You Will Be Assimilated

Everyone likes a good story. We grow up with Aesop and Little Red Riding Hood. Stories that contain some kind of moral. There are the stories of Christmas with that old elf in Red. Stories of wonder. Tales of ancient heroes and travelers. Stories of adventure. All good stories capture our imaginations. They carry us to distant lands and worlds. They, in a way, form connections between us and the characters, our past, our lives. Stories can evince within us an emotional, even spiritual, identity with our world and ourselves.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “it is affirmation that story is true and takes us beyond the facts into something more real.” More real than our empirical Western minds can describe. For story unveils the true world that facts and figures cannot possibly discern. Things that reveal the deep longing for that which is truly “real”. The Germans gave us a word to describe this: sehnsucht. This may be defined as “Spiritual yearning; a longing after a higher, unbroken and eternal world in which something that is adumbrated in the images of stories – and in life itself truly perceived – will be real, and a conviction that that world is one’s true “home.”

So, what is story? Why is it important? Do we have one?

I think that many of us, in the U.S. particularly, don’t appreciate the power of story. Or, at the very least, we don’t recognize it in our lives and culture. In most parts of the world there is an ancient culture that has nurtured it’s own indigenous story for many thousands of years. We can look at the indigenous nations of North America and find a rich heritage of story passed from one generation to the next for over 10,000 years. These stories were born out of intimate relationships with Creation, especially the Land. Deep roots grew into the rich earth where indigenous Nations dwelt. This is spirituality that flourishes in gratitude and relationship to each other and every part of the Cosmos. Creator God was busy building God’s own relationship with these people. In a very true sense, Indigenous people understand the mandate to steward the land and its resources.

But, what about us? What is our connection to this land, the beings who live here; the People who live here? I don’t think that we who came across the ocean have a story. Well, we do. It’s a story of conquest and murder. We hail from people who, like the Borg of Star Trek, came to assimilate anything and anyone. “Resistance is futile.” Our fathers uprooted themselves and left their stories behind. In fact, I think that many of our ancient stories were lost as we assimilated another one. We took and owned the story of Israel and her Messiah. That story became ours. We even changed the Jewish Messiah, a Semitic man from the late Temple period, into a white savior with long brown locks and a Roman nose. By taking Israel’s story, her connection with her land, and making it our own we were cast adrift from any true moorings to our own land and history. And, without those deep roots to original cultures, we cast about for any other story that could fill the void of our loss. Yeah, Israel’s story helped. But, it wasn’t quite ours.

As we came to this land, new to us, we brought our assimilated story. This story formed our thinking and our way of life. The grafted connections to an ancient Near Eastern people had mutated and became a story of conquest. We overwhelmed the original inhabitants of this land through force and deceit. We stole their land and their lives in the name of our story. We then worked to assimilate these people. In the words of Steppenwolf, ‘the whole world’s got to be just like us.’

In the process of assimilation we attempted to graft onto ourselves the stories of the Original inhabitants. We appropriate what is rightfully theirs and made a cheap mockery of them and their story.

What would happen, though, if we honored their story as THEIRS and learned from them? If we let them tell their story and, if they were willing, to share in their wisdom and understanding of this land? Maybe we could be equal partners in the care and stewardship of this land. I’ve often thought about the Europeans’ so-called divine mandate to colonize these lands. What if there truly was a divine mandate to sail to these shores so that WE COULD LEARN FROM THE PEOPLE WHO LIVED HERE. Instead, we came as rude intruders who burned and destroyed. Our Christian lust and greed decimated the people and laid waste to their land.

The real sad part of this story is that we are the same as our ancestors. Nothing has changed.

We have no story of our own. We have no roots. As the French say, we have no raison d’etre. When will we humble ourselves and seek the forbearance of our Original hosts? I believe that our very survival rests in the wisdom and knowledge of these people. They have the true story of how to live here.

Can we set aside our murderous arrogance long enough to listen?

 

 

Human Trafficking/Human Tragedy…Our Tragedy

As I was going through some old material I happened upon this piece that I had submitted to the NY Times in January 2013. During the current election cycle Ohio Senator Rob Portman is using his work on Human Trafficking for his campaign. So, I thought that I would publish this now. I can’t express how important this issue is now…today…in 2016. Follow the links and do some digging to see if there’s a way for us all to help free the oppressed. As Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

endhumantrafficking January 22nd marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade. Few topics engaged human emotions like this one. Battle lines were drawn and the battles fought. The benefactors of the decision found that their rights as human beings in the U.S. were vindicated. Women across the country were released from the shackles of a male dominated culture. And, they are adamant that those rights will not be taken away.

On the other side, people decried the violence that was allowed to be perpetrated on the “unborn innocents.” Their right-to-life beliefs empowered a backlash against the Supreme Court and the government. To this day they maintain that an unborn human must have the same rights and protections as any other person.

The position of those who proclaim Right-to-Life has grown to include topics beyond abortion. They are against any kind of euthanasia or medical procedures that may bring about death. Removal of life support apparatus can be anathema for these folks. But, there is another area that has as much to do with a person’s right to live as any of these. It is something that very few, if any sermons will be preached about on Sunday. It is the problem of slavery and human trafficking. Women, children and men whose lives are owned by someone else; people who have no rights to live, only to obey their “master.”

I first learned of this problem through a fellow student in graduate school. She was from Argentina and became a staunch advocate of human rights for those caught in the web of human trafficking. I began to learn about the problem and realized that it is part and parcel about a person’s right to life. A good definition of human trafficking can be found in documents from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Quoting from their website, at http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html, it reads, “Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” This definition is comprehensive in its scope. It reveals the lengths that some people will go to in order to profit from the lives of others.

In the U.S., trafficking shows up in exploitation of some migrant workers and their families. But, perhaps the most heinous result is the sexual abuse of girls and women. One article reported in 2011, “Each year, 100,000 to 300,000 American kids, some as young as 12 years old, are exploited in the sex trade.”[1] This particular article revealed that major cultural events are used by human traffickers to sell their victims.

To me, this underscores the culture of power and dominance that is so prevalent in the U.S. People’s rights, that are supposed to be guaranteed and protected under the Constitution, are trampled upon in the name of cultural acceptance. Rev. Jennifer D. Crumpton wrote, “But we also must go deeper to honestly examine our accepted social structures and our systemic commodification of the bodies of women and girls in our arts and entertainment, our media, our sports, and our general corporate and consumer marketing.”[2] Yet, we do not “go deeper.” We prefer to avert our gaze from the reality that in 2013 America, people are commodified and enslaved for personal gain. We choose not to get involved while the “Right-to-Life” of thousands of our fellow human beings is taken away from them.

There are many resources available that people can utilize that can help to educate and bring to light this horrible blight on our society. One is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Their website offers information that can educate as well as provide resources for involvement. (http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/index.html?ref=menuside)

The Salvation Army offers support at their PROMISE website for people who are caught in human trafficking, as well as for those who want to help. (http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/www_usn_2.nsf/vw-dynamic-index/F71E07755654D27A85257440006860F9?Opendocument)

A quick search on the internet for the various state’s Attorney’s General will provide a wealth of information that can enable people to learn what their own state government is doing in the fight against human trafficking.

It’s not enough to sit and point fingers at Pro Choice or Pro Life adherents. It’s also not enough to define Right-to-Life by one issue. Hundreds of thousands of living, breathing people do not have a Right-to-Life. We must stand up for them.

 

[1] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-01-31-child-prostitution-super-bowl_N.htm?sms_ss=email&at_xt=4d4d83322a2ff345%2C0, accessed January 10, 2013.

[2] http://www.newevangelicalpartnership.org/?q=node/109, accessed January 9, 2013.

 

Matthew Walsh and American Privilege

flag_art_rainbow_flag_1978_nov-1331pxA friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article written by Matthew Walsh entitled,  “This is my homophobic rant against Michael Sam.” He asked me to comment on it. So, being the easy-going, un-opinionated person that I am, I decided to accommodate that request.

On first reading, I found so many holes in Walsh’s position that I almost decided not to bother. It would be like going to a carnival and playing a game of ‘Throw the Bean Bag through the Hole and Win a Prize’ with holes 24” in diameter. I’m going to win that giant stuffed platypus every time.

But, then I began to think that perhaps I should. There are many misconceptions about the way in which Michael Sam presented himself to the world. This has tended to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many people. Questions arise about the propriety of Sam ‘coming out’ to excessive media attention and hoopla. Then, of course, there was ‘the Kiss.’ I could just see Tony Perkins throwing up in his mouth a little. So, I decided that it might be helpful to share a little critique of Walsh’s article.

In a word, Walsh’s entire article rests on one word, privilege. Privilege is what those whose worldview is considered the ‘Norm’ exercise. That means that there is a tendency to view everyone and everything through the lens of that privilege. For those of us who are white and protestant that means that everyone is viewed as the equal. At least to a point. We think that since we and our forebears were able to carve out a life that seems normative…we can usually find a job, buy a house, purchase food and clothing for our families, and pretty much speak our minds freely and openly… then EVERYONE can. That leads us to view those who seem to be whiny about having few opportunities, hunger and lack of clothing or shelter should just get their act together and get a job. We also tend to think that these ‘others’ are simply lazy and looking for handouts and some kind of ‘leg-up’ in order to take what is ours and spend it on expensive cars and gadgets. Of course, it couldn’t be because there is a real need. If only they’d get off of the collective, lazy asses and help themselves. After all, this is the land of opportunity.

The problem is, that’s a fallacy. All people don’t have equal opportunity. There are cultural and class biases that blinds the privileged and keeps a foot on the neck of those who are not. Our opinions become the norm against which all other worldviews are measured. Because we compare everyone to ourselves, we don’t listen to what these ‘others’ are saying, let alone try to empathize with them.

So, let’s take a look at some of Walsh’s statements.

He wrote that he is not a “bigot, and…not ‘homophobic,’…I generally carry about my day very much unconcerned with [their] sexual proclivities,” he somehow felt the “need to be a voice of reason amidst this whole spectacularly ridiculous charade.” Why? What made him think that he alone could possibly be the only voice of reason?

Privilege.

In the article Walsh goes to great lengths to equate being gay with “sexual habits.” Stating that, “what you do in your bedroom is between you and whoever you do it with.” He appears to be taking the high road and conceding that gay sex is OK, but please, I don’t need to hear about it. And, he’s correct. It is no one else’s business. But, he totally misses the point. Being gay is NOT about having sex. It’s about whom one is as a person. There are many LGBT people who state that when they were adolescents and the hormones started kicking in, they felt attraction to people of their own gender. This became their identity just as it does for heterosexual youths. It was not something they chose, but the very fabric of whom they were as people. Note, this has nothing to do with the bedroom. But, people like Walsh make that unfounded leap when speaking about gays. For them, being gay is all about what happens in the bedroom. It can’t possibly be about caring people who simply want to be open about who they are. Therein lies the greatest challenge and fallacy that we privileged people need to deal with.

The other main point of Walsh’s article had to do with the ‘big deal’ everyone was making about Sam. After all, how many people who are drafted that late have ESPN show up at their house? Let’s see…I can count them on no fingers. The media painted the event as ‘historic.’ And, the privileged just shook their heads and wondered why? What makes this slightly above average athlete special?

On the surface there’s really nothing special about Michael Sam. In fact, it’s probably unlikely that he’ll even make the Rams’ final cut. I agree with Walsh that “Sam is a small, slow, middling prospect.” There are certainly better players who could have been the center of media attention. But, that’s not the point of this event. People of privilege don’t have a clue about what it’s like to be marginalized in society. Whether it’s race, poverty, gender, sexual orientation or nationality, white America doesn’t see any disparity. But, I haven’t read any news stories about a young man committing suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge because a secret video was made of him kneeling beside his bed praying. Nor, have I heard tell of a teenager who was assassinated in a school classroom because he was part of a before-school Bible study.

By coming out and standing in front of the cameras, Sam has shouted that it’s OK to be different. Young people who wrestle with their very identity have a positive example of someone who is like them. Someone they can look to for encouragement. If events like this can help one person, young or old, to accept and embrace who they are, then the attention given Sam was worth it.

Finally, Walsh and others think that the attention given Sam is indicative of some kind of anti-Christian movement in the culture. They site Tim Tebow as their poster child of the growing persecution of the religious. To that I just say Poppycock! No one has taken anyone’s right to practice, nor speak about, their religion. As Hemant Mehta wrote recently, “…a lot of conservative Christians…also felt the media’s positive reaction to Michael Sam was unfair given that everyone trashed Tim Tebow because he was a Christian! (Don’t even bother trying to point out that Tebow was pilloried for not being a very good player and that his religion had nothing to do with it.)” Had Tebow been able to lead a team…any team…to success, no one would have cared about his religion. If Brett Favre or Dan Marino had chosen to kneel and give thanks it would have been fine. But, Tebow was a hack. That’s why so much attention was given to his religious practice. There was nothing else to talk about!

We have choices that must be made. We can take a stand for human dignity, or we can dig our heels in and try to hold on to our privilege. I truly believe that this so-called battle over LGBT rights is over. Now, it’s just a matter of letting the cleansing breeze of God’s Spirit carry away the smoke. It is simply unethical to demean and diminish people for being born a certain way. Until that happens I’m sure that we will continue to see people like Michael Sam portrayed as pioneers who forge trails into new and uncharted cultural territory.

Matthew Walsh…not a homophobe? Yeah, and Donald Sterling’s not a racist.

As always, feel free to leave a comment. How have any of you experienced privilege, or lack of it?

Reflection on the Incarnation

Hand of GodThe past month and a half has been a time of deep reflection and introspection for me. The Ignatian exercises have taken me on a journey in which I’ve been compelled to visit my humanness in the light of God’s grace and mercy. Some of what I’ve experienced has been in the realm of Darth Vader…the Dark Side. As I’ve sat with Jesus and allowed his gaze to penetrate into the depths of my heart, I have realized my complete identification with the whole of humanity and the world. I am no different than anyone else. I am not exceptional in relationship to any other member of God’s good creation. We are all part of the whole that God called ‘tov me’od’…very good.

As I began to live with my own humanness, which includes all the crap that I’ve done to myself and others, I had a palpable awareness that God was smiling. Far from what I have been taught by people, that God is angered by our shortcomings and failings, I felt complete acceptance. I began to realize that through God’s pitching God’s tent among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God learned first-hand how frail we are. Compassion and empathy grew within God’s heart and God really and truly has become our advocate through Christ. How this all works I haven’t a clue. What I do know is that God is glad to be with us…no matter what.

This morning as I was contemplating the Incarnation, I was directed to consider the world and all of its inhabitants. I thought about the nearly 7.2 billion people who inhabit this planet. We all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or any other perceived differences are part of God’s shalom community. We are, in some way, related one to another. So, my thoughts wandered to those who are lonely. (In a world with more than 7 billion people the idea of loneliness boggles my mind.) In that context, we have failed the lonely. I think of the young man whose struggles with his sexuality ultimately cause him to give up and take his own life. We have failed him. The young woman who experiences separation from all, including herself, so that she turns to cutting in order to feel anything. We have failed her. To the other young woman who is afraid of the New Year holiday because she may be alone. We have failed you. I see the bodies of young children being buried because they did not have the necessary food and water to survive. We have failed them. I feel the pain of the homeless people freezing on our city streets. We have failed them. I view the sectarian violence that destroys lives and mars the image of God in each person. We have failed them.

Then, I wonder…does God feel failure, also? Has the reality of the Incarnation allowed God to feel and experience the depths of human depravity and inhumanity? I begin to glimpse a sliver of God’s compassion. I see that God…Emmanuel…feels empathy for/with us. Is there hope, then, that the failure can be turned to triumph? As I reflected on this, I heard that inner voice that I’ve come to identify as the voice of Christ say, “I am forever human. I know the way that we should go. Compassion, love, justice. Always seeking the good and illuminating the bad.” (NOTE: NOT condemning!) “Embracing each person, community and culture as expressions of God’s own image.”

With that, I wish for all of us to experience and celebrate the Incarnation of God at this time of year. I think that the folks who think that there is some sort of war on Christmas need to walk away from that. Rather than shouting, ‘Put Christ back in Christmas,’ I would encourage us all to BE the Christ in Christmas.

Who’s Your Best Friend? Pt. 2

orkut_friends_for_ever_scraps3This is the second part of a series about the possibility of women and men building ‘best friend’ relationships. As I reflect and write about this topic I find that it continues to morph and grow into something more than a simple yes or no can address. Yes, there will be a part three. And, at this point probably a part four. We’ll see where God takes us.

Last week I began writing about relationships between women and men here. Particularly, on the possibility of them being ‘best’ friends. I stated some of the common objections to these relationships. And, I began to deconstruct some of those objections as having their origins in a particular, privileged male view of sexuality. I pointed out how this view demeans and silences women, as well as reinforces the image of how poor, weak men are bound to be ensnared by the sexual wiles of women. I feel that view of sexuality is pretty much crap talk. I’m not about to go along with any position that unfairly labels women as sluts or gives men a pass on their own, personal faults. What I am going to do today is try to unpack some of the issues regarding cross-sex relationships.

When I was a young boy most of my best friends were other boys. We played in the woods and climbed trees. We raced bicycles and played baseball. We prided ourselves as being true ‘He Man Woman Haters.’ However, I knew who the fastest kid in our class was. And, she could beat any one of us boys in a foot race. When teams for kickball were chosen, I tried to make sure she was on my team. In the classroom I spent more time with the girls because they were smarter than most of my guy friends. It always helped to be on their team during spelling and math contests. Many times outside of class boys and girls played together. (That is, as long as the girls didn’t want to play house. Yuk!) The point is kids know how to be friends with anyone, regardless of gender. But, something happened as we got older. Our bodies began to change. Hormones started messing with us. Parents and other adults started telling us that boys and girls needed to start preparing for marriage. Physical pressure, peer pressure and social pressure built to the point of bursting. I’m surprised anyone survives this! All of the sudden…the innocence is gone. Now, we have to learn a whole new way of relating to one another. The girl who once was one of my best friends has become a sexual object. Not because we chose that path. But, because others defined it for us.

I want to be clear about something before I continue. In this series I’m not addressing casual or professional acquaintances. These relationships are viewed as completely necessary and acceptable by most people. I am writing about the possibility for women and men to have relationships in which their hearts are knit together. In which they become kindred spirits who support and encourage one another. In essence, they are best friends in every sense that implies. However, they remain just friends.

Impossible? I don’t think so. Let’s take time to look at some of the issues.Please note that these are serious issues. Many good people and relationships have been shipwrecked because of them. So, I do not take them lightly. I do, however, want to place them within a context that may, perhaps, shed some light on them and offer hope to people who may feel lost and hopeless.

In my last post I shared a video clip from the movie, “When Harry met Sally.” Billy Crystal’s character said that it was impossible for women and men to be friends because ‘the sex part’ always gets in the way. I think there’s some truth in that statement. Whether it’s always an issue, I’m not sure. I do know that in many cases physical attraction and desire are potential deal breakers. I don’t want to belittle this issue, but I think that we need to understand that ‘the sex part’ is totally natural. As I wrote before, we are sexual beings. However, we tend to obsess over this. Especially, in the purity culture, sexuality is whispered about or it is ignored. This sentiment seems to have its roots in how the early church incorporated the Christian scriptures and Greek philosophy, particularly Plato. That view divides the unseen ultimate concept of things from their physical representation on earth. The physical is always something ‘less than’ the ultimate, non-physical reality. The church began to understand that the spiritual reality, therefore, is something to be sought after. The physical, or the ‘flesh,’ was something to be despised. Spirit=Good; Flesh=Bad. However, the folks who wrote the First Covenant did not seem to view humanity like this. Theirs was a wholistic view of people. It looked more like this: Flesh+Spirit=Soul. This view honors the whole person. We can accept and embrace ourselves as God’s image bearers in God’s Good Creation. I truly believe that grasping this is the first step in freeing ourselves from the prison of shame and false modesty. That freedom is necessary for openness and friendship to be established between women and men. Freedom can be won when a person admits and owns their sexuality. When I confess that, yes, I am attracted to this person, I don’t have to hide it or deny it. I can embrace it. After all, this ‘sexual’ me is part of who I am…who God has formed me to be. By not giving into shame and obsessing over my human nature I don’t empower it. I can simply admit that it’s there and move on. I do not have to gratify it. It took me a long time and some monumental failures to learn this. And, it wasn’t until I realized that one of my best friends is a woman that I began to understand that embracing who I am is one of the greatest safeguards against pursuing ‘the sex part.’

There is another potential hazard that I think is vital to understand. It is, perhaps, even more important than this one. But, you’ll have to wait for part three for that.

How do you feel about your identity as a sexual being? Is it possible to accept and embrace ourselves as whole persons and share that with others?

Who’s Your Best Friend? Pt. 1

Best-Friends-Closed-Friends-keep-smiling-9934190-1024-768This is part one of a discussion I’ve been considering for quite some time. And, it has been one of the most difficult pieces that I’ve attempted to address. At this point I can only say that there will be at least a part two. Maybe, more. I will publish part two next week.

A couple of months ago I read a post over at Rachel Held Evans’ blog. It was a guest post written by Alise Wright entitled “Not ‘Just’ Friends -Thoughts on cross-sex friendship.” Alise has her own blog here. The piece was a critique of the common assumption that when women and men get together, they cannot possibly be friends because the ‘sex thing’ will always rear its hoary head. I read the post and comments. I chased several links through many other similar posts by other authors. And, I noticed that this topic was addressed mostly from a women’s perspective. Other than a few comments, I did not find any posts written by men about this. While I thought this was a tad odd, I was not surprised. I find that, in a broad generalization, men are somewhat reluctant to discuss matters that touch on ‘cross-sex’ friendships. So, I thought that I would offer some reflections from my very male perspective.

I can only speak to those of us who live in Western culture. For much of the world, gender roles are specifically delineated. For instance, in parts of the Muslim world, women are totally segregated from men. Different clothing and different rules for appearing in public are written into civil law. In these instances the kinds of relationships I want to discuss are simply not possible.

However, in the West we are not subject to such strictures. Overtly, there is an understanding that women and men are equal and, therefore, are able to seek whatever companionship and camaraderie they desire. (Although, covertly there is still a long way to go before ours is a truly egalitarian culture.) But, are we able to simply ‘be friends’?

The embedded clip from the movie “When Harry Met Sally” is actually a pretty accurate assessment of what many people think. In the circle that I’ve been a part of for the last 30 or so years people will swear by this. It’s the gospel. Men and women cannot be trusted to be together outside of state and church sanctioned wedlock. And, to be quite honest, I have experienced the difficulties and consequences of relationships like this. They can be extremely precarious. As I was training for various ministry positions and even at seminary, we were often told that the best rule to protect oneself and one’s reputation was to simply avoid being alone with someone of the opposite sex. (Or, with someone who is the gender that one is attracted to.) This ‘necessary’ precaution would provide a barrier against ‘impurity’ or even the appearance of impropriety. In practice this would mean that pastors and counselors could not meet with these people behind closed doors. Or, at the very least, windows should be installed so that nothing could be hidden from view. Meetings with cross-sex colleagues and coworkers should be avoided. And, never, ever was it appropriate to go to lunch or spend non-official time with them. These rules were put in place to protect individuals from following their inherent ‘lust’ from spilling out and contaminating everyone.

This way of thinking has naturally grown out of what has become known as the ‘purity culture.’ In this culture two characteristics predominate. The first characteristic is that women are Jezebel seductresses who dress and act in ways that are designed to capture men’s imaginations and cause them to stumble and fall. Members of this culture decry the way women dress, particularly in the summer or in warm climates. I heard one church leader say from the pulpit that he hated summer for that very reason. This position not only objectifies women in a negative way, it opens the door for shaming that always demeans and silences women. The second characteristic is not unlike the first. This suggests that men are weak, carnal beasts who cannot control the sexual lusts and desires that the seductress women cause them to have. (Please note, it’s the women who bear the onus of this charge, not the men.) Both of these characteristics diminish people and marginalize them. The scriptures tell the story of humans created in the ‘image of God,’ as eikons who represent God on Earth. Granted, humanity is fallible. We are not far removed from other animals. We are, in a word, sexual beings. But, to reduce us to the two characteristics mentioned above is to caricaturize people. It also tends to cause folks to obsess over the issue of sexuality. Much like telling your child not to eat the cookies, continually telling people that they must avoid any kind of behavior that may smack of impropriety may, in fact, draw them into it. I think that there must be a better way to address cross-sex relationships. A way that not only honors marriage and family, but that allows people to express their love and friendship freely and without all of the baggage of the ‘purity culture.’

In my next post I will share some of my thoughts and reflections about how we may have and enjoy these relationships. I would also like input from readers.

How do you view cross-sex relationships? Do you think that it is even possible to have them and not engage the ‘sex thing’? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Whose Side are You On? No.

liberal-conservativeFor anyone who has been awake in the U.S. in recent years, the conflict between conservatives and liberals, right and left, has taken center stage, not only in the political arena, but in economics, religion and anywhere else that people can stand against one another. We have all witnessed the vitriol spewing all over broadcast and social media. And, I suppose that many of us simply cannot identify with everything being claimed and counter-claimed by pundits and so-called ‘experts’ who speak and write with self-proclaimed authority. I know that I can’t. In truth, I cannot align myself with either side in these arguments.

One of the problems is that we have allowed these people to define and shape the discussions. Regardless of the issue, there always seems to be someone willing to stand up and ask, ‘Who’s with me? Who’s against me?’ Immediately the line has been drawn and everyone is expected to stand on one side or the other. Then, we can all snarl and growl at each other. What if we were to say “no, I don’t feel like playing those games? Too many people get hurt.”

I used to play, though. For years I stood on the left of the line. Those were the days when I was a young, naïve idealist. I really thought that the folks of my generation were going to stand up and change the world. We watched as American apartheid was dismantled. We were front row witnesses to the downfall of a president and the end of, what was up until that time, the United States’ most unpopular war. People were being liberated from constructs and systems that had bound women, the poor and people of color for centuries. (Well, at least we thought so.) Then, as I grew older, got a job, married and had children, I heard a voice from the right, ‘red rover, red rover, let Mikie come over.’ And, I did. The idealism of my youth was slowly replaced by pragmatism. The reality of caring for hearth and home turned my gaze inward. It was more important to feed my family than to concern myself with feeding ‘those’ people. Yeah, we dipped our toes into the humanitarian pool by supporting organizations that helped others. But, by sending a check we didn’t need to really think about them.

Then, a funny thing happened, though. My inner idealist woke up. I began to see that the conservative blood that was coursing through my veins carried no nutrients to my soul. The polarizing effect that is inherent in so many of the discussions and decisions that I was party to simply drained me and left me with a conflicted identity. Seriously, I really didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. So, I moved back toward the left. This, too, was not satisfying. What we call liberalism today is empty. It has its roots in the enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries. At its core is the belief that human reason can lift humanity to higher self-realization and prosperity. Liberalism exalts individuality even as it strives for a sense of communal accountability. The modernist ideal that grew during that period brought about giant leaps in technology, science and medicine. It also was at the foundation of White privilege and Manifest Destiny. These caused unsurpassed damage to indigenous people worldwide and environmental destruction beyond reason. So, no…liberal doesn’t fit me.

I do lean to the left, however. I stand firmly with the 99%. I support LGBT people in their struggle for rights and identity. I think that the Affordable Care Act is a great step forward, albeit, not the final step. Food stamps and other tools that can help people who really need help are good. I also feel that infatuation with the military can only cause harm and hardship. Some people might say, “Yeah, looks like a liberal and smells like a liberal. Gotta be a liberal!” Well, let’s not jump there so quickly. Over at Homebrewed Christianity, Bo Sanders has written some good stuff on the differences between liberals and what has been termed Progressives here and here. While I don’t pretend to fully understand all that Sanders wrote, I do notice that the emphasis appears to be more on the community of believers rather than on the potential of human individualism. For me, then, the concept of a body that has a source outside of human achievement begins to come into focus.

Perhaps the most distinguishable difference, at least for me, is the reality of the transcendent. I embrace the mysteries of faith. Those things that human reason simply cannot grasp, but are real. I believe in miracles. I long for the transformative nature of God’s Holy Spirit. I embrace the relationships between humans and the Good Creation. Relationships that are more than simply utilitarian. We are more than organic mechanisms, yet less than divine. It’s because of this that I must support organizations and policies that are designed lift people out of misery. That’s why I cannot support Western arrogance and militarism. That’s why I give my hand and my heart to those deemed ‘less than’ or ‘other.’ No, I’m neither liberal nor conservative. I’m simply a human being.

Therefore, What God has Joined Together…Sometimes Gets Broken

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” These words written by the apostle Paul to the folks who followed Jesus in Rome are included in his description of what a community of people who are being transformed from those who live according to the rules of human culture into a spiritual community. These people, he stated, were in actuality part of a single ‘body.’ They were a unified whole in which each part was dependent on the others for their very existence. This is a way of viewing our interdependence with others that has, for the most part, been lost to Western culture. It has been also lost in the one place that one would expect to find it…the Church.

We followers of Jesus have been known for a long time as one of the few groups who shoot their own wounded. When life gets tough and some of us struggle to move, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, we often accuse, shame, and shun that person. I’ve seen this happen in others. And, I’ve experienced it personally.

Please understand that my intention is not to bash anyone. I know these people. I have been these people. They have good hearts and desire more than anything to serve God. But, we all get caught up in a righteous fervor from time-to-time that makes it difficult to get past the letter of the law to the graciousness that God has exampled for us in Jesus.

With that being said, I am going to turn my attention to divorce. I am not going to quote statistics other than to mention that the divorce rate among people who follow Jesus is pretty much the same as those who do not. Some say that anywhere from one third to one half of all marriages end in divorce. Whatever polls are used, that adds up to a lot of hurting people.

How should we respond to this? Should we follow the letter of the Scriptural prescription? Jesus made it very clear that divorce was not God’s intention for people. He is recorded as saying, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” There’s nothing ambiguous about that statement. Divorce is not an option that God desires. Many people in the church read this statement written by Matthew and conclude that divorce is therefore a sin. God said it. I believe it. That settles it. But, what does that look like in real life?

I had a friend many years ago who was in an abusive marriage. At times she feared for her safety. She and her husband went to church leaders for help. Much of what they received in counsel was that the husband needed to learn to love her sacrificially, just as Jesus loves the church. And, the wife had to submit to her husband no matter what. That meant that she was told to stay with him, abuse or no. At one time she became so afraid that she left to find a safe place to stay. She was commanded by the church leaders to return to her husband. Confused, hurt, and shamed she acquiesced and like a good little wife, went back.

After time, however, the fear and tension in that home became too much to bear. She moved out and began divorce proceedings. Shortly after this she received a letter from the church leadership stating that if she and her husband moved forward with a divorce they would be considered to be actively sinning and would no longer be welcome in the church. They did divorce and are now both remarried and seem to be doing very well.

The reason that I used this example is to demonstrate, what I feel, is a pastoral fail. Again, I don’t intend this to be a personal attack on any particular group of people. This kind of Biblicist action takes place in many churches. The thought being that if Jesus has apparently condemned some action or behavior, we must condemn it, also. After all, the Bible is God’s word and we don’t want to go against that.

Ok, well, let’s take a look at how Jesus handled a situation where the letter of the law, God’s word, was called as a witness. In the Gospel according to John there is a story about a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. A group of religious leaders dragged her before Jesus and explained, rightly, that the law demanded that she be stoned to death. After all, Torah was God’s word. Jesus realized that. At no point did he deny that Moses had written that adultery was a capital offense. He could have simply agreed with those men and righteously condemned the woman. But, he did not do that. Instead, he turned the issue into an opportunity to show all of the people that we are all fallible and subject to error. In essence he said, “Let the person who is without sin throw the first stone.” No one came forward. In fact, all of the accusers turned and walked away. In the end, no one was left to condemn her. Jesus, then, said, “I do not condemn you either.” He sent her on her way with an encouragement to stop sinning.

Jesus did not do away with the law. He set it aside in order to pour out compassion on a hurt and confused woman. He reinterpreted the text in the context of real life with real people who have real needs. Yes, the Bible is clear on Jesus’ feelings about divorce. We, however, need to recognize that what Jesus said is an ideal. How we apply that must be tempered with compassion. One commentator wrote, “Only an unjustifiable Biblicism will force the idealism of New Testament ethics in a cruel and heartless manner by an adamant insistence upon the teaching of this passage, (Mat.19:3-12), as merely a collection of detailed laws.”

Whatever position on divorce someone takes, we as people who desire to follow Jesus must look closely at the things that Jesus did, not just the words that he spoke. As the quote at the beginning of this post states, we must show empathy, not judgment when our sisters and brothers are hurting. We are, after all, sewn together in a glorious tapestry of humanity. Each joined to the other in the love of God through Jesus.

Relationships can be Messy

messy relationshipsRelationships are stressful. Yeah, Hollywood makes them look all nice and pretty. Two people who are attracted to one another, walking hand in hand along the beach toward the setting sun to live happily ever after. Umm…not in this lifetime. The reality is relationships are messy and complex.

Two people sitting at a table in some bar or café see each other and smile. There’s a song playing that both of them like and they mouth the words together. One of them gets up and introductions are made. Close up, they look into one another’s eyes and a kind smile reinforces the feelings that are growing in intensity. Small chit chat. Maybe a drink or latte. An exchange of contact information. What really seals the deal, however, is if I feel that this person really likes me! Being accepted by another person is the glue that binds the hearts together.

The new couple can’t wait to spend time together. There’s so much to learn about each other. Besides, there are those tingles! You know the ones. They make you giddy with expectation. When you hear her voice butterflies flit around somewhere deep inside. It’s exciting to explore someone’s life. Especially, this person who makes us feel sooo good. We get to know what they like and don’t like. What kinds of foods are good. Music, clothes, theater…all reflecting the personality of that person who is becoming a significant part of our life. We ask each other about home and family. “Where were you born? Do you have any siblings?” We want to know as much about this person as we possibly can. Why? Because we’re genuinely interested. And, we really want them to know that we are interested!

As time goes on, though, some folks find that something’s not quite right. The mutual admiration society that was shared at the beginning becomes a tad deflated. The spots of dirt begin to appear. Disagreements arise over things that at one time enamored us. You know, that quirky little laugh of hers? It grates on us now. She used to love it when you touched her. Now, you feel her tense up and pull away. We begin to feel that we give more than we receive. (At least in our own mind.) Finances become a contentious topic. She actually wants to know your credit rating! Dirty dishes and laundry create frustration and anger. The other person never seems to be ready on time. The bedroom becomes a desert where only a few scorpions and cacti live. Messy.

As stress builds, so does anxiety and fear. Anxiety over the possibility of the relationship’s failure. Fear over being stuck in a bad relationship…for-freakin’-ever! This is when that part of our brain called the amygdala kicks into high gear. The amygdala is an ancient part of the brain that many believe “processes information regarding threats and fear.” It is important in the ‘fight, flee, or freeze’ reaction we experience when some threat or stress is present. (Brian McClaren notes that some experts add a fourth ‘f’ to the list. For them the list is ‘fight, flee, freeze, or…copulate.’) It is here that some relationships are pushed to the breaking point.

What started out so fresh and exciting has become a source of pain and struggle. Acceptance and affirmation have long since gone the way of the dinosaur. Rejection and dismissal have taken their place. In a way, trust has been broken. Disappointment and disillusionment seem to fill every moment; every crack and crevice of our consciousness. Choices need to be made…and quickly.

If one person in the relationship does not share the frustrations of the other, she/he may be able to withstand the pressure and tough it out. However, that will not guarantee that the other person will. There is a chance that the more satisfied partner may encourage some kind of counseling or intervention. Reconciliation may be possible. (Calling in the outside cleaning service to help with the mess.) Even with these measures, there’s a good possibility that the relationship will end. We humans have proven ourselves quite ready and adept at breaking relationships. For many, however, this is the only viable option that can allow each individual to maintain their own integrity as a person. Both reconciliation and separation have their limitations. Neither is perfect.

Another possibility is to stay in the relationship even though there is no longer any real personal connection. This was once encouraged by some conservative religious leaders in cases where children were involved. One such leader stated that staying together for the sake of the children is the only correct and proper action to take. I disagree with him on many levels. Not the least of which is raising children in an unloving, adversarial environment cannot be good.

Still one more option is to start the process all over again…with someone else. This path is taken by those who are afraid to lose their current, seemingly, secure relationship. Or, they truly don’t want to hurt the other person. They feel, however, there is no other way to experience love and acceptance. This is how infidelity begins and lives are destroyed. This is McClaren’s fourth ‘f’. Yeah, there’s the hope of something fresh and new. Excitement over being accepted by another bubbles to the surface. The person may actually believe that the object of their affection feels the same toward them. But, this path goes nowhere. Eventually, the other person is not going to want to play the game and will demand that this new relationship move on to greater commitment. Out of the possibilities stated here, this is the most hurtful and destructive. In its wake are only anger, frustration and shame.

Why has God formed humans in such a way that we struggle with intimate, committed relationships? Why can’t it be easy? Honestly, I have no answer for these questions. And, spoiler alert, no one else does, either. If anyone says that they do they’re either deluded or lying.

There are some things to consider, though. Throughout history there have been conflicts. Two people, or two nations, become dissatisfied with their current relationship. Maybe there is some breach of treaty or other provocation. Some of these conflicts are large, like wars and ethnic violence. Some small, like fights and arguments on the playground. God has revealed God’s self as loving and caring…unconditionally. God displayed that love by wholly identifying with the Good Creation, including humanity, through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Selflessness. In our messy relationships we have the opportunity to emulate God. The apostle Paul wrote to the folks living in Philippi,

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

We can share in the suffering of Jesus and offer our pride and our desires and, yes, ourselves to the person who has chosen us as a partner to walk through life with. Is this a guarantee that a relationship will be successful? No. In fact, I think that there are some relationships that should have never been established in the first place. These are very likely to fail no matter what the partners try. What this can do, however, is provide perspective for our desires. It can shift the focus away from what I want to what my partner wants. That may be the spark that keeps love’s light shining.

People…Commodities to be Sold? Or, God’s Image Bearers.

Slavery. What images are evoked by this word? In the U.S., I’m sure that most people think of the Antebellum South in the late 18th century through 1860. Although African people had been stolen from their homeland and shipped to this country from the early 17th century, this later period saw the greatest increase in slave trafficking. Advances in technology, most notably the cotton gin, produced a huge demand for labor in the fields. Those in the dominant culture sought whatever means that were available to produce more in order to make more profit. This included buying more slaves.

With the end of the Civil War in the U.S., many people thought that slavery had mercifully come to an end. After all, didn’t President Lincoln issue a proclamation that freed every slave? Apparently, slavery has survived. It seems that not even the federal government can effectively stop people from exploiting others for their own financial gain.

I’m one of those people who have been blissfully ignorant of human trafficking here and around the world. It was not until I was in seminary a few years ago that someone brought this to my attention. A student from Argentina began to talk about it in class. She had a passion to make modern slavery known and to fight to end it. I found out at that time that Ohio ranks near the top of a list of states in human trafficking activity. As I found more reports and stories, I realized that this is a huge problem today. I was outraged and overwhelmed. Yet, I did nothing. Yeah, I applauded the few victories that I heard about. But, I have not joined in the fight. Maybe I’m afraid. More likely, I’m just lazy.

In the last few years there have been more stories about modern slavery. One report from China told how many men had been freed from slave labor at a brick kiln. Another, just yesterday, reported on the sex slave industry operating at truck stops in Ohio. Jamie Wright, a person who blogs about the exploitation of people, wrote two posts this week about a recent trip she and her husband went on to Southeast Asia. They went with an organization called “The Exodus Road” that investigates the sex slave industry and partners with local governments and law enforcement to free the slaves and bring the slavers to justice. Jamie’s posts are linked here and here.

I have been reflecting on all of this. To be sure, I feel paralyzed at the magnitude of the problem. What can I do? What can any of us do?

Awareness. This is the first step. We can become aware that in this country, this state, and maybe in this community there are people who are being exploited in order to keep someone’s wallet fat. We can educate ourselves to know what to look for that would indicate that a person is a victim. We can join with others who are already fighting against this heinous crime.

There is another thing, however. In order for traffickers and those who support them to exploit their victims they necessarily must dehumanize them. They must see these poor, marginalized people as commodities to be traded and sold. The pimps and the johns who buy from them see only dollars, not real human people. The farmers, fishermen and other industrialists who use these people as human resources to gain profit see only necessary machinery that is needed to achieve their financial ends. Even in legitimate businesses employees are considered human resources. Just another piece of the business plan along with electrical and mechanical resources. Employees are not real people. They can be moved around and dismissed at the whim of the business owners in order to accommodate their economic ends. Even in the church we consider others as sinners…commodities that need to be acquired and assimilated. Ours is a mindset that looks at people as less than God’s image bearers and sees them as disgusting and dirty and ‘less than’ us. Of course, we would never word it like that. But, that is the attitude that flows from many pulpits.

In truth, I don’t see this problem ever being finally extinguished. At least not in this age. But, we can learn to see people as real human beings, not property or ‘resources.’ There is a passage from the Christian bible about a rich man who came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus proceeded to tell him what he must do to live in the realm of God. You see, I think the rich person asked the wrong question. He asked about eternal life. He should have asked, “What must I do to live in the realm of God here and now.” We, too, should ask ourselves that question. Perhaps that answer will allow us to see the goodness and worth of each and every man, woman and child. Perhaps then we can begin to live with and love one another in God’s Good Creation as God desires us to.