January Links Roundup: Disobedient Woman Facts

This blog usually tackles (or is tackled by) serious subjects, so let’s start the year with a little humor. Over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sandra Newman’s list of “Woman Facts” satirizes gender roles and those clickbait lists of dubious scientific trivia. For instance:

A woman is born with all the exclamation points she will use in her lifetime.

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When cornered by a predator, a woman can swell to three times her normal size, but won’t because it is unladylike.

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The “period” is a myth devised by the 1810 Ladies’ Secret Conclave. Tampons actually serve to prevent the genie from escaping.

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Large numbers of women can be caught by baiting a trap with a crying infant. Though only one woman may fall into the trap, hundreds of others will gather to criticize everything she does with the child.

On that note, I recognized so much of myself in this May 2015 post from British evangelical feminist Hannah Mudge’s blog, “Searching for Sunday: Motherhood, Guilt and Disillusionment”. Our sons are about the same age. I thought I was the only one who suddenly felt overburdened by the demands of church membership once I had a baby:

In 2012 I became a mother. It hardly seems possible that Sebastian is three this week, a hilarious, much-loved little ball of energy. Motherhood hit me like it hits most other women; I mulled over the shift in my identity incessantly, felt incredibly lonely, struggled with anxiety and felt as if I’d left my brain somewhere else for months on end as I cared for a child that Did Not Sleep. Unsurprisingly, I totally disengaged from church. With one eye on the baby and my weary mind struggling to cope with the noise and the crowds and the intrusion, I zoned out. When I wasn’t zoned out, all I could feel was guilt.

The modern church can be incredibly effective at making you feel guilty because you’re insufficiently involved, insufficiently on board, insufficiently motivated to do more, give more, be more. There are always more programmes, more opportunities to serve, another reminder to get better at quiet time or outreach or prayer. When you have a baby your priorities change. This doesn’t mean that you have no desire to give more, to learn more; in my case, motherhood coincided with the beginning of a deep desire to know more about theology, to delve deeply into scripture, and a growing sense of revelation in the everyday, in conversations with friends and rigorous self-analysis. But what it does mean is that you almost certainly have no time to actually do it.

In 2012 I became a mother. My mental health has had its ups and downs. I returned to work full time when my son was nine months old and I love my job. I’ve had a thirst for deep friendships, but my introvert’s brain doesn’t do well with small talk and crowds and distractions. I’ve longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the sacred and to simply be left alone. And for a good few years, I’ve been sold the idea that showing up on a Sunday, getting enthusiastic about joining in and getting something out of it is paramount. But by and large I’ve felt nothing, learnt nothing, wished for more free time and more focus, wished I’d stayed at home or gone for a walk or read a book instead.

Deep down I know that looking to find everything in 90 minutes on a Sunday isn’t the right thing to do. But I’ve still expected something – and when I’ve failed to gain anything from those 90 minutes on a Sunday, I’ve felt disillusioned and angry. Excluded because I’m not ‘on board’ and don’t even want to be, apprehensive because I’ve been desperate to talk to someone about it but worried that doing so would make me a troublemaker, get me labelled as bitter, problematic, a contentious woman…

…What if you’re reading this and thinking “This is me”? Bring it all back to God and your place in the Kingdom and where you’re at, right now. Not what you feel you should be involved in and saying yes to and not how you think you should be continually striving to do better and give more of yourself. Invest time in your family and your friends. Listen to God when you feel prompted to explore ways of worship or study or churches you might feel at home in. Remember the fact that Christianity doesn’t mean being assimilated and being just like everyone else at church, or all your Christian friends on Facebook, or having to like everything you hear on a Sunday. When that headspace starts to come back, use it wisely. And know that you are not alone.

For me personally, since I stopped saying the Daily Office this past November (with some guilt about breaking my 8-year tradition), I don’t feel as burned-out on Bible verses by the time Sunday comes around. Keeping up the connection with my church friends a couple of times a month feels right. I know that I need a new private devotional practice, Christian or otherwise, but I have to start by choosing to do less. My number-one New Year’s resolution is to spend more time in the bathtub watching Netflix.

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son in response to God’s command, is one of those Bible stories that make me doubt whether Christianity can be made survivor-friendly. Characters in my new novel-in-progress grapple with this text as they try to make sense of family trauma and religious belief. Fred Clark at the progressive Christian blog Slacktivist persuasively argues that “divine command” doesn’t exempt us from moral discernment, in this 2014 post, “Obedience is Always About Epistemology”:

I’m hearing voices. I’m hearing a voice in my head that’s telling me to kill a child.

The possibility that this is the voice of God testing my faith isn’t even going to be among the first thousand possibilities worth considering. The thousand other possibilities are all Very Bad, of course, but that one’s even worse — including and encompassing all the Very Bad possibilities that go before it.

Initially, though, I’d do what anyone would likely do if a voice in my head commanded me to kill and burn a child. I’d ignore it, desperately hoping it would go away, fearful of telling anyone that I’d ever even thought of such a thing lest they think — rightly — that I am a monster.

And if it didn’t go away? Well then I’d have myself committed. I’d remove myself from the presence of chlidren, driving to the nearest inpatient facility to inform the nice people in admissions, as calmly as possible, that I believed I was becoming a danger to myself and others. I’m hearing voices. The voices want me to do Bad Things.

No, no, no, the “pastors and apologists” say — that violates the spirit of the story. It’s about obedience, not epistemology. For the sake of the story, you must accept that you receive this command from God as an unambiguous revelation: You know with certainty it is a command from God.

But that just restates the problem, it doesn’t solve it. Obedience is always about epistemology. I cannot respond to this “divine command” as such until I know that it is, in fact, a divine command. It is not humanly possible to engage this story unless the story can explain just what it would mean to be able to know with certainty that this was an unambiguous bit of divine revelation, a clear command clearly from God.

And I cannot imagine any form of direct revelation that could convince me of that. I cannot imagine any way in which I, as a human bound by my finite human reason and my fallible human senses, could ever have access to such inhuman, infallible certainty.

The “voice of God”? Auditory hallucinations. Hearing voices in your head is a textbook symptom of many well-documented forms of mental illness. We’ve already covered what hearing such a voice giving such a command would mean and what it would require me to do.

And, no, it doesn’t make any difference to try to distinguish between a “voice in your head” and a voice outside your head. All voices are in your head — the “real” ones just as much as the delusional ones. That’s what’s so terrifying about actual auditory hallucinations. They do not sound like hallucinations — like something that’s “only in your head.” They sound exactly like any other voice you’ve ever heard.

How about giant flaming letters carved in the sky? No good. Everything we’ve just said about auditory hallucinations is also true for visual ones.

Well, what if other people hear God’s voice as well? What if everyone else hears it?

That’s to be expected, isn’t it? All of this is just confirming the likeliest possibility: I’m a very, very sick man. Paranoid and delusional, and now imagining that everyone else is saying the same horrible thing as the voice in my head.

There simply exists no form this divine revelation could possibly take that would exempt it from the fact that I, as a finite and fallible human, would be required to perceive it. And so it would always be possible that I was perceiving it wrong — that I was misperceiving it.

And one doesn’t want to kill and burn a child based on a misperception.

One doesn’t generally want to kill and burn a child at all — which brings us to the second problem here. It’s not just the form of this divine command that is a problem, it’s also the substance. The repugnant substance of this alleged divine command reinforces all of the formal reasons stated above for doubting it. The substance of the command presents a whole Wesleyan quadrilateral of reasons to conclude that it cannot be divine. Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all scream that it cannot be so.

Imagine again that scenario in which a unanimous horde of witnesses confirms that I have, in fact, been given a divine command that I cannot ignore or deny. Just what would these witnesses attesting to this divine revelation say? “God is speaking to you, Fred. God wants you to kill and burn this child. You need to do what God tells you to do.”

Whatever part of me wanted to cling to my own sanity wouldn’t reasonably conclude that this means God wants me to kill a child. A more reasonable conclusion would be to realize, in horror, that I’d stumbled into some terrifying Wicker Man scenario. These “witnesses” must be speaking of some other God. And the voice I was hearing and the fiery letters in the sky would force me to realize that their God was real.

C.S. Lewis toyed with the idea that something like this might be true. So did H.P. Lovecraft. So did whoever wrote Psalm 82. And now Molech or dread Chthulhu or raging Talos or three-crowned Cyric or whichever child-eating deity it was is after me.

So at that point, I’d be praying like I’d never prayed before, asking God — the God I worship, the God of Abraham, the God of the Gospels and the creeds – to deliver me from this evil lesser god who was attempting to claim me for his own. Monotheism would no longer be an option, but I’d still be monolatrous — faithful only to the God of gods and Lord of lords, the God revealed in Jesus, the God described in 1 John as “God is love” and the God mocked by Jonah for being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Or perhaps there could be a less radical theological explanation. I don’t believe in a “literal” Satan — mainly because I don’t see such a character literally present in the biblical literature — but this overwhelming experience of voices and witnesses and flaming letters would likely cause me to re-evaluate that conclusion. If the voices and signs and wonders and attestations weren’t all just delusion, then here would be apparent evidence of the reality of some supernatural, evil being very much like the Satan figure we find in Dante and Milton and Stephen Vincent Benét and all the other canonical sources of this doctrine.

This is the most reasonable, defensible and biblical second possibility. If the voices and signs and wonders telling me to kill a child are not a form of delusional madness, then this must be Satan speaking to me.

No, no, no, say the pastors and apologists — it’s not Satan, it’s God. This is, they stress, the whole point of the story — that it’s God — and undeniably God — telling me to kill and burn a child.

I’ve got it backwards, they say. The story isn’t about Satan pretending to be God. It’s a story about God pretending to be Satan.

I’m don’t think that helps.

The bottom line here is that for all of these self-proclaimed defenders of God’s sovereignty, this story is not at all about obedience to God. It’s about obedience to them.

Because obedience, remember, is always about epistemology — about the possibility of knowing, with certainty, what it is we are commanded to do, and the possibility of knowing, with certainty, the source of that command.

They like to talk about God’s sovereignty, but the real substance of their claim has to do with their own certainty. Their own ability to access certainty and to proclaim it to and for others. We know what God has commanded, they say. We know. And therefore you must obey [what God has commanded as articulated by] us.

I appreciate this post for highlighting the connection between theology, sanity, and social control. When you persuade people to suspend their common-sense moral intuitions and empathy, this not only makes them vulnerable to authoritarian religious leaders, but also prevents them from recognizing and healing from other abuses of power in their personal lives. Because if you can’t be sure that child sacrifice is wrong, you can’t be sure of anything. To quote King Lear, “That way madness lies.” And he would know.

November Links Roundup: It’s Supposed to Hurt

I just finished a philosophy book that I loved in 1999, and found it equally rewarding to re-read from a new perspective. Marxist-feminist philosopher Robin May Schott’s Cognition and Eros: A Critique of the Kantian Paradigm (Beacon Press, 1988) challenges the body-mind split that has constituted “objectivity” for the Western religious and intellectual tradition. I hope to devote a whole post to this book later. At the moment, I want to focus on how the ideal of dissociation from one’s body and emotions plays out in academia. Schott observes that women’s exclusion from educational institutions has been justified by the paradigm that identifies women with embodied emotion and men with dispassionate intellect. Though Schott doesn’t discuss racism, this form of discrimination relies on the same projective identification of nonwhite people with a lower physical realm. The diversity of bodies is particular and contingent, therefore beneath the so-called universality of true knowledge.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when members of historically excluded groups describe the trauma of ongoing discrimination in their universities, the liberal intellectual response is “Grow up and stop whining.” Bringing your whole emotional and embodied self into a discussion automatically undermines your intellectual credibility–even when the discussion is a debate over whether bodies like yours are fully human. Emotion-shaming works because of this centuries-old tradition of defining knowledge as that which cannot acknowledge the interpersonal.

Miles Johnson’s Slate News article from Nov. 10, “People Don’t Hate Safe Spaces, They Hate the People They Protect”, looks at this dynamic in the context of the University of Missouri students’ recent anti-racism protests. Many pundits criticized the black students for limiting press access to some of their events, while others noted that black activists have a well-founded fear of being misrepresented by the media. It’s become fashionable among the former camp to ridicule “safe spaces” as an immature demand from entitled, sheltered college kids. Johnson counters:

…how quickly we all forget that safe spaces are nothing new. Safe spaces belong to a tradition with roots extending far beyond the borders of college campuses, and is something that dominant, mainstream society is infamous for routinely imposing.

In May of 1989, the New York Times reported the complete eradication of graffiti in subways. Graffiti had long filled train cars, platforms, and tunnels, but, as a staple of hip-hop culture dominated by young black people, was seen as a public scourge. In fact, in a New York Times piece that would be published seven years later in 1996, graffiti artists are described as “vandals armed with cans of paint.” The removal of graffiti from subways was, quite literally, the creation of a safe space. You could hypothetically entertain an argument about whether graffiti constitutes speech or is simply vandalism, but that would require coming to the insurmountable conversational road block that goes something like, “graffiti is vandalism because we say it is.” The mere act of spraying paint onto a surface is not inherently malicious, but dominant American culture in the 1980s and 90s decided that it was—so it was…

Some would argue that using the preservation of the MTA’s karma as reason to spend public money to hire thousands of workers to clean trains is both hilariously ironic, and rather flimsy. Perhaps those sheltered New York subway riders should have just been able to confront a point of view different from their own, rather than cower in fear simply because it was not presented to them in a way they found tasteful. The graffiti was removed from inside trains (a quasi-public space, like the University of Missouri’s quad) to make riders, specifically those who found spray-painted messages to be inherently menacing, feel safe…

…after the state of Arizona rejected a proposal to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday in 1990, Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get to Arizona,” released the following year, was played once on MTV before being banned. The censoring of speech orchestrated by MTV was, undoubtedly, to create a safer, more pleasing brand of MTV for its viewers and listeners—but safety for whom? Safety for fans of Public Enemy, or for people who would find the band’s criticism of the state of Arizona distasteful?

The examples are nearly endless.

Augusta National Golf Club refused to admit black golfers as members before 1990, and prohibited women from becoming members until 2012. What is a golf club that refuses membership to black men or any women but a safe space for white men?

I wish Schott’s history of emotion-suppression in religion hadn’t stopped at the Reformation, because I could see a straight line from ancient thinkers’ neurotic mind-body splitting to contemporary Christianity’s valuation of doctrine over psychological well-being. Tell Me Why the World is Weird is the blog of an American woman who moved to China for Christian missionary work, then began to question and reject her old belief system. I could quote all of her Nov. 17 post, “Church is Supposed to Hurt”, with an Amen! The blogger was attending an evangelical small group that made her feel depressed and unsafe, but felt duty-bound to keep going, until she thought about the problem from a different angle. Highlights are below:

I wasn’t paying attention to my body. I wasn’t paying attention to how I felt. My body and mind were telling me about my own needs (specifically, that it’s not healthy for me to put myself in that kind of Christian environment) and I didn’t realize it. (Until I actually wrote it all down.)

Because the church trains us to ignore our own needs. The church teaches that following God is supposed to be hard, and that we need to obey even though it will hurt…

…People come to small group and say “I haven’t been reading my bible because I wanted to sleep instead” or “because I wanted to watch TV in the evenings” and they feel as if those things are shameful and selfish. NO! Listen to your body. You need sleep. You need to do relaxing things like watch TV. We’ve created this culture where people claim to believe “spending time with God” is the most important thing, but then they don’t do it because their mind/body/emotions tell them it’s not actually worth it, and they can’t be honest about it. They feel bad and come to small group and talk about how weak and selfish they are, how they have to work harder in the future to ignore their own needs and do what the church taught them is the right thing for all Christians to do.

The same thing is true about going to church. Samantha Field’s post, the not-so-ridiculous reasons people leave church, does a great job with this topic. She writes about the memes and blog posts that get shared by Christians, mocking the reasons that people quit going to church. Those awful posts are all about how pathetic and selfish you are if you stop going to church because you don’t like it, or because it wasn’t actually a good thing for you, or because people judged you, etc.

Reality check: If you don’t like something, why on earth would you do it? But the church teaches it doesn’t matter how you feel- if you’re a Christian, you HAVE TO go to church. And if you don’t, you’d better have a damn good excuse, or rather, haha no excuse is good enough, you’re just being selfish.

Because we’re taught that our own feelings and our own needs don’t matter. If the church is hurting us, or if every week we think “this is pointless, why do I keep coming here?” it doesn’t matter. You have to just keep doing it, and eventually God will help you learn to like it.

Which is why it’s taken me so long to realize that, hey, since this church group is pushing me toward depression, I should stop going.

In a similar vein, I could see many of my current struggles reflected in the final post on Hännah Ettinger’s post-fundamentalist Christian blog Wine and Marble, “Love, Fundamentalism, and Endings”. Ettinger begins with the bell hooks quote: “Love and abuse cannot coexist.” Following the implications of this axiom, she came to see that what went by the name of “love” in her Christian upbringing was anything but:

In fundamentalism, ideology and hierarchy > person and emotional healthy relationships. Every. Damn. Time.

bell hooks writes that “abuse and love cannot coexist” because (as Christian theology teaches) love is about considering another person’s best interest.

…Love should not be mutable, but the terms of the relationship will be in order to be consistent with love. Love respects the other as a separate, autonomous individual with unique needs. Love does not require the other person to fix your emotional problems. Love is considerate, respectful, ethical, generous. Love is not craven, demanding, or manipulative.

This cuts two ways. Loving others well is easier (and probably better) the better you are at loving yourself well. It’s hard to love someone else well if you are abusive toward yourself, and if you try you’re more  likely to expect the other party to love you the way you should be loving yourself, and then resent them for not fixing your emotional disassociation with yourself. No person, no religious belief, no creature comfort will be able to fix the fundamental need for self-acceptance. I’ve been learning this, and it’s not easy. I can deflect and distract myself, but there is no substitute for sitting with my own emotions and owning them to myself and accepting that the me I’m living with is messy and not quite all who I want to be. I have to live with (and learn to love) me in real time, as I grow and learn, and not with my idealized future version of myself. This means also recognizing when I’m in unhealthy relationships or situations and being responsible for standing up for myself, and not expecting others to read my mind or know my needs and rescue me. Boundaries, communication, and actively engaging my day-to-day life and owning my responsibility to and for myself: these are ways I can engage in loving myself well.

Loving others well is an extension of understanding how to love myself. I need to respect the fact that others need different things and that what is good for me might not be good for them, that my perception of reality might not be their story, that they may be growing and learning faster or slower than I am. I respect them as individuals and not as caricatures or emotional food sources for myself, and that paves the way for healthy relationship.

This means: I cannot demand my more fundamentalist friends to change their beliefs on things, because their emotional needs (and reasons for holding on to various positions) are different from mine. I can, however, write about what I’ve learned and how various elements of religious fundamentalism have been harmful. I can also limit the ability of their more negative positions to affect me personally by reducing my exposure to toxic relational dynamics, and I can also appeal to their desire to love others when I see them hurting people close to me and ask for them to change how they treat people based on our shared assumption that they care about the other person’s best interest.

…In my pilgrimage to understand love and to heal, I’ve had to reconcile myself to the fact that church and Christian culture are antithetical to my emotional and mental stability. The solvency of Christianity for some, I believe, is viable and good. I think the church can be better and radically change lives for good. I think the teachings of Jesus are precious and radical and good. There is much that I love, but I have had to remove myself from it and remove it from me in order to be kind to myself. All things are lawful, etc. For me this means: I’m not a Christian anymore.

The damage done to my brain by code-switching in Christianese and by tiptoeing around emotional land mines from my time in the cult outweigh the worth of holding onto the Creeds for the Creeds’ sake. If Jesus is the Christ and all of that is true, then I’d rather be a Calormen in the end and be sound of mind and live ethically and love well than be a martyr for something that has fostered so much suffering.

I do not recant anything I have written. I still love the things I have always loved. I still believe in the power of radical love to transform. I still believe in the magic of community and the mystery of burden-bearing and communion. I still love justice and mercy and crave light and truth.

But it is the learning of the loving that calls me to keep exploring, and so I’m discarding things that are impotent or emotionally destructive. I’m not merely disassociating from the label of “Christian”or organized church in pursuit of being a “Jesus-follower.” I am closing that chapter completely.

 

September Links Roundup: The Faults of Forgiveness, Graduating From Church, and Other Radical Ideas

I keep having to come out on this blog. As a gay-affirming Christian, as an abuse survivor, and now as something I don’t have a name for. “Spiritual but not religious” doesn’t fit. I’m finding God in more traditions, even as I loosen my identification with a single one. Christianity remains important to me as one avenue for connecting with God, but I have to confess that I no longer regard it as authoritative.

Don’t put me in the camp of ex-Christian rationalists, or those who proclaim that “all religions basically say the same thing” (they don’t). I believe in magic. What I no longer believe in is all-or-nothing relationships. I used to think I had to choose between tying myself in knots to accept oppressive doctrines, or being cut off from the face of God that I encounter in Christian art and worship. But I’ve discovered that all traditions contain contradictions, a very human admixture of poison and cure, so that staying within the same “brand name” (so to speak) is no guarantee that all the components will be compatible or equal in quality.

If I have a particular doctrinal sticking point these days, it’s the gospel messages of forgiveness and nonresistance to evil. Setting aside all the corruptions of religious texts and institutions, I can’t honestly call myself a follower of Jesus, because my life doesn’t line up with some of his core teaching. Not just that I find it too hard, but that I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Psychologist Sherrie Campbell’s 2014 Huffington Post piece “The 5 Faults With Forgiveness” succinctly lays out the case against the moral-religious command to forgive abuse and atrocities. (Hat tip to the Feminism and Religion blog for the link.) She distinguishes forgiveness from the healthier goal of accepting reality and having all of our feelings about it: “In acceptance the healing is about you. In forgiveness the healing is about the perpetrator.”

I especially liked her fourth point, debunking the catchphrase that “a lack of forgiveness places you in an emotional prison”. I frequently hear this from liberal spiritual folks who want to square the modern concern for personal well-being with an ancient religion that had different priorities. One benefit of having a non-authoritative relationship to Christianity is that I no longer have to twist words out of their common-sense meaning in order to salvage both the doctrine and my sanity. Campbell writes:

Much information is out there about how if we don’t forgive we will only live in an angry, hateful place, and therefore, we have no power and are, in essence, giving our perpetrators even more power. We are shamed for having the naturally occurring feelings we should have based on our circumstances, because if we have them, accept them and express them we are told we are giving the person, situation or circumstance even more power and we are only hurting ourselves. This causes self-punishment. We feel guilty or weak for feeling our natural emotions. In reality there are things in our lives which happen to us which may always trigger a bit of anger as we think about them, but to be told we are responsible for making someone else powerful with these natural feelings only makes us feel inadequate, and it forces us away from the organic grieving process. This forcing of our feelings away creates what we are trying to avoid: a constant state of anger. In trying to keep our power we end up losing our power.

Progressive evangelical Christian blogger Zach Hoag wrote this risky, heartfelt piece this past summer, about the death of his old identity as a church planter and maybe even a church member in the typical sense. “On Graduating” asks us to acknowledge that a spiritual path may be God’s best plan for us now, yet have a natural finite lifespan–an especially bold realization for someone from a Christian culture that prizes inerrancy and universal truths. I identified with Hoag’s revelation that his shame from an abusive childhood was keeping him from growing and moving on spiritually.

It’s time to accept fully the experiences that have brought me to this point. It’s time to shed fully the season, the identity, the dream that has more to do with who I am supposed to be than who I really am now. It’s time to allow whatever additional elements of allegiance to an institution or organization or a form of religion to die, so that I will not stay too long, so that this will not need to become a messy(er) divorce.

Lastly, I want to recommend the online theology journal The Other Journal, Issue #25, whose theme is Trauma. It’s so refreshing to find intellectually rigorous work on trauma theology that’s not behind the paywall of an academic journal. Of special note is “The Spirit’s Witness: An Interview with Shelly Rambo”. Her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining is now on my wishlist. In this piece, the Boston University professor describes being troubled by the way that traditional apologetics forced survivors’ stories into a single narrative arc:

I was aware, however, that there was this triangle of clinical practice, literary theory, and Christian theology, which I found to be a very unique way of thinking about suffering, a distinctive phenomenology of suffering. I brought it back to Christian theology, and I asked more of those complex questions that my faith tradition had danced around with apologetics. How do we think about suffering, given the Christian plot—the story of creation, fall, and redemption? What happens when the human story and the story of our lived experience doesn’t fit the linear pattern of that Christian plot? What happens when there are certain dominant ways of telling that story which undercut many of our stories? More specifically, I came to believe that it is important to ask why certain ways of thinking about what happened on the cross come to be the one way of thinking. I brought all of the trauma readings, and all of these questions, back to Christian theology, and it led me to my doctoral work on the interdisciplinary study of trauma and to a corresponding theology of Holy Saturday…

…God’s Spirit is never separated from us, but experiences, such as trauma, can render this love—which is the central attribute of the Spirit and which still remains with us—altogether lost. Yet the pneumatology of Holy Saturday says that when all is lost the Spirit surfaces through the textured witness of those who remain. This is where the connection between God’s Spirit and the human spirit is most critical; the witnesses surface this love. Here I am pointing back to my comments about the surface of skin as significant, because I want to emphasize that this work is not just about words or language but, in very concrete terms, about tending to bodies. The theology of Holy Saturday is oriented less to those who experience trauma than to those who accompany others in this journey through the swamp. Finding one’s way in the swamp requires others who can witness it.

What I hope to emphasize about the descent into hell in the Spirit during Holy Saturday is that we have not yet known that Spirit before. And it appears distinctively here, just as the animating breath appears as the breath of life in Genesis. I highlight this distinctive vocabulary for the Spirit, which occurs in the Gospel of John, setting it apart from the Spirit of Pentecost, because it takes a different form. So I mean to demonstrate that it is not just that the Spirit appears in this part of the story but that the witness is a distinctive form of presence. The swamp, as you present it, may be a very real experience of God’s absence, yet the Spirit in hell is discerned not as pure presence but through the witness of the disciples.

And so that Spirit is always present, yet it has to get reanimated. You can go back to Ezekiel and the dry bones. You think these bones are the driest bones ever, that there is no life possible in them, but they just need to be summoned and given life again.

The Non-Personhood of Children in the Bible

The Daily Office, the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy and Bible readings for morning and evening prayer, provides some uncomfortable juxtapositions with current events. Shortly after watching the first TV debate among the Republican presidential candidates, I was presented with this reading from 2 Samuel 12:1-14.

King David has just arranged for his loyal soldier Uriah to be killed in battle because David coveted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan now tells him a fable about a rich man who had many flocks of his own, but seized a poor man’s only pet lamb to eat. That’s outrageous, says the king; that’s you, the prophet shoots back.

13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan said to David, “Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.”

(Boldface emphasis mine.)

So…not only was Bathsheba taken from her husband by King David (whether she wanted it or not, she couldn’t safely refuse), now she’s going to suffer the death of her child…at God’s command? And the innocent child, why does he get punished for the king’s adultery and murder?

The GOP candidates last week rushed to outdo one another in pledging to protect unborn children. They cupped their hands in tender gestures and invoked their Christian faith to support banning abortion, even when the pregnancy results from rape or endangers the mother’s life.

But what does the Bible actually say about children’s rights? At least in the Old Testament, children’s lives are not sacred. Their subjectivity and autonomy have no inherent importance. Like women, they are possessions that keep score of the male characters’ virtue or success. Besides this passage, notable examples are Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, God’s plague on the Egyptians’ first-born sons, and the divinely commanded genocide of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15.

Jesus ups the value of children in his invitation to them in Matthew 19, and his statement that one must become like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven. Even so, the God who warned Joseph to hide the Holy Family in Egypt did not intervene to protect any of the other infant boys slaughtered by Herod in Jesus’s stead.

My conclusions from this are two-fold, and both are kind of disheartening. First, that the Bible can be proof-texted or idealized to justify many positions that are quite a stretch from the original story, which seems to diminish its usefulness as a source of clear moral boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the sacredness of all infant life is a great evolution beyond the values of the ancient world, though I am pro-choice as a matter of legal policy. I just don’t see how you get “every sperm is sacred” from the Old and New Testaments.

Second, for me personally, it’s feeling like too much of a struggle to mesh my survivor-centric liberation theology with the Biblical writers’ very different assumptions about parents’ ownership of children and how this also maps onto God the Father’s creation and destruction of His children. I respect Christians who can find enough liberating material to stay within the Biblical framework and bracket the bad parts. Sometimes, I envy you. I am trying to shift my faith orientation in the most non-hegemonic way possible. It’s not my intention to take away from others the comfort that I no longer find in this tradition. But it is too jarring for me right now to have my healing and activism constantly interrupted by micro-aggressions from religious authorities who remind me that women’s and children’s lives have always been devalued.

Stations of the Cross: Mental Illness

Christian artist Mary Button’s annual series of “Stations of the Cross” collage-paintings depict the torture and execution of Christ in the context of a social justice issue. For instance, last year’s Stations took on the injustice of mass incarceration in America. The 2015 series is devoted to mental illness. In the artist’s words, it “addresses the cross-cutting theological implications of the treatment of people with mental illness. Individual stations address both the special gifts and insight of people living with mental illness as well as social justice issues such as race, gender, homelessness, and stigma.” Read her interview about this year’s project in the Huffington Post.

Each image, with artist’s commentary, can be viewed on Flickr. I was struck by the fact that these pictures are gorgeous with color and creative energy, while also being chaotic and sometimes scary. Button portrays the creativity of mania, the allure of the special and mysterious chambers of the mind, as well as the cost of getting lost in that labyrinth. Surely many of Jesus’s contemporaries must have thought he was crazy! Those who explore the frontier of spiritual experience often seem so, especially when their confidence in their inner truth sets them at odds with their family and their society’s interpretive authorities.

Some of these pictures show Jesus sharing the suffering of depression and schizophrenia, while others, such as “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”, critique the mental health system’s complicity in sexism and other oppressions. Several deal with suicide as a political consequence of racism and veterans’ PTSD. I would have liked to see childhood trauma and its aftermath explicitly included, but even so, survivors can certainly find a lot to identify with in this series.

Our Lady of Milk

One nice thing about the Christmas season is the visibility of the divine feminine in the person of the Virgin Mary, in contrast to the entirely male or abstract representations of the sacred during the rest of the liturgical year. Perhaps this partly explains why even non-Christians feel moved and comforted by the imagery of this season.

Feminists have mixed feelings about Mary nowadays, the criticism being that a woman shouldn’t have to be asexual to be holy. But the Holy Mother was not always portrayed in such a bloodless fashion. Medieval and folk art include luscious representations of her breastfeeding the baby Jesus, a sweet reminder that ours is an incarnational faith. The artwork below is one of 20 such images collected at the blog St. Peter’s List. Read additional reflections on this topic at Jesus in Love.

If my astute readers know of any Christmas carols or hymns that reference the Virgin Mary breastfeeding, please share them in the comments.

My Poem “The Name-Stone” at Utmost Christian Writers

My poem “The Name-Stone” just received an Honorable Mention in this year’s contest for Christian poets at Utmost Christian Writers. This Canadian website has been very supportive of my work over the years. Read all the winners here. (Some are still in the process of being posted as of today, April 18. Check again in a few days if you don’t see a link to the one you want.)

The poem was inspired by a discussion in my church’s adult education group about a verse from the Book of Revelation: “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” One of our members, a retired Anglican priest, said this could refer to the ancient Near Eastern practice of friends making a keepsake at parting. They would write their names on a stone or lump of clay and break it in half, each one retaining a piece that uniquely fit the other.

The Name-Stone

(Revelation 2:17)

I will give you a stone
with a secret under it.

As children in the Galilee
wrote friendship’s names on both ends
of such a shard, and broke it
and went away, each to his own desert.

Dirt-born,
nothing to give one another
but a ragged edge
that, fit
to its companion, meant love.

Where do the gouged letters lie,
in temple midden or the royal road’s thorns?
What hands crushed the clay?

I will give you a piece
of unmarked earth.

Not the name
your mother pressed onto your lips
to seal the scroll of her sorrows.

Not the name
your father spilled
like an ox-dragged harrow,
a plow with no sower.

They only know the name
that decoy, death,
reared above the spot
where you left this ground.

Granite praises granite,
butchers weep
over the marble lamb,
speak both parts
of the absolving script.

But I will give you a riven rock
to drink from its flood heart,
the rock I broke myself
to fit you.

Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “Waiting for the Umpire”

More than 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, Christians still debate the relative importance of good works versus faith in Jesus for salvation. Each team has its favorite proof-texts. Catholics may cite the Epistle of James for the proposition that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26) while Protestants lean on St. Paul’s words in Romans 3:28 (“a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law”).

Never mind that the two authors were probably addressing different issues: St. Paul the question of whether Jewish Christians had an advantage over Gentile ones, and St. James the problem of hypocrisy among professed Christ-followers who didn’t show care toward their neighbors. Humans being humans, any religious rule can be turned to self-serving ends, as illustrated by this satiric Lenten contribution by Donal Mahoney, who describes himself as “a believing but misbehaving Roman Catholic”.

Waiting for the Umpire
by Donal Mahoney

Ralph never planned on dying
but when he did, he was swept away
like a child’s kite blown astray.

When he arrived at his destination,
he heard angels singing, harps playing
and Louis Armstrong on the trumpet

so he figured this must be heaven.
A nice old man at the gate, however,
waved him away without directions.

This confused Ralph until he found
an open window in the basement,
climbed in and found an elevator

that took him to the top floor.
There a smiling angel with big wings
walked him up a thousand concrete stairs

and showed him to an empty seat.
Ralph was in the bleachers now
with millions of others, simply waiting.

None of them had a cushion to sit on.
But down in the padded box seats
Ralph saw rabbis, priests and ministers

sitting in the front row, simply waiting.
His barber, Al, was sitting with them.
For 30 years Al had been asking Ralph

while trimming his few remaining tufts of hair
if he had finally been saved or was he still lost.
Ralph would always tell Al he believed in God

but that every year he cheated on his taxes.
Sin is sin, Ralph would quietly point out.
Faith is all you need, Al would shout.

Seeing his barber now in the front row,
Ralph figured that maybe Al had stopped
cheating on his dying wife.

Otherwise, Ralph figured, Al would be sitting
in the cheap seats, waiting with everyone else
in the amphitheater for the Umpire to appear.

Poem by Donal Mahoney: “Christmastime in America”

Herod…gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

(Matthew 2:16-18)

Surrounded by sentimental images of babies in mangers, we forget that the Bible sets the Christmas story as a small but brilliant point of light against the darkness of the world. A world where the murder of children still threatens the peace of our homes, schools, and hearts.

Do we dare take time to grieve? I’ve been frustrated and saddened by the rush to politicize the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the instantaneous explosion of Internet debate about guns and mental illness, the finger-pointing and Facebook-unfriending of those who disagree with our preferred solution. Anger gives us an illusion of control. But God in Jesus didn’t come as a gun-toting (or spear-carrying) security guard. This poem by Donal Mahoney reminded me of the lines from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”: “And man, at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”

Christmastime in America
by Donal Mahoney

You see the oddest things
at Christmastime in America.
The bigger the city,
the stranger the sights.
I was driving downtown
to buy gifts for the family
and enjoying bouquets
of beautiful people
bundled in big coats
and colorful scarves
clustered on corners,
shopping in good cheer
amid petals of snow
dancing in the sun.

One of them, however,
a beautiful young lady,
had stopped to take issue
with an old woman in a shawl
picketing Planned Parenthood.
The old woman was riding
on a motor scooter
designed for the elderly.
She held a sign bigger
than she was and kept
motoring back and forth
as resolute as my aunt
who had been renowned
for protesting any injustice.
Saving seals in the Antarctic
had been very important to her.

On this day, however,
the beautiful young lady
who had taken issue
with the old woman
was livid and screaming.
She marched behind
the motor scooter and
yelled at the old woman
who appeared oblivious
to all the commotion.
Maybe she was deaf,
I thought, like my aunt.
That can be an advantage
at a time like this.

The letters on the sign were huge
but I couldn’t read them
so I drove around the block
and found a spot at the curb.

It turned out the sign said,
“What might have happened
if Mary of Nazareth
had been pro-choice?”
Now I understood
why the young lady
was ranting and raving
and why the old woman
kept motoring to and fro.
At Christmastime in America
people get excited,
more so than usual.

When I got home
I hid my packages
and told my wife at supper
what I had seen.
I also told her that if Mary
had chosen otherwise,
I wouldn’t have had
to go shopping today.
That’s obvious, she said.

To Dream the Ecclesial Dream: Making Demands on the Liberal Church


We yearn to have companions
who travel by our side,
strong friends to call and answer
with whom we are allied…

These words from Dosia Carlson’s contemporary hymn “We yearn, O Christ, for wholeness” (sung to the tune of “O Sacred Head”) keep running through my mind as I contemplate my feelings of alienation within the church. We’ve had a good debate on this blog about the shortcomings I perceive in the conservative Christian approach to religious knowledge. But I felt exhausted and alone after this discussion, and so many others like it, whenever I’ve tried to widen the lens beyond the usual proof-text battles over homosexuality. Are Christian progressives and postmodernists failing to step up to the challenge of advancing religious philosophy of knowledge beyond the tired old rationalist/supernaturalist debates of the 19th century? What would make the liberal church a radical church?

Beyond “Inclusion”

The liberal churches’ pastoral response to marginalized groups has been stronger than their theological response. The Episcopal Church, for instance, has shown leadership in appointing women clergy at all levels of authority, and in rolling back discrimination against GLBT clergy and laypeople. But apart from rebutting traditionalists’ interpretation of certain Bible verses to the contrary (“women keep silent in churches” and the like), we haven’t developed a positive Scripture-based ethic to replace conservative sexual mores.

To begin with, the concept of “inclusion” can’t bear all the weight we place on it. Postmodernist gadfly Stanley Fish, a professor of law and literature, has written many books urging progressives to flesh out their substantive values and proclaim them fearlessly, rather than hiding behind procedural values that give the false appearance of neutrality. “Inclusion” is one of his favorite targets. Every community has boundaries, implicit or explicit, to exclude those values and behaviors that the community simply cannot tolerate without jeopardizing its reason for existence. When we dodge conflict by pretending that there are no boundaries, we are also evading the accountability of a communal discussion about where those boundaries should be.

With respect to the status of GLBT Christians, the liberal church would welcome them unconditionally, while the conservative church would say that they have to acknowledge and work on correcting their sinful tendencies in order to be members in good standing. But why do we disagree?

Is it because we can explain why gender nonconformity and same-sex intercourse are not sinful according to Scripture? If so, have we articulated principles of responsible interpretation, so that our departure from the apparent meaning of other Biblical proscriptions does not degenerate into a free-for-all?

Is it because we don’t consider Scripture authoritative, or at least not more authoritative than reason and experience? The same question applies, as well as the question of whether we have made our religion irrelevant.

Or do we take the lazy way out and invoke “inclusion”? Here is where it gets knotty. Because there must be–there should be–some instances where the liberal church would put moral conditions on inclusion. Pedophiles, sexual harassers, “johns” who purchase exploited and trafficked women, perpetrators of domestic violence, maybe even adulterers. Economic exploitation could also come in for criticism if the rights and wrongs of the situation are clear enough (e.g. sweatshop labor, human trafficking).

I don’t mean that these people would always be banned from church or denied communion, though that might also be necessary. But at the very least, the church would publicly deem those behaviors unacceptable, and press sinners to repent and reform. (When was the last time you heard the word “sin” in your liberal church? Just asking.)

As it is, we flip back and forth between the rationales that “Jesus welcomed everybody” and “Jesus didn’t condemn homosexuality” as if they were the same. They aren’t. Jesus didn’t actually welcome everybody. He called some behaviors sinful, and he said that some sins were serious enough to be incompatible with the kingdom of Heaven. Whether we understand that as a statement about the afterlife, or about the kind of society he wants us to create here and now, the point is that our concepts of inclusion and tolerance owe more to Enlightenment philosophy than to the Bible.

Another, theologically more important, pitfall of the inclusion paradigm is that it keeps the church’s power in the hands of the human heterosexual majority rather than conceding it to God. It shouldn’t be about whether we are convinced to let gays into “our” church. It’s about universal access to the Holy Spirit. It’s about humbling ourselves and problematizing our privileges so that we learn to view any type of group-based domination as a historical accident rather than a divine right.

We need this level of spiritual formation in the liberal church. Jesus calls us to rethink the worldly understanding of power. We don’t foreground this issue enough, except in generalized anti-war sermons and charitable appeals. It should be brought into our personal lives as well.

Inclusion is an important concept, but it’s not the whole of our faith, and it doesn’t solve every problem.

Sex After Patriarchy

Monogamous love matches between consenting adults represent our modern ideal of marriage, but this norm doesn’t come from the Bible, and in fact you have to look hard to find examples. In addition, the diverse marriage patterns approved or uncritically represented in the Bible include several that we’d recognize as oppressive today: e.g. a woman forced to marry her rapist, a widow forced to marry her brother-in-law, or a male and female slave paired off by their owners. Reports from survivors of polygamous sects suggest that this arrangement also carries an unacceptable risk of exploitation and neglect of women and children.

Apart from opening up modern marriage to same-sex couples, does the liberal church have anything to say about gospel norms for sexuality? As St. Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.” (See parallel translations here.) The liberal church hasn’t given us any resources for discerning what is helpful. In today’s chaotic and hypersexualized culture, that’s serious neglect of the flock.

For instance, why is monogamy the only Christian option? Would Jesus disapprove of the honestly negotiated open relationships that quite a few married gay male couples enjoy? I really don’t know, and I’ve never been in a church that took the initiative to shape this conversation.

Conservative Christianity focuses on lists of acceptable and forbidden acts, with too little regard for the quality of the relationship within which they occur. Husband’s penis in wife’s vagina is presumptively God-approved. Anything else needs a special permit. Once we reject this legalism, though, how do we assess that relationship? Does sex have to be tender and egalitarian? What about role-playing and BDSM? Married, LTR, or one-night stand?

We are long overdue for a discussion about the qualities of character that Jesus wants us to cultivate, and how our sexual habits can build up or damage that character. The late Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” uses specificially Christian concepts like Incarnation and Trinity to depict an ideal sexuality that integrates body, mind, and spirit. Despite th
e Catholic Church’s problematic assumptions about gender and sexual orientation, we can learn a lot from this project.

The liberal church is still reacting so hard against sexist and homophobic stigma that we are afraid to suggest any limits on sexual self-expression. This lapse is not cost-free. It imposes collateral damage on the children of casually formed and dissolved sexual pairings, and on adults who need guidance to recognize that they’re reenacting traumatic patterns.

From Liberal to Liberators

“Why don’t they just leave?”

Outsiders often ask this question about victims of intimate partner violence and adult survivors of child abuse who remain in contact with the abuser. These interrogators need to be educated about the brainwashing, learned helplessness, and fear of losing one’s entire social world when the relationship is terminated. Go now and read a complete explanation on the survivor website Pandora’s Project. I’ll wait.

Liberal Christians are prone to the same insensitivity toward our conservative brothers and sisters. We get angry at women and gays in patriarchal churches for apparently colluding in their own oppression, or we dismiss them as stupid. We flatter ourselves that rape culture and abuse-enabling myths are confined to right-wing institutions, whereas the average Baptist wife and mother looks at the sexual brutality and relationship chaos of modern America and decides, not irrationally, that she is safer in a community where at least some men recognize a duty to protect her and her children. The preachers of patriarchy encourage these fear-based compromises by implying that women who are not modest and submissive are asking to be raped, as last month’s dust-up over Douglas Wilson and Fifty Shades of Grey demonstrated.

Feminist bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, linked above, and Grace at Are Women Human? wrote thorough refutations of this abuse-enabling theology. But the liberal church, as a whole, hasn’t devoted nearly enough resources to identifying this heresy wherever it appears, and providing compassionate support to conservative Christian women whose own religious leaders are covering up abuse.

When we say “Why don’t you leave?” we are basically asking hundreds of thousands of Christians to join the Witness Protection Program — to turn their backs on their family and friends, the music they love, the culture they know best, the beliefs that carried them through tough times — and become New England Unitarians. There’s a lot of nourishment that conservative churches provide, which we don’t consistently offer.

For instance, members facing serious illness can be comforted by a robust public affirmation of the power of prayer to work miracles. Spouses struggling with temptation to cheat, and teenagers confused by their overpowering new urges, benefit from collective reinforcement of moral standards and the wider time horizon that their faith suggests. Conservatives say that Jesus is alive and actively caring for us, not just a good moral example from history. He bears us up in our weakness and forgives our sins; he doesn’t only command us to share our abundance. Let me tell you, when I’m drowning in anxiety and grief, I need the Lord of the Storm, not a Nobel Peace Prize winner. People in crisis will be loyal to the religion that brings order out of chaos, even at the cost of some personal freedom.

The liberal church’s avoidance of the topic of personal, relational sins (as opposed to economic and collective political ones) can actually make victims feel less safe. “And such a one was I…” The replacement of “Truth” with “true for you” removes the standard against which we can begin to judge our abuser’s behavior. Didn’t she already try to make us believe that reality was whatever she wanted it to be? We survivors need communally agreed-upon facts and moral values, in order to name our secret trauma, hand back the shame, and dethrone the god-like accuser in our head.

We liberal Christians can’t coast forever on the sins we don’t commit. We should become active allies of Christians who are entrapped by a distorted version of our shared faith.

And let it begin with me.