I Don’t Know What I’m Talking About

“Truth is I thought it mattered. I thought that music mattered. But does it? Bollocks! Not compared to how people matter.” (Chumbawamba, “Tubthumping“)

I used to think theology mattered.

Because, for a long time, I understood ideas better than people…

Because I hated how it felt when certain authority figures didn’t trust my word, and played armchair psychoanalyst to accuse me of motives I didn’t possess…

Because I saw the suffering in the lives of friends who acted on impulse, and who never sought the guidance of tradition about what was moral and good for human flourishing…

Because I experienced emotional chaos and “gaslighting” in my family and unchecked bullying in my peer group…

…I overestimated the importance of explicit, conscious beliefs, as compared to subconscious beliefs and psychological patterns, as determinants of people’s behavior.

…I imagined there could be a system of thought that would make people humble and trustworthy, and insulate their community against abusive dynamics, if only they properly understood and thoroughly implemented those beliefs.

…I cared too intensely about establishing a community where everyone agreed on the fundamental facts and values–one where each individual was not stuck inside her private and uncommunicable “true-for-me”. Though I didn’t realize this for years, that politically correct liberal ideal was triggering memories of being in a relationship where my pain was not visible to the other person and her version of the facts was impervious to correction.

…I needed the privacy afforded by abstraction, when talking about matters that were close to my soul. (This is still somewhat true, and will be the subject of a follow-up post if I ever find the time.) Theological discussion, unlike the personal sharing that goes on in Christian small-groups, allows people to connect via their common passion for knowing God, without exposing personal vulnerabilities that the other person may exploit to attack your theological position. Again, I did not realize right away that this was my concern; under the lingering influence of Objectivism, I was more likely to dismiss personal factors as irrelevant, rather than simply unsafe to reveal indiscriminately.

Why am I writing about this? First, to apologize for being a self-righteous bunghole in any of my past theological screeds. Second, because I don’t think my particular sore spots and accompanying defenses are all that unique.

Based on my recent explorations of trauma theory, I think it’s safe to say that at least 10-25% of any congregation has an abuse history or some other serious traumas in their past and/or present. The ones who are temperamentally inclined to resist rather than reenact the chaos of their past may well be drawn to fundamentalism (religious or otherwise).

Be compassionate to these people. Not in a patronizing or intrusive way, but in your own heart. Understand that their “attachment to views”, as the Buddhists would say, may have been a life-preserver when their attachments to other human beings were disrupted by loss or betrayal. Call them out (discreetly) when their ideology or methods are hurting others, but first establish a safe space, founded on God’s grace, for them to face their faults.

If you want them to believe that people matter more than theology…first show them that they matter to you.

Two Poems by Louie Crew

The poet Louie Crew (a/k/a “Quean Lutibelle”) is an Emeritus professor of English at Rutgers University, and a widely published advocate for GLBT Christians in the Episcopal Church. He has kindly permitted me to reprint the two poems below, which were recently featured in issue #99 of Caught in the Net, a poetry newsletter from the UK-based writers’ resource site The Poetry Kit. Thanks also to The Poetry Kit’s Jim Bennett for permission.
Check out Louie’s list of recommended poetry publishers here.

Don’t Hang Up

Don’t hang up,
I’m not a heckler.
I NEED your help
but I can’t tell you my name.
I’m in a phone booth
while mom buys groceries,
so I won’t take long.
I heard your talk show
and I’m scared. Last summer,
when I was just thirteen,
I balled with a guy
I met at the bus station.
Now I’ve got these purple spots
all down my stomach.
I drink five shakes a day
and I have lost fifteen pounds
in just three months!
I’m afraid to go to our doctor
cause he’s my dad.
He’d beat the shit out of me
for liking guys.
Can you tell me somebody else
to call?
Cripes! Here comes mom. Bye!



My one earring stores my powers.
It charms my lover into bed.
Worn aisle-side on buses and trains,
it reserves me a double seat
    until all others are filled.
On campus it keeps me off all
but the most enlightened committees.
It is 99% foolproof in protecting me
from wasting time on racists.
At times it has made otherwise sane folks
dangle from dormitory windows to giggle,
“Where’s your husband?”
Worn with a cap and gown, it wards off
any threat of Respectability.
In class, it assures that students question
what I say and not vainly agree
because of who said it.
In church, it has made stranger priests
spill me a double portion of the Mass….
When I take it off, people take me
for any other mortal.

Massachusetts Considers Punitive “Three-Strikes” Law

Even as pressure builds in California to overturn their “three-strikes” criminal sentencing law, the Massachusetts legislature is trying to slip a similar bill under the public’s radar. Three-strikes laws impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders, regardless of the seriousness of the third crime. Thus, for instance, a person with two prior felonies can be sentenced to 25-to-life for a nonviolent offense such as drug possession or petty theft. My pen pal “Conway” is one victim of this system.

This unreasonable policy has contributed to such severe overcrowding in California prisons that the US Supreme Court recently ruled that conditions there violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Why would we want to bring this problem to Massachusetts?

A letter that ran Tuesday in our local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, eloquently makes the case against this proposed law. It was authored by Leslie Walker, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, and Lois Ahrens, the director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project of Northampton.

Unless recent legislation that fast-tracked both the Massachusetts House and Senate is slowed down and reconsidered, Massachusetts prisons will rapidly move into the ranks of the most overcrowded and expensive in the nation.

The two “Three Strikes and You’re Out” bills, which passed in the final moments of the November legislative session, will make a bad situation worse.

Look at two examples:

MCI-Concord, meant to hold 614 prisoners, is jammed with 1,345 men for a 219 percent occupancy rate.

MCI-Framingham was meant to hold 388 women and now houses 445 – a 115 percent occupancy rate.

Worst of all is MCI-Framingham’s Awaiting Trial Unit, where 215 women who have been convicted of no crime are crammed into a space designed for 64 – more than 330 percent the intended occupancy.

The number of prisoners in Department of Correction custody is at an all-time high. Overcrowding averages 143 percent over capacity. The corrections department has reported that parole releases have dropped by 56 percent in 2011, mostly due to parole practices and policies promoted by the Patrick administration. Even without the new law, Massachusetts faces increased corrections costs of approximately $100 million dollars a year.

An analysis performed on sentencing data provided by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission illustrates how costly implementation of a “Three Strikes” law would be to taxpayers: an annual burden of between $75 million to $125 million could be added because between 1,500 to 2,500 prisoners could be sentenced to life with parole.

This means that the commonwealth will have to build new prison space at a cost of $100,000 per cell since our prisons are far beyond capacity. We are already paying $1 billion a year simply to incarcerate men and women, with each costing taxpayers almost as much as a year’s tuition at one of the Valley’s private colleges – approximately $50,000.

We will also keep paying the annual costs to house the same prisoner over and over because the current system is too strained to take steps that might keep prisoners from committing another crime – only 2.4 percent of the corrections department budget is spent on programming.

Education – the more one has, the more effective it is – has been proven to be one of the most successful ways of keeping people from returning to prison, but like other programs proven to rehabilitate, it is hampered without funds.

The chance for a Massachusetts prisoner to leave crime through such programs is nearly zero.

The current “Three Strikes” bills are not cost effective because they are too broadly drawn. For example, the Senate version of the bill sweeps in nonviolent convictions and mandates the third strike maximum punishment even if the previous cases were not serious enough to require a sentence of more than a day in jail. The bills would not allow judges to consider how long ago the offenses occurred or any mitigating circumstances. This would continue to overfill our prisons.

No government official wants to be labeled as “soft on crime.” But officials in other states have advocated for smart prison reform that have saved millions for taxpayers and increased public safety.

Malcolm Young, of Northwestern Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, writing in The Crime Report notes, “Several states are moving ahead with carefully researched plans and strategies grounded in “best practices,” bent on reducing prison incarceration and corrections costs. Among them are Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.”

These and other states, like New York, Michigan and New Jersey, have also reduced their prison populations with shorter sentences for nonviolent crimes, elimination of mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses and creative alternatives to prison. The result is hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced corrections spending and lower recidivism rates.

If the current “Three Strikes” bills pass, we’ll be wasting millions of dollars while doing nothing to cut crime in Massachusetts – and continue to crowd prisons. Forget education. Forget rehabilitation.

Without such tools, those we sentence to prison will get out with even fewer resources than they have now and that means compromising the public’s safety. We urge legislators to take several steps back and consider the consequences of the hurriedly made and costly decisions which will be with us for decades.

To get involved, visit www.smartoncrimema.org. Write or call your state representatives (see House and Senate websites to find your legislator’s contact information).

Hermann Hesse: “Stages”

This graceful poem by Hermann Hesse offers permission to let our beliefs evolve as we acquire new experiences and capacities. It feels like a good introduction to the new year, and to a hoped-for series of blog posts about how my understanding of Christianity has changed during my shift from a guilt/forgiveness framework to a trauma/recovery framework for organizing my experiences.

Text courtesy of the Poemhunter website, which unfortunately does not give the translator’s name.


As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.