Constantine P. Cavafy: “In Despair”

Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) is acclaimed for his poems of love and longing. The website Billie Dee’s Electronic Poetry Anthology includes several of his poems translated by Rae Dalven. I particularly appreciated this one, depicting the familiar tragedy of religious guilt coming between two lovers. Which of them is pursuing an illusion? Perhaps both; or perhaps the idealized lover of our imagination, whether human or divine, is a more rewarding prize than the love of an ordinary mortal.

In Despair

He has lost him completely.   And now he is
on the lips of    every new lover
the lips of his beloved   in the embrace
of every new lover    he seeks to be deluded
that he is the same lad,   that it it to him he is

He has lost him completely,    as if he had never
    been at all.
For he wanted — so he said —    he wanted to be
from the stigmatized,   the sick sensual delight;
from the stigmatized,   sensual delight of shame.
There was still time —    as he said — to be saved.

He has lost him completely,   as if he had never
    been at all.
In his imagination,    in his delusions,
on the lips of others   it is his lips he is seeking;
he is longing to feel again   the love he has

Speaking Justice Versus Living It

One of my challenges as an activist, and as a Christian, is finding the proper balance between speaking about my values and living them out. Too much discussion keeps me unhealthily engaged with self-justification against opponents, while too little can be a form of selfish quietism in the face of widespread misinformation about what the Bible says.

The Epistle of James has a lot to say about closing the gap between hearing and doing God’s word. This recent installment of the Human Rights Campaign’s Out in Scripture lectionary e-newsletter includes some fruitful reflections on that text (boldface emphasis mine):

Our conversation about this week’s lectionary Bible passages began with James 1:17-27. What is the way of God’s wisdom? The book of James suggests that it is the “law of liberty” (James 2:12). And that law starts with doing. Doers of the law’s basic justice requirements place themselves in risky outreach settings in which we are inevitably challenged to know who we really are. Acts of justice hold up the mirror that enables our transformation of heart, while doctrinal obsessions and arguments merely keep us in bondage.

Deeds and words both matter in the book of James. And at the beginning of today’s reading, we are called to be quick to listen, not to speak (James 1:19). This is a kind of listening that calls for inward listening. Sarah, a transgender woman, reminds us: “Before my transition, I needed to step back and away from all the outside advice I was getting from people. I needed to really listen for God’s voice inside, in the midst of all the other voices.” Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people know that it is often a matter of life and death that we distinguish the voices and learn to trust inner listening. The author of James provokes us, however, to remember that such times of contemplation cannot be divorced from habits of service and justice.

Listening to others without a prayerful discerning heart can lead to powerlessness. Words can be hurtful, dangerous and affect others in ways that the speaker may not realize. Those in power in our denomination, local church or civic settings may have power to name the “tradition” or to label others: for example, when only men decide about women’s ordination or only heterosexuals decide about the ordination of LGBT people in the church. Fatigued by the struggle against endless pronouncements, LGBT people may come to this place: “I just don’t know if I can listen anymore.” We cannot ignore the reality of power by idealizing an uncritical, non-discerning listening posture. We can, instead, lift up a reminder that those in power may themselves be transformed when they have the courage to listen to LGBT people for God’s voice.

Visit the Out in Scripture archives and sign up here.

The Theology of Abuse (Part One)

Hugo, via Facebook, pointed me to today’s Washington Post story about a new study on clergy sexual abuse from Baylor University’s School of Social Work:

One in every 33 women who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader, a survey released Wednesday says.

The study, by Baylor University researchers, found that the problem is so pervasive that it almost certainly involves a wide range of denominations, religious traditions and leaders.

“It certainly is prevalent, and clearly the problem is more than simply a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” said Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work, who co-authored the study.

It found that more than two-thirds of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance….

For its study, Baylor used the 2008 General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of 3,559 respondents, to estimate the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct. Women older than 18 who attended worship services at least once a month were asked in the survey whether they had received “sexual advances or propositions” from a religious leader.

The study found that close to one in 10 respondents — male and female — reported having known about clergy sexual misconduct occurring in a congregation they had attended.

Researchers say they don’t know whether the incidence of clergy sexual misconduct had changed over the years. Nor do they know whether sexual wrongdoing by clergy is more, or less, frequent than in other well-respected professions.

But, Garland said, “when you put it with a spiritual leader or moral leader, you’ve really added a power that we typically don’t think about in secular society — which is that this person speaks for God and interprets God for people. And that really adds a power.”

All power can be misused, and greater intimacy risks greater pain. In one way or another, the world’s religions aim at making the hard and selfish ego more permeable, creating more opportunities for love but also greater exposure to others’ unsafe emotions.

In the past few years, as I’ve become more deeply involved in Christian fellowship, I’ve also experienced some serious violations of trust. It’s driven me to re-examine my core beliefs through this lens: do some doctrines make the believer more vulnerable to exploitation?

Certainly the reverse has been true for me, earlier in my faith journey. I wouldn’t have valued or trusted myself enough to break free of some abusive family patterns, had I not discovered the loving and forgiving God of the New Testament. (Read Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Boundaries for details.)

I would hate to be one of those smug secularists who accuse Christians of being immature people with Daddy issues. Nonetheless, lately I’ve dared to wonder whether the traditional emphasis on human insufficiency, dependence, and sinfulness has kept me from outgrowing the need for parental approval, instead merely projecting it onto God. That wouldn’t be so bad if it were just “me and Jesus”, but inevitably, my understanding of God is mediated and influenced by the spiritual leaders in whatever community I join–either clergy or lay people who seem to be more educated and advanced in the faith than I am.

Dr. Edward J. Cumella’s Barnabas Ministry website lists 12 signs of spiritual abuse in their article “The Yeast of the Pharisees”:

Authoritarianism. Rather than modeling and teaching obedience to God, abusive leaders expect believers to obey them. Councils of elders, deacons, etc., are expected to rubber stamp leaders’ intentions rather than provide accountability.

Coercion. Rather than respecting freedom and conscience, as God does, and offering messages that persuade based on scriptural integrity and reason, abusive leaders use strong-arm tactics to coerce believers into overruling better judgment and following their demands.

Intimidation. Rather than building up the Body in the bonds of love, abusive leaders use threats of punishment, excommunication, and condemnation to force people into submission and continued church membership.

Terrorism. Rather than inviting people to follow Christ with the Gospel of love and forgiveness, abusive leaders intensify believers’ fear, shame, and false guilt, teaching that problems in believers’ lives are due to the believers’ personal sins.

Condemnation. Rather than refraining from judgment lest they be judged, an abusive leader liberally condemns those who leave his church, outsiders, and those whom he defines as sinners. The message is that believers will join the ranks of the condemned should they deviate from the leader’s teachings or leave his church/denomination. Individual members become the scapegoat when something goes awry in the congregation.

Classism. Christ was no respecter of persons. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with power, promoting church hierarchy, referring to and treating people according to their titles and roles. Those lower on the hierarchy are taught that their needs don’t matter.

Conformity. Abusive leaders have the greatest hold over inexperienced, naïve, and dependent individuals who are seeking a strong leader. These individuals suppress their objections to the leaders’ teachings for fear of being shamed or ostracized. Hence, abusive churches often appear unified, but beneath the surface there is discontent, anguish, whispers, rumors, secrets, and a desire among many to leave.

Manipulation. Rather than taking scripture in context, interpreting the Bible with the Bible and according to long-held Christian beliefs, abusive leaders twist scripture to convey their personal opinion rather than God’s intent.

Irrationality. Because scripture is manipulated, one interpretation may contradict another. Interpretations may contradict reason and obvious reality. This requires suspension of critical thinking. Some abusive leaders claim to receive direct messages from God about their church or individual members, but these messages typically deviate from Scripture and reality.

Legalism. Rather than treating others with love, grace, and forgiveness, as Christ commanded, abusive leaders offer little grace. They communicate instead that one’s worth and the amount of love one deserves depend on performance and status in their church. Abusive leaders expect believers to make heroic financial, time, and emotional sacrifices for their church and its members.

Isolation. Rather than respecting family ties, community obligations, and friendships, abusive leaders are concerned that such influences will interfere with their control over believers, so they encourage isolation from family, friends, and the outside world, and wage war against the outside world as a sewer of sin devoid of anything redeeming.

Elitism. Rather than modeling and encouraging humility, abusive leaders beam with false pride and teach the same to believers. An attitude arises of, “We’re it! We’re special! Everyone else is condemned!,” partially compensating for the shame and worthlessness that believers feel because of other experiences in the abusive church. The leader instills that believers must protect the church’s image at any cost.

Ensnarement. Rather than promoting maturity among believers, abusive leaders inevitably promote self-dou
bt, guilt, and identity confusion, since believers struggle with the contradiction between what their conscience and reason tell them and what they are being taught. This ambivalence, coupled with fear of condemnation and loss of direction and fellowship, make it difficult and painful for believers to leave abusive churches.

Before you write this off as only applying to cults, consider how the above attitudes are encouraged by the doctrines of many mainstream churches:

Isolation: If you truly believe that God condemns all people to eternal conscious torment, except for the lucky few who have heard the gospel and been convinced by it, you either (1) are a compassionate person and go mad from the horror of all that suffering, or (2) teach yourself not to care about people outside your tribe. It has become impossible for me to trust Christians who can go through life smiling and making friends with unbelievers while inwardly holding, in fact cherishing, belief in a God who would torture these people forever.

Ensnarement: Isn’t this the experience of GLBT people in conservative churches–forced to choose between loss of fellowship and their own psychological self-understanding? Undermining people’s pleasure and pain signals is a classic technique to prime them for abuse. This happens, for instance, when leaders tell gays that their homosexuality is a delusion, or that their relationships aren’t genuine and loving.

Classism: Churches that exclude women from leadership, for example, send a broader message that inequality is acceptable in the body of Christ. We learn to justify our failures of moral imagination and our natural tendency to see others as less than fully human.

Conformity: Biblical inerrantists are among those who argue that any deviation from tradition will undermine our confidence in our entire relationship with God. In this model, the living always lose out to the dead; the flow of learning only goes in one direction. We are taught to venerate those who will not respond to us. Like the child of an abusive parent, we have only two alternatives: submission or loss of love. We have no way to make our suffering heard.

Terrorism: I am leaning toward the opinion that the Calvinist belief in total depravity is an abuse-enabling doctrine. It’s a “hazing” model of identity destruction and re-formation in which the lay person is convinced to radically mistrust and despise herself, making her so desperate for approval that she falls gratefully at the feet of the “God” who spares her the punishment she thinks she deserves (the “honeymoon phase” in this Cycle of Abuse diagram). Similarly, advocates of predestination speak as if God’s absolute and unquestioned sovereignty would be weakened by requiring His judgment to be leavened by compassion or fairness. This idolization of content-free obedience sets up psychological blocks against defending one’s self from an abusive leader.

The website Under Much Grace provides other resources for conceptualizing and healing from abuse-enabling doctrines. In a 2007 post on “Doctrine Over Person”, author Cindy Kunsman writes:

Members’ personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. The end ideology of the group must be maintained by any means, even at the personal expense or the personal suffering of the group members. Love for the system or ideology supersedes that of the people, places or lesser causes. This promotes hatred and intolerance of all opposing critics or ideologies (sadly, often including those within the group).

This was my painful experience when I found myself in close fellowship with some Christians who were not affirming of gays and lesbians. At that time a novice in reading the Bible, I hoped that perhaps they had simply not heard a convincing case otherwise. After much study and soul-searching, I was able to make such a case, only to discover that they resisted hearing it. I don’t think my friends felt an animus toward gays so much as a general rigidity such as Cindy describes above. They thought personal emotions about fairness were less trustworthy than a System. These feelings were branded a sign of weakness and partiality, of incomplete submission to God. The irony is that their fear of being wrong is also an unacknowledged emotion, one which a relationship with Jesus is supposed to heal.

I’m struggling to hang onto that relationship myself, even as I see how a person’s love for God can be used as the ultimate weapon of emotional blackmail. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38, NIV)

Literary Journal Roundup: Gemini Magazine, DIAGRAM, and More

As my attention span fades along with the light of summer days, I’m appreciating the brevity and variety that a good literary journal can offer. Here are some of the publications I’ve been enjoying this season:

Naugatuck River Review‘s summer 2009 issue is stuffed with good narrative poetry on themes including fathers and sons, aging, class and race, romance, miscarriages, Mexico, horses, D-Day flashbacks, and what happens when you’re in a bar with a woman who sees God. Read the issue from beginning to end because editor Lori Desrosiers has structured it like a narrative, with one theme segueing into the next. If you’re in Western Massachusetts this Tuesday night, come to the NRR authors’ reading at Spoken Word in Greenfield.

Think you know all there is to know about Huck Finn? The Missouri Review‘s summer 2009 issue includes a provocative essay by Andrew Levy, arguing that Twain’s book is not primarily about race but about our culture’s myths and fears concerning adolescent boys.

Issue #9 of Chroma, the UK-based queer literary journal, features a sestina by Judith Barrington, a hilarious and sad essay by trans-man Simon Croft about passing at a family funeral, and cover art by photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.

The most terrifying story ever written appears in Barrelhouse Issue #7. Critics may disagree about which one this is. Matt Williamson’s “Sacrament”, a war-on-terror dystopia that makes Guantanamo look tame, is vying for supremacy with Matt Bell’s “BeautyForever”, a George Saunders-esque tale of love in the time of pharmaceuticals.

Finally, two online prose offerings for your free instant gratification. Gemini Magazine is a newly launched e-zine that publishes flash fiction, short stories, poetry, and drama. So far, my favorite piece in the September issue is Mary J. Daley’s “Wayward Conception”, a lingering, beautifully textured story about a young mother overwhelmed by the choices she’s made:

Stacy forgot about the baby, concentrating solely on the sunlight thatreflected off the stainless steel pot between her feet. The contrast of itsshine against the dull and worn porch steps had lulled her into a void,where her baby, so new and minuscule within her, slipped from herthoughts entirely and blissfully.

A plastic bag of green beans almost a quarter full sat beside her cup of milkytea. The beginning of a burn crept across her bare shoulders as she tookher time, cutting delicately, pressing green skin between thumb and knifeblade. She found this unhurried quiet elegant and she willed herself tostretch it out, to forget the stuffy heat of the house, the needs of thechildren and for one blessed moment the coming baby.

The rattling motor of Tommy’s black Ford broke apart her short-lived escapeand she raised her head, shielding her eyes from the onslaught of sunshineas he pulled into the gravel driveway. As he slid his big frame from the cab,she lowered her sight to his work boots. They came towards her crunchingloudly on the small white rocks.

“You’re home early?” she asked, squinting her green eyes, trying to avoidthe sun’s spillage around him.

“I have a job at the church and I need my safety harness.”

He jogged up the steps two at a time, disappearing into the porch just toreappear a minute later with the harness in his huge hands. He smelled ofpaint and turpentine.

“Does it pay?” she asked.

He nodded, pausing beside her for a second to consider what else he mightrequire. She waited, looking at his hands that held the belt, his short nails,the yellow stains of nicotine between index and middle finger, the ampleblue veins running beneath the skin.

“Did you finish up at Emily’s?”

“Almost. She’s not happy with the color in the dining room, but she’s willingto live with it for a few days to see if it grows on her.” He gingerly steppedover the teacup, not looking at his wife.

“God Tommy, I need to get groceries. She didn’t pay you, did she?” Stacysighed knowing full well Emily wouldn’t part with a dime until she wascompletely and whole-heartedly satisfied with the job.

“I’ll have it finished by Monday.”

“What are you doing at the church?”

He stopped at the truck, one hand reaching for the handle. She could seethe self-importance subtly emerge. After seven years of marriage she knewthe signs: shoulders pulled back ever so slightly, the first traces of red alongthe indentations of his neck, the minute lowering of voice as he answered.“The lights in the cross need to be replaced but Joe hurt his back. I said Iwould do it. Shouldn’t be too long.”

She gaped at him, wide eyed, mouth opened as he climbed back up into thetruck. Raising her voice over the sound of the ignition trying to turn over,she called. “Tommy, you’re not telling me you’re going to climb to the verytop of that steeple?”

“What? Are you saying I can’t?” He leaned slightly out the side windowwhile he gave the truck a chance to rest before turning the ignition overagain.

She shook her head and said, “No, just that it’s dangerous! Isn’t?”

“Should be easy to figure it all out once I’m up there.” He flashed a smilewhen the motor started. Tommy had a prominent chin and tiny eyes and asthe years went by it was only his confident smile that kept him from crossingthe line into unappealing. He turned his head to check for non-existenttraffic, backed the truck from the yard and was gone.

Fool, she thought as she tossed a bean into the pot. Just like Tommy andhis constant display of bravado to take that job, leaving Emily to mull overher walls and her to worry about what to do for meals. God she hoped hefell.

Read the rest here.

For something completely different, check out the experimental poetry and prose journal DIAGRAM, Issue 9.4. Highlights include Rhoads Stevens’ “Who Does What to Whom”, a bizarre Punch-and-Judy show personifying various phrases in a quote from Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, “a book that’s never been read while a patient waits for a barium enema.”

Hometown Favorite Lorelei Erisis Crowned Miss Trans Northampton

Local activist, journalist and Pride emcee Lorelei Erisis won the Miss Trans Northampton 2009 pageant at the Center for the Arts this past weekend. The eight contestants represented, to my eyes, an interesting variety of ways for someone born biologically male to perform femininity.

Those with a more petite build, like second runner-up Lily Rin, convincingly resembled young glamorous women, with high voices to match. Meanwhile, Lorelei and first runner-up Leslie-Anne Rios were tall and striking figures with deeper, rougher voices and a commanding stage presence. Their self-presentation occupied some third space between the conventions of male and female appearance. Leslie-Anne, for instance, looked sassy in an evening gown and sang a heartfelt song of her own composition about finding peace within–female?–but flexed her biceps with a wink at the end–male? Lorelei’s talent-show entry was a performance piece about her transition, starting out in a man’s suit and ending up in a bra and panties.

Transgender, I’m discovering, is about more than “dressing up”. The transgender rights bill remains stalled in the Massachusetts legislature, perhaps because a man’s “right” to wear a dress to work somehow still appears more frivolous than the right to marry the man he loves. On the other hand, would people feel more comfortable if they really understood what trans was about–not the right to perform existing gender roles so much as the acknowledgment of their inadequacy?

A transwoman who doesn’t convincingly pass for female makes us cis-women cringe, sometimes, because she’s what we’re afraid of seeing in the mirror: someone too tall, or too awkward, or too loud, or too strong to fit the feminine ideal. Beauty standards are a test that some of us fail. Some of us slept right through the damn thing.

I had my own “trans” moment last month when a guy at my gym kept greeting me as “It’s Pat!” He’s a big scruffy street musician, good-natured in a sort of spacey way, and he assured me he meant no harm in comparing me to the unattractive and gender-ambiguous Saturday Night Live character: “Pat is funny!” he said. I guess a weight-lifting girl translates into intersex in his mind. Still, it took all my genderqueer political consciousness not to feel mortified that I did, indeed, slightly resemble Pat, who is too graceless to be female and too soft to be male. (My gym buddy, by the way, has now learned my real name but misremembers it as “Glenda“…shades of Ed Wood!)

But let’s go to the videotape… Here are some highlights of Saturday’s competition. Thank you, Miss Trans Northampton, for challenging us to see that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.

Lorelei Erisis performs “my entire life and transition in under five minutes”:

Leslie-Anne Rios performs her song “Teach Me Peace”:

Tammy Twotone lip-syncs and dances to “Something’s Gotta Give”:

The evening gown competition:

“Swallow” Poetry Chapbook by Jendi Reiter Now Available from Amsterdam Press

My poetry chapbook Swallow won the 2008 Flip Kelly Poetry Prize from Amsterdam Press and is now available for purchase online. Thanks are due to my awesome editor, Cindy Kelly; poet Ellen LaFleche, who helped me organize the collection and suggested the title; and my prison pen pal “Conway” who drew the amazing cover art.

“Jendi Reiter’s poems are arrows that plunge dead center into the hearts of feminism, religion, death, the interior of mental health and psychotherapy. Her humor and satire here are as sharply honed as are her indignation. All are delivered in highly imaginative and metaphoric imagery. This is an intelligent and powerful read that will leave issues bleeding in the minds of readers for a while before they heal.”

—Ellaraine Lockie, award-winning poet, nonfiction author, educator

“There’s plenty of poetry I wouldn’t give a fig for, but I’d give strawberries for the poems in Jendi Reiter’s SWALLOW. When I started in Poetry in 1962, I felt poems were only poems if the top of my head was taken off, to use Emily Dickinson’s words. Jendi Reiter, who is also a bold experimenter, writes that way—solid images, worthwhile themes, and sentences that stick in the mind like raisins in rice pudding. I find much of today’s poetry too arcane, which may be why it’s ignored by so many. That’s not true of Jendi Reiter’s work. It’s challenging, beautiful, and clear. Read it, and again in Dickinson’s words, taste a liquor never brewed.”

—William Childress, Pulitzer-nominated Korean War poet and journalist

Enjoy a sample poem from Swallow:

Wolf Whistles

We’re all trying not to think about sex or cake.
That bitter word hurled from a car.
A moment ago you felt pretty.
Trying not to hammer the nail
into anything but the board.
Hard hat men sucking on coffee,
women with their hands down their throats
like a magician pulling a ten-foot rope out of a bottle.
It seems to go on forever,
monotonous intestine.
We’re trying cold baths and grapefruits,
another route around the tar
someone’s grateful to be laying down.
Saying throw me in the briar patch,
come on, do.
What a great distraction brambles are.
Rubbing and rubbing the saw against the wood.
What wound is he favoring
as his whistle strips you like paint?
We’re smashing pies into our faces,
we’re cutting open our skins. The better to eat.