Let Us Have Gender Freedom . . . and God Sees that It Is Good

The announcement that the Trump Administration is considering fundamental changes in federal regulations to enforce strict binary gender norms for all Americans is distressing, demeaning, ugly, to say the least. However, it occurs to me that this may be a good time to reflect theologically about gender; can those of us who oppose the various attempts to control others’ bodies find guidance from biblical texts and spiritual reflection? 

I have been engaged in various small ways supporting transgender people for many years, including during my time as Pastor of MCC Richmond VA where I worked closely with an active trans community on several projects. 

Additionally, over the past several years, I have begun to identify as gender queer—still am comfortable being a man in my birth body, but clear that my understanding of that gender differs from the norm. This process began many years ago when I started wearing long, dangly earrings that many say are feminine. (see my earlier posts, “Choosing to Be Me Again” and “Why Do Watches Have Gender?”). 

More recently, as the controversies swelled about bathroom and locker room usage, I began to reflect theologically about gender and specifically about the movement by many, particularly in church and government, to enforce rigid gender norms. 

The Apartheid of SexI begin from a truth I learned long ago from Martine Rothblatt in her book, The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (1995). She writes

“There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities. Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.”  (xiii)

Of course, we know that skin tone and gender play powerful roles in how society is organized but her point is apt: neither makes any real difference, except as society creates and enforces, and we often reinforce, structures to keep these two aspects of ourselves in line. 

She also wrote that it is time to end the classification of people by sex, “because in truth our sex is as individualized as our fingerprints and as special as our souls (my emphasis).” (157). I hope to return to this proposal on another occasion. 

As special as our souls…………indeed. There’s where God comes in. 

The Hebrew text in Genesis 1:27 reads, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Jewish Study Bible). Those who seek to get everybody in one or the other box, male or female, rely on this text and others to say that what God has ordered must be followed. 

Of course, there are a number of objections to be raised about these arguments. First, for me, is the reality that the Bible, in Hebrew and Christian texts, makes many claims about what God orders and commands. Some faithful people believe that every word is dictated by God, but even if you do, and I don’t, we still have to engage in interpretation to understand what the commands mean for us now. My point: We don’t actually have any assurance that the statement in Genesis 1:27 means that there are only two genders. 

Second, could it not mean that God’s creation of each human involves our being some sort of combination of both? A footnote in The Jewish Study Bible, for example, says, “Whereas the next account of human origins (Gen. 2:4b-24) speaks of God’s creation of one male from whom one female subsequently emerges, Gen. Chapter 1 seems to speak of groups of men and women created simultaneously.”

Elohim in HebrewA note in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, points out that the Hebrew for God in this passage, Elohim, is actually a plural (literally “gods” or “powers”), but is ordinarily treated as a singular noun. “This verse and two others (Genesis 3:22 and 11:7) are notable exceptions. The ‘us’ has been explained as the majestic or imperial plural; others see it as God including the angelic host; still others, as a reflection of the more ancient polytheistic roots of the story.“ (There are times when the word is used of lesser, foreign gods, but to the best of my understanding and searching these three instances are the only times in the ancient text has God referring to God’s self as “us.”)

Might another way to read that is to see is that these groups, and God, are not as rigidly defined as we have been taught to believe? We now know, thanks to genetic studies, that many of us are not purely one or the other, that our genes are combinations of X and & Y chromosomes in varying proportions. I think of “effeminate men” and “mannish women” in this regard, Among some Native American tribal traditions, Two Spirit persons exhibit behaviors and attributes of both genders and are considered to have special spiritual powers. Is not God all of these, and more? 

However, theologically speaking, there is a larger issue at play here. When we interpret biblical texts—and that is what we always must do, interpret them because we cannot ever be absolutely certain of the intention by those who repeated these texts and eventually wrote them down—what is our standard of interpretation?

Do we interpret in opposition to what we see around us, that is, do we insist that any new realities discovered since the texts were recorded and canonized be disregarded and/or declared the work of evil forces? Or do we seek to bring the reality in front our eyes and the texts into harmony? Do we see in the texts the promise of more wisdom or do we simply repeat the wisdom from before? Do we let creation unfold or do we insist that God created everything eons ago and nothing has changed? 

Indeed, do we let God continue to create or do we give God thanks for what God has done and then, in effect say,” Stop God, we don’t want anything new, don’t give us any new ideas, any new information?” In my view, this is idolatry, creating a false idol, calling it God, and insisting that there is nothing new in God’s universe. 

Queering ChristianityWhen human beings play God by not letting God be God we suffer. In this case, transgender, gender variant, gender queer, folks suffer. What is being considered by the Trump Administration is codifying that which was never meant to be codified, at least not by God, who is the author of change and growth every moment of every day. 

As I have written elsewhere, “We serve a God who is always messing with our all-too-human arrangements, our desire for things to be neat and tidy and easy” (See “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God, Who Is Always Up to Something New” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, Shore-Goss, Bohache, Cheng, and West, eds. Praeger 2013). 

In that same essay, I quote Lisa Isherwood and the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, 

God dwells in flesh and when this happens all our myopic earth-bound ideas are subject to change; the dynamic life-force which is the divine erupts in diversity and the energy of it will not be inhibited by laws and statutes. Far from creating the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, this dynamism is always propelling us forward into new curiosities and challenges. It does not shut us off from the world; it is the world drawing us into more of ourselves as we spiral in the human/divine dance (“Queering Theology,” in The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God, and Politics, T& T Clark, 2004). 

This proposal by the administration—and supported by many in various religious groups—is anti-God. They claim they are serving God, but it is a hollow God they serve, as indeed are all our efforts to contain God in our self-justifying insistence on things remaining exactly as they were (or at least as we think they were). 

Biblical literalismWe must of course oppose it, and all like-minded efforts to limit and even eliminate human and natural diversity from the globe. It is always a tall order to stand against forces of repression and injustice, against those who refuse to see God really at work in changing us and the world. 

But we can do so knowing that God’s creation has many more than two genders. Indeed, the creation of genders is an on-going act of God because God is still creating humans.  Further,  even as we labor as faithfully and courageously as we can and as we know our own limits, God is not going away, God adapts and prods and beckons us in directions new to us (though not to God).  I say this not so much to offer comfort to those under threat from this proposal and many other efforts to limit humanity, but rather to affirm the reality that all things are, despite opposition, becoming new. 

Thanks be to God for all we have received, are receiving, will receive!

Keep It Moving

Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?

A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.

The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times of  September 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander. 

Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change. 

On the Other Side of FreedomFor me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.

Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated. 

A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course).  That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes, 

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.

We are not the resistance photoWhen I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).

We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist. 

And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” 

In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson,  his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change. 

Deray McKesson
Deray McKesson

I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout. 

I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough. 

“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle. 

He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice.  I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well. 

“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington). 

McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me. 

But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:

I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life. 

Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives. 

Michelle Wallace

So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled. 

I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward. 

When Do I Use My White Voice?

cropped-cropped-robin-head-crop-from-j-wayne-higgs.jpgI have been reading about a new film, “Sorry to Bother You,” and I intend to see it as soon as I can.

I was drawn to it by an article in The Washington Post, “With an Accent on Whiteness: The Tricky Art of Code-switching or Changing Your Dialect to Fit Your Audience.”   It is not that I, a born and bred WASP, have not added a drawl (though still definitely revealing my Midwestern white upper-middle class, highly educated roots) to try to charm church members in Richmond, VA on Sunday mornings or other audiences as I traveled the length and breadth of that state seeking to build support for LGBT rights and marriage equality. I suspect many do versions of that at one time or another.

Sorry to bother youHowever, the article, and this film, are examining and demonstrating something outside my experience, namely the pressure Black people experience, especially in business and professional settings where white people predominate (and are the customers), to adopt a “white voice.” The film focuses on how this works in telemarketing.

In another article in The Post, it is revealed that the filmmaker, Boots Riley, drawing on his own experience in telemarketing, sees the film as a serious indictment of capitalism—how the Western economic system uses the need and desire for money to shape (and warp) people, at least on the surface, into people they are not.

Our economic system and white supremacy are deeply entwined, and have been so for centuries, certainly beginning with slavery as well as genocide towards Native peoples.

This all fits rather neatly with a book I am reading, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, by the distinguished social theorist, sociologist, and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos. It is a very dense book, and I am only a small way into it, and will undoubtedly write more about it later. I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. E. Francisco Danielsen-Morales, for leading me to it.

The book is about undermining Northern/Western ways of thinking and speaking and theorizing (hence his use of “epistemology,” the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope), and allowing Southern/Eastern voices to be heard, and to shape and change and even overcome and displace, Western methodologies of thinking, speaking and theorizing. However, I am already finding it helpful in thinking about internal social conflict in the United States.

Epistemologies of the SouthAs  I read the two Post articles about the film, I was reminded, so very clearly, of three basic ideas the author of the book says are key. I quote from the first paragraph of the Preface:

First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammar and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.

In other words, as I read Santos, the virtual exclusion, in most (overwhelmingly I think) social systems and ways of thinking in the United States, and in the one-third world of mostly the north, of non-Western experience and wisdom leads to a paucity of real-world life, knowledge, and wisdom. In other words, we, most of us, live in a dream world constructed by powers, economic and political to be sure, designed to keep us in line.

I feel as if my eyes are being opened by this film and by this book, and I will not, I hope, ever again be the same. That is a big claim, especially when I have not even yet seen the film or finished more than the first pages which lead to the introduction! But, I already sense a shift in me.

use your white voiceFor one thing, despite years of study of and writing about white supremacy, I never had thought seriously until now that I speak in a white voice. Of course I do; I don’t know any other, I was not exposed to any other as I gained language skills as a child and an adolescent.  By the time I was a college student  and seminarian I certainly had heard other speech patterns belonging to other people and groups, but by this time I was firmly ensconced in my white roots.

This language regime is, it seems to me, one of the great powers of white supremacy and colonialism because it affects not only my/our speaking and writing but even more deeply our thinking and acting in many ways.  If I, we, as white people can’t (and refuse to) hear it or see it, it is hard to think it especially if you are rewarded, as we are, for our ignorance and limitations.  In the film, the Black protagonist, Cassius Green (portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield), is well rewarded for using his white voice.

As the film and book claim, capitalism, so deeply ingrained in the Western economic and social, indeed political, epistemology, rewards us, those like me who do not realize we have choices as well as those who know there are other choices but who seek to gain by adhering to the norm through social acceptance and potential mobility, and just cold, hard cash (or at least the promise of it).

I also realize that something as basic as grammar is a form of social regulation, setting standards for what is acceptable writing and speech. Grammar is not neutral, in that we, at least many of us and certainly me in my formative years, were taught that saying some words or using certain language patterns marked us as uneducated or uncouth or ignorant or all of the above. There are patterns of social class indoctrination in all this.

The neighbor boy
from a poor family talked a lot,
always violating at least one rule.
My mother said it was sad
that he will grow up being devalued.
Such a nice boy, she said.
(from a draft poem, White Voice)

However, until reading about the film and opening Santos’ book I had not thought much, if anything, about racialized grammar. I don’t remember any of the very few Black people in my growing up who spoke like that white neighbor boy, or even some other way. They all used good grammar.

I remember Mrs. Kendrick, our cleaning lady, responding to offers of a second helping at lunch with words I still cherish and sometimes use, “No thank you, I’ve had a  great plenty!” Her number and case of nouns and verbs always matched. Her son, who worked a time for my father, spoke quite eloquently.

James Baldwin 1And then there are James Baldwin and Dr. King and Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X, too, who said hard things but always used “good English” (and the first two, at least, more eloquently than most white people).

But would most of us have listened if they had not?

Perhaps that is the nub of this. If you, Black person (or LatinX, too) want us to take you seriously, you’d better use proper white English. Save your other voice, your more authentic voice, for talking to your nonwhite friends.

To be sure, we white folks inherited this system, but we still enforce it—by any means necessary, Malcolm might say.

It’s time to change, to undermine the racist, class-bound, and gender enforcing power of language.

More in future posts about some options.

Unlock the Trap–Part 1

 

“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” 

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Note to the reader: This is the first installment in what I hope will become some queer theological conversation, aimed most specifically at the faith community I love, Metropolitan Community Churches, but also available and helpful to any persons or people who seek wholeness and justice for all. I begin with some story, and then in subsequent posts will move to some analysis and theology. I invite your response at any time. 

I came into Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 2001, in my middle 50s, through MCC New York. I appreciated the racial, sexual, and gender diversity of the congregation and the focus on social justice in preaching and mission. Rev. Pat Bumgardner rarely missed, and still rarely misses, an opportunity to connect biblical readings with contemporary events and our spiritual and ethical responsibilities, including racial justice.

MetropolitanCommunityChurch New York
MCC New York

But in retrospect I realize that dialogue about white racism, privilege, and supremacy, was not part of congregational life. I don’t mean Rev. Pat and Rev. Kristen Klein-Cechittini, the pastoral leadership during my time at MCCNY, failed to preach about it (they certainly did), but rather that we did not have facilitated, ongoing, intentional conversations within the congregation.

Please understand I am not engaging in after-the-fact criticism of them or other leaders, who did and do so much to promote justice (and may have done much to promote dialogue after I left in 2003), but rather to reflect on why even progressive congregations and leaders so often fail to engage this topic, especially in sustained dialogue, that is so central to the social fabric of the United States. And I wish to hold myself accountable for my participation in this failure.

When I came to MCCNY I had completed a Ph.D. in Theology at Disrupting white supremacy from withinUnion Theological Seminary in the City of New York. My doctoral work and dissertation were focused on the theological value, beauty and power of darkness, especially in the writings of James Baldwin and Audre Lord. I had learned a lot about white supremacy, privilege and racism, and was actively engaged with two other colleagues in theology and ethics on a book of essays, Disrupting White Supremacy from Within: White People on What We Need To Do.

But I did not apply any of that to my life in the church, even when I became the Director of Adult Christian Education.

In 2003, I was elected pastor of MCC Richmond, Virginia. The city proper has a very significant African-American population, approximately 60% in 2000. The suburban counties around Richmond were far more white, 20% non-white, or even less depending on the jurisdiction.

Among other things, the Search Committee and Board charged me with diversifying the congregation. When I arrived there was one person of color, an Afro-Caribbean woman, in regular attendance.

MCC Richmond exterior
MCC Richmond

I included racial analysis in my sermons, made a vow to myself to include each week a quotation by, or reference to, a person of color, and I laid plans for observing Kwanzaa right after Christmas. That first year, all but one of the readers in that service were people of European descent.  One young African American man who had started coming with his white husband shared in the readings. We put kente cloth on the communion table.

I do not know if those steps, which I continued for the remainder of my time as pastor, had anything to do with slowly rising African American attendance at worship and the gradual inclusion of African American members in leadership. What I believe jump started that trend more than anything was that several transgender African American women, some would say “divas,” started attending church.

Their presence was visible—they did not shy away from being very much noticed. When one, who was widely known as a performer in the community, was murdered and I was asked by her mother to offer the eulogy and our church to host what became a standing room only funeral, there was a noticeable uptick in attendance and involvement. The death was tragic and awful, but it did open some doors for others.

I prevailed on some of our white leadership to join me for the post-funeral repast in the neighborhood, usually avoided by white people as an unfriendly and dangerous area, where she had lived and been shot. That opened the eyes of some of them—they discovered that these neighbors were good people and that they need not be so fearful.

Those changes did not necessarily alter the reality that most white members did not socialize outside church events with Black people, or have close African American friends. In fact, a reality I discovered during my candidacy to become pastor—namely that white people danced at one gay club and Black people at another, and the white people did not even know the name or location of the other venue—continued to be the norm until I left the pastorate in 2013.  There were individual exceptions, but they were few.

Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union Unversity

I knew the name and location of that club (although I do not remember it now) but I never visited it, never even asked any parishioners or others about it. I decided at one point to seek connection with African American clergy but after a couple of less than satisfactory forays I did not persist. I did try to build some connection with the dean and faculty of the seminary at Virginia Union University, an historically Black institution.  But I did not put much energy into it, mostly attending an event from time to time. And other than members and leaders of the church, I did not seek out African American friends.

What I am hoping to discern and convey in this personal history are the dynamics at work in me, in the congregation, and possibly in those in the African American community to whom I reached out. I do this not merely as an historical enterprise but also as a way to better understand how white supremacy/racism/privilege worked, and works yet, in my life–so I can live now in ways that diminish their power.  As a queer theologian, I think stories, actual lived experiences and bodies, are vehicles for creating understanding and change.

As Baldwin said elsewhere, “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.” It is possible that my story here may also help other white people in the MCC movement, and in other contexts, to examine their own stories and unpack the dynamics at work in them—in order for all of us to do more concrete, effective work to overcome the power of white supremacy, to dismantle the trap, in our church and our world.

In my next post here, I will offer some reflection on this history, sharing what I see as some of the underlying power and privilege dynamics at work. In the meantime, I invite you to ponder these observations and to reflect on your own stories—as part of beginning to understand the history in which we are trapped and to learn how to break free of it and change ourselves and the world.

Make America Kind(er) Again

My husband Jonathan has a friend who had some buttons printed up in response to the MAGA (Make America Great Again) campaign. His version of our national need is Make America Kind Again. He gave Jonathan several and I wear one on my coat every day.

However, from the first I have wished it read, Make America Kinder Again–because, frankly, I am hard-pressed to say that I think America has ever been truly kind. Our history is rife with the bodies of Native Americans, African slaves, and African-American men and women, as well as Japanese-American citizens imprisoned and LatinX people victimized by law and society–as well as gay and lesbian people denied civil rights (and not the only ones by far, at least we could vote!) and transgender people under assault every day. Then, there is the lack of universal health care for millions and a tax and economic system that clearly favors those who already have vastly more than enough to meet their needs. The rich are getting richer and the rest of us are forced to make it possible.

At the same time, of course, our national history is also a story of righting wrongs, of freeing people once considered less than human. That story is far from done–Native American claims to dignity have yet to be addressed in ways that would be concretely just and healing, and the same is true for African Americans. And now, the President feeds prejudice against peoples from other less-than-fully-white lands. But still we have tried, and in some ways succeeded, in ameliorating some of the worst behavior that marks our national story.

So we may not be kind as a nation, but we do seek to be kinder. At least, that is how it seemed to me until recently.

Our focus has shifted from living the American Dream–liberty and justice for all (and not just in the United States)–to grabbing what we can, while we can, everywhere we can, so no one can get more than we have.

In the process, we are becoming not only less kind to the rest of the world, but also to each other.

An article from the Atlantic Monthly, “Trump and Russia Both Seek to Exacerbate the Same Political Divisions,” makes the interesting, if not worrisome, point that creating and ratcheting up divisions with the American electorate serves the political aims of both the President and the Russians. Much of the article is grounded in some studies of social media sites and their reverberation through the body politic–including sites and drivers clearly linked to Russia intelligence agents.

The author, Conor Friedersdorf, takes pains to note that he thinks the motives of each are different–the President is not seeking to destroy our political system, e.g.–but that the electoral fortunes of the President and the GOP and the success of the Russian intent to disrupt our republic are both tied directly to heightened levels of social division.  The more we distrust one another, the better each of these forces will do.

Friederrsdorf argues that it is vital for internet users–on all the social media platforms–to “show more charity to competing political tribes and exhibit less pessimism about U.S. politics.” He admits there certainly is “homegrown ugliness” (how could this not be so in a nation so drenched in the blood of white supremacy, among other things?), but he says all need to be aware that some of the off-putting behavior and attitudes is “fakery” dreamed up by agents of a foreign and unfriendly power.

In short, we can be kinder, even if we find the opinions of others outrageous–or if not kinder, then at least less vituperative and angry than we may initially feel is justified.

I admit that this is not an easy prescription for me at times. I can become very angry, outraged, at some of what I can only see as ugly and stupid opinions and claims of fact. I want to strike back with a righteous fury.

But I recognize that such reactions give only momentary satisfaction–“so there!” I am saying, in a juvenile vent–and ultimately work against the very causes in which I am so invested.

Ursula K. Le Guin

In her loving tribute to the recently deceased Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood quotes Le Guin writing about anger.

“Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense. . . . Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice. . . . Valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.”

As a queer theologian, seeking not to be automatically and constantly bound by any of the ordinary strictures and straitjackets of religion and society, I certainly understand the necessity for anger. As Le Guin writes, anger drives resistance to injustice. As Fenton Johnson wrote in this month’s Harper’s (THE FUTURE OF QUEER: how gay marriage damaged gay culture), the work of LGBT liberation movement especially in its earlier manifestations, and most assuredly the massive queer community response to HIV/AIDS, were each driven by anger.

Johnson is, in my view, too harsh in his criticism of the movement for marriage equality. I think he has a rather one-dimensional view of gay, or queer, culture. At the same time, he is right to insist that being queer requires significant vulnerability, that indeed, love requires the same thing. And he is right to say, that “what defines queer, finally, is not what one does in bed but one’s stance toward the ancien régime, the status quo, the way things have always been done, the dominant mode, capitalism.”

James Baldwin

With such a perspective, I seek here to suggest that resistance to injustice, to social straitjackets and oppression, requires not only righteous indignation but also love of the very deepest kind. Fenton quotes my hero, James Baldwin,

“Love has never been a popular movement. . . . The world is held together—really it is held together—by the love and passion of a few people.”

I agree with Fenton that the number of people who evidence love and passion is greater than Baldwin implies. But I know that we always need more of those people. And I know, I do know, that their number will only grow to the extent we are actually willing and able to be vulnerable enough to love even those who hate, or seem to hate, us. That love may well be driven by anger–as my teacher, Beverly Wildung Harrison, wrote long ago, the power of anger drives love–but it is the love that creates change that lasts.

Kindness is the method, the action, of such love, not so much romantic or erotic love (although eros is never absent in our lives) as love for the survival and thriving of every creature, human and not, on earth, indeed love for the survival, renewal, and thriving of the planet.

Let us be kinder.

 

 

 

 

 

How Mature Is it?

Back in mid-October, when I posted “Inaugural Address,” I expected to be back here within a week or two. It has now been almost seven weeks.

I have been busy, yes, but also discouraged. I felt shut down by WordPress, the hosting site for this and other blogs in which I participate. A day or so after “Inaugural Address” appeared, I heard from one of their “Happiness Engineers” who told me this blog, The Naked Theologian, would be labeled “Mature Content.”

At 71, I am surely mature–at least in body–so I suppose I should not feel bad. But, of course, they do not use the age of the blogger to make this determination. Instead, as you might suspect, this label is because of the presence of a naked body or two, and maybe even the name of the site. .

WordPress_logo4WordPress has a policy which they were quick to send me when I objected. They said it was nothing personal–why do authorities so often say that, when what they are doing feels very personal to the person to whom or about whom it is being done–it is just their policy to label the appearance of a naked body as requiring a special level of maturity. In other words, young people might be injured were they to stumble on the site, as well as those for whom the naked human body is offensive, based on religious belief, or simply makes them uncomfortable. They can see the site if they choose, but in doing so they signal they do not object to Mature Content. As you can imagine, there are restrictions on how the writer and blog readers can link the blog elsewhere on WordPress and this blog will never be featured on “top ten” list or in the WP Reader.

Included in that policy is the prohibition of blogs that promote sexual abuse, pedophilia, sexual acts that might be perceived as pornography, sexualized violence, etc. I am glad for that portion of the policy but wish somehow it was not connected to the simple fact of bodily nudity.

But I recognize that our society, and much of the world beyond the United States, is not comfortable with, indeed often appalled and deeply offended by, the naked human body. Even the sight of a mother baring a breast to nurse her child can create panic among some people (as happened here).

nursing motherSo, why have I been slow to write more here? In part, I was looking for alternative  host sites where this blog and its sometimes naked bodies would not be labeled or in any way restricted. But I stopped that some time ago, as I realized that Tumblr (where I once had a blog for People of Faith for Equality in Virginia) and others that appear more open also use the Mature Content label for nudity, etc.

Still, I did not post here. I am realizing that the response of WordPress tapped into my own issues of body-phobia, the lurking feeling that somehow, despite how much I like being naked, it really is not okay.

My answer today: Nonsense.

Further, this is a theological blog, not a blog about nudism or naturism (which I practice as much as I can). It is about being open as the tagline says. And that includes being open to Creation, all that God has brought and is bringing to life. The human body is a beautiful creation in all the trillions of forms it takes. Thanks be to God for your body, my body, all bodies!

If this sounds like a bit of repetition from “Inaugural Address,” so be it. Sometimes, this writer needs to write  to help himself get real and accept the full import and power of the call on his life to speak faith to power (even WordPress). In other words, I need to claim my own maturity.

I can’t promise I won’t revisit this topic in the future, but I expect to be posting more frequently and about other theological topics very soon. I hope you’ll stay tuned, and tuned in, even if in doing so you may experience Mature Content.

Inaugural Address

Welcome to the inaugural post on The Naked Theologian!

I began a blog in this space some years ago, while I still lived in Richmond, VA, where I pastored the Metropolitan Community Church. Then it was called “Robin Gorsline’s Blog.” Later, in keeping with my commitment to the importance of social change—promoting justice and equality for all—I changed the name to “Make Love. Build Community.”

I still believe in that truth—the more love there is the stronger the community, and it is up to us to do the loving and building—but it’s time for another change.  Despite the new title, this blog is not a nudist blog, in the sense of focusing on nudism, or as many call it, naturism, and related activities, although I, and maybe others of my friends, will appear naked here and I will sometimes talk about nudity.

Robin standing hands open by Wayne
Photo by J. Wayne Higgs

I have claimed the mantle of The Naked Theologian because I am a theologian and I spend many of my days naked (and would like to spend all of them this way)—and because I believe that our world desperately needs to accept and celebrate the gift of our bodies, our “creatureliness,” in all their wondrous God-given varieties.

As a theologian, poet, and citizen who cares about healing the world, I want to help overcome body- and sex-negativity, including white racism and supremacy and male supremacy, hetero-supremacy, ableist supremacy, ageist supremacy, in my own nation and around the globe.

I especially want to do this for and within faith communities, certainly in my own beloved Metropolitan Community Churches—because I believe that distortions of religious teachings, especially in my faith tradition, Christianity, have been the greatest source of body-and sex-negativity and related social ills.

I also am taking a stand here as a 71-year-old cisgender gay man (who often feels gender queer), whose body is far from buff and who has suffered for most of my post-pubescent life with feelings of inadequacy about the size of my genitals.  When I first felt a call to claim the moniker of The Naked Theologian, I reacted negatively, saying to myself, “You can’t do that, you don’t have the body for it.”

But as I prayed, and discussed it with my husband and several friends, I came to understand that this wrinkling, “small-packaged,” somewhat overweight elder body could be one God will use to convey the truth about the beauty of every divinely ordained human body (which is every . . . body).  I pray that through this blog more and more people will stop judging not only the bodies of others but perhaps most importantly their own.

Adam and Eve in Eden nakedThe more we can stop dividing people into categories—based not only on gender and gender identity and race and sexuality, but also on age, ability, body type, ethnicity and national origin, religion, dress (including undress), and how well we, they, measure up to restrictive, even punitive, advertising and fashion standards—the more peaceful we will be, as individuals and as societies.

The biblical vision of Eden keeps calling to me. I have in my mind’s eye, in my heart of faith and love, in my soul, a video of the first humans and birds and four-legged and creeping creatures, as well as the flowers and trees and running and still waters, sky at night and day—all parts simply enjoying life together.

I believe the patriarchs used, and continue to use, one part of that story as a way to create control, through the suggestion of body shame between those whom they named Adam and Eve. Somebody had to stop all this freedom—things would get out of control and pretty soon people would be deciding, for and by themselves,  all sorts of things, including when they wanted to be naked and when they wanted to be dressed (as in when temperatures dip or the sun feels too hot or just wear favorite cloth on a special occasion).

The Dinner Party large view
The Dinner Party installation by Judy Chicago

It is not a formal theological text, but the artist Judy Chicago’s untitled poem which accompanied her installation “The Dinner Party” expresses much of what I believe is the true message of Eden. Her artistic vision has been criticized as incomplete in that the installation—a table with place settings for 39 significant, powerful women—not only has only one Black woman, Sojourner Truth, represented, but also unlike the other 38 whose portrayals focus on their vaginas, Truth is shown without her genitals and with three faces. Still it is a powerful artistic statement about the centrality and power of women in our world.

The Dinner Party Emily Dickinson
The Dinner Party, Emily Dickinson

Chicago composed this untitled poem which I have long admired and considered almost a personal credo, even though it perpetuates the gender binary (the art and poem were shown for the first time in 1979).

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again

As I begin this phase of my blogging journey, my prayer is that we learn to live free and easy, knowing that we, body and soul, are good, as God created long, long ago, and keeps creating every moment of every day.