Shantideva: “The Way of the Bodhisattva”

I came across this poem in the latest monthly newsletter from the Insight Meditation Center of Pioneer Valley, the Buddhist center that my husband attends. Although I believe that evil is real and has consequences in this lifetime and beyond, Christians sometimes get hung up on hellfire, neglecting to ponder how God’s infinite love and compassion are stronger than any sin. That is, after all, what we’re supposed to be celebrating this Easter weekend. The Christian equivalent of this poem may be the Harrowing of Hell, a doctrine that’s been obscured in the modern West but still part of the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Easter.

Moreover, I think it’s good to wish that all living beings will be saved, whether or not we feel secure about asserting universalism as a doctrine. If we could spend more time contemplating visions like Shantideva’s, and less time dwelling on images of divine punishment (eternal or otherwise), we might find it easier to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Way of the Bodhisattva

Throughout the spheres and reaches of the world,
In hellish states wherever they may be,
May beings fettered there, tormented,
Taste the bliss and peace of Sukhavati.

May those caught in the freezing ice be warmed,
And from the massing clouds of bodhisattvas’ prayers
May torrents rain in boundless streams
To cool those burning in infernal fires.

May forests where the leaves are blades and swords
Become sweet groves and pleasant woodland glades.
And may the trees of miracles appear,
Supplanting those upon the hill of shalmali.

And may the very pits of hell be sweet
With fragrant pools all perfumed with the scent of lotuses,
Be lovely with the cries of swan and goose
And water fowl so pleasing to the ear.

May fiery coals turn into heaps of jewels,
The burning ground become a crystal floor,
The crushing hills celestial abodes,
Adorned with offerings, the dwelling place of buddhas.

May the hail of lava, fiery stones, and weapons
Henceforth become a rain of blossom.
May those whose hell it is to fight and wound
Be turned to lovers offering their flowers.

And those engulfed in fiery Vaitarani,
Their flesh destroyed, their bones bleached white as kunda flowers,
May they, through all my merit’s strength, have godlike forms,
And sport with goddesses in Mandakini’s peaceful streams.

(Excerpt from Shantideva’s Dedication in No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva by Pema Chodron, pp.343-45.)

Palm Sunday Non-Random Song: “My Song Is Love Unknown”

This is one of my favorite hymns for Holy Week. Both the music and the lyrics are complex, and the message goes straight to the heart. Words by Samuel Crossman (1624-1683), tune by John Ireland (1879-1962). Sing along at Oremus Hymnal, an online version of the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal.

Here’s an intimate, low-key performance by Barbara Dickson, against the beautiful backdrop of Lindisfarne island.

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

He came from his blest throne
salvation to bestow,
but men made strange, and none
the longed-for Christ would know.
But O my friend,
my friend indeed,
who at my need,
his life did spend.

Sometimes they strew his way,
and his strong praises sing,
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!”
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
he gave the blind their sight.
Sweet injuries!
Yet they at these
themselves displease,
and ‘gainst him rise.

They rise, and needs will have
my dear Lord made away;
a murderer they save,
the Prince of Life they slay.
Yet steadfast he
to suffering goes,
that he his foes
from thence might free.

Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine:
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine.
This is my friend,
in whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.

Deliverance Takes Many Forms

“Change is possible,” goes one common slogan of the ex-gay movement. Survivors of so-called reparative therapy counter that while behavioral self-control may be possible, changing one’s core identity is not. For every anecdote that my conservative friends can share about someone who’s been “delivered” from homosexuality, I can point to another testimony from someone who only found peace in their relationship with God after accepting themselves as a same-gender-loving individual.

A similar debate is occurring in a discussion thread at Gay Christian Fellowship, a new website for open and affirming evangelicals. The site’s lead author, Pastor Weekly, shared a video of a woman performing her poem about being freed from lesbianism, hoping to provoke discussion. Some commenters responded that the only deliverance they needed was from the closet, while another visitor respectfully supported the ex-gay poet. A commenter identified as “Kudo451” made these wise observations:

…[A]s deliverance goes I think it is just as unfair for us to assume that her claims of having been delivered are doubtful based on our experience. I am a gay man but I have meet and have friends who are straight or even bi, that have been delivered from a gay lifestyle. Just as I know gay men and women who have been delivered from a straight life style. We are talking about human beings and once we take off the blinders of gender identity and sexuality and even abuse and trauma, you begin to realize that anything is possible.

The problem with most people who claim deliverance from anything is the assumption that what they have been delivered from is bad for everyone’s life. Yet just because God heals a blind man doesn’t mean that such a man has the right to accuse every other blind person of leading a sinful life that cannot glorify God unless they are healed as well. Nor should he accuse those who go blind in life of sinning while using their blindness as proof. I think that is what Jesus spoke of when he spoke of the Eunuchs and also when he spoke of the sick. Prior to Jesus most people felt that anyone who wasn’t “normal” was assumed to be either caught in their own sin or caught in some generational or family related sin (curse). It was Jesus who really changed that sort of thinking for all of Western Civilization, including the heathen.

Sign up for a free site membership to join the discussion. I also recommend their weekly “Voice of GCF” podcasts, which feature in-depth Bible teachings, commentary on current events, and interviews.

First Amendment Key to Creative Legal Strategy in Same-Sex Prom Case

A Mississippi federal trial court judge ruled yesterday that a public high school violated a lesbian student’s First Amendment rights by preventing her from bringing her girlfriend to the prom. In a case that has been drawing national attention, the Itawamba County school board canceled the prom rather than allow high school senior Constance McMillen to bring another female student as her date. U.S. District Court Judge Glenn Davidson determined that the ban constituted viewpoint-based discrimination that violated McMillen’s right to free expression.

Mississippi doesn’t ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not recognized it as a form of gender bias, so there goes the obvious equal-protection argument. Invoking the First Amendment is a creative move. But is it logical? I could understand it better if McMillen were a transgender student defending her right to cross-dress. Dating seems more like conduct than speech. Being gay is not exactly a viewpoint.

Looking at the big picture, some important protections for women and sexual minorities actually depend on keeping clear definitional boundaries between speech and action. In pornography, violent and medically dangerous acts are sheltered under the umbrella of “free speech” (wrongly, in my opinion) because a camera is rolling, avoiding the restrictions that OSHA would impose on any other hazardous occupation. It’s rotten to get kicked out of your prom, but bullying is a more pervasive problem that GLBT teens face day-to-day. The first national study of cyberbullying of GLBT youth, released last week by Iowa State University, found that more than half of those youth and their self-identified straight allies had experienced online harassment during a one-month period.

In this environment, well-meaning judges should think twice about extending students’ free expression rights beyond their common-sense limits.

Solitary Confinement in US Supermax Prisons Is Torture, Experts Say

Earlier this year, my prison pen pal “Conway” was confined to the segregated housing unit (SHU) in his California supermax prison. He told me he was targeted for showing leadership ability (he had been mentoring at-risk youth and trying to defuse conflicts among inmates). To justify putting him on restricted status, the prison misidentified him as having connections to a white gang. Conway is serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods. On the SHU, he is still allowed to receive a limited number of books and writing materials, plus non-contact visits.

In his latest letter, he asked me to send copies of two articles that I’ve linked below. Both describe in horrifying detail the long-term psychological damage produced by solitary confinement, a punishment whose use has skyrocketed in US prisons in the past two decades. (Read Conway’s poems about his stints in solitary here.)

Atul Gawande is a bestselling author, journalist, and Harvard-educated surgeon, and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. His article “Hellhole” from the March 30, 2009 New Yorker thoroughly documents the evidence that solitary confinement is a form of torture. Because of its permanent traumatic effects, it is also worse than useless at solving disciplinary problems in prison. Especially since those problems are partly the result of our tough-on-crime policies:

…Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement….

…Prolonged isolation was used sparingly, if at all, by most American prisons for almost a century. Our first supermax—our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement—was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.” But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual, except in cases of mental illness. The prison’s supermax conditions, the court stated, did not pose “a sufficiently high risk to all inmates of incurring a serious mental illness.” In other words, there could be no legal objection to its routine use, given that the isolation didn’t make everyone crazy. The ruling seemed to fit the public mood. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, some sixty supermax institutions had opened across the country. And new solitary-confinement units were established within nearly all of our ordinary maximum-security prisons.

The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all. At the same time, other states had just a tiny fraction of their inmates in solitary confinement. In 1999, for example, Indiana had eighty-five supermax beds; Georgia had only ten. Neither of these two states can be described as being soft on crime.

At the same time as the US experienced its supermax building boom, Britain was trying the opposite strategy on its violent criminals and IRA terrorists, with positive results:

…The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.

The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment….

So…treating prisoners like human beings rehabilitates them, and locking them in sensory deprivation cells destroys them. Hard to believe, huh? Only in America.

The other article worth reading is a May 2008 report written by Laura Magnani for the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker social justice organization), “Buried Alive: Long-Term Isolation in California’s Youth and Adult Prisons“. The report found that prison officials imposed solitary confinement and other contact restrictions in an arbitrary way, for indeterminate time periods, and often disproportionately targeted prisoners of color. Magnani writes:

Solitary confinement is known by various names in prison systems, depending on the facility: supermax units, management control units, secure housing units (SHU), closed custody units, separation, special management units (SMU), Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) and the Adjustment Center. This report will focus on the use of long-term isolation.

Generally in correctional settings, there are two types of segregation: disciplinary and administrative. Disciplinary segregation, referred to by prisoners as “the hole,” is applied as a short-term punishment for breaking prison rules. By contrast, administrative segregation is reserved for those prisoners deemed to pose a serious risk to other prisoners, and is carried out often, but not exclusively, in independent, supermax facilities.
Although both types of segregation are thought to have a sensory deprivation environment, it is often the case that they constitute a sensory overload, with yelling, clanging of doors, loud commands shouted by staff, etc. Conditions in these units also involve severe loss of privileges, such as access to phones, showers, and outdoor recreation. The difference is that administrative segregation is now being used over extended periods of time (six months to several years), sometimes for the person’s entire sentence….

Prisoners in supermax units often are confined alone in single cells; two prisoners are often held in 6’ x 10’ cells. (If there is anything worse, or perhaps more dangerous than isolation, it is isolation and idleness with a cellmate.) The cells contain only the most basic of accommodations, generally a double bunk bed, a toilet and sink, and possibly another protruding slab for a desk. Prisoners describe either an “eerie silence” in the units, stemming from the cells being entirely soundproof, or the opposite: a din of constant noise—including yelling and screaming—twenty-four hours a day. Most cells have no windows and it is impossible for a prisoner to know whether it is night or day. Prisoners often complain of the lights being left on twenty-four hours per day, causing them to lose track of time entirely. Of course, without windows, confinement in the dark would be even worse.

Contact with other human beings is extremely limited. Prisoners eat alone in their cells and are permitted to exercise alone in a cage or concrete room for approximately 30 minutes a day. Most interaction with staff occurs through a slot in the steel door through which food and other items are passed to the prisoner. Cell “shakedowns” are common, and prisoners are routinely strip searched before leaving their cells for any reason and again upon their return. These searches frequently include body cavity searches. Educational or rehabilitative programming is rare. They are not permitted to hold prison jobs. Visits, telephone calls, and mail are severely restricted and reading material is censored. Access to prison “programs,” such as classes, AA groups, or counseling is nonexistent.

A common practice in these units is “cell extraction.” This is a procedure, used at the discretion of the prison administration, where prisoners are confronted with from four to six riot-clad officers, batons drawn, descending upon the prisoner, often hog tying him/her, and removing him/her from the cell. This could be precipitated by something the prisoner is alleged to have done, or by information the prison has gathered suggesting some kind of security breach that inspires maximum force. We name it here as a “condition,” because it appears to be part of the landscape of this form of harsh punishment….

Conway is currently on indeterminate Ad Seg, potentially for the next seven years before he comes up for parole. The description above is sadly familiar from his letters. California currently houses over 14,000 inmates in some form of isolation.

To find out how you can help, visit the Friends’ STOPMAX website. And pray that this nation comes to its senses.

Sad Comics for Grownups

The acquisitions staff at our local library shares my passion for graphic novels. The term is a bit of a misnomer because many books in this genre aren’t “novels” at all–they’re nonfiction or collections of short pieces–but it sounds better than “comic books your kids wouldn’t understand”. Below, a brief roundup of some of my latest reading.

R. Sikoryak’s inventive and darkly funny Masterpiece Comics mashes up the plots of literary classics with the visual style of well-known comic strips. This could easily have been a one-joke wonder, but Sikorsky’s thoughtful pairings give this slim volume an unexpected depth. Reading it, you realize that Charlie Brown actually does have a lot in common with Kafka’s Gregor Samsa; ditto for Beavis and Butthead and the protagonists of Waiting for Godot. You come away appreciating the existential sadness under comics’ forced jollity and limited range of expression, as well as the slam-bang action and excitement buried inside these books we treat so reverently. Maybe high school boys would crack open Wuthering Heights if they read Sikorsky’s “Tales from the Crypt” version first.

The early 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman is often quoted as saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Seeking an alternative to my feminist friends’ grim suspiciousness of popular culture and fashion, I picked up Sharon Rudahl’s cartoon biography of Goldman, A Dangerous Woman. The book definitely made me want to learn more about Goldman, a feisty and life-affirming woman who put herself at risk to improve the lives of prisoners, prostitutes, and other marginalized people. However, I was a bit disappointed by the presentation. The visual elements didn’t interact dynamically with the text, feeling more like illustrated summaries than true scenes. Since Rudahl relies mainly on Goldman’s own account of her life, the book always casts her actions in a positive light, glossing over difficult moral questions like the anarchists’ use of violence against civilians. A Dangerous Woman is an intriguing introduction to the subject, but I wouldn’t rely on it as the definitive word on this complicated historical figure.

Alison Bechdel is the author of the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, a witty sapphic soap opera whose humor often arises from the contrast between the characters’ self-righteous political views and their messy personal lives. I binged on 10 volumes of the strip from 1989 to 2005. The left-wing rants sometimes became tiresome, so my favorite characters were the ones who didn’t take themselves so seriously: the gleefully careerist Sydney, a literature professor with a Martha Stewart fetish; Lois, the part-time drag king and full-time sexual dynamo; and Mo’s two Siamese cats, who survey their human companions’ anxious lives with amused detachment.

My highest praise, though, is reserved for Bechdel’s cartoon memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which is both beautifully drawn and elegantly crafted as a narrative. Fun Home intertwines the author’s coming of age as a lesbian with her memories of her brilliant, enigmatic, repressed father, a closeted homosexual who died in an accident that she suspects was suicide. Drawing parallels to sources as diverse as Joyce, Colette, Proust, classical mythology, and The Wind in the Willows, she shows how their shared love of literature substituted for the intimacy they could never express in more personal terms. Some online reviewers felt Bechdel strained too hard to fit their family story into literary templates, but for me, that was what gave the book its special poignancy: ultimately, Bechdel concludes that there are no neat explanations that will give her closure, and we return to the simple image that opened the story, a little girl in her father’s arms.

New Poems by Conway: “An Error” and Others

My prison pen pal “Conway” has been a prolific writer this winter, undaunted by his unfair reclassification to a more restricted security status that further limits his access to family visits and reading materials. In January, I sent him some writing prompts, including one that suggested beginning every sentence of a paragraph with “in the kitchen”. Conway changed it to something more relevant to his experience, as you can see in the two prose-poems below.

An Error

Holding, this quiet inside my soul
Scolding the noise silently
That threatens to regain control.

Even as this jealous rain falls to & fro–
all around, calls out from the ground.
I know where things have led, so…

Who really is humble, in deed?
This simple thought provokes an abyss,
A deep ocean of ungraspable water.

How do I see into the clear depth
without glimpsing a reflection. Then
distorted by my trembling attempts, to
escape this prison of error…


In Prison (1)

In prison, there’s no reason why these toilets should be so loud. In prison, noise is not allowed by prisoners. In prison I turned a pair of eyeglasses into a sewing needle, it took a long time. But, it passed it also. In prison they gave a guy three years for a sewing needle. It was a plea bargain they threatened to strike him out. In prison we don’t talk about how much it costs to make your clothes fit and shit like that. Would you? In prison I grew. My children did too. But without a clue of who I am. In prison I got a letter from you, it made me feel better, but only for a while. So, I read it again and again. Whenever I feel the need to smile. In prison they were running yard, it was cold and hard because of the rain. But we try our best to not complain. In prison they say “True that,” ’cause no one’s getting fat in prison. Because in prison they shove the food through the tray slot in the door, they don’t allow us in the chow hall anymore. But, that’s cool. I don’t like eating with some of those fools anyway. In prison I wondered out loud. I wondered what the taxpayers would think about paying thirty five thousand dollars a year for a sewing needle? In prison we think about stupid shit like that, but the district attorney doesn’t yet! In prison? He’s the one who should have to sew his clothes with this sewing needle, in prison…


In Prison (2)

In prison at least five or ten minutes we passed a verbal down the tier. The dinner was chicken goo. In prison they were crop dusting and the steel door was rusting in the fumes of time. In prison we were doing burpees all day and breaking the rules with loud cadences. But in prison the rules are made to be broken, like spokes on an old bike, rattling down the road. In prison the commode is so fuckin loud it howls hungrily for shit. In prison the walls shine, from being touched and rubbed on too much. In prison I saw a rabbit die in the electric fence and crows chasing hawks, if that makes sense, it does kind of, ’cause the hawks eat crow when they can catch them slippin’; so maybe it’s not so strange to me. In prison these words are ridiculous but I’m still writing in prison…

Anarchists and Misogyny

I became friends with radical feminist activist and author Lierre Keith four years ago when my husband and I began working to raise awareness of women’s oppression by prostitution and pornography. (See our website NoPornNorthampton for more information.) Lierre’s latest book is The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. In this controversial work, she argues that vegetarian and vegan diets are actually not as good for human health, or the planet, as an omnivorous diet that is based on more sustainable agricultural principles. The first chapter is online here.

As anyone who reads the New Testament knows, food taboos are a powerful cultural marker. Challenging them threatens people’s identity. Many left-liberal folks get a significant self-esteem boost from the belief that their culinary self-denial makes the world a greener and more compassionate place.

I don’t know whether Lierre’s right, though I plan to read her book and find out. What I do know is that violence against women is never acceptable. Silencing unpopular speakers through assault and intimidation is not liberal, compassionate, or progressive.

Some folks at last weekend’s San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair haven’t figured this out yet.

As Lierre was reading from her book at the SF County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park, three young men rushed the stage and hit her in the face with pies containing cayenne pepper–the equivalent of pepper spray in her eyes. The IndyBay website, which bills itself as “a non-commercial, democratic collective of bay area independent media makers and media outlets”, has posted a flippant story approving the assault, along with a video replaying the incident while slapstick music plays in the background.

I wrote this letter to IndyBay asking them to take down the video. If my readers would like to follow suit, please send email to .

As a friend of Lierre Keith, who has worked alongside her to defend women’s rights, I am appalled that you would post this video, which repeatedly shows her being hit in the face with a pie containing cayenne pepper, accompanied by a comical musical soundtrack:

Violence against women (and cayenne pepper in your eyes is certainly violence) is never a joke.

I have no opinion on the great vegan debate. I simply think that it trashes the credibility of the left-liberal and anarchist movements to allow young men to assault and silence women, and then publish the video as entertainment. If we want to reduce the power of the state, we need to show that we’re fit for self-governance, not acting like kindergarten bullies.

[Update: The video has been posted on YouTube, so if you come across it, please hit the “Flag” button to report it as abusive content.]

To add insult to injury, some commenters at the fair and on the IndyBay website derided Lierre for filing a police report. Anarchists don’t call the cops, they said. (For the record, Lierre does not identify as a member of the modern anarchist movement, though she admires the early 20th-century anarchists who fought against fascism.)

Personally, I don’t have enough faith in human nature to be an anarchist or a communist. Power corrupts, so power needs to be decentralized–distributed in a balanced way among individuals, private institutions, and the state, with constant adjustments to the balance as one or another group learns how to game the system to its advantage.

In a misogynistic society, which all societies have been to some extent, a power vacuum at the state level simply leaves individual men’s physical power over women unchallenged.

Perfect freedom for some people always means less freedom for others. It sounds nice in theory, just like the First Amendment: “Congress shall make NO law…abridging the freedom of speech”. Yet Congress does this all the time with laws regulating antitrust, copyright, securities offerings, and many other areas. However, when it comes to videos of women being attacked and humiliated for men’s entertainment (and Lierre has pointed out the similarity between the IndyBay video and gonzo porn), suddenly everyone’s a free speech absolutist.

Except, of course, the women who aren’t allowed to speak at all.

Online Literary Roundup: Stories by Chad Simpson, Renee Thompson, Steve MacKinnon

Time once again to share some good reads I’ve discovered in online literary journals. Two are short-shorts, a form that’s well-suited to reading on the web, and one is a satisfying longer piece of historical fiction.

Chad Simpson’s “Phantoms“, from the new issue of Freight Stories, offers a surprising and beautiful perspective on the phenomenon of phantom limb sensation in amputees. I know, that doesn’t sound like a feel-good topic, but watch what he does with it.

Renee Thompson’s “Farallon“, a recent Story of the Week from Narrative Magazine, is a quietly compelling tale of redemption. Set in the 19th century, its main character is a criminal who’s been exiled to a rocky island to harvest gulls’ eggs. The reader, like the protagonist, may initially despair that anything meaningful could happen to a man marooned in this bare environment. Thompson solves this dilemma in a skillful and heart-tugging way.

Finally, Steve MacKinnon’s “Read Me One“, from The Pedestal Magazine, puts two men in a booth in a diner, one reading love letters to the other. This brief meditation on the nature of intimacy, and its failures, is never what you’d expect.

The Motherhood of God

MadPriest, a/k/a Reverend Jonathan Hagger, is one of my favorite Christian bloggers. He combines a naughty sense of humor with a passionate concern for the poor and marginalized. What he modestly calls his “bog-standard sermons” are anything but. In his latest one, he muses on the different ways we have tried to express the feminine aspect of God within a monotheistic religion and a patriarchal culture. An excerpt:

…Our pagan ancestors understood the importance of the feminine in the scheme of things and this understanding led to the creation of female deities. Looking at the world, and the balance between male and female, our forebears projected their world view onto their gods, and because they had many gods, they could have both male and female gods. Of course, this could not be done in the monotheistic religions, the religions, such as Judaism, which only had one god. In such religions all the attributes of godliness had to be included within the personality of just one god. In a fair world this would have meant that the understanding of God would have been of a deity who was both male and female or neither. Unfortunately, human projection of their own society onto the society of the godhead, meant that in a predominantly patriarchal society, God came to be seen as predominantly patriarchal himself . God was seen as male. A full blooded, dominant, aggressive male at that.

However, the need for a balance in the human understanding of the divine nature of God, meant that there was never complete acceptance of a completely male God. Even in Judaism, that most male dominated of religions, there can be found hints of femininity within God’s personality. In the book of Isaiah God says, “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant,” and elsewhere, “ For thus says the LORD: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” In Psalm 131 we hear the psalmist say, ‘But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore.”

More important than these brief references was the Old Testament understanding of the Wisdom of God. Wisdom is seen in the Old Testament as one of the primary characteristics of God and is almost regarded as a separate person within the godhead, and wisdom in this respect is most definitely female. For example, Wisdom, chapter nine, states,

“With you is wisdom, she who knows your works and was present when you made the world; she understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments. Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may labour at my side, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you. For she knows and understands all things, and she will guide me wisely in my actions and guard me with her glory.”

It is interesting to note that the Egyptian god of wisdom was the great goddess, Isis, herself. The people of the Middle East definitely believed that wisdom was very much a female characteristic. It is even more interesting to note that, within Christianity, the Wisdom of God becomes the Word of God, and the Word of God becomes the Son of God in his incarnation as Jesus Christ. We have a situation where the preexistence of Jesus within God is not of necessity male. This multi-gendered God became man. Genderwise, the Word was something else before becoming man. That is an important point for us to remember.

But what about Jesus, the man? What did he have to say about the nature of God?

Firstly, Jesus affirms the maleness of God, over and over again. Jesus refers to God as his father; he prays to God, his father. There is no doubt that the language Jesus uses indicates a masculine deity. However, the personality that Jesus attributes to God, God’s caring, forgiving nature, God’s physical and emotional closeness to God’s children is not archetypical male. Furthermore, I think this scares the male hierarchy of the church. So much so that they took all the female attributes Jesus said God the Father had and put them on Mary, the mother of Jesus. The cult of the Virgin Mary is in reality a displaced reverence for the feminine in God as revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

And, although Jesus was physically a man we must be very careful not to confuse this mere accidental with the real nature of the Word incarnate. When God became man in Jesus Christ he took on both the limitations of human language and the limitations of the human culture of the time. No human language can fully describe God, it can only give us a very limited view of our creator. Jesus had to use human language and so he had to give God a gender because the conventions of human language demanded it. That is why Jesus did not restrict his teaching to the spoken word alone. He preached the good news about God through action, through the things he did, and when he did speak about God it was often in parables that were meant to be understood within the heart rather than just within the mind. Within these parables, parables such as the one about the prodigal son, we see a God who is not restricted by the stereotypical ideas of maleness current at the time. God is loving of his children, he embraces them like a mother embraces her children, and we see this also in Jesus, in his gentleness, in the way he deals with people. Within Christ and within Christ’s understanding of God there is a balance between the male and the female. There is the necessary maleness of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, but there is also the gentle Jesus, calling the children to him….

Read the whole sermon here.