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.

 

A Song for All Saints’ Day

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I sing a song of the cats of God,
Korat and Russian Blue;
Who purred and pounced, and chased their tails,
For the God who made them mew;

Cat-Lamp
And one was a tabby, and one Siamese,
And one was an alley cat full of fleas–
They were all of them saints of God, if you please,
And I mean to be one too.

Cat-Summer-1973

They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands more;
The Internet is full of cats,
That’s what it was invented for!

Cat-July-1975
You can meet them on Facebook, in blogs or in tweets,
In shelters and homes and on the streets,
For the cats in my life showed God’s love to me,
And I mean to love them too.

Cat-April-1982

(Top to bottom: My beloved Sidney, 1978; my mom Roberta’s Cat, 1973; my cousin Melissa’s Rusty, 1976; my grade school best friend Becca’s Snowball, 1982)

May the communion of feline saints receive Chloe, my friend Greg’s cat, who passed away last month.

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Easter Thoughts: God’s Joy and Ours

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Happy Easter!

As I mentioned earlier on the blog, I gave up doubting my intuition for Lent. That’s a practice I certainly hope to continue through Easter season and beyond. I often “give up” things that have a religious stamp of approval but are actually blocking me from hearing and trusting God.

Lent was unusually hard for me this year, not because of what I gave up, but because I no longer needed a prescribed season of gloom as social cover for my dark moods. To the contrary, I was just beginning to understand joy and self-acceptance as my birthright when seven weeks of self-abasing Bible verses slapped me upside the head.

The doctrine of redemptive suffering, so prominent in this season, has also generated increasing cognitive dissonance with my trauma recovery framework. I’m edging closer to John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus didn’t die for our sins, but because of our sins–in other words, that suffering in itself is not holy or divinely commanded, but rather a side effect of perfect love tangling with an imperfect world.

That’s why I liked this Holy Week essay in Fare Forward, a moderately conservative online journal of Christianity and culture. In “Transactional Salvation”, Leah Libresco says we typically misunderstand Lenten disciplines as if the pain was the point. But God demands no payback or proof of our devotion.

It can be nice do something flamboyantly generous for a loved one, and Christ praised this impulse in the woman with the alabaster jar, but exhausting ourselves in arbitrary ways has the potential to remind us less of the woman with the costly oil, and more with all the other painful, pointless-feeling sacrifices we practice on a day to day basis.

It is often better, whether during Lent or as a Friday discipline, to choose to offer God something that doesn’t seem arbitrary or arduous-for-the-sake-of-being-arduous, but something that is good for us, that we trust God will receive well because He delights in our good.

More than any other relationship, God’s interests are united with ours. The “sacrifice” God wants is for us to do what is truly good for ourselves.

This Easter, what obstacles will we give up, to make way for clarity, courage, and compassion?

 

Survivor-Centric Liturgy: An Example from Inclusive Church (UK)

Inclusive Church is a UK-based resource for making the Church of England more welcoming and sensitive to diversity around sexuality, race, class, disability, and mental health. The latter topic caught my attention during my ongoing search for materials for a trauma survivors’ Christian study group. What’s great about Inclusive Church is that they see the disabled and mentally troubled not merely as categories of consumers to be reached with an existing product, nor as objects of Christian charity, but as co-creators of theology from the standpoint of their lived experience. That’s been the goal of my “Survivors in Church” series on this blog as well. It disappoints me that most Christian books recommend using faith to suppress the socially uncomfortable symptoms of trauma, such as anger and rumination on the past, rather than heeding their radical challenge to faith.

This article from the Inclusive Church’s mental health resources page, “The Secret Holders and Bearers”, is by two community mental health chaplains who are willing to take up that challenge. In the portions quoted below, they consider how some standard prayers in the Sunday Eucharist service may reinforce abuse survivors’ distorted sense of themselves as broken and powerless. We need much, much more work like this.

…Are we prepared to be changed, transformed, outraged, and can the secret-holders enable our secrets to be borne more gently, even if they need to remain hidden for a while? Can we bear to hear when the practices and the theologies heard in some churches have not contributed to the empowerment of lives and voices but to their continuing silence? Even where genuine expressions of compassion and pastoral care have embedded the idea of ‘victim’ rather than the radical Gospel idea of partner and co- theological agents?…

…Let’s hear their words and attend afresh to our own and let’s attend to our liturgical language, see again the symbolism and architecture of our services and hear the clamour and the whispers, the invitations and the barriers that inhabit the theology in our liturgy and hymns. I am not saying that the brief account of these liturgical examples are wholly problematic but they are an example of a presently largely cataphatic liturgy with very little liturgy of lamentation and an apophatic perspective that speaks so much of human experience and especially the lived reality of those with long term and abiding mental health issues:

Just some examples from the present Common Worship Order 1 Service for Holy Communion:

Confession Prayer: We have wounded your love and marred your image in us (so many secret holders bear the woundedness that is wholly the responsibility of others and blame themselves throughout their lives and have been forced to blame themselves, lives overwhelmed by guilt. We tentatively suggest that such a statement echoes the feelings they already have about themselves, ‘knowing’ they are wholly unworthy of any kind of love, let alone the love of God).

… Lead us out from darkness to walk as children of light (on the face of it, who could argue with such a sentiment? However it represents a larger problem with the ‘darkness’ imaginary that suffuses Christian liturgy and theology. So many of us, in so many different ways, have found the metaphor of darkness wholly positive and therapeutic and the prospect of light almost unbearable at times. We need to look again at these intimately related metaphors.)

Prayer before Distribution: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs… (We know this is an optional prayer but nevertheless, and because it has been taken wholly out of context from a biblical story which effectively says the opposite, a sense of unworthiness just before we break bread together is, for all of us, and especially for those who live every day with an overwhelming and unbearable sense of unworthiness, wholly unfortunate directly before the gathering at the feast. We are worthy, all of us; we do not have sinful bodies but beautiful bodies and minds. Neither of us, personally, has been able to say these words for a long time because of our own inner battle with a sense of unworthiness imposed upon us by others).

Lenten Reading: “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision”

 

 

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In Holy Week, which begins next weekend with Palm Sunday, Christians all over the world meditate on Jesus’s suffering and death. Catholics and some Episcopalians enact the liturgical drama of the Stations of the Cross, depicting the events leading up to the crucifixion. There are many ways to find ourselves in this story, a large cast of characters with whom to identify, both guilty and innocent. And sadly, there are many LGBT people who feel crucified by the church itself, cast out and forbidden to imagine a Christ who is for them and of them.

Douglas Blanchard’s 24-painting series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” stretches loving arms across this divide. A new book by Kittredge Cherry (Apocryphile Press, 2014) brings these images together in book form for the first time. Cherry, who curates the Jesus in Love blog about LGBT spirituality and the arts, here gives invaluable in-depth commentary on the paintings’ inspiration and their place in art history. Each chapter includes a prayer to say while contemplating the image, like a Stations of the Cross liturgy. Toby Johnson, formerly of Lethe Press and White Crane Review, closes the book with reflections on new directions in gay spirituality.

This suite of paintings is radical by virtue of its traditionalism. Inspired by 15th-century master Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts of the Passion, and visually quoting famous works such as the Isenheim Altarpiece, these paintings boldly situate themselves in the mainstream of Christian iconography. At the same time, Blanchard transforms the meaning of those scenes by placing them in contemporary urban settings that include LGBT characters. The Jesus figure, a clean-shaven, simply dressed, handsome young man, could be (but does not have to be) read as gay. There is no doubt, though, that his followers include people of diverse sexualities, gender identities, ethnicities, and class backgrounds, while the crowds attacking him bear close resemblance to the hellfire-spouting protesters on the fringes of Pride marches.

I found this book very helpful for my own prayer life. I would love to have a stronger heart-level connection with the person of Jesus, but often struggle to connect with the ubiquitous beard-and-bathrobe representation of the Savior, which feels cliché and remote from my experience. I felt a stronger bond with Blanchard’s Jesus, who could be a divinized version of my imaginary gay best friend/novel protagonist, or simply a safe male friend and ally to my queer family. I also loved the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a female angel.

Whether or not I picture Jesus as the man in these paintings, this book gave me permission to imagine “my own personal Jesus” in the way that speaks to my soul. What makes him Christ is not his gender, his archaic clothing, or the straightness and whiteness that Western orthodoxy has attributed to him, but his works of love: speaking truth to power, creating community for outcasts, laying down his life for his friends. By that measure, the Jesus in this book is the real deal.

Get your copy here!

Watch the video “Introduction to the Queer Christ” at the Jesus in Love blog. It includes a selection from Blanchard’s “Passion” and other artists featured in Cherry’s book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.

The Priesthood of All Survivors

I’m having doubts about my place in the church.

As I overcome trauma-induced beliefs that made me fear direct communication with God, I have less need for a giant mediating structure to serve as a lightning rod. As I gain confidence in my own perceptions, and in the availability of forgiveness for my faults, I have less need for sermons saying how everyone “should” feel and act.

I still long for a community centered on Christ. I want to give and receive the support, spiritual insight, and deep friendship that a shared faith journey can offer.

However, as I work towards higher levels of psychological integration and adulthood, I have to be part of a community that’s consciously working the same program. As I choose to break familial patterns of nonconsensual intimacy, I have to be part of a community that’s organized by consent and choice, not guilt-tripping the unchurched.

Such a community doesn’t form spontaneously in every group of people that calls itself a parish. It either has to be steered in that direction by an insightful pastor who is willing to yield power to the laypeople, or assembled outside church walls by the individuals who need it.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that the local parish, precisely because of its randomness, teaches the spiritual discipline of learning to share fellowship with people for whom you feel no natural affinity. This is an important practice, but I think he was wrong that a person’s hand-picked circle of spiritual friends is more likely to be a group of yes-men than the traditional church. Intentional communities can be diverse if they make a commitment to be so. (See, for example, the Freedom Circles at the Becoming Church program that I visited this spring.) Plus, there is a difference between the fruitful discomfort of listening to people outside your own race, social class, etc., and the pain of being a survivor in a church that doesn’t prioritize relational safety.

What about the sacraments? My mystical, physical union with Jesus in the Eucharist is my strongest reason for choosing church attendance over quiet reflection with Morning Prayer on my iPhone. When I see my fellow parishioners approach the altar rail, our relationship becomes solemnized, revealing a dimension of interconnection beyond ordinary acquaintance. I sense the possibility of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something I can access in solitude.

Surely the official church still has a monopoly on this power…or does it?

Feminist Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote the following in her book Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

The residue of clericalism gives even liberal Protestants the impression that the administration of the sacraments is a function that most especially must be exercised by persons set aside in specialized ministry. But, in fact, representation of the community in rites of baptism, forgiveness, or Eucharist depends very little on specialized skills of learning. It is significant that the New Testament contains many words for special charisms and skills, but that they are not identified with special offices responsible for the sacraments of baptism or Eucharist…

…[As] people become empowered to make their contribution to shaping the worship life of the community… leadership does not disappear but assumes its true functionality when it is liberated from clerical monopoly over ministry, word, and sacrament. Leadership is called forth from within the community rather than imposed on it in a way that deprives the community of its own self-articulation. (pgs. 209-10)

This radically Protestant idea had never occurred to me. I set it aside as a memorable curiosity for several years, until now, when I realize I need a healthier reason to stay than “Where else can I go?”

Codependence taints the American church’s strategies for retaining members. A quote popped up in my Twitter feed from a progressive evangelical blogger. On the Internet, I’ve seen it variously attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, Chuck Swindell, and Chuck Colson. “The church is a lot like Noah’s ark. If it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the stink inside.

As a relationship move, this is like telling your wife, “Go ahead and try to leave. You couldn’t make it on your own.” It’s a counsel of despair, casting would-be reformers within the church as whiny children who won’t accept that life isn’t perfect. Actual children, to survive, have to convince themselves that the “stink” of their dysfunctional families is better on balance than the “storm” of an outside world where they’re not yet capable of living independently. But we’re adults now. “The world” is us. A church held together by fear and shame can never help its members recognize toxic interpersonal patterns in their own lives.

When I first became a Christian, I was a young woman fighting for the right to marry and leave my abusive home. I resonated with the church’s self-presentation as a tiny raft of stability adrift in an ocean of danger. When Christianity told me that human beings were helpless and sinful, I was relieved, because that was how I felt all the time. It was validating to be able to admit my imperfections to a supportive community, not like my home where any flaw would be pounced upon. Like my mother, the traditional church faced the fact that the world is full of bullies, sexual predators, and plagues of locusts–which is true, up to a point. The church promised safety without isolation, a huge step up from my life before.

So my disillusionment with church makes me feel very guilty and sad. I feel like I’m abandoning the institution that helped me reach escape velocity from my biological family. But this, too, is part of growing up. In Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt’s essay “Healing Your Mother (or Father) Wound“, he speaks of initiation as the fourth and final stage that good parent figures must complete, to release their protégés into adulthood with a blessing.

I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Jack-in-the-Box“, where a paranoid mother creates an elaborate ruse to convince her son that their house is, in fact, the entire world. When a crisis forces him to venture outside, he at first thinks that he must be dead:

Everything before him was new. Odors filled his nostrils, colors, odd shapes, incredible sizes filled his eyes.

If I run beyond the trees I’ll die, he thought, for that’s what Mother said. You’ll die, you’ll die.

But what’s dying? Another room? A blue room, a green room, far larger than all the rooms that ever were! But where’s the key? There, far ahead, a great half-open iron door, a wrought-iron gate. Beyond a room as large as the sky, all colored green with trees and grass! Oh, Mother, Teacher…

The story ends with a policeman bemusedly describing the strange kid who just ran past him.

“…He was laughing and crying, crying and laughing, both. He was jumping up and down and touching things. Things like lampposts, the telephone poles, fire hydrants, dogs, people. Things like sidewalks, fences, gates, cars, plateglass windows, barber poles. Hell, he even grabbed hold and looked at me, and looked at the sky, you should have seen the tears, and all the time he kept yelling and yelling something funny.”

“What did he yell?” asked the pedestrian.

“He kept yelling, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!'” The policeman scratched his chin slowly. “One of them new kid games, I guess.”

He who loses his life will find it…

 

Hail Thee, Festival Day!

Happy Easter, dear readers! Today we celebrate the miracle of God’s love triumphing over sin and death. Two years ago, on Holy Saturday, my own little miracle came into the world:

Shane had a wonderful time at the Easter service today at St. John’s. The handbell choir was his favorite!

I bit my nails less frequently for Lent. Because I knew you all were watching.

Survivors in Church: Insights from Disability Theology

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my therapist, “Will I ever get to the bottom of this pile of bad feelings, or is this my life?” I was going through another patch of nightmares and becoming frustrated. No new information was coming up; the incidents were way in the past, by now more thoroughly re-processed than Cheez Whiz.

I’d been operating with this image of my psyche as an overstuffed closet. As long as I was awake, I could keep holding the door shut, but every time I fell asleep, some junk would fall out. Eventually, though, wouldn’t I run out of old junk? Then I would have reclaimed my entire closet, to fill only with things from my fabulous new life!

But my therapist was like, “Nah, it doesn’t work that way.”

Some feelings will shift, she said; some memories will lose their charge, others will remain very painful but arise less often. However, PTSD is for many people a lifelong chronic condition. As Buddha said about suffering in general, the biggest thing I can do to ease my burden is to stop resisting it. Stop being surprised and frightened when it flares up again. Stop being angry at myself for not being “done” healing. There is no “done”.

I was thrilled!

It was a relief to stop blaming myself for my scars, and the survivor-introvert-Highly Sensitive Person in me loves predictability. But also, I was overjoyed that now I had a name for the liberal Christian indifference toward survivors, which I’d been awkwardly calling “normalcy privilege”.

Ableism.

On one level, the liberal church does a lot to ensure access for people with disabilities. Our parish, for instance, is one of the few congregations in the area with a sign language interpreter every Sunday. We’re undertaking a heroic capital campaign to add an elevator. The priest adapts the liturgy to say, “Those who are able, please stand”.

But as is usually the case in liberalism, the model is inclusion for the disabled, rather than disability as a standpoint for liberation theology. The latter, more radical posture would mean that the able-bodied/neurotypical people in charge would de-center their own experience, and invite the disabled to share what Christianity looks like in our lives.

For instance, where do we situate ourselves in the many gospel stories about Jesus healing mental and physical illnesses? (I’m treating the demon-possession stories as examples of mental illness because those were the manifested symptoms, but I don’t mean to imply the demons weren’t also real.) Liberal sermons about these stories are more likely to assume a non-disabled subject position for their audience. “We” are encouraged to emulate Jesus by healing others, or to overcome “our” prejudices about sharing fellowship with mentally challenged people. I will say that our church has made some progress beyond this narrow paradigm, through sermons about personal and family struggles with addiction, such as this beautiful meditation from lay preacher Vicki Ix at God Is Always More.

When we only talk about disability in the context of healing, that’s problematic in its own right. Of course those who feel afflicted want healing. Of course those who empathize with others’ affliction want to offer them something to hope for. But in reality, some conditions are incurable. While I don’t rule out miraculous divine cures, I feel that most of our energy should be directed toward overcoming obstacles to the disabled person’s functioning as an equal in our church, just as she is.

The pressure to manifest a spiritual happy ending can actually impair recovery. When there is healing, particularly for psychological conditions, it may not even be recognized by the non-afflicted, because they’ve been steeped in the ableist cultural narrative of triumphing over the disability rather than embracing it. For example, survivors who claim they’ve forgiven the abuser and released all angry feelings get more credit for being “healed” than survivors who have gone deep enough into recovery to feel righteous anger and finally love themselves.

Alongside the theology of healing, we need to develop theology that honors the disability as an genuine alternative way of being in the world. This is how some hearing-impaired people feel about Deaf culture. The autism community also includes many who want to celebrate their neurodiversity rather than eliminate it. In my recent post about survivors’ spiritual gifts, I suggested that the church could learn something unique from our trauma history and how we adapted to it.

The foregoing discussion owes much to Kelby Carlson’s essay “Crooked Healing“, which I found when Googling disability theology. Carlson, a music student and evangelical Christian, suggests that disability can be a vocation and a symbol of the universal human vulnerability that calls for God’s grace. Some quotes follow, but please read the whole thing here.

…It might seem strange to some that, as a lifelong person of faith, I would find the other’s desire for prayer to be so hard to respond to. Prayer is supposed to be an instrument of gratitude, intercession and doxology. But as a person with a disability, there is a shadow to the element of prayer cast over any interaction that directly involves my disability. As someone with a chronic (and, barring incredible medical advances, permanent) disability, this is a perennial problem I must navigate as a member of the church and aspiring theologian. On the face of it, this request for prayer seems harmless, even beneficent. But it is nearly always accompanied by an explanation: “I want you to be healed.”

But what is wrong with this? Doesn’t the Christian religion hold out hope of ultimate healing? Doesn’t God promise physical restoration to those who have faith in his righteousness? Don’t we, as people of God, long for the day “when there will be no mourning, nor death, nor crying, nor pain?” Insofar as this vision seeks to give a glimpse of a new creation, reconciled to God, where we are in full communion with each other and with Triune Being, than I can only heartily affirm such an idea. But lurking beneath such a portrait is something that is far more troubling. It is the erasure of the past, and the elimination of disability as a means of living well before God…

****

…The project of constructing a theology of disability needs to steer between two unhelpful shoals. The first shoal is a kind of non-redemptive liberation theology. Liberation theology is generally conceived of as a project to free marginalized people from oppressive theological systems. Unfortunately it tends to ontologize whatever its marginalized category is—for example, conceiving of God as ontologically “black”, “female”, or “disabled”—and thus reconstituting the relationship between God and the world in such a way that God is eternally hostile to categories outside of that ontology. This way of conceiving of theology is unhelpful because it both goes beyond Scripture in adding to God’s attributes and refusing to stand under Scripture and acknowledge God’s desire for universal reconciliation. In this way much liberation theology is fundamentally “non-redemptive” because it collapses finite reality into infinitude. This is especially unhelpful for disability because it cannot acknowledge a progressive or redemptive goal into which disability might fall.

The opposite danger is to collapse disability into a grand narrative of sin in such a way that redemption of disability becomes redemption from disability. For those suffering with chronic disabilities, this means that their continuity of identity is effectively destroyed by an anomalous resurrection. Resurrection as conceived this way is not a renewal and transfiguration of an old creation, but an erasing of the old to make way for something completely new. This leaves those with lifelong disabilities left with no theological anchor by which they can live out their experience in relationship to God and the world…

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…There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”

This doctrine of vocation restores the image of God to the disabled. In response to the worry that disability is evidence of sin, one can reply precisely to the contrary. While brokenness itself is evidenced of a creation longing for release from bondage, an individual’s disability is, subversively, a venue for Christ to display his glory…

The theology of the cross is a particular way of doing theology that disabled people can uniquely understand. It is the theology that acknowledges the “visible” things of God: namely the cross of Christ and visible suffering as the premier way of “seeing” God. God’s grace is manifested, paradoxically, in that which appears weak and nonsensical. In this view, one cannot blithely skip over the cross as a simple means to God’s vindication and resurrection. This results in an anemic view of suffering: something that is meant only to be patiently endured in the hope that perhaps someday things will get better. In contrast, St. Paul offers a paradigm for understanding weakness and suffering that is directly consonant with the theology of the cross [the thorn in the flesh]…

****

…The cross brings all ideas of human weakness into itself. Individually, the disabled can recognize the cross as the nexus of their relationship with Christ in his weakness, and realize that possessing a “thorn” is a means of grace in weakness rather than shame. Ecclesiologically, the disabled can be recognized as, in an important way, ikons of Christ’s redemptive suffering…

Have a blessed Good Friday, dear readers.

Donal Mahoney: “Easter at the Nursing Home”

Reiter’s Block welcomes back regular reader and contributor Donal Mahoney. The characters in Donal’s poems are drawn from our everyday life, but the issues they confront have cosmic significance. They’re fresh and down-to-earth yet also timeless, as the gospel stories must have sounded to their original audience.

Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had work published in various publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his earliest work can be found at http://booksonblog12.blogspot.com/.

Easter at the Nursing Home

When bread
is this good
a morsel

will suffice
and when wine
is this good

a sip is enough
for the wraiths
and specters

coming toward
the altar now
on crutches

walkers
in wheel chairs
celebrating

the last Easter
some of them
will know

as they await
a resurrection
of their own.

A Tale of Two Devotionals

Every year I receive two Lenten devotional booklets from charities that I support, Food for the Poor and Episcopal Relief & Development. The charities have similar missions to relieve poverty in developing countries, through direct aid and (in the case of ERD) micro-lending and educational projects to help the locals become self-sufficient.

The booklets, though, are quite different. FFP’s cover image is a soft-focus painting of Jesus bowing his head in prayer, while ERD’s is a photo of smiling African women working at their small business. Both booklets start each day’s reading with a Bible verse. FFP follows the verse with a one-sentence personal discipline resolution, such as “I will do something kind for a stranger today” or “I will fast from a meal and spend the time in prayer”. ERD’s daily readings are 2-3 paragraph reports on projects like well-digging in Nicaragua.

Reading these side by side each morning, I have complicated, confused feelings. It’s good for me to have an additional daily practice to meditate on Bible verses, and to keep the poor in the forefront of my mind. Yet I struggle to find anything that speaks to my own spiritual state.

ERD’s happy tales of service projects in faraway places epitomize the liberal mainline churches’ flight from belief in a Savior who is not ourselves. It’s not that these projects are wrong — although distance can dangerously oversimplify the actual benefits and downsides of foreign aid. Rather, it seems to me like an unfortunate narrowing of our spiritual imagination when we transform the church into UNICEF, especially if we’re partly motivated by a wish to dodge theological controversy.

When I hear “Feed my sheep,” I don’t just think of the bottom layer of Maslow’s need pyramid — literal food, shelter, etc. People need to be fed with consolation, defense against injustice, insight into our sins and sorrows, transformative hope. Not only do I fear that the Church of Social Work can’t offer me this food, I am more saddened by the sense that it doesn’t value my gifts, as it doesn’t support my vocation to feed others in these ways.

FFP’s is what I would consider a true devotional guide, giving daily prompts for self-examination and repentance. Here, I can’t blame my discomfort on the church not being church-y enough. This booklet is focused on quintessentially religious concerns. Instead, I’m realizing that maybe I don’t want to become the person that Christianity seems to say I should be.

Take, for instance, the resolution “I will forgive someone who has hurt me”. The only people I’m still angry at are the abusers in my past. They haven’t acknowledged their wrongdoing, let alone repented and tried to make amends. They probably aren’t capable of it, and I wouldn’t be safe spending time with them to find out. Does forgiveness have any meaning in such a one-sided context?

Beyond that, it’s not
conducive to my sanity to be obliged to forgive my tormentors. Sanity
means feeling whatever way I genuinely feel about them at the moment,
and seeing the situation as clearly as possible in all its complexity.
That freedom is the only antidote to the brainwashing I endured.

Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Maybe they’re talking about cultivating a state of mind that doesn’t take offense easily, being quick to forgive irritations and mistakes by people who I know are basically trustworthy, when my reactive ego doesn’t get in the way. But although that’s hard work worth doing, I don’t think the command was meant to be watered down like that. Jesus said “Forgive those who persecute you”, not “Stop glaring at your husband for using the sink when you want to make breakfast, and instead thank him for washing the dishes.”

This forgiveness thing is pretty central to Jesus’s teachings. I want to be honest and not twist the Scripture so that it “really means” what I believe is wholesome and holy. But I also don’t believe that forgiving an abuser is some spiritual ideal that I, in my brokenness, have not yet reached.

I became a Christian because the religion’s understanding of human nature rang true to me. I hope I don’t have to leave because it no longer does.