns is an early step in social transition. Problem is, I can’t decide which ones to use, or how to communicate them in a low-key way that doesn’t make me feel self-conscious. I worry that queerness is being co-opted to make me buy stuff. The paradox of being on the gender frontier is that the desire for authenticity pushes me to become a fashion clone in order to be read correctly by others. Button-down shirt, short asymmetrical hairdo, large plastic-framed eyeglasses, tattoo, and anime-patterned fanny pack: the enby uniform.

Since I am ultimately a sucker for bling, I will recommend Etsy as a good source of cute pronoun jewelry. This customizable necklace (currently sold out) from Spacerobot Studio holds several colorful half-inch-square signs that you can flip over to indicate which pronoun you’re using that day. (Shane always flips mine to “rainbow question mark”. The kid understands me.) Gender Gems are a popular alternative.

“They” is catching on as the default gender-inclusive pronoun, as it’s already a common English word that everyone can pronounce. But it feels too neuter for me, and I get confused by the singular/plural shifts. (Just for myself–of course I’ll make the effort for anyone else who uses “they”.) I suspect I really want to use “he/him”, and I’m just prematurely fatigued and anxious about not being believed as a “man” because I don’t bind my breasts or take hormones.

In a recent interview in First Person Plural Harlem, fiction writer and queer podcaster Dennis Norris II made the most compelling case for me to try out “they” pronouns. Originally identifying as a gay man, Norris talks about coming out as nonbinary:

I’ve recently adopted the gender neutral pronoun They as my preferred pronoun, after much consideration. Although I’m perfectly happy to answer to She or He. I’ve given this much thought and for me it has to do with the fact that I contain multitudes across an array of layers. There are a few, very loving, very well-meaning people in my life who are having trouble adjusting to my use of the word They because of the notion that it’s grammatically incorrect. But for me, it’s actually grammatically perfect because while I am only one person, I feel as though in this area of my existence I have multiple identities. Or perhaps spirits better personifies this. Multiple spirits. And so I need a pronoun that reflects multiplicity. But in this, I also feel very singularly and staunchly me, myself. I. Because this is me I’m talking about, and no one else. Not sure if that makes sense to anyone else but it does to me.

Norris is co-host of the brilliantly smutty literary podcast Food 4 Thot, author of a short story chapbook from Awst Press, and this year’s guest judge for our Winning Writers Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest.

Fashion magazines are becoming more politically conscious these days, as we saw from Teen Vogue’s coverage of sexism under the Tan Dumplord administration. In this April 12 article from Allure, Katelyn Burns observes that “Navigating Beauty Standards as a Trans Woman Is an Impossible Balancing Act”. When trans women don’t go out in full high-femme makeup and clothing, they’re mocked for not “trying hard enough” to pass. But if they do put on the Ritz, they get criticized by cis feminists for being artificial and perpetuating stereotypes of femininity. Burns comments sardonically: “Sometimes I know I’m a real woman because everyone has an unsolicited opinion about my appearance.”

Gatekeeping, judgmentalism, fundamentalism–sometimes it seems we escaped these pathologies in our religious institutions and families, only to replicate them in our progressive, feminist, or queer spaces. This is why, in a July 2017 article on the lesbian culture blog Autostraddle, Frances Lee says: “Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice”. They see disturbing similarities between their new community and the evangelical church they left behind: the quest for absolute purity, the elevation of unquestionable sacred texts, preaching and punishment as relational styles, and the reproduction of colonialist logics.

Postcolonialist black Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon in his 1961 book Wretched of the Earth writes about the volatile relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and the conditions of decolonization. In it, he sharply warns the colonized against reproducing and maintaining the oppressive systems of colonization by replacing those at top by those previously at the bottom after a successful revolution.

As a QTPOC (queer, trans person of color), I have experienced discrimination and rejection due to who I am. I have sought out QTPOC-only spaces to heal, find others like me, and celebrate our differences. Those spaces and relationships have saved me from despair time and time again. And yet, I reject QTPOC supremacy, the idea that QTPOCs or any other marginalized groups deserve to dominate society. The experiences of oppression do not grant supremacy, in the same way that being a powerful colonizer does not. Justice will never look like supremacy. I wish for a new societal order that does not revolve around relations of power and domination.

Lee expresses the intention to reorient their activism and community-building towards “crafting alternative futures where we don’t have to fight each other for resources and care.” (Hat tip to the anti-racist organization White Awake for this link.)

Along similar lines, in an article from April on the website Selfish Activist, somatic therapist Tada Hozumi asks an important and unusual question: “How Do Our Allies Deserve to Be Treated?” (Hat tip to Little Red Tarot for this link.) Hozumi compassionately notes that the much-discussed “white fragility” (ego defenses against acknowledging race and racism) may have a surface appearance of pride and entitlement, but underneath are shame and vulnerability that deserve respectful handling:

Allies deserve that we recognize our influence over them.

By default, allies come to allyship with shame, even disgust for themselves and the people they represent.

This is because allies come to allyship through surrender.

They are in a tender place where they feel like their ideas about equity in the world have been shattered and whatever they do cannot make up for the historical atrocities that have been committed in their name (which is true).

It is not in the spirit of healthy relationship to treat this surrender as submission that is worthy of domination.

Within the intimate container of allyship, we hold the seat of influence.

Of course, in the larger context of our culture, our allies will always be the ones who hold more privilege and influence.

The reality that our allies are power-full and power-less is a deep paradox of allyship as a relationship…

…Following the above, our allies deserve that we respect their surrender and do not manipulate them.

This is not an opportunity for us to project and inflict them with emotions that they cannot possibly individually responsible for.

Allies are not here to satisfy our wounds from the past including our ancestral and childhood wounds. They are here to serve liberation with our guidance, not to be abused in turn for what their people have done.

It was really validating for me to see this dynamic named in the article, because this kind of trauma reenactment made most of the social justice conversations in my college and grad school years too toxic to be valuable.

Social worker and racialized trauma expert Resmaa Menakem proposes “White Supremacy as a Trauma Response” in this April article on Medium. Trauma is a bodily response before it’s an emotional state. It’s an unconsciously learned pattern of physiological reactions that had survival value for us or our ancestors.

In many cases, the body gets stuck in freeze mode, and then develops strategies around this “stuckness,” including extreme reactions, compulsions, strange likes and dislikes, seemingly irrational fears, and unusual avoidance strategies. Over time, these can become embedded in the body as standard ways of surviving and protecting itself. When these strategies are repeated and passed on over generations, they can become the standard responses in individuals, families, communities, and cultures.

All of this describes trauma in general — and white supremacy in particular.

To undo racism, Menakem suggests, “people of all skin tones, but especially folks with white bodies… need to begin with our bodies, and with the healing of our trauma.”

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.”

April Links Roundup: You Can Handle the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…Autism makes many forms of emotional labour difficult!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan-fiction writers, take note!

January Links Roundup: Truth Is the Cure

Welcome to 2018, friends! This year, I have resolved to be more trans, put a higher priority on my own writing, and go deeper into my eclectic spiritual journey. I’m asking myself why I don’t spend more time on the things that I think matter most to me. Am I deceiving myself about what I really want, or am I uncertain of my right or ability to follow my dreams?

I find that there’s always further to go in healing. More unconscious self-defeating messages to unearth and expose as false. More outworn shapes of life and relationships, now-rusting cage bars to notice and shove aside. More old fears that it’s selfish for me to attempt a more sustainable balance between self-care and availability to others.

A close friend of mine rightly says that “all abuse is a 10 out of 10 to the person who suffers it.” It’s not loving to minimize your experience with comparisons to someone else’s story. However, in the world of social services and self-help literature, non-physical violation is often shortchanged. There are precious few support groups for childhood trauma survivors as it is, and all the ones I’ve found locally are limited to women who were sexually abused.

Andrew Vachss is a successful thriller writer and child protection attorney. His books often deal with themes of child abuse and neglect. Vachss’ Twitter feed is a steady source of affirming messages for survivors of family estrangement and trauma. Originally published in Parade Magazine in 1994 and reprinted on his website, his article “You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart” validates the struggles of emotional abuse survivors and offers good advice for healing. The guilt feelings he describes are the reason I sometimes get hooked into over-extending myself. Some excerpts:

…[O]f all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest–lasting of all.

Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self–concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection…

*

…When it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons. I remember a woman, a grandmother whose abusers had long since died, telling me that time had not conquered her pain. “It wasn’t just the incest,” she said quietly. “It was that he didn’t love me. If he loved me, he couldn’t have done that to me.”

But emotional abuse is unique because it is designed to make the victim feel guilty…

*

…Another rarely understood form of emotional abuse makes victims responsible for their own abuse by demanding that they “understand” the perpetrator. Telling a 12–year–old girl that she was an —enabler— of her own incest is emotional abuse at its most repulsive.

A particularly pernicious myth is that “healing requires forgiveness” of the abuser. For the victim of emotional abuse, the most viable form of help is self–help—and a victim handicapped by the need to “forgive” the abuser is a handicapped helper indeed. The most damaging mistake an emotional–abuse victim can make is to invest in the “rehabilitation” of the abuser. Too often this becomes still another wish that didn’t come true—and emotionally abused children will conclude that they deserve no better result.

The costs of emotional abuse cannot be measured by visible scars, but each victim loses some percentage of capacity. And that capacity remains lost so long as the victim is stuck in the cycle of “understanding” and “forgiveness.” The abuser has no “right” to forgiveness—such blessings can only be earned. And although the damage was done with words, true forgiveness can only be earned with deeds.

For those with an idealized notion of “family,” the task of refusing to accept the blame for their own victimization is even more difficult. For such searchers, the key to freedom is always truth—the real truth, not the distorted, self–serving version served by the abuser.

At Womb of Light, Bethany Webster’s resource site about healing wounds from our relationships with our mothers, she analyzes the #MeToo movement in the piece “What’s Going On With Men? The Mother Wound as the Missing Link in Understanding Misogyny”. Patriarchy socializes boys to suppress their emotional vulnerability in order to be considered real men. Sexual desire and anger are the only acceptable feelings. Longing for reconnection with the “feminine” part of themselves, some men reach out to women in distorted and domineering ways, reenacting their ambivalence about the mother-love and powerlessness they felt as babies.

It is as if the inner male child is unconsciously caught between his painful longing for the “lost source” represented by his mother and his cultural conditioning to hate her as a woman. Put another way, men are caught between a natural desire for their full humanity (the ability to be emotional, vulnerable and empathic) and their desire to remain privileged and in dominator mode. The thing is that one can’t have both. To hold on to dominator mode (patriarchy) is to increasingly lose access to your humanity. And to be fully human, one has to forsake the dominator mode, and all the insidious ways it can show up in oneself. No amount of privilege (wealth, power, fame, prestige) will ever compensate for the devastation, to whatever degree, that patriarchy has wrought on the little boy within him. No amount of power over others will ever make up for that lost part of himself. It can only be found through doing the inner work to reclaim it. 

A man can find this “lost source,” not in the form of physical women, but in the form of exploring what it means to reclaim what the mother or the feminine represents within him, such as the feeling function, the world of emotions, the experience of deep connection within himself and a sense of authentic belonging with others. However, in order to access these vital capacities that have been in shadow, men first have to engage with the child within who is angry that there has been little payoff for forsaking these vital aspects of himself. 
 
It’s easier to project rage onto a “mother substitute” or the “father substitute” out there in the world. Male privilege permits men a blindness to their mother and father wounds while the world burns. However, it takes courage to retract those projections and process the anger about the inner patriarch, the archetype of the cruel, unfeeling father, that granted him access to the world of men at the massive cost of disconnection from his true self, the innocent boy who came into this world capable of expressing empathy, emotionality, and vulnerability. The anger belongs with the patriarchal father (personal and/or collective), the “severer of the bond,” who betrayed the boy, who socialized him to give up a vital part of himself to be accepted in this world as a man. The anger also belongs with the mother who was unable to protect him from this patriarchal wound or who may have inflicted it herself. (See my article here about how patriarchy passes through the mother.) When men can direct their anger there, to where it truly belongs, things will really begin to shift.

Radical feminist playwright Carolyn Gage’s blog post “The Crimes Against Thérèse Blanchard” weighs in on a recent controversy about “Thérèse Dreaming”, a Balthus painting on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Balthus was a notable 20th-century painter whose paintings of children and tweens tended toward the disturbing and erotic. Ginia Bellafante at the New York Times provides context in her Dec. 8 article “We Need to Talk About Balthus“:

Several days ago two sisters, Anna Zuccaro, 26, and Mia Merrill, 30, began an online petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove, or at least reimagine the way that it presented, a painting, “Thérèse Dreaming,” of a young girl in languorous, erotic recline.

The artist, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, or Balthus, had used the model, Thérèse Blanchard, the daughter of a neighboring Parisian restaurant worker, over the course of three years, making 10 paintings of her beginning in 1936, when she was 11. The image in question features her at 12 or 13, with her legs bent and slightly apart, her eyes closed, her thoughts seemingly lost to fantasy. Her skirt is hiked up to reveal a red lining and a pair of white cotton underwear. Writing about a Balthus exhibit at the Met, four years ago, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl remarked, “Looking at the paintings, I kept thinking of a line by Oscar Wilde: ‘A bad man is the sort of man who admires innocence.’”

On the face of it the petition, which quickly gained more than 10,000 signatures, seems like a parody of millennial agitation over the need for cultural protections. “When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend,” Ms. Merrill begins her call for support, “I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose.” That is an unlikely reaction for a former art history student at New York University who is involved in feminist causes. But the initial provocation gives way to an utterly reasonable demand, not for censorship or destruction or an idle trigger warning to shield the fragile from being discomfited, but rather for some provision of context, in the form of expanded text for instance, around a work of art that is rooted in the kind of sexualized power abuses we are now so aggressively trying to dismantle.

Those who take issue with the need for these sorts of descriptions argue that we would then be left annotating much of the history of Western art, a position that ignores the crucial distinction between art that imagines or documents exploitation and art that is actively engaged in producing it. Balthus, who died 16 years ago in his 90s, had a longstanding obsession with girls in the early years of their adolescence, whom he often featured nude, in repose, or asleep…

…The Met has said it would not take the painting down (and it shouldn’t) but neither will it agree, a spokesman for the museum said, to offer the viewer more detail about the artist’s orientation and approach, beyond what appears (which includes the model’s name and age). This response comes at a moment when the country is receiving a long and torturous education about the many miseries inflicted on women by celebrated creative men. Commenting in The Washington Post, the critic Philip Kennicott wrote that even an inscription as short and anodyne as one that alerted the viewer to the fact that some might find the painting offensive because Balthus had a long-held artistic infatuation with young girls would be “a concession too far.”

This contradicts the ethos of an age in which we have increasingly sought to understand the moral framework in which nearly everything we consume has been made. Coffee must be produced and labeled in accordance to the principles of free trade, wood flooring must come from sustainable lumber, chickens must be raised and killed humanely. Tech start-ups need origin stories steeped in virtue.

And yet when the product is art and the source material is an actual body, signaling of that kind is apparently dismissible.

I’m with Bellafante on this. Part of curation is providing context for work produced under ethically dubious conditions. When accompanied by a placard that challenges the viewer to think critically, the displayed work can deconstruct the very source from which its aesthetic potency springs–a better teaching moment than hiding the painting in the archives, especially for a famous work whose reproductions are widely available in textbooks and the Internet. Personally, when I was not much older than Therese and her ilk, I was fascinated with the menacing, prematurely aged children in Balthus’ paintings. He was portraying a shadow side of my social world that few others would acknowledge–the cruelty of children, and perhaps the hidden trauma from adults that created these stiff-limbed changelings.

Gage would go further, and take down the painting, which she analogizes to an artifact wrongly seized from a colonized people. As is typical of radical feminists, she may be attributing too singular and fixed a meaning to a complex work of art. However, hers is an original and thought-provoking argument that at least supports the proposition to make the paintings a teaching moment about consent:

 I propose that childhood be recognized as a sovereign state, and that children be treated as the indigenous populations of a world colonized by adults.

Most folks don’t want to think of children that way, because most of us don’t want to consider how many children are living as captives, how the socialization of the child is really about her colonization. It’s easy for us not to think about children this way, because they do not have a voice, a movement, a lobby, a dime—and they never will.  Children do not have a language specific to their experience with which to frame a paradigm of their sovereignty. And that lack of language is one of the most priceless aspects of their culture. It is a culture of astounding plasticity, adaptability. It is a culture of magic, of naiveté, of gullibility, of heartbreaking innocence and spontaneity… and nearly endless opportunities for exploitation.

“Cultural restitution” is a term that refers to returning stolen works of art and artifacts and bones of indigenous cultures. When the Nazis raided the museums of Europe to enhance their own prestige, they were operating according to the laws of their own corrupt regime. These seizures are not recognized as legitimate by a world restored to sanity, and, after a slow start, the stolen works of art are being identified and returned. It is immaterial that they may have been sold to third and fourth parties unaware of their original status as Nazi contraband. The rights of the victims have been affirmed.

“Cultural restitution” also refers to art and artifacts taken from indigenous cultures to be housed in museums or historical collections. Skeletons and burial artifacts are being returned to the tribes from whom they were taken by archeologists. There is an acknowledgement that a sovereign people have a right to their history and their culture, and that it is a violation of the sovereignty for another people, even a conquering one, to appropriate the artifacts of that history or culture…

…Thérèse Blanchard is not alive today. She…cannot stake a claim to the documentation of her abuse. But in continuing to display works like this (and much of Balthus’ canon), we perpetuate the prurience of the perpetrators.

Children have a right to their lives, to their experience, to their privacy. And when a colonizing, predatory adult invades this world, exploiting and monetizing their vulnerability and raiding their innocence in the name of “art,” children should have the right of an indigenous people to claim the artifact that bears witness to their invasion and colonization. And if the child victims are no longer here to stake that claim, then we should make sure that these crime-scene artifacts, no matter how “tasteful” or “masterful” the execution, will never be revered as works of art.

December Links Roundup: Femme Faces of Spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

November Links Roundup: Body Positive

Twitter served up this adorable story today about two male lions in Kenya who were observed in an affectionate mating scene. The Daily Mail couldn’t resist captioning the pics “Gay pride” and “Can you feel the love tonight”. If I didn’t already have a lion tattoo, I would consider inking one of these images. The article notes:

While male lions engaging in sexual activity is a rare occurrence, it is far from unknown.

In fact, studies published in the 20th century indicated that about eight per cent of ‘mountings’ observed by scientists had been male lions with other males.

Male lions have been observed courting other lions, including showing affection and caressing, as well as mounting. Lionesses are also known to couple up, however this has mainly been observed in captivity.

Lions are by no means the only animal species where homosexual relations exits. Biologists have recorded same-sex sexual activity in more than 450 species including flamingos, bison, beetles and warthogs.

A 2010 study of Alaskan Albatrosses found that a third of the pairs actually consisted of two females.

Possible reasons for homosexuality in animals include teaming up to protect young and occupying the attention of surplus males. Non-reproductive bonding behavior can still advance an animal’s genetic interests by improving the survival of its social group. Now I want someone to write a children’s picture book about gay lion uncles.

Author and singer-songwriter Vivek Shraya recently released a video of the title song from her new album, “Part-Time Woman”. The video features Shraya and nonbinary activist Alok Vaid-Menon singing about femininity as something that you know inside, not something you must perform to prove your identity to other people. It’s a powerful message delivered in a tender, intimate style.

Holy Foreskin, Batman! Issue 17.5 of DIAGRAM, a well-regarded online journal of experimental and hybrid literature, published this provocative prose-poem by Caroline Crew. (Content note: “Reliquary” is illustrated with a disturbingly graphic medieval painting of baby Jesus’ circumcision. He is definitely giving the mohel the side-eye.) Crew plays with concepts of authenticity, incorruptibility, and holiness. She questions the value that the Church ascribes to changelessness, even as the Church itself has changed its doctrines over the centuries.

f you must imagine the Holy Foreskin still survives, look upward. Prefiguring the Church’s lockdown on this most intimate of relics, 17th century theologian Leo Allatius declared all Holy Prepuces fakes—the true foreskin of Christ had quit this mortal coil, and transcended to space. The rings of Saturn, that was the true location of what remains of Christ’s cock. A body so stopped in time it’s frozen in lightyears. Starlit forever.

A relic of the past. When referring to a person, perhaps whose views are archaic or abhorrent as a “relic,” we attempt to place that person in a history that refuses any connect to the present. We want to stop time, isolate its horrors.

But history is a body, not an object. It moves, and rots and corrupts, and moves on.

Recent relics, according to the headlines: manufacturing, soap operas, marital rape, herbal medicine, mail delivery, national identity, moral relativism, a home cooked meal, slavery, ethernet cables, ambassadors, religion. It is easier to believe in relics than it is to believe in a body. Bodies change. Bodies corrupt.

Let me rot, so I may change.

 

October Links Roundup: That’s What I Like

There is no theme this month.

The single best medical decision I ever made was to get the Mirena chemical IUD this year–or as I call it, “Van Helsing”, because it stopped the bleeding! I was somewhat pushed into it because my insurance company forced me off the brand-name Pill that kept my endometriosis under control, and the generic version was making my blood pressure go up (or perhaps that was the frustration of losing control over my reproductive health??).

But I didn’t actually hear about the IUD option from my OB-GYNs. It was never suggested to me, during the 30+ years I’ve been chronically disabled from menstrual pain. No, I had to read about it in the comments on an article about fertility magic at Little Red Tarot. Some goddess must have been looking out for me, because my periods have stopped, and for the first time since I was 10 years old I can make plans like a normal person. I don’t have to deal with losing a week of my life every month to pain and insomnia, or the shame of having to make false excuses for my unavailability because menstruation is a taboo subject for many people. As with all hormonal medications, your mileage may vary, but it dramatically changed my life for the better.

Lack of information is just one of the obstacles to good reproductive care. In her essay “You’ll Feel a Pinch” at the online literary journal Catapult, Megan Stielstra writes about her decision to have her IUD replaced early, in case the Trump administration makes birth control even more expensive and hard to get. She had to go through a lengthy and humiliating process to get this authorized. I blame the Religious Right; they’ve capitalized on people’s reasonable moral qualms about abortion to gain veto power over all health care relating to sexuality and reproduction.

Turning from real-life monsters to probably-imaginary ones, comics artist Greg Ruth explains why “Horror Is Good for You (and Even Better for Your Kids)” on the website of sci-fi and horror publisher Tor.com. (Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism for the link.) Childhood is scary, so stories that acknowledge the strangeness and dangers of the world are validating and can teach resilience. Horror archetypes teach us truths about intimacy, isolation, difference, and the struggle to find your place in a community. Moreover, the constraints of writing for younger readers can produce more subtle and effective fiction, because the writer can’t go for the lazy shock value of sexual violence and gore. No wonder I became a horror fan in junior high… around the same time I started to bleed every month… coincidence?

Also at Tor.com, the Lovecraft Reread series by Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth offers insightful and witty critiques of work in the HPL tradition. After covering H.P. Lovecraft’s original tales, they have gone on to reread stories by weird fiction contemporaries like M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and contemporary practitioners such as Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, and Brian Lumley. You may even find horror greats like Ramsey Campbell dropping in to the comments section, which is remarkably respectful and well-informed.

The high-modernist poet T.S. Eliot was my other big literary obsession during those teen years. Revisiting Lovecraft this year, I noticed some psychological similarities. Both writers contemplated man’s humble place in the cosmos, liked to name-drop erudite references in multiple languages, had a fastidious and even phobic attitude about sexuality, and resorted to racist caricature in their defense of Anglo-American civilization. I wondered if they were aware of each other, since their iconic works were written in the 1920s-30s. Wonder no more: in comment #9 to the Lovecraft Reread of HPL’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, user “trajan23” treats us to HPL’s TSE parody, “Waste Paper”, which begins thus:

Waste Paper
A Poem of Profound Insignificance
By H. P. Lovecraft

Πἀντα γἐλως καἱ πἀντα κὀνις καἱ πἀντα τὁ μηδἐν

Out of the reaches of illimitable light
The blazing planet grew, and forc’d to life
Unending cycles of progressive strife
And strange mutations of undying light
And boresome books, than hell’s own self more trite
And thoughts repeated and become a blight,
And cheap rum-hounds with moonshine hootch made tight,
And quite contrite to see the flight of fright so bright
I used to ride my bicycle in the night
With a dandy acetylene lantern that cost $3.00
In the evening, by the moonlight, you can hear those darkies singing
Meet me tonight in dreamland . . . BAH
I used to sit on the stairs of the house where I was born
After we left it but before it was sold
And play on a zobo with two other boys.
We called ourselves the Blackstone Military Band
Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?
In the spring of the year, in the silver rain
When petal by petal the blossoms fall
And the mocking birds call
And the whippoorwill sings, Marguerite.
The first cinema show in our town opened in 1906
At the old Olympic, which was then call’d Park,
And moving beams shot weirdly thro’ the dark
And spit tobacco seldom hit the mark.

Never fear, you too may find a place in the literary canon of white men, with help from the Lovecraft Engine, a random phrase generator that remixes HPL’s favorite over-the-top descriptors. My first go-round gave me “That iridescent, fabulous menace,” which is exactly what I aspire to be.

Speaking of fabulous, our queer link of the month is Brandon Taylor’s LitHub essay “Who Cares What Straight People Think?” Taylor writes about what is gained and lost when books with queer characters go mainstream, no longer segregated in specialty bookstores or back rooms. One could argue that when straight writers and readers consume narratives of queer suffering, it perpetuates a narrow stereotype of LGBTQ lives as tragic and Other. Perhaps it’s more progressive to write mainstream fiction about characters who just happen to be LGBTQ. However, Taylor concludes that it’s a mistake to use outsiders as our reference point for self-censorship. Gay-bashing, AIDS, child abuse, and other traditional tropes of queer fiction are still unfortunate realities that we must be free to write about:

It is tempting to imagine that this is the way things ought to be, tasteful meditations on the human condition with queer people at their center, that the supposition of a queer default means an abandonment of trauma narratives and queer suffering. That everything will be alright when we’re finally writing of ourselves in our everyday lives, everything smooth and bourgeois and immaculately styled.

But that would be a grave miscalculation, a failure to understand the fundamental nature of the problem at hand. Queer people live their everyday lives under the threat of violence and political persecution. Queer teens would rather die than continue living in a world that is actively hostile to them. Our narratives must remain alive and vital to that pain, to the very real suffering we endure. To assume a central queer gaze is not to pass judgement on narratives of queer suffering at all, but to allow queer people to continue to tell their stories, to write into their own narrative spaces without the need for a heteronormative overculture. After all, it is the heteronormative gaze that renders these narratives problematic. It is their place of prominence in the overculture that presents the problem, not the narratives themselves.

It is not enough to merely write queers in comfortable bourgeois captivity. You have not conquered some artistic challenge. You are not artistically pure for turning away from queer suffering. Our comfort and our agony are of a piece. They reflect one another across the length of our experience. The answer to Michelle Hart’s question about the state of gay literary fiction is this: we must move toward a queer aesthetic, which permits the true simultaneity of queer experience. We must stop waiting for permission. We must stop looking to the overculture for legitimacy. Within a queer aesthetic, we weep and we laugh and we withdraw and we advance. Queer suffering and queer joy dominate the ordinary instant. We are everything at once.

 

 

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus: Final (?) Thoughts from NecronomiCon 2017

My visit to NecronomiCon 2017, the convention of H.P. Lovecraft horror fans and scholars in Providence RI, concluded with the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast on Sunday morning. Darrell Schweitzer’s Amorphous Tabernacle Choir treated us to Mythos-inspired hymn parodies. Scott R. Jones spoke about the cosmicist philosophy of his book When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, or as he likes to call it, “Keeping it Real-yeh.”  Horror writers Cody Goodfellow and Anthony Teth presided as priests of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath, with mitres that the Episcopal Church could only envy. Goodfellow (left) even looks suspiciously like former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Hmm… haven’t seen him lately…

The genius of this Monty Python approach to religion is that you get all the fun parts of high-church Christianity–gory pictures, occult medallions, over-the-top vestments—without the doublespeak that death is life, torture is salvation, and the universe is a safe place. It reminded me of the Church of Satan, a humanist organization that doesn’t so much literally believe in evil supernatural entities, as reclaim those symbols to expose the weak spots in traditional religion. (Because humanism is just more fun with fancy dress.)

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast was finely balanced on the line between farce and sincere religious-philosophical questioning. The refusal to collapse one mode into the other seemed like a healthy shadow-integration, the Zen paradox that we approach the deepest wisdom through discovering our foolishness.

I wasn’t expecting a genuine religious experience at this conference, but I got one. At a couple of points during the weekend, I had this brief and unprecedented feeling of freedom from my constant strivings to cheat death and achieve significance. The Mythos looks mortality and infinity directly in the face and accepts them, even semi-ironically celebrates them, which I found such a relief from the relentless religious-cultural-psychological project of propping up the ego and distracting ourselves from the abyss.

The Prayer Breakfast sermons were solidly humanist rather than nihilist. That is, they used our humble and mysterious position in the web of life as a reason to reject all forms of xenophobia, arrogance, and fanaticism. I especially loved Teth’s “Sermon Against Purity”, reprinted on his website. Some highlights:

The concept of Purity is anathema to life itself, since any rudimentary study of biology can clearly show the interdependence of organisms to the life cycles of the invisible squirming masses of microbes, germs, and bacteria that cling to epidermis and esophageal tract, stomach lining and salivation ducts.

Enjoy your breakfast, by the way.

Those creatures made sterile or bereft of these helpful swarms in lab experiments grow weak and die, barely able to digest or process what would normally be considered “basic foods.”

Yet the concept of Purity is also anathema to death. Those aforementioned masses responsible for the continuance of a creature’s life will almost immediately begin devouring their host the moment life processes cease, while dozens of various mammals, reptiles, molds and fungal growths eventually have their fill and leave the rest to worms, mites, plants and trees. Even if we go back to the philosophical root of death itself, entropy, we find not this supposed purity, but an exceedingly complex system of devourment and proliferation, with cooperation and competition creating a teaming miasmal stew of wonder and possibility…

…And one of the most ridiculous of these, shall we say, Puritanical concepts, is where folks profess this enigmatic and frankly preposterous Purity within, of all bloody things, human genes. Yes, humans, those oddly bipedal, domestic primates who for thousands of years have been humping their neighbors, humping their friends, humping their neighbors’ friends and friends’ neighbors, until eventually deciding to migrate elsewhere and continue the rampant rutting cycle with whomever happens to be nearby and (theoretically) willing. Humans who have been mongrels since the beginning, and shall be so at the end.

Yet some take this even further, claiming even greater purity and superiority over these shambling masses of great apes, while carrying Polynesian garden torches of all things, and flashing a salute fit for Caesar…

…Yes, humans who claim superiority over all other terrestrial life on this adorably blue, spinning sphere due to a combination of brain size and thumb dexterity, but still have a helluva time figuring out that most basic of tenets: Don’t shit where you eat.

At the bookfair, I picked up a pamphlet of Robert M. Price’s sermons from the 1995-2006 Prayer Breakfasts, which I’m about halfway through. Price is an actual former Baptist pastor and theologian who went on a trajectory through liberal Christianity to atheist humanism. Some of his non-Cthulhu-related sermons are available on his website. He’s also a well-known literary critic and editor of Mythos fiction. “Founder and Editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism; Founder and Editor, Crypt of Cthulhu; Fellow, The Jesus Seminar“. You don’t see a resume like that every day!

Price’s Cthulhu sermons don’t have the positive political vision or moral center of the ones I heard this summer. He emphasizes the Nietzschean joy of facing the abyss. Spiritually, all we have is a choice of fictions. The ultimate forbidden knowledge is that there is no knowledge. Setting this alongside Lovecraft’s white supremacist views and the majority-whiteness of the conference attendees, I started to wonder whether there’s something white about this brand of intellect-driven disillusionment. It takes a certain amount of privilege and safety to feel that you can dispense with religion’s prophetic, justice-seeking function.

Simultaneously with Price’s sermons, I was reading James Cone’s 1969 classic Black Theology and Black Power to prepare notes for a church discussion group. In his chapter on black Christianity in America, Cone says the black church’s central theological problem was why God had allowed slavery to exist when it was so clearly a violation of God’s moral law. The courage and risk involved in affirming God’s existence notwithstanding, as a black person with this history, makes white death-of-God theology “seem like child’s play.”

It’s understandable to repudiate faith because you’re morally outraged by oppression, says Cone. “But if it arises out of one’s identity with an advancing technological secular society which ignores the reality of God and the humanity of man, then it appears to be the height of human pride.” (Here’s looking at you, Jesus Seminar.) According to Cone, only the oppressed, or those who are sacrificially in solidarity with them, really have the right to decide whether God is dead or irrelevant. “If theology fails to re-evaluate its task in the light of Black Power, the emphasis on the death of God will not add the needed dimension. This will mean that the white church and white theology are dead, not God.”

Perhaps our modern god has been an idol of (liberal) intellectual or (conservative) moral certainty, not a real presence we depend on in our helplessness and unknowing, so when those certainties die, God appears dead. Whether you replace that with the Jesus of liberation theology, or a sense of oneness with all life, I think there has to be something we align ourselves with, above the oppressive systems of the moment, so we can name falsehood and evil for what it is, and find strength to resist. Even Lovecraft’s anti-theistic stories are full of moral judgments and outraged adjectives–unspeakable, decadent, accursed, loathsome, and the like. The universe may not be on our side, but we ought to be.

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