God Is Too Complicated

I’m not often angry at God because I don’t expect much from Him. My doubts, and I have more now than I’ve had in years, are not of the variety “Why did God let X happen?” There’s usually no shortage of flawed people whom I can blame for X. Sometimes, I’m one of them. Then, of course, I’m awfully grateful to avail myself of God’s forgiving love, which stitches up the wounds of shame and frustration by reminding me that the burden of perfection is self-imposed. Even so, it’s hard to hang onto that sense of God’s presence during the long empty stretches of convalescence that follow.

But the other day, during morning prayer, I was taken aback by a sudden surge of anger at God. Okay, I said; you’ve made it very clear lately that our times are in your hand, no one knows the day nor the hour, et cetera. We are utterly helpless and dependent on you to sustain our life from moment to moment. Isn’t that hard enough? Why did you have to make it so damn mysterious? Couldn’t you give me a little more understanding so I’m not dependent on naked willpower to keep having faith?

Too many people have expected me to trust them and then to bounce back gracefully when they take advantage of that trust. I expected better behavior from you, Lord. I’ve run out of gas. If you want me, come and get me.

Now, I know He will. And He’ll probably wait patiently until I’m ready. I just don’t know what to do in the meantime. There are a lot of serious political projects awaiting my attention, but the flimsiness and uncertainty of mortal endeavors saps my will to invest in any of them. On the other hand, there’s only so many hours a week that I can watch fashion reality shows.

As an activist, my desire for “signs and wonders” is partly driven by compassionate anger and impatience with unnecessary suffering, and partly by my own need for reassurance that I’m not pouring my spiritual gifts down a well. However, meaningful change often happens slowly and circuitously. I’m not in a patient mood, these days, but I don’t have a choice.

For example, the past year has seen dramatic movement (in both directions) on the issue of gay marriage, after years of efforts that went nowhere. Civil rights activists were surprised and devastated when Proposition 8 took away the equal rights that the California Supreme Court had granted just months before. I can’t help lamenting the waste of resources poured into this ballot fight, in the name of family values, by churches that could have spent that money helping poor families. GLBT groups, put on the defensive, also had to divert energy away from the other needs of their community–both at home, where workplace discrimination is still legal in some states, and abroad, where gays and their allies are facing the death penalty from pending legislation in Uganda. And yet at the same time (file under “working in mysterious ways”) the California setback jolted a whole lot of progressives out of complacency, creating momentum that probably contributed to the 2009 victories for equal marriage rights in New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and Iowa.

Now Maine is gearing up for a repeat of California’s struggle. The gay marriage law approved by the Maine legislature this year is on hold, pending the outcome of Tuesday’s vote on Question 1. I’ve been phonebanking for the No on 1 campaign this month, once again feeling frustrated at the effort we’re expending simply to run in place.

“Do you support marriage for gay and lesbian couples?” I ask genially, praying that this limited contact will plant the seed of more radical questions that it’s not my job to ask. Questions like “How did I wind up with the privilege of passing judgment on other people’s relationships, instead of vice versa? What does Jesus want me to do with that privilege?”

One of the gospel readings for morning prayer this week seemed particularly relevant to this whole problem of mystery, effectiveness, and God’s time-frame:

31He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

33He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount[a] of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

34Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” (Matt. 13:31-35, NIV)

Here and elsewhere, Jesus doesn’t exactly explain why God’s workings are so cryptic, but I found it comforting that he does at least acknowledge that this is the case. Moreover, he promises that a mustard seed’s worth of action to bring about the kingdom of heaven will produce a far greater harvest than we might predict. His own life is the prime example of this, a humble life and shameful death vindicated by the Resurrection and the worldwide spread of the gospel.

I still believe this, for the same reason I always did: because it’s the kind of universe I want to live in. I haven’t got a better idea.

The Theology of Zombies

Evangelical author Andy Crouch has an eclectic, thought-provoking new blog called Culture Making, based on his award-winning book of the same name, which explores ways for Christians to engage with and transform contemporary culture through the arts. This week’s “Five Questions” feature invites reflections on “zombies as cultural artifact”:

What do zombies assume about the way the world is?

…Zombies embody our greatest fears about ourselves. Our bodies can betray us. Our minds and souls will not exist. Our bodies will survive beyond any sentient manner of control, but be subject to desires and actions alien to who we are. Once we are taken over, we will betray and hurt those we love. Even if we are not subject to any of these things, but somehow survive, life will be unbearable and a constant struggle. There is no escape because man is the ultimate predator, and there is no place that man has not or cannot be.

Of course, there are positives for survivors or consumers of the zombie genre. The enemy is clear and can be eliminated as opposed to real life. It is a symptom of a culture that feels helpless in the face of big business and big government. Even “alternative” culture gets assimilated into the mainstream, so there feels like there is no escape. “Shaun of the Dead” makes this point hilariously: there is no difference between daily life and the apocalypse. You’ll still get the paper, try to make up with your girlfriend and hang out with your friends at the local pub. The only difference is that you will not be dubbed a loser for not having a job or more lofty goals. You just need to survive.
—Sarah G. Vincent

For vampires and Christians alike, blood is the vital, life-giving force. But for zombies (and secularists) the desire is for brains and brains alone. Thus zombies seem to be expressions of a sort of cultural rationalism or materialism. The vampiric craving for blood, at least in its pre-modern origins, turns the Christian eucharist on its head. But zombies do away with blood altogether.

Therefore, zombies assume that the brain, not the blood, is what imparts meaning and life to the world. Zombies are the expression of the deepest fears of the secularized mind.

Happy (?) Halloween…

The Theology of Abuse (Part Two)

Power exercised benevolently over another human being is still power, and a serious temptation to our fallen nature. Slowly and painfully, the United States came to understand this about the enslavement of African-Americans, notwithstanding anecdotes of happy slaves and kind masters. We realized that some forms of subordination are so totalizing that they deny the image of God in a person, robbing him or her of something more precious than any material security that slavery might promise in exchange.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the subjection of women, a significant segment of the Christian church isn’t there yet.

I’ve been following the debate about complementarian Christian writer Douglas Wilson on the Internet Monk’s blog. Complementarianism, according to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website, “affirms that men and women are equal in the image of God, but maintain complementary differences in role and function. In the home, men lovingly are to lead their wives and family as women intelligently are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. In the church, while men and women share equally in the blessings of salvation, some governing and teaching roles are restricted to men.”

This is a pretty gentle statement of the agenda, more so than Wilson’s own writings, as you’ll see in a moment. Still, I’m straining to hold all these ideas side by side in my mind. If men and women are equal in God’s image and equally saved, why wouldn’t we make our social arrangements as egalitarian as possible? Isn’t God’s standard of value supposed to be the only measure of our worth? I thought that’s what it meant to be free from the curse of the Law. 

I can somewhat understand how spiritual equality could coexist with “complementary differences in role and function”. Although I don’t think it’s empirically true that men always make better CEOs and women make better stay-at-home parents, traditional role assignments don’t have to violate the theological principle of equality, so long as complementarian Christians are working to create a society where “women’s work” has the same prestige and economic value as men’s (which of course never happens).

Another area of caution for “complementary functions” Christians is who gets to assign the functions. Where men have a monopoly on official preaching and teaching, only men write the theology…which conveniently confirms their monopoly. Whatever the Spirit is telling women, no one will get to hear it. Having an equal share in the blessings of salvation may be nice in heaven, but it’s a notional concept here on earth if it doesn’t protect women against abusive Biblical interpretations by men.

And that brings us back to Douglas Wilson. In Monday’s post, the I-Monk, a/k/a Michael Spencer, objected to a female commenter saying “My abusive marriage was, in so many ways, modeled on [Wilson’s] book, Reforming Marriage.” Michael isn’t a complementarian and does think that conservative churches need to focus more on domestic abuse. However, he argued that Wilson should not be blamed when his followers use his writings to justify mistreating their wives:

[T]he word “modeled” implies that Wilson would endorse the behavior the commenter calls an “abusive marriage.” I take your presentation and I seek to copy it, i.e. “model” it. It implies the abuser was following the words of Wilson in being abusive, not distorting or twisting them into abusive actions Wilson would not approve of and did not suggest.

I’m sorry, Michael, but I think your male privilege is a big speck in your eye. The relevant inquiry is not whether Wilson intends harm to women. The relevant inquiry, first of all, is whether a relationship based on Wilson’s principles of inequality and control feels like abuse from the perspective of the woman.

Let’s hear about the female commenter’s marriage in her own words. (She blogs under the name “Molly” at Adventures in Mercy so I will call her Molly henceforth, for clarity.) It’s a long comment so I have boldfaced the parts that stood out for me.

Yes…I think some of Wilson’s teaching was taken out of context….but other parts…. Well, when you tell a man that “husband is to his wife as a farmer is to his field”….and to be “her lord,” and to “rule with a firm hand,” at what point is the man taking things out of context when he starts treating his wife as he would a field and begins to decide what she will and will not “grow,” when she will and will not “grow it,” because it’s what he thinks is best and therefore fully believes he is doing it out of love and rightness?

She will clean the kitchen this and this and this way, before she is allowed to go to bed at night, because she needs to learn how to properly clean (because she doesn’t use a toothbrush around the sink handles every night and so her obedience to my nightly cleaning list will help her be a better homemaker, as befits her calling). She will throw away those jeans, because they look good on her and that will cause men to stumble. She will give away those shoes because they do not please him. She will give away her car because he’s decided they will only have one. She won’t see their finances or be allowed to see them because he’s decided that the man should be in charge of the money. She will move to a state she doesn’t want to live in, because he’s decided God has called him there. She will work, even with a baby in daycare, because he said she had to. She will not work, because he said she won’t now. She will have more babies, even though she has them so close together and has medical problems becasue of that—and was advised not to have more, or at least to wait until her body was able to recover… But no, he says she must have another one, and another one, because he feels she needs to be kept busy at home… She will not speak in church, because he’s decided that she shouldn’t speak unless he is there to approve of her words—and he is busy doing his full-time ministry job so can’t be there. There are two driveways to the church. She is not allowed to pull in one of them, because he doesn’t like that one. She is only allowed to pull into the driveway that he likes. She will not read Harry Potter books, because he decided they were wicked. She must ask permission before she can accept any out-of-the-home obligation. She must ask permission to plant a garden. She will ask permission to get a pet. (He will say no for years—-he doesn’t like gardens and he doesn’t like pets, and the fact that she does indicates her rebellious heart). She must keep the children in perfect obedience. When a toddler acts like a toddler, it is her fault. She is a bad mother. Her relative dies and leaves behind furniture, including a desk (she’s wanted a desk for her very own for years!). She is not allowed to have a desk. He gives the desk to her child, instead. She cannot let her children help her cook things like bread dough—it’s too messy. Messes are a big no-no.

Through it all, she is never hit. In fact, she is treated very kindly in many ways, like a father treats a child. Kindly, as long as she performs properly and apologizes profusely when she doesn’t maintain perfection. He is convinced he is a good and godly leader, and he does everything out of a desire to help her become just the way he knows she should be. He is an amazing man (and he is—truly admired as a leader in the church, ministered and reached out to so many people in life-changing ways, and most people would never ever guess that there was anything but a perfect marriage there….including her, for a long time), and he reminds her that she is lucky to have someone like him to lead her into fullness, and soon, she believes it…. He is carefully crafting her into his image… because he loves her, and since he is so good, she will be happy, whether she knows it or not yet, when she is like him. He is sure of it. He is sure of a lot of things, one of them being that he is always right.

It gets complicated…I know that. I’m not saying it’s all Wilson’s fault. No, no, it was an abusive man who heard things in a twisted way—this is always how it works. And yet…and yet…and yet… There is such a huge, “and yet.” Because the teaching is there, in black and white, ripe for the quoting. I feel like the complementarian camp forgets all about the oft affirmed doctrine of total depravity when it comes to singing the praises of a husband’s authority over his wife…and though I am not a total depravity fan, persay, I do wish that they would remember that doctrine before they tell husbands to lead their wives with a firm hand or to view their wives as a field to be planted or that they are to be their wives primary instructor and guide in the things of God.

Wilson sais that a husband is a “husbandman.” My husband heard that…loud and clear. I am just the field….and every farmer knows that the field is his business, his property, his place. What rights does a field have to say no, or to refuse something? It has nothing. If I complained, which was rare, I was in sin… If I hurt, if I was angry, if I had a normal healthy reaction to being treated the way I was treated, if I objected to the kind but firm *total ownership* my husband had over me, *I* was the problem.

The teaching was there, for *me*, who was reading while striving to understand, struggling to make some sense out of the confusion….and over and over, through Wilson and through others, I learned that I have no right to say no since, after all, he’s not asking me to watch porn, not asking me to do outright “sin,” therefore I have no right to be angry, no right to be anything but sweet, submissive and respectful… Problems? Keep being sweet and honoring and respectful, and he will change… Don’t feel respected by him? That’s another sign of my rebellious heart, because Wilson (and others) have said that men were wired to need respect, not women.

I once thought it was only me, when I first began (fearfully, brokenly) stumbling my way out of this destructive world. That’s what I thought, at first. I have since learned there are others….many, many others. I am just one tiny body on a mountain of broken and bruised bodies from the fall-out of books like Reforming Marriage. We just don’t talk about it much….most of us can’t, the few of us that remain in the faith at all, that is. It’s too hard…and very few are able to understand. Silence is much safer, for so many reasons.

I enjoy Wilson’s mind. Well, I used to. I understand, in any case, how and why someone would enjoy Wilson. I certainly did…before. I just can’t stomach any of him anymore. It’s probably related to PTSD…I realize that….and part of that certainly isn’t Wilson’s fault….but part of it seems like it is important to note. Wilson was my husband’s favorite read. He bought a bunch of “Reforming Marriage” to hand out. He loved that book…he has a sharp mind, much like Wilsons. I underlined my copy, striving to be the woman my husband wanted me to be…after all, according to Wilson, God made me to face my husband, to orient myself around my husband, to find my identity and definition in my husband…

I do not appreciate it when I am told, now, that I took it out of context. No. I didn’t. It is all there. I obeyed what Wilson taught me: I tried to orient myself to my husband, to please my husband… Can a plot of ground say, “No?” Does a plot of ground have the ability, much less the right, to say no?

I kept the books for that very reason: proof. It’s there. Yes, a mentally ill and abusive man, who probably (literally) couldn’t help BUT to twist it, twisted it….but I was not mentally ill, and I was not sick. I needed help. Instead of helping me, the books, like Reforming Marriage, only tended to affirm the “godliness” of my husband’s stance.

today’s post, titled “When Bad People Need a Crutch“, the I-Monk takes a more nuanced position, but (as evidenced by the title) still seems to think the problem is the proverbial few bad apples rather than a fundamental flaw in complementarianism. Though he wouldn’t say that traditional gender roles are the solution to all our problems, he gives a nod to the “feminism has failed” camp when he says:

I have no sympathy for abusers. Not in any form, shape or fashion. But every day I teach at a school full of high school boys, many without dads, whose only model for being a man is a rapper or an athlete. They are 18 and can’t pull up their pants. They call women bitches and baby mamas without regret. And I see crowds of girls who buy it. They buy the disrespectful treatment and the commodification of their sexuality. I understand where complementarians are coming from when they look out at the destruction of traditional gender roles and wonder if anyone is counting the cost for what it means for boys to never become men and girls to literally idolize prostitutes as role models.

Egalitarians writing books about the evils of fundamentalism at Bob Jones and Christ Church, Moscow might want to visit their local public school- heck, visit their local Christian school- and see the state of things. See how the ideals of equality and respect are doing out there. If you can’t see why complementarianism makes sense in so many communities and sub-cultures, you’re looking past reality.

To which
a commenter named “Tope” rightly retorts:

There are a lot of problems with this argument. For one thing, public schools are no more egalitarian institutions than most other institutions in our society, which despite the protestations of some remains deeply misogynist. Secondly, I hardly see what egalitarianism or, if I’m reading between the lines correctly, feminism have to do with young women being called bitches or baby mamas, or the commodification of female sexuality. Both are firmly opposed to such things. The poor state of gender relations in American society is not the fault of egalitarianism or feminism; it’s the fault of sexism, the fault of an attitude which denies women full humanity by refusing to see them as anything more than bodies and sex objects.

I can’t speak all women who have grown up in complementarian communities, but my personal experience has been that the sexism I encountered when I was still immersed in complementarianism was in many ways just a repackaged and Christianized version of the sexism I have encountered in the “secular” world, including public school. Women were still reduced to their bodies and thought of as sex objects (modesty checklists, women constantly being reminded of their power to provoke lust, men treating women as ‘floating heads” because they were literally incapable of seeing them as anything more than just sexualized bodies). Women were still ostracized and punished for speaking their minds or having opinions. Women were still showered with contempt for being weak and emotional and unimportant. The major difference was that at church, people could hide behind God and the Bible as a defense for their misogyny. Gender relations in the church are every bit as broken as outside it….

…I would never say that all complementarians are abusers. I would never
say that abuse is unique to complementarianism; it happens in all sorts
of contexts and communities, and it isn’t restricted to a particular
socioeconomic group or religion or political affiliation, etc. But I
absolutely would say that *some* complementarian churches foster an
environment in which abusers flourish, by putting a disproportionate
burden for “good behavior” on wives and children, by constantly harping
on the importance of male leadership and the subordination of women and
children in every single aspect of marriage and family life, by
discouraging female education and interest in the world outside church
and home, by making comments as Bruce Ware as done suggesting that wife
beating is just one sinful response to a husband’s authority being
challenged . . . I could go on. Growing up in evangelical communities,
I often heard the phrase “ideas have consequences” uttered as preamble
to criticisms of other people’s beliefs. Well, they do. When you teach
that women don’t reflect God’s glory as fully as men, that a wife
should orient herself to her husband while he orients himself to God,
that a woman’s task is to help her man accomplish his tasks, that it is
selfish of her to think about her needs and personal fulfillment . . .
how can one teach such things and honestly claim ignorance when those
teachings are taken one or two or three steps further than what is
being explicitly said?

Exactly: the root sin is pride, not lust. (Or as some feminists say, “rape is a crime of violence, not of sex.”) Controlling gender expression is not going to solve that problem, and often makes it worse. Whether we force women into the “madonna” or the “whore” stereotype is beside the point.

I’ve spent the past couple of years involved in feminist anti-porn and anti-trafficking activism, and worked as a trained volunteer at a domestic violence shelter. We talk a lot about “abuse-enabling myths”. The purveyors of those myths like to distance themselves from the sick people who put them into action. For instance, a lot of mainstream porn eroticizes abusive scenarios like rape and incest, and depicts women as enjoying such victimization. Porn defenders love the “few bad apples” argument: many porn users don’t commit sexual violence, and not all abusers use porn, so the responsibility rests entirely on the man who crosses the line. The crucial fact remains: It is not a misinterpretation of these videos to imitate them by assaulting women and children.

In my opinion, Douglas Wilson’s defenders are trying a similar dodge. Molly says it best in her comment on the I-Monk’s second post (boldface mine, again):

My husband wasn’t “a bad excuse for a man,” or “scum,” or some of the other things he’s been called here. Truly, if anyone here has reason to revile him, it’s me. And…I don’t. He was just a man. He was human. He was amazing in some areas…when I say his ministry changed lives, I am speaking the truth..and destructive in others…his “ministry” to me, for example…I am deeply damaged by what happened during those years. That’s true… But if you saw another side of him, you would be like many others who held him in awe and high esteem, and, in those areas, rightly so.

In other words, good and bad were both there….like they are in *all* of us. His were just a little more extreme, but he was still human, is still your brother in Christ, and some of the comments here are crossing the line.

The thing about abuse is that we paint caracatures of the “abuser” as this horribly rotten person, and “abuse” as this easy to spot thing. It’s not that way. In most cases, it’s terribly complex. The abuser is often a wonderful person…in some areas…the guy you’d never think would do anything like that. And the abuse is often balanced out by wonderful times, or, at least, seemingly healthy times… It’s not so black and white as it seems when it’s condensed into a little five paragraph story….

…Btw, when it comes to Wilson, in no way do I assign him or any of the other Biblical Patriarchy teachers the full share of blame. No, no, not at all. And yet they will be judged for their words. They feed abusive people… they take away the personal power of the women in such homes, the power to have a choice, to say no, to set down a boundary, to even know that abuse is abuse.

That’s nice that Wilson tells husbands to be kind ot their wives. I’m thankful he says nice things like that. But he *also* tells a husband that he will and should sometimes do things his wife doesn’t like and he must be firm about it, that she should view him as her “lord” and that he should act like he is her lord and never forget that he is her lord even when he is being kind and loving to her, that he is a husbandman and she is his field and it is his job to decide what will grow there and it is her job to submissively and cheerfully accept what he chooses for her (or he is her wall and she must view things out of his window), that she was born needing to be led, that she is to find her identity in him, etc…? It’s all there, in the book. I’m not making anything up. It’s there.

You take a person with NPD or a tendancy towards dominance (a hallmark feature of testosterone, so something many men will struggle with, especially as younger husbands) or abusive behavior or mental illness or just plain ordinary selfishness, tell them that they are the “lord” of their wife and that she is his field and that she is to be oriented to him while he is oriented to the calling God gives him and that he is to be her spiritual guide and teacher and show her how to see things correctly…..please, please, don’t put all the blame on the man when he takes that seriously and starts acting accordingly.

A Focus on the Family site had a blog post up a while back that literally came right out and said that, yes, it’s true, some women get kind of controlling husbands, but, well, that’s their lot in life, and whether they like it or not, husbands have the right to decide whether their wives will or will not have children—and how many, whether they will or will not homeschool them, whether they will or will not work outside the home, whether they will or will not live in a certain location, whether they will or will not allow their dying child to recieve one treatment or the other…and that it is a wife’s role to submit graciously. This was from Focus. Not a fringe group in some little church somewhere. As far as I know, there was no retraction. Wives? You are in *sin* if you do not obey him.

I’ve had people chide me because I had the children my husband told me to have. They said I should have known better, that I should have said no, that I should have known he was wrong. These are the same people who promote the very ministries and teachers that taught me that saying no was *sin*, that what brought down the human race was a wife making a decision without first getting approval from her husband (another mainstream teacher posits that, Ware, not some sideshow extremist)… My husband felt that God wanted us to have more babies. Who was I, a woman who was designed by God to need male leadership, a woman who was now filled with the fallen desire to rebel against her husband, a woman who is to view her husband as her lord and spiritual teacher, to say no?

It’s not to say I remove myself from blame. Oh my….if I could only go back. It makes me sick to my stomach to even think about it. But that said, I *did* go for help. I probably read every complementarian and “biblical patriarchy” book on the market. I tried. You remember what happens when the blind lead the blind, though, right? 🙁

And then, because my husband went and did exactly what these ministries said he was allowed to do (and, in some cases, encouraged to do), people want the blame to land 100% on his back, they want to say that he was abusive or took things out of context, that the teachings had nothing to do with it…

Well, yes, he was abusive. Absolutely. But he also had plenty of back up from plenty of teachers who did *literally* approve of many of the things he was doing. The teaching from Focus said quite plainly that whether or not a wife will have children, and how many she will have, is the husbands decision and a wife who does not obey is in sin. That’s not me grasping at straws or trying to blame someone. That’s just a fact.

I agree with those who say that complementarianism does not necessarily make a man abusive. I never said it did. I know too many good, kind complementarian men to ever believe that. But, let’s face it. A Christian man who is inclined to be abusive and/or misogynistic is going to be drawn straight to complementarian and/or patriarchal teachings because they affirm the inner sense of the abusive person that *he* is supposed to be in charge of her, that he has the innate right to be in charge of her. It’s past time for patriarchal and complementarian teachers to realize this and preach accordingly, to start becoming educated on domestic violence in all its forms, to start studying the way abusive minds think and to start teaching women, the ones most vulnerable in the comp set up, what various forms of abuse are and when it’s okay to say no, that having boundaries is not a sin.

Here’s something I’ve noticed and find interesting…and sad…and common (and as others have mentioned, this is very true in areas of marriage teaching *and* parenting teaching)… Many people can tell abused wives that they shouldn’t be confused by the kind and nice things their abusive spouse does—that they need to stand firm against the abuse, period. And yet these very same people can’t seem to separate the abusive/destructive teaching from the good and kind teachings of a ministry or a leader that they like, and thus leap to their defense if someone points out the abusive nature of some aspects of the teaching…

Like an abused spouse who has yet to figure out that it’s really and truly abuse, they can’t seem to see the destructive nature of the thing. They want so badly to believe the good, to believe that the good is the main thing and the destructive parts are just these little things that are best passed over, or will be fixed in time, or are just little silly things of no consequence…. I know how that is. I am a very loyal person. I *want* to believe the good…and when someone I love or am endeared to is being attacked (whether for real, or just percieved), my entire being gears up to defend. There are admirable aspects to having such a reaction….but not when the “attack” is made up of valid points, things that truly are troublesome, things that can and should be addressed, things that can and are damaging people, sometimes irreparably…

The thing is, there are some very troubling things being taught by Wilson. This isn’t to say that Wilson himself is an abusive husband. We have no way of knowing that and to say that would be wrong. It’s also not to say that Wilson doesn’t teach good or wise things, or do good and wise things. It’s complex, remember? But the fact that he does good things in no way excuses the destructive things. And to say that he is teaching destructive things isn’t blame-shifting or taking a teacher’s words out of context.

Besides Molly’s blog, the websites Because It Matters and Emotional Abuse and Your Faith contain other good resources for speaking out against the abuse of women in the church.

Two Thoughts on an Inclusive Vision of Salvation

Does it matter what you believe? I would say yes…and no.

The question of religious pluralism is often collapsed into the question of salvation, though they are distinct issues. Partly this happens because a popular form of evangelism portrays Jesus as the sole dispenser of “get out of jail free” cards. The baseline assumption is that we’re all going to hell unless we sign on to the program.

There are many good reasons for finding this position repugnant and/or implausible, simply as a matter of compassion for human suffering. Liberal Christians and others who share this opinion, though, tend to overshoot the mark and claim that “all paths lead to God”.

Both the exclusivist and the pluralist view, in my opinion, unhelpfully sever the means of salvation from the nature of salvation. To be saved, in the Christian sense, is to experience eternal life in communion with a loving God. If one believes that Jesus embodied the nature of God on earth, then becoming a follower of Jesus is not merely a means to an end. It is an earthly foretaste of and preparation for that heavenly life.

Other religions are not equivalent because their goals and methods are not the same. They may reveal aspects of the divine nature, or contain helpful spiritual practices, but to call them “means of salvation” is to impose a Christian framework on a quite different system of thought, potentially in a misleading or imperialistic way.

John 14:6 is frequently quoted to proof-text an exclusivist understanding of salvation. Let’s look at it in context (NIV translation):

2In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going.”

5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

It seems to me that Jesus is not even addressing the problem of other religions. His followers, all Jews, are asking the (Jewish) messiah to give them some information, some program to follow, so that they can get a closer knowledge of God–the God of their own Hebrew Bible. And Jesus replies that they are already in closer fellowship with God than they imagine, and they can experience this for themselves if they get to know Jesus as he really is.

I sympathize, nonetheless, with Christians who worry that a more inclusive position on salvation makes the gospel seem irrelevant. It trivializes the rich complexity of Christian tradition, and the rigors of discipleship, to suggest that any old religion is as good as any other. A recent post on the Creedal Christian blog articulates this quite well. Again, we can get out of this box if we see the gospel as good for something more than saving our skins after death. For more on this point, see N.T. Wright’s latest writings on Christian misunderstandings of heaven.

Two of my favorite Christian bloggers have lately weighed in on salvation of non-Christians in a way that I found most helpful. What they are calling “universalism” I might prefer to call “inclusivism”, since the former term implies a level of certainty about all people’s eternal destiny that the authors themselves don’t assert.

Christopher at Betwixt and Between is a Benedictine oblate in the Episcopal tradition. In his post Universalism and Anglical Careful-Generous Reserve, he writes:

…We can proclaim definitively Who salvation is without claiming definitively who will or will not be saved outside of Him.

Salvation is through, with, and in Jesus Christ finally, only, uniquely, definitively.

That need not imply an obverse declaration about where salvation is not or who will not be saved.

Rather, we rest in the generosity of this reconciling God. To do otherwise is to skirt into proclaiming a God, often vicious, who is other than the one revealed in Christ, who at heart in the Cranmerian notion of our formulae, is all-merciful, and perhaps no more so than as found in the Rite I canon, heir to 1549, 1637, and 1928, especially in the Prayer of Humble Access. Chesed, Coverdale’s lovingkindness or Cranmer’s mercy is the very heart of God, and we know this God personally in Jesus Christ. This is in Whom we rest all our life and trust and hope.

And such a careful-generous reserve does not make one unorthodox, unless we care to count among such company the Orthodox Church, the Greek Fathers, and C.S. Lewis.

And we Anglicans also tend to avoid locating God only in the Church in a crude way. “Wherever Christ is” says Andrewes, and Maurice will follow after Him, making clear Christ’s explicit availability in the Church through the Sacraments, while not locating Him there in the crude ways many early Anglo-Catholics did in pipeline theories of grace.

Unlike cruder views that would locate the activity of the Word and Spirit only in the life of the Church, rather than explicitly and visibly therein, Anglicans have tended to acknowledge than though explicit and visible in the Church, the Word and Spirit are active in the world if hidden, unknown, and often unacknowledged. Indeed, as Stringfellow reminds, it is precisely our job as Christians who proclaim this God in Christ explicitly and visibly available in the Church to name God’s activity in the world as precisely the activity of the Word who revealed Godself by becoming one of us. Hence, ongoing discernment….

Eric Reitan, a self-described progressive Christian and philosophy professor at Oklahoma State University, writes about debating an audience member about John 14:6 during a recent lecture he gave to OSU’s interdenominational Christian fellowship:

…I began by distinguishing between two interpretations of John 14:6: the interpretation which takes the passage to say that no one comes to the Father unless they adopt the right beliefs about Jesus and/or make the right choices with regard to Him, and the interpretation which has it that no one comes to the Father except on account of the work that Jesus does on sinners’ behalf. While the former interpretation entails that only Christians who explicitly accept Jesus as savior are saved, the latter interpretation does not imply this at all….

…One of the greatest fruits of a theology of grace is that it liberates us to think, to question, to doubt, to admit uncertainty, and to take challenges to our views seriously. If we believe that our salvation does not hinge on our getting it right, we become free to be humble, to admit our finitude, to admit our inability to get it right—in short, to be intellectually honest about the human condition. And as I see it, an absolutely crucial feature of the human condition is that the fundamental nature of reality is beyond our grasp. We can theorize and speculate in ways that are more or less in line with what reason and evidence reveal, but we cannot know.

Our enormous material universe might be catalogued, its structure and mechanisms and history described to the minutest detail, and we would still face the same fundamental questions: Is there more than this? Is this world of immediate sense experience, this world whose structures and patterns we can describe, just a surface appearance? Or is it just a small part of something far vaster that is beyond description? Or is it, instead, the whole story?

We cannot know. We can be moved by the voice in our heart that encounters a hopeful vision, the voice that says, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” We can treat its urgings as emerging out of the part of us that IS, rather than the part of us that experiences and knows—the self insofar as it is a part of reality, rather than the self that stands back from it in an attempt to understand reality. We can treat our deepest longings as if they are a homing beacon, and their YES as an instinct that immediately apprehends what the discursive intellect cannot grasp. Or we can be moved by the voice that says, “I’ll believe it when I see it”—knowing that this is something we can never, ever see.

We can be moved by longing or evidentialism, but we cannot know. And the theology of grace allows us to admit this. Paradoxically, if we are convinced of this theology, we are freed from the pathological need for certainty. And while such certainty may not be the root of all hostility and intractable conflict, it is one fundamental source of these things. When we can admit we do not know, we can come together and hear each other and be more fully open to each other’s humanness. And insofar as the theology of grace facilitates that, it bears pragmatic fruits that speak in its favor. We have pragmatic reason to live as if the theology of grace is true, as if our salvation doesn’t hinge on getting it right, because only then can we break free of the psychological forces that push us into trenches of false certainty….

Thank you, Eric.
That’s the heart of why I became, and remain, a Christian.

New Poem by Conway: “See You Around”

In this new poem, my prison pen pal “Conway” speaks for all incarcerated men and women who don’t get to see their children and grandchildren growing up. Mary Oliver’s famous lines “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”, often read as a call to personal growth, take on new political meaning for families like Conway’s. He has only one life, one chance to experience a daughter’s wedding, a grandchild’s birth. These children, too, will never get a second chance to grow up without the wounds of father loss. Do we, as a society, recognize that their lives are “wild and precious”, too, or do we throw them away with misguided tough-on-crime policies?

See You Around

Empty words, fanned out across the light
in their plight for communication
on the valley of my tongue.

You listened with a stern expression, drifting
without knowing exactly why your thoughts
would hang
like a kite, in the warm summer breeze.

A simple nod or bite of your knuckle
assured me, that we
were touching each other sufficiently
through the transparent partition.

Maybe, this is how our world was supposed to be
just maybe, that’s all we will ever know again.

I raise my hand-up slowly
like a child in class
eager to please the teacher
yet, unsure of an answer;
Place my aging palm onto the glass
then a smaller palm appeared
matched against mine.

Time was a singular straight line
that separated us, our hunger
unraveling like a plate of spaghetti.

Time was a calm sea
that floated over me,
that I drank thankfully
whenever you came to visit,
though the thought of waiting, another day
through this constant repetition
remains more terrifying than the emptiness.

My mind rewinds you walking away
replete again-n-again incomplete
when all that I’m allowed to do
is watch you leave.

For as long as we’ve been kept apart
is as long as I still have to stay…

In his latest letter, Conway also shared some thoughts about the meaning of his poems “Leap Frog” and “Proof of Perfection”, which I posted here last month:

Actually I feel that “Organized Religion” or at least the Hierarchy involved in running such an Oxymoron are very much to blame for the direction our Society is heading, or shall I say the Stance that our Society has adopted concerning “criteria for participation”.

Because of some over-zealot Scripture definitions of How to be “Correct” disciples of God, or the Religious Dogma being organized…

…[The poem] “Proof of Perfection” came first and then upon further reflection, I wrote “Leap Frog” to help continue the piece.

You hit the nail on the head as usual: Justice or Vengeance and which is really morally correct. Who has the Right to make that decision

Like when the Crucifixion was decided

After the warrant was written.

The Cross was burnished, as it is still being examined (carried around in effigy).

The Thorns (nettle) is wrapped around his head to Symbolize Constant pain or incite Thoughts of the Judgment, it is an outrageous reminder that we all have a brain and must use it.

The Bloody spear smeared on the doormat was sealing our fate because not a Soul Stood up to fight this travesty.

They were only “Whispered questions“.

Afraid to question “Authority/Dogma”.

Who will fight to change it, if nobody Speaks up or Takes the same punishment. “Ths twisted blow/We’ll never know.”

Then the “Pagan eclipse” labeled a heretic if you don’t agree fully to the sentence, the punishment. You become a the nonbeliever Pagan — the dark side locked out of the Church. So you “fall through the floor” — straight to Hell.

But, the Hollow reed is there, after its death. The reed is turned into a flute and so, its death has been turned into music which harvested the Sorrow. It remains alive. Metamorphosed into something glorious, except only from our living breathing life has placed holes in its carcass. Our lungs “Broken breath” bring it back to life. It “sings a satisfactory song”.

But this same instrument can be used as a Switch to cause pain — discipline. “Bent willows seeking flesh” verse — more the afterthought of the “Proof of Perfection” that connects to “Leap Frog” because of the explanation (hence the title). So, we can recognize reincarnation or life after death, in nature.

“Imagine, what His hand and throat began” —  Is He proud of his Creation? are we not being observed for our humanity, our free will to do great things, this Glorious Struggle.

The fluttering moths are of course metaphor and indicate our attraction to the source of our existence. The Truth, the turmoil, the strength.

“The Search for the crack in the Curtain’s narrow track.” Wizard of Oz reference to the person behind the Curtain. (is it real) is it faith

“The Tears diminish in the theft of a wilting Heart” “Bent willows” punishment — Rejection and pain from going against the grain. Not blindly following Mans/Authority boundaries/Rules.

Finally “to slit the throat of silent Sacrifice” “Toss the herded cross” — No longer Idolized or burnished but Rejected Ideologically. It becomes outright animosity, because if you are to believe the “Norm” the “Self appointed/anointed” Zealots Ideology then you have no other but “Trail to the bitter end”.

But the Truth is in the Hollow Reed still singing and that is the “Leap Frog” to the “Proof of Perfection”. The faith in forgiveness in the search. The Compliment [sic] that you are you and whichever path you are on is proof that God Loves your Choices and Continues to Bless your life with His Song. Your song’s like a beacon.

Amen, friend.

Poem: “The Tune Michael”

This poem of mine was recently published in the 4th anniversary issue of the Istanbul Literary Review, edited by Susan Tepper and Gloria Mindock.

The Tune Michael

    for Karen and Dino

What comes through to the bedded boy, the laid-down boy,
the boy dark as church, weathering a sleep
fallen in childhood — all my hope

the boy wiped and leaking, the boy the body feeding
the house with its banked fires,
center of our constellation on God

is founded what comes to us through the body
is like practicing music
before anyone arrives, the nave’s silence maple thick

and sun after sun content to fall
through change and chance through dust
but no word, should that be enough?

What is enough for the boy tucked and sheeted,
sung favorites, insensate to our tender gloves,
still my trust rituals of a retired flag —

what funeral, what cure?
How much his life for ours
springeth out of naught

oh, let there be an inside
to this night, this boy bread,
in his flesh a listener

hidden like God in wine.

The tune mentioned in the title is #665 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, written by Herbert Howells to accompany the poem “All My Hope on God Is Founded”. This video from Westminster Abbey includes captioned lyrics.

Signs of the Apocalypse: Fancy Feast, Darling?

I’ve always suspected that the Fancy Feast cat food commercials targeted lonely women who want to fantasize that they’re having a dinner date with someone of their own species. (Full disclosure: when I was three, I did pretend that my grandma’s orange tabby “Sidney” was a handsome prince; my feline paramour later turned out to be “Sydney”, thus setting the stage for my genderqueer life.) The new ads for Fancy Feast Appetizers prove that I’m not making this up. “Romance your cat’s taste buds with Fancy Feast® Appetizers. Fancy Feast® is the perfect way to express your love.”

Hold on a moment. Why do cats need appetizers? It’s not like they have to wait very long for you to plop their main meal out of the can. In the meantime, they’d be perfectly happy to lick themselves, sleep, or listen to you talk about your feelings. 

In other furry news, UK-based LoveHoney can tell you how your neighbors allocate their sex-toy dollars. For instance, I now know that “People in Northampton spend 2 times the national average on Fetish Clothing”. However, our sister city is only “the 102nd sexiest place in the UK”, behind Pontypridd but ahead of Teddington. Oh, the shame.

Bishop Spong Says: Equality Is Beyond Debate

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has written an eloquent and impassioned manifesto explaining why he will no longer debate Christians who oppose full equality for gays and lesbians. I’m not generally a fan of Bishop Spong because, like some of his fellow liberal Christian theologians, he can sound arrogant and dismissive towards those who still cherish belief in the divinity of Jesus, a personal God, and other elements of traditional Christology. In this manifesto, though, he really knocks it out of the park. Hat tip to the Soulforce e-newsletter for this link. An excerpt:

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is “an abomination to God,” about how homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle,” or about how through prayer and “spiritual counseling” homosexual persons can be “cured.” Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy. I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate “reparative therapy,” as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired. I will no longer talk to those who believe that the unity of the church can or should be achieved by rejecting the presence of, or at least at the expense of, gay and lesbian people. I will no longer take the time to refute the unlearned and undocumentable claims of certain world religious leaders who call homosexuality “deviant.” I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality that certain Christian leaders continue to employ, which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that “we love the sinner but hate the sin.” That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons and fear homosexuality itself, but somehow know that hatred is incompatible with the Christ they claim to profess, so they adopt this face-saving and absolutely false statement. I will no longer temper my understanding of truth in order to pretend that I have even a tiny smidgen of respect for the appalling negativity that continues to emanate from religious circles where the church has for centuries conveniently perfumed its ongoing prejudices against blacks, Jews, women and homosexual persons with what it assumes is “high-sounding, pious rhetoric.” The day for that mentality has quite simply come to an end for me. I will personally neither tolerate it nor listen to it any longer. The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves. I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn’t. Justice postponed is justice denied. That can be a resting place no longer for anyone. An old civil rights song proclaimed that the only choice awaiting those who cannot adjust to a new understanding was to “Roll on over or we’ll roll on over you!” Time waits for no one.

I will particularly ignore those members of my own Episcopal Church who seek to break away from this body to form a “new church,” claiming that this new and bigoted instrument alone now represents the Anglican Communion. Such a new ecclesiastical body is designed to allow these pathetic human beings, who are so deeply locked into a world that no longer exists, to form a community in which they can continue to hate gay people, distort gay people with their hopeless rhetoric and to be part of a religious fellowship in which they can continue to feel justified in their homophobic prejudices for the rest of their tortured lives. Church unity can never be a virtue that is preserved by allowing injustice, oppression and psychological tyranny to go unchallenged.

In my personal life, I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by “fair-minded” channels that seek to give “both sides” of this issue “equal time.” I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects. It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer.

I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude. I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world’s population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it….

Online Literary Roundup: Stickman Review, The Post Office Poems

There’s no shortage of great contemporary writing online. Here are two sites I just discovered today:

Stickman Review, a biannual online literary journal edited by Anthony Brown, publishes memorable literary prose, poetry, and artwork. Their latest issue, Vol. 8 No. 2, features a powerful story by Leah Erickson. “Judy Garland” depicts the relationship between a pre-teen boy and his troubled, fragile mother, as they wait amid a crowd of fans at Grand Central Station for the movie star to arrive for the premiere of “The Wizard of Oz”. Erickson captures the psychological darkness and interiority of adolescence, with a sexual subtext that is never made crudely explicit, as the boy, like his fellow Americans on the cusp of World War II, struggles to distinguish hopeful fantasy from dangerous mania.

Other fine entries in this issue include poems by Gale Acuff and Jackie Bartley.

The Post Office Poems blog is an interactive, ongoing poetry project highlighting Fall City, Washington, and the Snoqualmie Valley, written by an anonymous author and posted weekly on the bulletin board at the Fall City Post Office.
The author explains:

The idea for the Post Office Poems began with a simple posting of a poem on the bulletin board at the Fall City Post Office on October 6, 2009 by an anonymous poet. Everyone in town has a post office box, there is no delivery within the city as it is pretty much out in the boonies, “rural”. When you pick up your mail after hours you enter the back door which is always unlocked. To the left on the wall is a large bulletin board with a typical assortment of small notices for rentals, items for sale, upcoming events and business cards. Once you read these, the next time you come in the reading selection becomes pretty boring. There is nothing else on the walls, though I’ve noticed lately as you come in the door the wind has blown a large handful of brilliant orange, red, yellow and brown leaves across the floor.

Thus an idea was born to enliven the lobby experience for townsfolk. Once a week a poem is posted on the board. The first was called “Four Feathers from Fall City”, it was posted on a Tuesday night about 9:30 pm with three white tacks, on a sheet of white typing paper. When I had just pushed in the last tack I heard a car pull up. I looked out the door and there was a cop car just outside. Was I breaking some unknown Postal Service rule or federal bulletin board law? As I walked out the door, an officer in full uniform walked in and said, “Hello there, how are you?”

I said, “Hello, fine thank you.” and nervously left. I wanted the poems to be anonymous. When people of Fall City read them, I want the poem and it’s images to be exerienced and enjoyed. This project is interactive. A piece of plain white paper, a poem, the quiet lobby, and then whatever happens next in the reading, the feelings of the reader, etc. will be a discovery. Something new. A gift.

I was particularly moved by the entry “Seven Pigeons and the White Angel”, a tribute to a young man who drowned in the river. The author handles a potentially sentimental subject with subtle yet deep emotion and a gift for describing the sublime landscape of the Northwest. 

Gerrymandered State Districts Exploit Disenfranchised Prisoners

Last week’s cover story from the Valley Advocate, the Northampton region’s free alternative weekly newspaper, reports that prison inmates are counted as residents for purposes of drawing state and federal legislative districts, even though these inmates lack the right to vote. The result, as Maureen Turner writers in her article The Prison Town Advantage, is that communities with prisons have disproportionate political power while the prisoners’ hometowns (often minority and urban areas) lose power:

…The Prison Policy Initiative, an Easthampton-based nonprofit, has released numerous reports in recent years examining the problem in states around the country; this month, PPI is releasing a report, “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Massachusetts,” that looks at the effects here. The report, co-authored by PPI Executive Director Peter Wagner and colleagues Elena Lavarreda and Rose Heyer, finds that five of the state’s legislative districts would not even exist in their current configurations if their population counts did not include prison inmates.

This apparently unintended data-gathering quirk, Wagner said, has profoundly detrimental consequences for the distribution of political power—consequences that extend further than one might expect.

Counting disenfranchised prisoners to draw up legislative districts “makes no sense,” Wagner said, “and is actually offensive to our notion of democracy.”

It also bears, in the words of Boston-based voting rights attorney Brenda Wright, an “uncomfortable resemblance” to the “three-fifths” compromise between Southern and Northern states written into the U.S. Constitution in 1787. That provision declared that a slave would count as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning congressional districts.

“The slave states benefited in terms of political power, based on a population that couldn’t vote,” said Wright, who directs the Democracy Program for Demos, a public policy and advocacy organization. More than 220 years later, legislators with prisons in their districts are likewise benefiting from a population that’s also denied the vote—while other districts lose.


Peter Wagner began studying prison-based gerrymandering while a law student at Western New England College. His first project looked at neighboring New York State, where the effects are especially dramatic. There, Wagner noted in a 2002 report, 91 percent of prison cells are located in the upstate region, whose economy depends heavily on the prison industry. But only 24 percent of prisoners actually come from upstate New York; the majority—66 percent—comes from New York City.

As a result, Wagner said in a recent interview, “the whole center of gravity shifts.” For state legislators who have prisons in their districts, the facilities are a boon: the prison population swells local numbers enough to justify the creation of a legislative seat, while the prison creates jobs and spurs related economic activity in a part of the state that sorely needs both. According to PPI, seven legislative districts in upstate New York would not have the minimum population required for a district were it not for their prisoners.

But not everyone wins under this scenario. While upstate legislators may have prisoners in their districts, because those prisoners cannot vote, there’s no incentive for the legislators to support policies that could positively affect the urban districts where the majority of prisoners come from. Meanwhile, because the prisoners are not counted in their hometowns, those communities’ populations, for the purposes of creating legislative districts, drop.

“Prisoners and their families have negative political clout,” Wagner said.

And it’s not just prisoners (and the family and neighbors that remain in their hometowns) who feel the effects of this imbalance, Wagner noted. Residents who live in districts without prisons have, in essence, less political influence than those in districts that do have prisons.

“These … districts get an enhanced say, which hurts every other district in general, and hurts the district where prisoners come from even more,” Wagner said.

Meanwhile, prisoners—despite the fact that they contribute to a prison-district legislator’s political power—have no political influence over “their” representative. “The way things should work is, if a legislator doesn’t represent some of his or her constituents, there’s a check in place—the overlooked residents can vote that person out,” Wagner said. “But when some of those constituents can’t vote, that natural check and balance doesn’t work.”

Read the whole article here.

Visit the Prison Policy Initiative website to learn more. Another interesting report recently produced by PPI argues that “a Massachusetts law that requires a mandatory sentence of at least two years for certain drug offenses committed within 1,000 feet of schools does not work to protect children from drugs and has the negative effect of increasing racial disparities in incarceration.”