Memorial Day Song: “Grant Peace, O Lord”

This hymn was written by Welsh clergyman Charles Henrywood. See more of his contemporary lyrics for classic tunes at New Hymns in Old Clothes. Sing along at Mission St. Clare (The Daily Office).

Grant peace, O Lord, across our strife-torn world,
Where war divides and greed and dogma drive.
Help us to learn the lessons from the past,
That all are human and all pay the price.
All life is dear and should be treated so;
Joined, not divided, is the way to go.

Protect, dear Lord, all who, on our behalf,
Now take the steps that place them in harm’s way.
May they find courage for each task they face
By knowing they are in our thoughts always.
Then, duty done and missions at an end,
Return them safe to family and friends.

Grant rest, O Lord, to those no longer with us;
Who died protecting us and this their land.
Bring healing, Lord, to those who, through their service,
Bear conflict’s scars on body or in mind.
With those who mourn support and comfort share.
Give strength to those who for hurt loved-ones care.

And some there be who no memorial have;
Who perished are as though they’d never been.
For our tomorrows their today they gave,
And simply asked that in our hearts they’d live.
We heed their call and pledge ourselves again,
At dusk and dawn – we will remember them!

Mr. Henrywood says, “I’ve always believed that Remembrance should not be limited to the dead—important though that is. Neither should it be a vehicle for glorifying war. If we loved one another as commanded war would be just history. We don’t but that shouldn’t stop us asking for help to do so.” Read more about the inspiration for this hymn here.

Christian Hope Is Impossible

After reading my last post about Jesus’ triumph over death, my neighbor Sara Langseth shared with me an email she’d written to some friends, with whom she was discussing radical environmentalism and the future (if any) of our planet. Sara has been reading a book by Derrick Jensen, who argues that our industrial culture is turning natural resources into poisonous waste at such a rate that our individual green-lifestyle choices aren’t going to fix it.

Unsettled by Jensen’s call to bring down this culture through violent resistance, but unconvinced that personal virtue is enough, Sara finds herself musing about original sin:

Even my numb brain wonders whether Jensen’s eager endorsement of blowing up dams is any more of an answer. I wonder, really, whether the only thing left to do is say that I — we — are being broken to bits by our own powers, our own principalities, and that the very first thing we have to do is feel this, in any small way we can. Feel it and know that there is no personal morality here. That this isn’t about whether a “green” activist will smile and give me the thumbs-up
> because I compost my apple cores and ride my bike around. Again, if I were able to understand Christian theology, I’d say I was talking about original sin….

…This is why I am a Christian, even with all the absurd BS that being “Christian” means to all of us: because it’s not about my personal morality. To everyone who argues that “the world is a better place” because of some small thing I might do to make it die more slowly — my point was that this is NOT the point. My point is that we may well be absolutely screwed, absolutely doomed, and that I can not separate my culpability from yours. I feel like sometimes I have to sit with this and let the horror of this penetrate my bones. I have to hang on my own cross and ask, “Eli, eli lema sabacthani?” Otherwise I’m going to be hopelessly goggle-eyed and ridden with denial.

“Eli lema sabthani?” – “My God, why have you forsaken me?” – is what Mark and Matthew record Jesus saying on the cross before he dies.

(Luke and John make him much more confident about the whole thing.) The Mark and Matthew version is pretty rich: Jesus’ death is a real death here. He loses everything — the Son of God is utterly alone — God has lost God.

(It’s a rich quote for other reasons, but I’m going to stop with that before I get wordy and pedantic.)

I don’t think the point of Christianity is to quickly bypass horror and death with syrupy promises of resurrection. The pious picture of the Christian saint giving a sappy smile as the lion comes to eat him is utterly, utterly wrong. My point is that Christian hope comes from somewhere in the middle of the contact point between the lion’s teeth and the saint’s jugular. It’s a hope that shows up when hope is impossible. It’s a hope that makes no sense.

I do not understand this hope, and I do not know why I believe in this hope — or even IF I actually believe in this hope at all. But it’s the only straw I’ve got, the only thing I can hold onto that doesn’t break to bits at the moment I grasp it. And it’s the only straw I can grab that makes me turn around and believe that the world is real, and makes me want to love it.

I am not going to go blow up a dam.

My own temptation to despair is usually ethical rather than environmental–the cruelty and indifference of human beings towards their own. The common root of the two dilemmas may well be the same failure of our imagination to see other sentient beings as ends in themselves. Impossible hope is the only honest hope, sometimes–the only one that isn’t complicit in this failure, but rather allows us to keep our eyes open to the pain, not minimizing it as “good religious people” who are supposed to “think positive”.

The Real Resurrection: Freedom from Fear

As we all know, the much-predicted Rapture didn’t happen yesterday. Or it did happen but we were all so bad we were left behind. Or the Kingdom of God has actually already come, but no one was excluded, so we didn’t notice.

This last possibility sounds to me closest to the teachings of Jesus. Wasn’t he always saying that the Kingdom of God is within us? And, as N.T. Wright notes in his many writings on the Resurrection, this miracle was taken by the first Christians not only as proof of personal immortality, but more importantly as a sign that Christ was the Messiah and the new age had begun.

Now, it may not look that way, because suffering and injustice haven’t disappeared yet. What has changed, in light of the Resurrection, is how we may confidently respond to them. This article from religion professor Eric Reitan’s blog explains why. It’s worth reading in full, but “fair use” requires that I only quote a portion, so don’t stop here.

…Taken in relation to the cross, the empty tomb has further meanings. It declares that what is conceived from a terrestrial standpoint as ultimate and total defeat, as final humiliation, is none of these things from the divine standpoint (and hence from the most complete, enveloping, and hence truest standpoint). Crucifixion, after all, was not merely a means of killing that involved intense physical suffering before death. It was also a graphic means of intimidation and a tool of public degradation. Human beings were treated worse than things—not merely as something to be used, but as objects of contempt. The purpose of crucifixion was to express towards a human being the very antithesis of respect.

To have the power to crucify another human being was to have the power to take away their lives in a manner that first stripped them of everything that gives life any value. And it was, at the same time, an act of triumphantly crowing over one’s victim—displaying for all the world to see just how helpless, just how disgraced, one could make another human being (before ultimately turning them into a thing in truth, that is, a corpse).

The empty tomb symbolically represents what such efforts at mortification achieve from God’s ultimate standpoint. We might express it as follows: “Look into the tomb and you begin to see what you’ve accomplished by such exercises of power. The tomb is not merely empty. It has been emptied. In the place of a corpse there is new life, eternal and incorruptible.” The empty tomb erases the pretentions of coercive power to define human worth. It declares that the use of force to degrade and destroy is less than impotent. It has become the means whereby the intended victim has been exalted, whereby the target for destruction has been made indestructible.

Like many of us, I’m not nearly close enough to living that way. Yesterday, thousands of people were happily anticipating the end times. Without sharing the superstitious aspects of their faith, or their comfort with the notion that some people will be forever excluded from God’s presence, I would like to have more of their settled hope for a future where God defeats death and makes all things right.

There’s no easy way to that goal. No shortcut but to live as if it were true, as Jesus told us to do. That includes forgiving people who have “degraded and destroyed” precious things in my life, because otherwise I am still granting them power that belongs to Jesus alone: the power to say who I am.

Christ(a): Are Gender Differences Spiritually Fundamental?

The other day, a wide-ranging conversation with a Christian friend touched down briefly on the subject of Biblical arguments for and against women in ministry. She herself is fully supportive of women clergy, but has long attended a church that would not hire a woman pastor, and whose elders are all male. In what she no doubt intended as an uncontroversial observation, my friend said, “Of course, female as well as male imagery is used for God in the Bible, but Jesus himself was clearly male,” and I, only half in jest, volleyed back, “Or so he appeared.”

Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus in Love Blog has widened my horizons with respect to female and genderqueer reinterpretations of Christian imagery. Add that to my growing friendship with our local transgender community, and you can see where I came up with the notion that maybe, just maybe, one could picture an intersex Jesus who merely presented as male! I’m not saying that I believe this as a historical fact, but I’m exploring its usefulness as a devotional aid, a poetic gloss to make the “facts” more accessible to a non-patriarchal reading, a teasing detail that supplements and enriches the gospels without directly contradicting the eyewitness reports.

This imaginative experiment was definitely a bridge too far for my friend! She struggled to articulate why she found “Christa” images such a troubling departure from authentic doctrine. The best wording we could find, after a fascinating and all-too-brief discussion, was that the female Jesus “disrespects the specificity of the Incarnation”.

In other words, she was concerned that “Christa” dismisses the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ, implying that “Christ” is a mere role that anyone could play. A woman on a cross with a crown of thorns is not the real Jesus, the historical personage traditionally worshipped by the church, but only an actor with props.

I do see how messing with traditional depictions of Jesus can inch us closer to a liberal watering-down of the Incarnation as merely one among many possible manifestations of the “Christ-nature in us”. I don’t want to go there any more than my friend does. But still, I pushed back a little bit.

How, I asked, is a female Jesus more heretical than the black Jesus in the devotional art created by African Christian communities–or, for that matter, more heretical than the European transformation of their Semitic messiah into Warner Sallman’s blond beauty queen?

We were stumped. My friend realized she was more comfortable with Jesus crossing racial lines than gender ones, but we both needed more time to consider whether this distinction made sense.

Let me note here that “Christa” isn’t my preferred way to picture Jesus. Having grown up in an all-female household, I need the balance supplied by the masculine or gender-transcending side of God. I also find that contemporary goddess spirituality can emphasize the unindividuated, nurturing, sentimental aspects of womanhood in a way that I find cloying. Kali the Dark Mother is more my kinda gal.

However…I would insist on the legitimacy of “Christa” because I believe the spirit of the New Testament is against hard-wired inequalities. The Christian tradition has shed many of the particulars of the man called Jesus: his artistic icons and his clerical representatives don’t have to be Jewish, Middle Eastern, younger than 33, or working-class. Let’s pass over, for now, the assumption that Jesus had a heterosexual orientation, for which there’s no evidence in Scripture either way.

Is gender alone more fundamental than our shared humanity, the one aspect of human nature that even Christ could not take on? Is what made Jesus different from women more important than what he had in common with us? That’s a prescription for permanent second-class citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Definitely not what the gospels are about.

Maybe the sexism is easier to spot outside the emotionally fraught context of sacred imagery. A quick tour through popular culture shows us that the female role is the one imaginative leap that little boys must never, ever be allowed to make. Your three-year-old son can pretend to be a little
soldier, a dinosaur, or a monkey, but God forbid he tries
on a tutu. When a kid dresses up as a washing machine for Halloween, we don’t worry that he’s going to start eating detergent and dirty socks, but we become strict and panicked literalists about children’s imaginative reinterpretation of props that adults have gender-tagged.

Personally, I think this sends the message that girls aren’t human. A boy in a tutu is like dressing up as a turd. A turd can’t help looking like a turd, in fact it should, so we can avoid stepping in it, but why would you want to be one? What’s wrong with you?

Check out the discussion on this parenting blog. Even the parents who don’t personally have a problem with their kid’s explorations admit that they’ve told him to keep this side of himself private because of school bullies. Now, I agree with teaching your children that it’s not dishonorable to be discreet in unsafe environments. But it troubles me that these parents aren’t sharing their critique of the bullies’ prejudices with their child, an omission that can shame a child about his non-masculine play.

If Jesus were a little boy, would Mary let him paint his toenails pink?

Seven Years of Marriage Equality in Massachusetts

According to MassEquality’s e-newsletter, Governor Deval Patrick has declared that today (May 17) is Marriage Equality Day in Massachusetts. The date marks the seventh anniversary of the first legal same-sex marriages in the Commonwealth, which followed the Supreme Judicial Court’s 2003 ruling in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health that gender-based restrictions on marriage violated state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

Will New York State be next? The long-dormant libertarian wing of the Republican Party may make all the difference when the Assembly-passed bill for equal marriage rights comes up for a Senate vote. “Donors to GOP Are Backing Gay Marriage Push,” the NY Times wrote on Saturday:

…The donors represent some of New York’s wealthiest and most politically active figures and include Paul E. Singer, a hedge fund manager and top-tier Republican donor, as well as two other financiers, Steven A. Cohen and Clifford S. Asness.

At the same time, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who has been a major contributor to Senate Republicans in New York, plans a significant push for same-sex marriage: giving at least $100,000 of his own money, hosting a fund-raiser at an Upper East Side town house, traveling to Albany to lobby lawmakers and giving a speech on the issue….

The newly recruited donors argue that permitting same-sex marriage is consistent with conservative principles of personal liberty and small government.

“I’m a pretty straight-down-the-line small-government guy,” said Mr. Asness, who described himself as a libertarian who favored less government intrusion in both markets and personal affairs. Mr. Asness, a frequent Republican donor, has praised Tea Party activists on his blog and last year attended a conference of right-leaning donors held by Charles and David Koch, among the leading conservative philanthropists in the nation.

“This is an issue of basic freedom,” Mr. Asness said.

Some of those involved have made what might be termed the pro-business argument for same-sex marriage, arguing that the legalization of same-sex marriage would help keep New York economically competitive.

One of the donors, Daniel S. Loeb, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates for federal office in the last two years, said he hoped to make clear to Republicans that same-sex marriage had a broad coalition of support.

“I think it is important in particular for Republicans to know this is a bipartisan issue,” Mr. Loeb said. “If they’re Republican, they will not be abandoned by the party for supporting this. On the contrary, I think they will find that there is a whole new world of people who will support them on an ongoing basis if they support this cause.”

Mr. Cohen, who runs SAC Capital Advisers and has become increasingly active in Republican fund-raising, described his views simply: “We believe in social justice for all Americans.”

The involvement of Mr. Singer is the most striking, given his devotion to conservative candidates and philanthropy: He is chairman of the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning research group, and one of the most generous Republican donors in the country. But he also has a personal stake in the issue: he has a gay son who married his partner in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal.

In other news, today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. I lack the technical skills to turn this blog template pink (and besides, doesn’t that leave out butch gals and FTMs?). Visit the IDAHO website to take action on several initiatives, including a petition calling awareness to the harms of “reparative therapy” in Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Closer to home, if you live in Massachusetts, you can submit written testimony to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in support of the transgender civil rights bill, which has been languishing in the state legislature for nearly four years. Visit the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition website for instructions. Testimony must be sent before May 23.

Our state is asymmetrical when it comes to protections for sexual minorities. Though we’ve got some of the strongest protections for gay and lesbian couples in the country, there are NO state laws against employment discrimination based on gender identity or expression. This category is broader than just transpeople, important as they are. It means that you could be fired for failing to conform to gender stereotypes. That’s why trans rights are a feminist issue, a gay rights issue, and an issue for anyone who cares about challenging the categories that keep us from expressing our full humanity.

Northampton Pride 2011: Party or Politics

Last Saturday, Northampton hosted its 30th annual GLBT Pride march. Political diversity and even dissent were noticeable themes this year, in my opinion a good sign that our GLBT community feels safe enough to forgo a united front–and even to prioritize other issues besides their own rights.

What a change from 20 years ago, when, as old-time residents told me, the local paper consistently misprinted the date of Pride, the city put up endless bureaucratic obstacles in the way of them getting a permit, and some closeted gays had to march with bags over their heads. One activist remembered being chased by a schoolbus full of Christians shouting homophobic slurs. It was a welcome relief this year to see numerous faith-based groups–Jewish, Christian, and Muslim–carrying parade banners.

These folks, naturally, were my favorite:

Though the matching T-shirts were tempting, this year our family marched behind our City Council candidate, Arnie Levinson. Arnie stands for transparent government and protecting our natural resources from short-sighted real estate development. He was also active in organizing our Neighborhood Watch after a spate of arson fires that killed two neighbors in 2009.

(Left to right: Arnie, Karen’s boyfriend Rich, moi, my stepsister Karen, and my other mom Roberta.)

Uniquely this year, Pride drew some protesters from the Left: Queer Insurgency, spearheaded by transgender elder, activist and archivist Bet Power, sought to return Pride to its radical origins. QI contended that the public face of the gay community had become too commercialized and bourgeois. A narrow focus on inclusion in mainstream institutions like marriage and the military sidelines the issues that are a higher priority for GLBT people on society’s margins, such as employment discrimination, hate crimes, and the intersection of multiple oppressions (e.g. disability and racial inequality).

I stopped to compliment this young man on his fabulous jacket, and got an education in the difficult choices that we must make when a regime that seems to support GLBT equality also violates another group’s human rights.

(L-R: Alex Cachinero-Gorman and Ty Power.)

Asked to explain “pinkwashing”, Alex said Israel bills itself as gay-friendly in order to deflect criticism from progressive gays and allies about the country’s mistreatment of the Palestinians.  However, he rejected the false choice between human rights for one group versus another. There are also gay Palestinians and Arabs in Israel who are still oppressed by the regime because of their ethnicity; the GLBT-friendly policies don’t do much for them. Better, he said, to give the Palestinians self-determination and allow them to come up with their own solutions, rather than being dependent on the Israeli government as the only protector of GLBT rights.

As an ethnic Jew who grew up on stories about refugees being turned away from American shores during the Holocaust, I have a knee-jerk emotional reaction to comparisons between Zionism and South African apartheid. Unlike the Dutch and English colonizers, who were already top dog in their home countries and just went to Africa to exploit its riches, Jews in the 1940s had reason to believe they needed a homeland for their tribe because they weren’t safe anywhere else in the so-called civilized world.

But folks like Alex have made me realize I need to be more objective, and get educated about what’s really happening to the Palestinians. Some links he sent me, which I plan to explore, include Palestinian Queers for BDS and Thoughts on Palestine (a Hampshire College study group). (BDS stands for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions”.)

The Palestinian/queer dilemma is an interesting problem of priorities. Currently, the world’s Arab and Muslim regimes are mostly unsafe places for sexual minorities. Would Middle Eastern gays at least temporarily fare worse if there were no Jewish state? Is that a risk worth taking? Whose oppression comes first? (Not that all these anti-pinkwashing groups are calling for Israel’s eradication, but if you argue that Zionism equals racism, the logical next step seems to be that it’s illegitimate for the country to try to maintain a Jewish identity, even if the human rights abuses ceased.)

Around the same time as Noho Pride, the question of competing oppressions was also at the heart of the recent controversy over Sojourners’ refusal to run this ad from Believe Out Loud, a GLBT Christian advocacy group. Sojourners is a well-known progressive Christian organization that reaches across denominational lines to advocate for economic justice and an end to war. The ad, released in conjunction with Mother’s Day, depicts two lesbian moms and their anxious little boy walking slowly down the aisle of a church as parishioners eye them with suspicion, hostility, and curiosity. Just as the tension becomes painful, the minister smiles and says “Welcome … everyone.

Sojourners founder Jim Wallis defended the move by saying that Sojo supports civil rights for gays, but taking an overt political stand could alienate some members of their constituency, who were not all of one mind about what the Bible says about homosexuality. It’s a question of priorities:

But these debates have not been at the core of our calling, which is much more focused on matters of poverty, racial justice, stewardship of the creation, and the defense of life and peace. These have been our core mission concerns, and we try to unite diverse Christian constituencies around them, while encouraging deep dialogue on other matters which often divide. Essential to our mission is the calling together of broad groups of Christians, who might disagree on issues of sexuality, to still work together on how to reduce poverty, end wars, and mobilize around other issues of social justice.

Given the time Sojourners is now spending on critical issues like the imperative of a moral budget, the urgent need to end the war in Afghanistan, and the leadership we are offering on commitments like immigration reform, we chose not to become involved in the controversy that such a major ad campaign could entail, and the time it could require of us. Instead, we have taken this opportunity to affirm our commitment to civil rights for gay and lesbian people, and to the call of churches to be loving and welcoming to all people, and promote good and healthy dialogue.

Sorry, Jim. I’m not buying it. Watch the ad again. I don’t see anything about “sexuality”. I see a family like mine, being shunned in a house of worship simply because they look different, until the minister reminds the crowd how Christians are supposed to treat one another. It’s basically an anti-bullying message for churches.

Why is it incumbent on progressives to compromise here, in order to include people in our anti-poverty coalition who would be offended by the most minimal acknowledgment that queer families exist? Can we really not accomplish our objectives without them? Better to take a stand and leave those conservatives looking like the mean-spirited ones, because they’d rather stop feeding the hungry than treat lesbian moms with respect.

Some Different Angles on Mother’s Day

Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love notes that today, Mother’s Day (in the U.S.), is also the feast day of one of my favorite saints, the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, whose writings celebrated the maternal love of Christ. Here’s a quote from her Revelations of Divine Love:

“A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself…The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side…”

Mother’s Day brings up complex emotions for me, because it reminds me that my long journey through infertility and adoption has not yet come to a resolution. That’s why I greatly appreciated this article on Care2: “Today, Think of the Birth Mothers“. It’s a reminder that the opportunities for adoption in this country will not improve until we start respecting the loving sacrifices made by women who place their children for adoption. For adoptive parents, this includes honoring our agreements about openness (continuing contact between child and birthfamily). For the rest of society, it means ceasing to stigmatize women with unplanned pregnancies, and busting the myths about why a woman might make an adoption plan.

To end on a positive note, here’s a picture of me and my non-biological mom Roberta after yesterday’s Northampton Pride march. (T-shirt courtesy of Thanks John!)