WTF, Supreme Court? Gay Marriage Victory, Civil Rights Fail

It’s been a madly inconsistent week for civil rights at the U.S. Supreme Court.

First the good news. As you’re no doubt aware, in U.S. v. Windsor, the Supremes struck down the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legally contracted under state law. This means that couples legally married in Massachusetts and a dozen other states now have equal access to some 1,100 federal rights, including tax benefits, hospital visitation, and the ability to sponsor one’s partner for U.S. citizenship.

Still extant, however, is the provision of DOMA that permits states without gay marriage to refuse to recognize such marriages from their sister states. In light of this week’s ruling, it seems unlikely that the remainder of the law would survive a challenge under the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause, since the 5-judge majority in Windsor basically said there’s no legitimate reason to single out same-sex couples to take away rights already given them by their home state. Now that these couples have federal rights as well, one could argue that unless these rights are portable from state to state, their constitutional “right to travel” has been impaired. (Since the court in recent years has restricted the scope of the once-broad Interstate Commerce Clause, I would make that only a secondary argument.)

A second court challenge may not be needed, since Congress is considering the Respect for Marriage Act to overturn the rest of DOMA. President Obama said he would support this bill in 2011. For the latest on this strategy and how you can help, visit the Freedom to Marry website.

Now the bad news. This same week, the Court handed down three decisions that seriously weakened suspects’ Miranda right against self-incrimination, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act. More details on each of these cases can be found here, here, and here.

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act required 9 Southern states with a history of racial discrimination to pre-clear changes to their voting laws with the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal judge. This week, the Court struck down that section of the law, saying it was based on an outdated formula rather than on present-day data about state interference with minorities’ voting rights. How’s this for fresh data: according to ThinkProgress, 6 of those 9 states have already moved ahead with voter ID laws and redistricting plans that had been previously blocked under the VRA. Without neutral federal oversight, redistricting has often been abused to dilute the voting power of people of color, young people, and the poor, by clustering or dispersing them in such a way that they never form a majority voting bloc. Voter ID laws have been shown to have a disparate impact on poor and Hispanic voters, who are less likely to possess the documentation required.

One of my transgender activist friends, who’s been critical of the mainstream LGBT movement’s focus on gay marriage, speculated that the Court made the Windsor decision more palatable to Tea Party social conservatives by giving them what they wanted even more–a rollback of civil rights for racial minorities. I can certainly see how these other three decisions could stave off the extreme attacks on the Court’s legitimacy that became the norm after Roe v. Wade. Sinister stuff.

That’s why we need to emulate the great civil rights leaders, like Harvey Milk and Martin Luther King Jr., who understood that all struggles against oppression are connected. Dr. King is best known for his leadership of the African-American civil rights movement, of course, but he also preached against the Vietnam War, over the objections of some of his African-American followers who feared he would dilute his primary message and lose political capital. Milk built bridges to constituencies not traditionally supportive of gay rights, when he stood up for the Teamsters’ Union in the Coors Beer boycott.

The Windsor decision is important. It makes life a lot more secure for gay couples and their children–IF they happen to live in states where same-sex marriage is, or plausibly could become, legal. But the imminent disenfranchisement of traditionally Democratic voting blocs in conservative states all but ensures that same-sex marriage won’t be a reality there anytime soon. LGBT activists should work to restore equal access to the polls, not only as allies, but also because these struggles directly intersect.

Giving Children the Gift of “No”

It’s been awhile since I shared a picture of His Supreme Cuteness, so I’ll introduce this parenting post with Shane modeling his summer haircut:

Today I want to talk about a strange trend among parents in our crunchy-progressive middle-class demographic (what we used to call Bobos in the 1990s): the belief that “No” is a dirty word.

“I never said no to my kids,” one acquaintance advised me, as her prescription for avoiding the “terrible twos”. Another friend noticed me gently steering the Young Master away from baby-unsafe objects (“Uh-oh, the table lamp is not a toy”), and favorably contrasted that method to her other friends who don’t feel comfortable declaring any property off-limits to a toddler.

This meme is widespread enough that it was satirized last year on my favorite sitcom, “Modern Family“. Cameron and Mitchell are a gay couple raising their adopted daughter, Lily, who has become a spoiled little princess. Claire, Mitchell’s sister, is a well-meaning control freak, i.e. just like me. From ABC’s website: “Claire wants to discipline Lily for repeatedly flicking the light switches on and off in her house. Cameron says they are trying an approach where they don’t say ‘no’ to their child. This leads to an argument about parenting methods. Claire believes her point will be made once Lily flips the garbage disposal switch while Cam has his hand caught down the drain. She has a big laugh once Lily makes her move, as it’s only a light switch that’s flipped.”

I could cite various child-development studies about how kids need structure and limits to learn good behavior, but I think Claire has the disciplinary angle covered. Instead, let’s consider another danger of No-phobia: stunting your child’s ability to protect his own boundaries.

When adults are afraid to say “No”, they are modeling unsafe behavior for their child. They are implicitly teaching him that “No” is a weapon that inflicts permanent damage on the hearer, and that a good person will avoid causing that kind of pain, whatever precious things of their own they have to sacrifice in the process. That’s a recipe for codependence.

Whether they say the word or not, parents have physical veto power over the child and he knows it. Thus, going to great lengths to avoid the appearance of authority only turns an honest conflict into a dishonest one. The child learns it’s not okay to express negative feelings about something that affects him, because the parents aren’t okay with their own feelings. They’re modeling a passive-aggressive way of working around an interpersonal problem.

Children need to be able to signal “No” from an early age in order to feel safe in their bodies, whether it’s by squirming away from an uncomfortable touch or pushing aside food that doesn’t agree with them. Our job as parents is to use our “No” power judiciously, saving it for the most important house rules, and allowing as much flexibility as possible for the child’s safe exploration and mastery of his environment.

What are the “terrible twos” but the child’s experimentation with his own “No”? He’s looking to us to teach him how to set limits skillfully. (“If you don’t want the beef bourguignon, darling, please push it to the side of your tray instead of throwing it on the floor.”)

So bring it on, Bunky. Just let me encase all the furniture in bubble wrap first…

Imitation of Christ, or Substitute Savior?

“Jesus died for your sins” was the best news imaginable when I was taking my first steps out of an abusive family.

As is common for a traumatic enmeshment like ours, my bio mother and I were both under the delusion of being each other’s savior. She thought I was the meaning of her life, her greatest accomplishment, her sole fulfillment. This adulation carried a high price, however. When she was overwhelmed by her own unprocessed sadness and anger, she believed that I, the center of her psychic world, must have caused those feelings. I must not have been loving, respectful, or obedient enough.

It’s natural enough that I would grow up believing her myth about me, as parents are their children’s first gods. But the same dynamic develops between two adults in an abusive-codependent marriage, too. The abusive partner knows how to leaven her dominance with enough displays of helpless neediness that her spouse feels duty-bound to stay.

Abusers attract white knights the way Sleeping Beauty’s briar hedge attracted princes–99% of whom got skewered, don’t forget. What a power trip to be the rescuer, the only one who’s able to heal the broken beloved. I say this not to victim-blame but to illuminate an escape route that many enablers either can’t imagine or don’t feel they deserve: just consider, for a moment, basing your self-worth on something other than this relationship.

So what does this have to do with the Atonement? Well, to me, “Jesus died for your sins” meant that my fundamental okay-ness as a human being, my right to exist, no longer depended on being perfect in another person’s eyes. Jesus, who outranked even my mother, had already decided that I was lovable as an imperfect person. I was actually more free to repent of particular errors because I no longer had to be ashamed of the general truth that I was fallible.

Moreover, “Jesus died for your sins”, as addressed to my mother and the world at large, meant that I didn’t have to die for their sins anymore. The burden of their okay-ness was something I could now hand off to God.

It’s this second point that I want to explore further in this post, as there’s great confusion about it in Christian literature. I’m concerned that we aren’t taught to distinguish between imitating Christ and substituting for him.

Imitation of Christ seems pretty straightforward when it comes to the Matthew 25 checklist of social justice. Heal the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, stand with the marginalized. We can reasonably disagree about how best to do this, but not whether to do it. Most of the time, this should be enough to keep us disciples busy.

The tricky part comes when we consider imitating other concepts we associate with Christ. Forgiveness. Redemption. Sacrifice. This is where we need to be much more careful that we are not usurping the Savior’s unique functions and thereby minimizing or enabling abuses of power.

This dilemma is especially acute for Christian fiction writers. Indeed, it’s one of the chief difficulties I need to sort out before I can resume writing the Great American Gay Christian Abuse Survivor Novel, a/k/a Two Natures.

What makes a novel “Christian”? Doesn’t it have to include, at a minimum, some characters modeling Christ-like behavior and enacting Christian values? But then don’t we run a terrible risk of mistaking the sign for the thing signified, and telling a story where one person functions as another’s savior in a co-dependent, idolatrous, and misleading way? On the other hand, when we tell the story through a Calvinist lens of total depravity, all the characters become too helpless and self-loathing to propel the plot to a resolution. (Trust me, I’ve tried this.)

The genre of mainstream realist fiction adds its own constraints. It takes place in a naturalistic universe, a narrative space where supernatural interventions are excluded, like the scientist’s laboratory. Generally, these constraints strengthen the work. It’s lazy writing to have an angel drop in and solve all your characters’ problems. Miraculous revelations are also less useful to the reader seeking guidance, since those are rare gifts in real life. Most of the time we have to look for the divine sparks in regular human behavior, something that the best fiction can teach us to do. However, realist fiction doesn’t have an obvious way to depict that God exists in any dimension except in other people. This heightens the danger that the story will encourage us to mistake Christians for Christ.

Two of my latest fiction reads exemplify the worst and the best approaches to illustrating redemption in the realist genre.

The first and worst is Jason F. Wright’s NY Times bestseller The Wednesday Letters, an inspirational soap-opera novel about family secrets. (Basically the same genre as Jodi Picoult, only written by a conservative Christian guy.) Spoiler alert: the drama revolves around a woman who bore her rapist’s baby, kept this a secret from her children (including the aforesaid baby) and the community, and forgave the perpetrator, who turned his life around in prison and became a family friend and trusted pastor. When the secret comes out after her death, the only thing her adult children can talk about is what a saint she was to forgive the rapist, and how we are all obligated to forgive him because Jesus did. And look how much good he did as a pastor afterward! Oh, the power of forgiveness. Tra la la.

I’m picking on this book because it’s far from exceptional. I hear this same invalidating narrative about abuse and sexual assault from many religious people. It’s basically a perpetrator-centered story, using the victim as a foil for his personal growth. The amount of trauma awareness here is negative zero. We’re supposed to be so moved by his transformation that no one asks questions like: Did keeping the rape secret, in order to give the perpetrator a fresh start, make the mother feel ashamed and impede her healing? How could it not harm her relationship with her children? Was it really a responsible choice to not tell her small-town community that their new pastor is a convicted rapist? How can she be 100% sure that he’s not going to re-offend?

I’m not saying abusers never repent, or that they should never be forgiven when they do. I’m saying that saving their souls is not the victim’s job. The perpetrator’s redemption is a matter between himself and Christ. Whatever happens there, he will never be entitled to his victim’s trust, continued contact, or complicity in his secrets.

The Wednesday Letters is bad theology because it puts a Christian stamp of approval on the co-dependent idolatry that characterizes an abusive relationship. It drafts an unwilling and powerless person into the role of suffering servant that Christ took on voluntarily from a position of supreme power.

The title story of Catholic fiction writer Arthur Powers’s splendid new collection, A Hero for the People: Stories of the Brazilian Backlands, offers a far more compelling picture of human cooperation with Christ’s redemptive work. These tales spring from Powers’s work with the Peace Corps, helping subsistence farmers and rural workers resist being forced off their land by wealthy speculators in league with a corrupt government. (A scenario similar to the classic Western movie “Shane“.)

In this story, a humble, slightly nebbish-y, but dedicated monk is reassigned to a remote mission outpost which the diocese plans to close as soon as its ancient priest dies. Brother Michel starts listening to the locals’ tales of oppression and takes up their cause despite threats against his life. But all the while, he daydreams and prays for a hero who would ride into town and rout the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, like Shane the gunslinger. Their nonviolent resistance staves off the land seizure for another day, but there’s no Hollywood ending. Brother Michel knows he can only give it his utmost while turning the outcome over to God. Still, he prays for a hero, while the reader sees the sweet irony that the monk is the answer to his own prayer, a title that he would never dare claim for himself.

What makes Brother Michel’s imitation of Christ genuine and beneficial to the reader? Two things. Number one, it leaves room for God’s further action. The monk can’t fix the problem all by himself. He may not be able to fix it at all, but with God’s help, he’s brave enough to do his part. Number two, he isn’t consciously playing the role of savior, an ego trip that tempts a person to make himself the center of someone else’s story. “A Hero for the People” is not a set-up to show what a great person Brother Michel becomes. It’s about how he makes himself available in a Christ-like way to the oppressed, not about how he transforms the oppressors’ hearts, although that possibility is left open as well.

Unlike the rape in The Wednesday Letters, the exploitation of the poor is the central Christian concern of “A Hero for the People”. We are invited, perhaps commanded, to help the Brother Michels of the world combat this evil, rather than congratulate ourselves for forgiving it.

For more on the Christian fiction writer’s dilemmas, see my 2008 post, “Who Cares for the Reader’s Soul?

Abuse and the Limits of the Welcoming Church

They dress the wound of my people
  as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
  when there is no peace.
(Jeremiah 6:14)

Projection and denial are two ways we avoid a clear view of evil. In the progressive church, we perceive, perhaps too vividly, how our fundamentalist counterparts project their shadow selves onto out-groups such as women, gays, and nonbelievers. We understand that this purity obsession can shield abusers in the community by offering an easy mechanism to discredit the victim. In a congregation taught to see women as sexual temptresses, for example, a molested young girl can be pressured to repent for “leading” the man to sin.

However, progressives’ overcompensation in the direction of peace and unity can be just as toxic for survivors. Overreacting against fundamentalist divisiveness, our churches minimize genuine distinctions of culpability and power within the community we are creating. If inclusion is our only defining value, where is the conversation about accountability and transformation?

Shortly after a terrorist bombing dominated our national news, I heard a liberal sermon that
encouraged us to turn our fears over to God’s protection, rather than
pushing them outward to demonize all Muslims. Good message, surely. But
the preacher went on to say something like “All enemies can become friends.”

I’m sorry but NO. As the military saying goes, “The enemy gets a vote.” My good intentions cannot magically dissuade someone from trying to kill me. This sounds exactly like the myth that enmeshes domestic violence victims: “If I love him enough, if I’m good enough, if I’m spiritual and enlightened enough, he’ll change.

Perhaps the concept of a friend has become degraded in the Facebook age, but perpetuating the same confusion from the pulpit can have dangerous consequences. There are a lot of abuse survivors in the pews who aren’t clear about their right to refuse intimacy with someone they don’t trust.

Similarly, in our zeal to create a big-tent church for people with diverse beliefs, are we making it socially impossible for members to distance themselves from, or skillfully confront, fellow members whose beliefs they find oppressive? I can make civilized small talk with Christians who believe homosexuality is a sin, as long as they stay off the topic. But don’t pressure me to be friends with them, because friendship in my book requires mutual trust and respect, and I don’t trust someone who votes to strip my family of our civil rights. And please stop trying to convince me how “nice” they are. It’s easy to be nice when you hold all the cards.

Progressive churches can fall prey to the same (deliberate?) naivete one encounters among free-speech absolutists. Any time someone dares to suggest that unmoderated rape threats in online political forums, or Facebook fan pages for wife-beating, might be driving women out of the conversation, a horde of liberals will cry “censorship!” But silencing can be covert as well as overt. The sad fact is that not all people can safely coexist, no matter how inclusive you’d like your community to be.

Too often, the victim who refuses to sit down at the peace table with the unrepentant oppressor is blamed for putting up obstacles to unity. In fact, the blame lies with the other person who demands to belong to the community while subverting its norms and preying on its members. In a powerful recent post about why she no longer attends church, feminist Christian writer and rape survivor Sarah Moon says:

How radical and Jesus-like does that sound? Abusers and survivors, sitting at the same table. Sharing the same bread and wine. The lion lying down next to the lamb.

Sure. That sounds great. Excuse me while I go have a panic attack or two.

I don’t know how to respond to this trend anymore. When I express discomfort about calling a rapist my “brother in Christ,” people accuse me of being a bitter, grace-hating person. When I say that I can’t get over the hurt my abuser caused me, people tell me to get over my “perpetual victimhood.” When I ask for a safe space, people tell me I’m acting just like the exclusionary fundamentalists, and that I need to learn that Christianity isn’t about being uncomfortable.

There’s no grace for me, as I try to work through all the festering hate toward my rapist that I don’t know what the hell to do with. There’s no grace as I try to figure out whether I ever want to forgive a man who hurts me more each day even though we haven’t spoken in six years. Maybe they’re right and I am the bitter, hateful person they think I am, but what about all this talk of grace?

Is progressive Christianity spending so much grace on abusers, in order to show the world how “radical” and “subversive” they are, that they have only scraps left for survivors?

I share Sarah’s reservations about the fetishization of “discomfort” and “being radical”. Underneath the veneer of martyrdom, it’s a self-aggrandizing focus that makes religion about how much pain you can take, not how much justice you can create.

Toranse, an ex-evangelical incest survivor who blogs at Speaking While the World Sleeps, has some choice words about this brand of radicalism. She points out that there’s nothing more mainstream than a no-strings-attached welcome for predators:

How fucking easy. There is nothing particularly “radical” about “extending grace.” “The world” does it all the time. If there ever were a time when Christians (from fundie to progressive to emergent) were dressing in “the world’s” street clothes, it’d definitely be when they’re falling over themselves to welcome an abuser or rapist back to church. How fucking easy to pretend it away. As a survivor, I know how much nicer it seems to just say you forgive. No conflict. Less hardship, it feels. Fewer “radical love” Christians poking their fingers in your wounds. If there ever was a fucking wide, wide, wide road, if ever there was something so fucking opposite of a “narrow way,” it’s this.

Let me say, I love my local church. I don’t know of anything unsafe going on in our community. I just feel very alone sometimes in liberal Christianity, because niceness trumps clear thinking and speaking about sin.

My Poem “Robot Deer Shot 1,000 Times” at New Millennium Writings

I was privileged this spring to receive publication in New Millennium Writings, one of my favorite literary journals. My poem “Robot Deer Shot 1,000 Times” won an honorable mention in their Winter 2011-12 contest. The winners of the shared first prize included my dear friend Ellen LaFleche. Read more poetry from the current issue here. (“Robot Deer” is on page 146 of the issue, page 28 of the PDF.) The current contest, with prizes of $1,000 for poetry, fiction, flash fiction, and essays, is open through June 17; this deadline is typically extended to July 31.

This poem was inspired by one of those “News of the Weird” wire stories about a mechanical deer that cops deployed to trap poachers. The hunter’s backstory, however, simply emerged on its own as soon as I put pencil to page. You never know what your imaginary friends will tell you over a few drinks.

Robot Deer Shot 1,000 Times

Some buckshot-toting boys can’t resist
that hat-rack head lofting into view
in the sweep of the pickup’s dusty headlights,
a come-on like the barmaid’s at the Blue Note
when she slaps your hand but you know she means maybe
by how her tail switches away.
It’s poaching to shoot from the road
at night, one of those rules
on the same page as don’t drink with a married woman
or drive a locked van to Mexico,
even if your brother asks.
Maybe the barmaid can tell a pro tattoo
from the tic-tac-cross your cellie carved with a pen filler.
But you believe the buck is real
and that its brown eyes, glassy
with trust, are the worn-down night’s gift to you,
even when you shoot and shoot but it won’t fall,
clicking its proud head slowly round
like the barmaid’s heels when she glides
her tray of foaming mugs over to the college boys.
Then the Staties roll up with their toy-car lights
joking Bambi sure can take a beating,
amd cuffed on the hood you’re forced into a close-up
of the felted frame, pocked with pellets,
and it looks like your brother’s skin after the last radiation.
Tomorrow you’ll be more of a fool
at the Blue Note than you were today,
not because of the deer but the white envelopes
the cops found stuffed in your glove compartment
with poems inked on them, that some joker will shout out
during a lull in the jukebox,
and you’ll think the barmaid, brown eyes soft, is listening.