Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Why politics needs theology: or why feminism and trans rights are part of the same train


This week one of the most shared articles in my facebook news feed was the provocatively titled “What Makes a Woman” by Elinor Burkett. The bottom line of the piece was that it’s intellectually inconsistent to cheer when Caitlyn Jenner goes on national television declaring that her female brain makes her a woman and to jeer when Larry Summers idiotically says (as he did ten years ago) that women aren’t as successful in math and science as men because of differences in their brains. If Caitlyn gets certain privileges because of her lady brain, the reasoning goes, we have let Larry say mean things about us.  If men and women’s brains really are different, maybe he’s right.


Um, no.
Let me put my cards right on the table. I’m a militant nurture-not-nature person when it comes to gender differences.  I gave my son dolls and my daughter trucks. It was only when pre-K classmates insinuated that pink was for only girls that my son’s long-treasured Hello Kitty lunch box and pink sneakers were retired.   At the same time, I have (as I’ve often mentioned in this blog) all the female problems.  My confidence is shaky, my ambition second-guessed (and then my lack of ambition second guessed again. I am sometimes a square of guessing).  I have all the lady parts and all the lady problems.


But those problems are social, not biological. The lady parts are just that—parts.  Breastfeeding my children was the most embodied and holy feeling I’ve encountered so far, but that doesn’t mean that those who haven’t had that experience are any less women or that I have to be defined by my body to express my faith.  Our brains take daily showers in all the stereotypes and social expectations of the world, as Burkett’s article itself quotes: “You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year. The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment.”   Of course that has an impact. Caitlyn Jenner can think whatever “Women are from Mars, Men are from Venus” nonsense about how her emotional sensitivities make her more female as she wants.  That’s her business.


Essentialism—the idea that there is anything essentially “male” or “female” about being aggressive or nurturing (or any constellation in between)—is an old debate in feminist circles. We like it when we get to hang out with women and we feel safe. We don’t like it so much when it’s deployed as a weapon from without, limiting who we can be. From a feminist point of view, though—as the underdog in the patriarchy—we have a certain right to deploy whatever tools we want. Because we are not—at this point—in charge, we get to have our cake and eat it too.   As I wrote in many an undergraduate essay in my gender studies degree, essentialism is one tool, among many, that can be deployed at will. Using one tool along the way doesn’t mean you’ll need it every time.

Does Caitlyn Jenner have a more female brain that I do? It’s totally possible.  Does that jeopardize my or her status as women? I don’t think so.  This is where theology comes in, and why Burkett’s collision course isn’t inevitable. As long as there are feminists who want to exclude trans women, there will be trans activists who object to the idea that the play The Vagina Monologues is too cisgender (traditional birth gender)-centric. That’s dialogue, not oppression.  You can agree or disagree with either one and still fit.  Caitlyn Jenner can describe her gendered experience in a way that doesn’t resonate with mine. That’s her right.


In our baptismal covenant, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. The dignity of each person to define themselves as they see fit, to express themselves as they desire, in the place where they find God’s breath breathing most freely in them.  It’s why racist police brutality is wrong. It’s why men can stay at home with babies and women can earn lots of money. And it’s why Caitlyn gets to be herself.  These values are not in conflict.  Or, as third grader Q described his gender transition on the NPR show TheTakeway,  Instead of a dead flower, [this is like being] a growing flower.”   


While it’s true that Caitlyn Jenner’s brain has come for its first six decades or so to inhabit a world where a man is free to walk wherever he wants, as a transwoman she is exponentially more likely to face violence now. If she spent her years as an Olympian longing to be seen as someone else, even in the midst of fame and privilege, she now has the right to be as feminine as she wants.   Not because she earned it from her suffering, but because it’s just who she is. I believe her, even if, as Burkett says, “her truth is not my truth.”  Our truths don’t have to be the same to be true.  Human dignity, by definition, isn’t defined by the world. Our dignity comes from our belovedness as created by God. To extend Q’s metaphor, God wants us all to be growing flowers, period.  Whether our stems and petals match in traditional ways isn’t the point.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A book to get us to the day when we won't need a book: There's a Woman in the Pulpit


This week I’m excited to be part of the “blog tour” for There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, an anthology of writing by women clergy about being women clergy. And it’s a delightful book, with women from a wide swath of Christian denominations holding forth on everything from bedbugs in the parish library to high heels in the pulpit.  I am grateful never to have dealt with bedbugs at my parish and I’d sooner crawl on broken glass than wear high heels, much less on a Sunday.  But that’s what’s so lovely about the book—it’s like hanging out with friends.  Some are older, some are younger. We are all shades of LGBTQ and some are straight (actually I’m not sure if there are any transwomen represented).  Not the same as me, but also so much the same.

I grew up in an Episcopal Church in which I never realized until much later that women’s ordination had been a struggle: “Pastor Kay” came when I was in fifth or sixth grade. But it was a parish that never used inclusive language, so whatever the gender of the person at the altar, the wider church’s commitment to ur- patriarchy was not in doubt.   I do remember the fracas that ensued when “Pastor Kay” tried to switch her title to “Mother Kay.”  Reading the book, I found myself nodding along with women clergy who have been mistaken for the secretary, who are looked at as though they have two heads when they talk about their clergy spouse and “preacher kids” x2 (“How does that work?”).  I can relate and am grateful for these women who so graciously can explain the shimmering abyss of transcendence that is this strange vocation.   And I am profoundly grateful to be among their tribe.

“Should” we need a book like this? “Should” we be surprised that we have so much in common? “Should” it still be remarkable to have a woman in the pulpit? Of course not. And if “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” included the voices of faithful Roman Catholic or Orthodox lay women, it would be a different collection.  Would a book ever make it off a shelf if it were edited to include pieces about people who own red couches or have named their children “Isaiah?” I doubt it.   Gender is as socially constructed and random a category as any of these. But the fact is that the dominant American culture can be toxic to women. My daughter won’t face the risk of acid attack or kidnapping when she goes to school, but she will still figure out her male peers are judged as “leaders” while she’s just bossy. Or, as contributor Rev. Kathryn Johnston put it, there are advantages to being on “Team Penis.”

Are we pastors or women pastors? Priests or women priests? 
Yes, yes. Ten years into my work at my church outside of Boston, those who were a little worried about having a woman as their priest are over it. We get on with things, do the work.   I remember a line of some postmodern theorist (Foucault, maybe? Probably) about gender and sexuality to the effect that “you don’t know the sex of the hand that touches you in the night.” And surely that is true of the hand that touches the forehead of the unconscious at the bedside. The grace of God is mediated through human bodies, but isn’t gendered in God’s own nature.

I’ve written about gender a lot in this blog—even 15 years after graduating with my degree in gender studies, it still organizes my thinking. Maybe when my daughter is my age the fact that her mother was in a book about the experiences of women as clergy it will seem like a strange artifact. This book, like all the ways we tell our stories, brings us further to the new day when we won’t need it.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Wonder and Angst on Easter Friday




Holy Week was last week, the time in the church that we walk through the days of Jesus’ last meal with his friends, his betrayal, his crucifixion, and the resurrection. Every year, I summon all of my “Trust-God/Trust-Myself resources” for Holy Week, believing that what I need for each day will be given to me. And every year, it is—I usually feel fine about what I preach and what happens in those liturgies (every day at 7, with two extras this year on Thursday and Friday at noon), and always grateful for those who step up, every year, and do the whole thing with me.  With all the focus on the three days—Thurs-Fri-Sat—I never quite have what I wish I had on Easter Sunday. I never quite preach the joy, never quite capture the wonder of God raising Jesus from the dead.  The truth of Easter is that death has no power over us, the violence that appeared to defeat God in Christ is vanquished. To be very honest, Easter morning is one of those days I’m most grateful for being part of a liturgical church; we share Eucharist and we are in community—however I feel about my sermon, at the altar we will be fed, no matter what.  If I am impressive in my own attempts at articulating the mysteries of our faith--that's nice when it happens, but not the most important thing.



This year, after having gotten through Holy Week and Easter day on adrenaline, coming to Easter week has been harder. Being in Easter this week has been harder.  I have the week off from work, so no bulletins, no emails, no leaky pipes, no evening meetings.  Yay! I pick my kids up early from pre-K and afterschool, watch movies with my husband, go for long walks, read.   I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art to see "When the Stars Begin to Fall," a show of African American art from the South.   The days of this Easter week so far personally has been very, very good.  But it’s not quite felt like Easter.


Where I get stuck is that, while I get a break, even in Easter season, the suffering of Good Friday has not gone away.   Family and friends of 148 people gunned down at a University in Kenya are still grieving.  Walter Scott, another unarmed black man was killed by police for no reason, and would again have gone without justice if a bystander hadn’t recorded the encounter.  More kids without a father.  “All lives” matter, of course they do. But America  doesn’t systematically devalue “all lives.” It does not to go without saying that black lives matter, because again and again black people are killed, and seen as “less than.”  



Jesus, murdered as an enemy of the state, was interpreted as “less than,” too—a minority Jew living under empire. In his book Resurrection, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams calls him a “pure victim,” able to change the nature of reality itself because he refused to offer violence for violence. The term always bothered me—if he is distinguished as pure, what about all of the other impure victims?  Those who are slandered, those who are blamed? Walter Scott would likely not have run from the police in the first place if it weren’t basically a crime to be poor in so much of our country.  I think, too, of what was said about Travyon Martin after his death, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice…so many who did not deserve to die and so many whom our news media convicted again, as though one death were not enough.  Where is their Easter?


To put it plainly, is it good enough to say that they are united with Christ in his death and raised with him in the resurrection? Is that enough? Is it enough to say that the “pure” victimhood of Jesus Christ ends the relentless pendulum swing of violence, the perpetual motion machine of hatred and destruction that has been human society since the beginning of time, for all of us, guilty or not?



I think it is…and it isn’t.   

 We are loved and “saved” by Jesus not because of what we do, but because of what God does. It is in God’s nature to create and love, and that is what God does, spending God’s self lavishly and falling in love like an idiot every. damn. time. someone is born. However you interpret the crucifixion—whether it was a blood sacrifice for sin or an ultimate pacifist peace-creating death (or somewhere in between), God’s love is the beginning and the end.



It’s not enough just to say that the resurrection of Jesus is for all, but it’s also not enough just to protest, or cry, or grieve, or wail (though the Christian tradition is full of that—see, for example: the psalms).  You can’t just mouth the words “Christ is risen” and go home.  On the other side, nothing you can do is ever enough. This is not a reason to do nothing, but it is an important reality check in a world where we want fast answers and easy consciences. (spoiler alert: you won’t get either one). We have to work hard for Easter simultaneously as we sit down and just open our hands. It means that we have to fervently hope and believe and know that all of those who are cut down by violence rise in peace and glory, and that death indeed has been vanquished for them as well...as those of us left behind work as we can for a newer world where we are with what we have (on this, see the potter Theaster Gates, whose "Billy Sings Amazing Grace" is at the Institute of Contemporary Art--his TED talk is about the recreation of his neighborhood in Chicago as is very Eastery indeed).



So that’s me this week—reading slightly trashy novels (currently appalled and delighted by Miranda July’s novel The First Bad Man, walking along the lakes that feed the Mystic River, thinking about the change that is to be made where I am with what I have, being a couch potato in my existential angst and occasional wonder.  
  
Happy Easter Friday, everybody!

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Death Penalty: Wrong Now, Wrong All the Time.




This week, I’ve been praying around sin—appropriate enough for Lent, of course—but in particular around criminal justice as well. The trial of Boston Marathon bomber  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, of course, is impossible to ignore, and on Tuesday I was also drawn into another case through a colleague in Georgia.  Georgia was set to execute Kelly Gissendaner, convicted for her role in the murder of her husband. In her time in prison, her life was changed; she studied theology and began a correspondence with the theologian Jurgen Moltmann, ministered to her fellow prisoners and was, by all accounts, completely changed. Her story was a compelling one; Georgia hasn’t executed a woman in more than fifty years, and her story of conversion and compassion reminded me of everything we want to believe about human nature. We can change and we do change, even under difficult circumstances, even living through the consequences of the depth of our sin.  
 
For our Tuesday night services, we’re using a Eucharistic prayer from the Church in Scotland which contains this line:
Lifted on the Cross, [Christ’s] suffering and forgiveness spanned the gulf our sins had made.  

To which, of course, I would add—Christ’s ministry, and suffering, and forgiveness spanned the gulf of our sins. What I like so much about this phrasing is the visual metaphor—our sin separates us from God. We can sense that God is there, that there is hope and joy and forgiveness—but we can’t get there on our own.  That gulf of sin is not intractable.  God has already bridged it. But I need to acknowledge it as there, because without the awareness of sin, I slip into thinking that I’ve got everything figured out. Not because Jesus died as some blood sacrifice for my guilt, but because the crucifixion is a mirror of reality.  Twelve year old kids getting shot by police who are supposed to protect them, immediately seen as suspicious because of the color of their skin. Muslim women being harassed (and worse) for wearing headscarves. Synagogues defaced.  The Charlie Hebdo massacre, girls kidnapped in Pakistan and Nigeria for going to school. The Marathon bombing. Human trafficking.  The crucifixion happens every day.  When crucifixion happens, how do we respond? 

Too often, we lash out with more violence. The death penalty is a prime example of this. The old Biblical injunction “an eye for an eye” gets quoted a lot, but in its initial context, that was intended to minimize punishment, not maximize (we might also recall that Jesus said some things that un-did that logic). Kelly Gissendaner wasn’t executed, after all—after thousands of petitions  and phone calls to the governor’s office, the prison said that the drugs for lethal injection looked “cloudy.”  Maybe if all the petitions and phone calls hadn’t been made, she would have still been put to death; I don’t know.  She’s alive, though, and that is a blessing. 

In Massachusetts, no one has been executed since 1947, though governors and legislatures have tried to bring it back a number of times.  The Tsarnaev trial is a federal one, so even though our state doesn’t have the death penalty, federal prosecutors are asking for it and most of the defense, at this point, is around convincing jurors that mitigating circumstances make Tsarnaev less culpable of his crime. 

I’m not on the jury, so it doesn’t really matter whether I think Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty, not guilty, or somewhere in between.  I do, though, think it matters what all of us think and do about the death penalty itself. (It's probably worth noting that my opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances would have disqualified me from being on the jury at all). I signed the petition for Kelly Gissendaner because I was moved by her story.  I’m glad to know about her and I’m glad she’s not been executed. But the death penalty isn’t about how good or how bad the defendant is. The death penalty is about what kind of society we create. And that’s about all of us.   If we promise to respect the dignity of every human being every time we baptize someone, that includes the possibility—even the certainty!—of how those human beings fail.  We are always bound by those vows, no matter how we think we can justify breaking them. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mama Christ and God the Father


“Everyone knows that God’s beyond gender. Why does it matter what pronoun you use?”

I’ve always had a hard time with boy-god language. It was a huge thing for me in trying to come back to church after my adolescent time away, and I worked hard to uncondition myself from initial my gut-punch reaction to hearing God referred to as “he.”  I read all the feminist theology I could get my hands on in college and I wrote my master’s thesis on deconstruction, language, and religious experience.  A version of it was published in a journal 8 people read.

Bottom line: “Yes, it matters.”

Maybe it’s just me. Of course, it could just be me, uniquely tossed about on my own personal-is-political winds of fortune.  In many Episcopal churches it’s  general practice to use less masculine language when it’s convenient, like “It’s right to give our thanks and praise” instead of “It is right to give him thanks and praise” when we lift up our hearts at the prayers for Communion.  And certainly in many pockets of the church inclusive language is a priority.

But our defaults are still male.  Crushingly, my own children refer to God as “he” and I am powerless to stop it. Mean streets and what not.  My son (7) insists that this is just another thing that I, as his mother, Just. Do. Not. Get.

Again: “everyone knows” God’s not male, so who cares?

Scrupulous as I am about un-gendering my own language for God, I’ve had relatively little practice with differently-gendering my language for God.  In my commitment to God being beyond the male gender, I’ve insisted along the way also that God is also beyond the female gender and left it at that. Christian theology is scattered with images of Jesus feeding us with his bloody breast as mothers feed their babies (particularly in the medieval period, but long before then, too).  As someone who had a hard time with the stereotyped images of mothering (another piece of writing for another day) I instead have always talked generally about God as a parent, not a mother or father.   At some point a few years ago when I prayed the Jesus prayer (kind of a Christian mantra—you repeat it to yourself again and again, either in formal prayer or in the course of doing other things—sometimes “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and sometimes “have mercy on us”) I began saying “Amma, Christ, have mercy on us.” Amma is, more or less, the feminine parallel to the Aramaic Abba (which means “dad,” as Jesus referred to God).  In the habitrail of my mind, it was a nice shift. But it was just me.

Until this Lent.
I don’t know how it came about, but this year in assembling the prayers of the people for my parish for Lent, I put in the phrase I’ve prayed with under my breath for several years.  Amma, Christ, have mercy on us.   This is the part of the service where we name concerns for the church and the world, prisoners and captives, friends and members of the congregation who are ill, anniversaries and birthdays and conflict and violence and freedom. The usual response is “Lord have mercy,” but instead the reader ends each petition “Amma, Christ” and the congregation responds “Have mercy on us.”

And, have mercy. It knocked my socks off.   You might note that this is posted before the second Sunday of Lent so we’ve only done it once, but I was so surprised at how different the rest of the service felt because of it.  I am not totally thrilled with how the prayers are written—it’s really, really wordy and long—but hearing “Amma Christ” said by everyone else, not just the echo chamber in my head was, ten years into saying all kinds of masculine prayers, a revelation.

The thing that surprised me, though, wasn’t that it was nice to have my own theological preferences reflected in the worship.  Certainly that is very pleasant.

The real shift for me wasn’t in how it felt to say “Amma Christ” with my parish.

The real shift was what it felt like to say God the Father.

I am a good logicker—I can justify a lot in my head if I think about it for long enough. So often I just mentally “type over” male God language when I have to use it. I mean, yes, empirically, Jesus was male so I can’t not say “Son of God.”  The Trinity, too, is kind of a big deal, and yes, I do baptisms in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But in my mind, there’s always a little prickle of discomfort. Talking about Jesus as mother actually freed me to say God as Father without holding my breath.  And I had not expected that.   

It turns out that, yes, while “everyone knows” God is beyond gender, there is still something about how using the whole range of gender expression makes it easier to hear both the middle and the edges.  It doesn’t work just to mentally erase the male stuff (even while still saying it out loud) and not add in an alternative.   

I have a degree in gender studies. I know all of this is an accident of culture.  (though my son will be glad to explain to you how pink is empirically a girl color and the fact that it was his favorite color from ages 3-5 does not change that)

Apparently, though, however post post post whatever I want to be, I’m still stuck in the binary.  Apparently the words we use do matter.

Apparently it helps to use all of them.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Happy (yes, happy) Ash Wednesday!



I’m writing early for my parish blog post this week on Ash Wednesday, grateful for the opportunity the holiday—such as it is—offers to remember our creatureliness.  When it comes down to it, Ash Wednesday isn’t a holiday—it doesn’t commemorate anything about our story of faith or any particular person we remember or any event in the life of Jesus. Ash Wednesday instead is a gift the Holy Spirit has come to offer the church through our practice.  It has nothing to do with our virtue or our accomplishment.  I’m pretty sure it’s not our own cleverness. It’s just pure grace.

Wait a minute, Sara. I just got home from church and I listed my sins in excruciating detail--I sin against creation, against others, and against myself. What do you mean it’s pure grace? Shouldn’t grace feel good? Why can’t the church be logical for once? Isn’t this just another time the church says people are bad?

Well, sure. There is that.
Ash Wednesday doesn’t feel good like a massage or a nice curry or a walk at sunset. Still, there’s something almost exhilarating about the honesty that Ash Wednesday invites us into.  We spend a lot of time in this life trying to look like we lead well-curated, well-organized lives in which our kids always say clever things and our spouses never get annoyed with us.  Social media has not improved society in this way. In the US, at least, self-reliance is right up there with cleanliness and godliness. This month I’ve been reading Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking,  (based on her 2013 TED talk of the same name) which starts with her story about being paralyzed at letting her husband help her financially. He’s rich and famous (the writer Neil Gaiman), and she’s mortified about accepting help from him will mean for their relationship and her identity as an artist. Under it all, she concedes, is her terror vulnerability—we’re all afraid to be vulnerable. You don’t have to be a famous artist to be afraid of that (see also: anything Brene Brown has ever written).

Ash Wednesday just pulls the rug out from all of that. There’s no pretending. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  That’s it.   We are beloved and wondrously gloriously blessed by God, but we are still dust. Ad’ham, made of the earth and to earth we will return.  What a relief! I’m not perfect and I don’t have to pretend.  Widening the view toward eternity puts life in more rightful perspective—both in terms of our frailty and in terms of our power. If we are dust and will return to dust, we can also take some risks once in a while. Longing to be perfect is a pretty heavy burden to bear. You don’t have to.

The other thing that’s great about Ash Wednesday and its focus on our earthy dirty selves is that it’s only one day.  We take ONE day to look at all of this, and then we’re done. Boom, on to Lent, on to the actual repentance part.  And repentance is great—we can always turn around, we can always go in a new direction, we can always try again.   Lent is about all the ways we’re not stuck in our sin.  

 Jesus was waited on by angels in the wilderness. Does God want less for you?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

On (not) getting our stories straight: Religion and Fundamentalism



This year through both Advent and Christmas I’ve continually felt drawn toward the multiplicity of our narratives—from Matthew to Mark to Luke to John, the church has long told many stories to explain our faith. To be religious is to be bound by a certain set of questions and symbols, but at the same time to hold a radical openness to truth—to stand at the doorway of Scripture and see shepherds at the manger on our left and Magi at the house with Jesus on the right and be able to extend our arms wide and say to both, “yes,”  “thank you,” “Amen.” The shepherds teach me that God’s truth is revealed in some unlikely corners of society; the Magi teach me that the revelation of truth sometimes comes from far away.

There is much in the media this week over the attacks against the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in which twelve staff members were shot this week in an attack apparently by Islamic fundamentalists.   Is religion the problem? One of my favorite authors, Salman Rushdie, says it is, and calls it “a medieval form of unreason,” and says religion deserves our “fearless disrespect.”  Certainly I have little sympathy for homicidal fundamentalists, but it seems unuseful to lump every impulse toward transcendence and mystery in the same category. Religious violence has endured through millennia. The Egyptians oppressed the Hebrews and the Spanish Inquisition oppressed non-Catholics. Christian fundamentalists have bombed abortion clinics and now Islamic fundamentalists attack cartoonists and school girls. The thing those all have in common is contempt and violence, not religion.  Charlie Hebdo was contemptuous (and from what I’ve seen, probably racist, too)—but not violent, and not deserving of murder. It’s cruel irony that one of the police officers murdered in the attack was Muslim, risking his life to protect those on the magazine who pilloried his prophet. 

So what to do? As thousands in France held up their pens in support of the writers and artists who were killed on Tuesday, as a religious person I hold out two open hands.   I hold out open hands for mystery, for attentiveness and for curiosity. Open hands to say that I don’t come to Scripture—or even my own life!— with certainty, but with faith.  I’ll imagine the magi in the stable and give thanks for the holy strangeness of kings in a barn. I’ll imagine the shepherds at the house and hope that their lambs don’t wander into the kitchen. I’ll get out of bed every day to meet my own chaotic life of distraction and wonder—parenting and preaching and learning and falling and getting up again—through all of it so grateful for a faith big enough to hold the pieces together.

At Epiphany, we remember the magi following a star and listening to the invitation in their dream to go home by another way.  What new path are you on today?  What’s the power of your faith against violence? Where do you need the stars to illuminate your road? Where does mystery win over certainty?