Friday, April 18, 2014

The Holiest Night

Before the joy of Easter comes the cross.

My faith, shaped by the Lutheran tradition, teaches me that it is on the cross that we encounter God's most profound revelation of the divine essence.

It is not through rising in glory that God's loving nature finds its most perfect expression, but rather through suffering the most humiliating and agonizing of punishments despite His perfect innocence.

It is not through defeating death that Jesus' divine nature shines forth most profoundly, but through facing it.

It is not in seeing the empty tomb that we witness the deepest truth about God. It is, rather, in seeing the incarnate God accept the very worst that humanity can do, endure the most profound rejection, and love us still. Love us with a radical, unflagging love.

In the cross we see God step into the place of debasement, the place of despair, the place where human beings are treated like something worse than things--step into that place and say, "Here I stand."

And in that moment, every scapegoat ceases to be a a sacrifice to the gods and becomes instead what we do to God. "What you do to the least of these, you do to me." On the cross we see just what that means.

In that moment, our ultimate rejection of love discovers the meaning of a love that reaches across the gap of rejection and says, "Not even this can separate us."

In that moment, our worst afflictions become moments of solidarity with the very foundation of reality. When we feel most cut off from the good, when despair and loneliness and anguish seem to consume our souls, we discover that God is there--and not just there, but there at His most human, at the point at which the divine enters most fully into the world.

By an act of stunning audacity, God turns the universe on its head, and finds a way to be most fully present to us in that space where God is felt to be most fully absent.

The empty tomb is the effect, the consequence. The cross is the thing itself.

Today is Good Friday, Silent Friday, Black Friday. Today Christians turn their thoughts to this staggering thing.

May this holiest night rip through the veils of the ordinary and move you to wonder.    

Blog Milestones

This blog has enjoyed two milestones in the past week. First, the previous post, "Slumber Parties in the Shadow of Death: A Holy Week Meditation," was my 500th post on this blog. Given how long my posts tend to be, that's a lot of pages.

Second, my post before that one, "Anti-Gay Bigotry, Sincere Belief, and Christianity," has now surpassed 10,000 page views--a first for this blog. Most of the traffic to the post seems to be coming from Facebook, meaning that a lot of people have found it challenging enough or meaningful enough (or both) to share.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Slumber Parties in the Shadow of Death: A Holy Week Meditation

In the spring after my father’s death, on the night before Easter, my then eight-year-old son announced that he wanted to invite his sister over for a slumber party. It would involve bringing her stuffed lion-bear across the hall. And her pillow. As far as slumber parties go it was a low-stress affair.

In fact he’d already invited her. The two were anxiously awaiting my blessing. My daughter—a twirly five-year-old—clung to my leg saying, “Can we, Daddy? Can we? Can we?” Her brother was perched on his toes, hands clasped over his belly and eyebrows raised. “It’s Easter Eve! It’s a special occasion!”

I found myself looking down at my children with an ache. They weren’t thinking about it, but it was hard for me to think of anything else. Hard not to see in this eager moment the shadow of October; hard not to hear that same request, born then from the need for comfort in the dark.

It came, that last time, while I was packing for an unexpected flight. I’d originally been scheduled to travel later in the week—a visit to see my father, who’d been diagnosed with liver cancer—but my sister’s urgent phone call inspired a last minute change of plans.

“I told him you were coming on Thursday,” she said. “I asked if he could hold out that long. His mouth said yes, but his eyes…I don’t think he’ll make it.”

As I packed my carry-on bag my son came in with his Perry the Platypus baseball cap. I looked at the yellow bill, at the two giant cartoon eyes furrowed with determination. My son knew that his grandfather had a thing for interesting hats. “Take this along,” he said. “Fafa will like it.”

I nodded and stuffed it in the bag. I imagined sitting by my father’s sick bed with that absurd hat perched on my head, my father looking up and smiling weakly.

“Can Sissy sleep in my bed tonight?” my son asked. “Like when we’re on vacation?” In hotel rooms they always shared a bed.

I looked down at him, his face more earnest than I was used to. “Sure,” I said.

As I put them to bed I reminded them I’d be gone before they woke. I leaned over and kissed their foreheads in turn.

“Tell Bebe and Fafa we love them,” my son muttered as he drifted towards sleep.

“I will.”

They snuggled into each other. I could see in their faces the weight of it, the awareness of this enormous and inevitable thing. They’d lost their beloved Gunkle just a few months earlier. They knew what was coming.

The call came half an hour later. After I hung up the phone I went down the hall to look into my son’s room. The kids were fast asleep, nestled in against each other. I thought of waking them, giving them the news before I left, but my wife said to let them sleep. I nodded and turned away. But I held that picture in my head, the image of those little-boy arms enfolding his even smaller sister. Those two faces, so alike in the darkness, at peace in the restless hollows of the night.

A few hours later I was on a plane. The trip had changed from a last chance to say goodbye into something full of anguish and regret, and the thing that made me cry despite myself was when I reached into my bag for a book to read and closed my hand, instead, on the bill of a Perry the Platypus hat.

I pressed my forehead into the cold, round airplane window, and cursed my father for dying a day too soon.

Six months later my kids were asking again to have a slumber party, but this time with an air of celebration. Tomorrow we’d hear stories of an empty tomb, and search the spring grass for brightly colored eggs. Tomorrow the weather forecast promised sunny skies, not the cold, gray day which greeted me off the plane six months ago.

But yesterday we sat in silence as the bell tolled three times, as the altar went dark, as the Good Friday service reminded us of crucifixion. Strange, I thought, that these slumber parties should fall so close to the shadow of death, that one began with death’s anticipation, the other with anticipation of its transcendence.

I wondered if the last six months were my own long wait for resurrection, book-ended by two children eager for a slumber party. I recalled the way they looked that night, when I stood drinking in their sleeping faces, trying to drink their peace. I looked down at them now, bouncing on their toes as they waited for my blessings on their slumber party. And I found myself trembling at the edge of the numinous.

There was something here, if only I could tease its meaning from the twitchy enthusiasm of a boy and girl on Easter Eve.

In my own childhood it was my father who presided over our family’s Easter egg hunts. It wasn’t the usual random search through the yard but a structured thing with clues. When my sister and I woke in the morning there’d be a single hand-painted egg in plain sight, with a written clue beside it that would lead us to the next hard-boiled egg. Each clue was clever, a riddle or a puzzle that would guide us from one egg to the next, until at last we reached our Easter baskets full of sweets.

What I savor now is not that treasure at the end, but the memory of the hunt, and the evidence of time and imagination invested for our sakes.

Evidence of love. My father was a quiet introvert who rarely expressed his feelings in words. His personality suited his Norwegian heritage, even to the end: Although I always knew how he felt about me—the pride and affection—it took his best friend’s words at the funeral to give those feelings voice.

I wondered if he’d have said them himself, there at the end, if I’d come in time. Instead, they came through a third party, a father’s words of love for his grieving son, spoken in a eulogy by a friend.

Love second-hand.

But on Easter mornings as a child, the egg hunt served as a more vivid testament, forged in labor and creativity, shining in my father’s quiet delight as he watched us plunge from clue to clue.

If I have an experience of divine love in a world of suffering and inevitable death, it’s like that. Second-hand assurances, while in the puzzling course of my life some brightly-colored moment draws my eye to something more: a world littered with clues.

“Can we, Daddy? Can we? Can we?”

“It’s Easter Eve! It’s a special occasion!”

I saw it written in their expressions, in their excited voices, in the very idea that snuggling with a sibling through the night is both a comfort against loss and a way to celebrate renewal: clues for how to live in a world of death.

And as I nodded silently, not trusting my voice, maybe my children wondered at the tremble in my hands or the way the hall light shone in my eyes. But if so they didn’t wonder long. They were too excited about their slumber party, a night together to ring in Easter’s hallowing.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Anti-Gay Bigotry, Sincere Belief, and Christianity

There's a meme going around on social media that looks like this:


A recent Huffington Post article, "The Myth of Christian Discrimination in the LGBT Rights Movement," did a pretty nice job of explaining some of the key problems with this meme. But there are things I wish the article would have said--and there is a grain of truth in the meme that I want to acknowledge.

Let me start with the grain of truth. There are Christians out there--I've known many of them--who are sincerely committed to the love command of Christianity, who sincerely wish to show love for their gay and lesbian neighbors, who have no phobic response to homosexuality, but who are convinced of two things: first, that "the Bible" (scare-quotes explained in #3 below) clearly condemns all gay/lesbian sex; second, that anything clearly condemned by "the Bible" is immoral.

In some cases, the Christians I've know who fit this description seem to wish quite sincerely that the Bible didn't say what they take it to say--because they are uncomfortable with the implications. They have gay friends and, while trying to avoid the subject when they can, feel that their allegiance to their faith demands that they call all gay/lesbian sex wrong when asked. They say, almost apologetically, "I'm just saying what I believe. It's nothing personal against you."

There are three points I want to make relating to Christians who say this.

1. First and foremost, it is personal.

The problem is that this statement of belief is a categorical condemnation of the intimate partnerships of gays and lesbians, a pronouncement to the effect that their loving relationships are a sin against God that ought to be torn apart. The problem is that this statement implies that gays and lesbians should be systematically marginalized in society, that they ought to be excluded from participation in the most basic social institution, and so forever kept at the margins of full citizenship.

Imagine that you are married to someone you love with all your heart. Imagine that you have been together for years, supporting each other through life's challenges. Imagine that your marriage adds depth and meaning and joy to your life. And now imagine that there is a person who is committed to breaking you and your spouse apart, to seeing your marriage dissolved.

What would you think if they said, "It's nothing personal"? Maybe they're committed to it, not because they have anything against you specifically, but because their religion tells them there is something wrong with your marriage. That's a different motive than overt hostility, but it doesn't change what they're committed to. It may not be personal for them, but it affects you in the most intimately personal way imaginable. It cuts to the core of your personal life. It is very, very personal.

And the personal effects would be devastating, which leads to my second point.

2. Beliefs can be unloving.

Standing by certain beliefs can affect people's lives. And this means that standing by a belief can be loving or unloving towards your gay and lesbian neighbors. To stand by the belief that all gay/lesbian sex is wrong is to be committed to the systematic social marginalization of gays and lesbians, and to be committed to ending their meaningful, loving intimate life-partnerships. In the face of that, an assurance of love and friendship and a promise not to "bully" can sound pretty darned hollow.

Of course, we don't always stand by our belief. But if we do more than pay lip service to them, our beliefs will affect how we live our lives, the choices we make--and those choices can impact others, sometimes in devastating ways.

Living out a belief can be a very loving thing to do. It can also be a very unloving thing. Christian love isn't just about trying to maintain certain warm inner feelings. Christian love is far more demanding than that. It makes demands on how we treat our neighbors. A sincere desire to show love to them isn't enough if our actions devastate their lives.

And standing by the belief that all same-sex love is sinful can be devastating.

Let me explain what I have in mind with an analogy I've used before. If you sincerely believe that all childhood play is categorically sinful and act accordingly, you will fail as a parent. You will fail to treat your children in the loving ways they deserve, no matter how much affection you feel for them in your heart. Your children will grow up in stifling conditions that crush their creativity and their spirits. They will enter adulthood handicapped and full of resentment.

This is the counterpoint to the saying that you can "love the sinner while hating the sin." Sometimes, taking something to be a sin is unloving. A parent who takes play to be sinful is guilty of sin when they act on that belief. Is the same true of someone who takes all same-sex sexual intimacy to be sinful?

Yes. My experience with my gay and lesbian neighbors is unswerving on this. I've seen the devastating effects of the conservative Christian view on their lives. I've witnessed how it contributes to the high rate of gay suicide. There is no doubt in my mind, none at all, that the traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality damages human beings in tangible and often soul-crushing ways--no matter how well-meaning the Christians who stand by this teaching may be.

To categorically condemn homosexuality is to commit a sin against your gay and lesbian neighbors, a sin of no small gravity. If you commit that sin, I will keep on loving you. You may be oblivious to the scope and severity of your sin, as I am oblivious to some of mine. But out of love for you I will explain why I think what you're doing is wrong, and why it is so damaging, to the best of my ability. I hope you will return the favor (although I encourage no one to blindly accept criticism before thinking honestly and carefully about it).

If I tell you that I think what you're doing is ruinously harmful, I am not doing the same thing to you that you are doing when you do something ruinously harmful. Don't accuse me of name-calling or stereotyping, but consider thoughtfully whether there is any truth to what I say. Don't take my word for it: Go out and listen to the life stories of your gay and lesbian neighbors. Not just one gay or lesbian neighbor, but a wide range of perspectives.

While you're working up the courage to do that, consider a thought experiment that may give you a foretaste of what you'll hear. Imagine that any time you fall in love, your community will condemn you for acting on that love, calling it sinful no matter how you act on it. It doesn't matter how committed, loving, monogamous, or faithful you are. In fact, if you are committed to the partner you love, they will see that as a commitment to sin. If you build something precious, working hard to nurture your love, it will be dismissed as depraved.

Under those conditions, might you be less likely to form healthy intimate partnerships? Might you be more likely to fall into patterns of unhealthy sexuality? Might you be more prone towards depression? Might you begin to loathe that part of yourself that falls in love?

Of course you would.

Conservative Christians who really believe that all homosexual acts are sinful, who do more than just pay lip service to the teaching, are working hard to make sure that all of their gay and lesbian neighbors have this kind of experience.

I've heard it said that opposing "homosexuality" is like opposing alcoholism. It's true that condemning some actions as categorically sinful (such as excessive drinking) is a way of showing love. But that doesn't mean this is true for every action you might choose to condemn (as my childhood play example should make clear). So how do you tell the difference?

You don't consult people's desires. After all, alcoholics really do want to drink, just as much as children want to play. So how do you tell the difference? You observe how people's lives go. Love demands attention. You pay attention to the effects on their lives. Alcoholics do so much better in life when they abstain from drinking. The same isn't true for children who abstain from play.

If you pay sustained, loving attention to gays and lesbians who have set aside the categorical condemnation of homosexuality and who have formed stable, intimate partnerships with a person of the same sex--well, they look like happily married heterosexual couples. Their lives are the richer for the love they've found.

Compare that with the legacy of damaged souls--bitter, angry, suicidal--who have internalized the prohibition on same-sex intimacy.

If you ignore all of this, paying more attention to the most literal interpretation of three isolated, peripheral biblical text than you do to real effects on the lives of your gay and lesbian neighbors, then you care more about those isolated texts than you do about your gay and lesbian neighbors. Allegiance to what is peripheral has trumped allegiance to what is central, namely the law of love.

Is that believing "the Bible"? This leads to my last point.

3. The Bible is a complex collection of texts with varied messages, which can be interpreted in many ways--and the nature of biblical authority is controversial even among Christians.

The books of the Bible were written by many authors over a very long period of time, redacted and collated at various times in history. The Bible we have today isn't a single voice but a collection of witnesses testifying to their experience of God operating in the world at various times and places in history. And the mode of that testimony is varied. Because of the tensions and variations and ambiguities in that text, there are numerous and competing understandings of what allegiance to the text requires.

When you say you "believe the Bible," you are therefore obscuring an inescapable element of human choice. Humans have to choose how to approach the Bible, what kind of authority to attach to it, what interpretive strategy to bring to bear on it. If you believe that "the Bible" condemns all forms of same-sex sexual intimacy regardless of how loving or monogamous or faithful, it is because you have made certain choices--or allowed others to make those choices on your behalf and then chosen to follow them blindly.

Either way, you are responsible for what you believe. If your beliefs drive your gay and lesbian neighbors to suicide or underwrite systematic social discrimination, you can't beg off responsibility for that. You chose what to believe. And you have the freedom to change what you believe.

And you have a responsibility to choose wisely.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fred Phelps isn't Dead

Well, I suppose in a technical sense he’s dead.

And depending on what you believe, you might suppose his immortal soul lives on in some other realm. I like to imagine he’s been astonished into silent weeping by the radically inclusive love of God, and that the self-loathing he tried to slather onto others here on earth has been flaking off under the force of that love.

I like to imagine that his old mantra, “God hates fags,” has been replaced by a new one: “Even me? You love even me?”

But when I say that Fred Phelps isn’t dead, I mean that his spirit of dogmatic pugnacity lives on. That signature Phelpsian hatred—wrapped up in a message of divine mandate, bow-tied with Bible-verses, and then shoved in our faces as if it were the gift of Christ to humanity—is alive and well.

And it comes at us in more and less blatant forms.

Shortly after my essay, “Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love,” appeared in a 2011 issue of The Humanist, I received a handwritten letter from a guy named William who called himself a “Pastor.” The entire letter is written in a thick black scrawl, as if his rage forced him to push the pen into the paper with as much force as he could muster. He frequently capitalized for emphasis, and even more frequently underlined words and phrases (sometimes even resorting to double underlining).

On two occasions he drew "frowny faces" in the margins. They’re almost amusing if you can avoid reading the words that accompany them.

William’s letter is a testament to conviction. At one point he announces that “2+2 forever equals 4, not the 3, 7, 11 or 18 that you come up with.” His aim, of course, is to express his unswerving certainty that his take on the issue of homosexuality is as beyond dispute as “2+2=4.” Those who think otherwise are voicing absurdities. Phrases like “phoney-baloney CRAP” (the underlining and capitalization are his) characterize his treatment of views that diverge from his own.

The heart of his message is captured in the following paragraphs, which I reproduce here in their entirety (with underlining and capitalization preserved):

Despite the bully sinning against Zach Harrington, his deathstyle killed him. To blame us for revealing the evil of homosexuality and trying to protect society (especially children) is retarded insanity or simply willful sinning. Am I full of “self-righteous intolerance” for simply believing God and trying to obey him? NO, the blood is on your hands, Mr. Progressive Christian.

Your cotton candy “law of love” is simply 1960’s Situation Ethics warmed up. Who defines love, you and other progressives? To support and encourage people to engage in homosexuality (and other LGBT depravity) is to actually HATE people like Zach. I wonder if you are actually defending your own lifestyle. Well?

Their love should be condemned, just like the “love” of incest, rape, bestiality and Muslims having up to 4 wives. And, of course, they CAN “change their intimate feelings” since NO ONE is born homosexual. One either chooses the lifestyle or is seduced into it. Ever hear the mantra “sex before eight or it is too late.” How come only 2% of our population is homosexual, yet commit 33% of child sexual abuse??

(Side note: William gets this pedophilia “statistic” straight from a pamphlet put out by the conservative Family Research Council, founded by James Dobson and devoted to attacking any kind of family that doesn’t fit its patriarchal, heterosexist norm. The pamphlet’s author, Peter Sprigg, does not draw this supposed statistic from a study that supports it. Rather, he cites several studies, none of which support this statistic, and through a confused and confusing inferential process heavily reliant on dubious assumptions and equivocation, he reaches his slanderous conclusion—which Pastor William then reports as a fact.)

Something of William’s rage—not to mention the hatred and self-righteous intolerance that William explicitly disavows—is lost when these paragraphs are typed, when the thick black ink, the palpable pressure against the paper, is severed from the words. But I suspect most readers will still feel the vitriol, and perhaps even shudder as I did the first time I opened the envelope and began to read.

I must confess that curiosity inspired me to Google his full name, which quickly produced a number of letters-to-the-editor, mostly on the subject of HIV/AIDS. The following excerpt from one of these letters is representative:

How do people get HIV/AIDS? Does it appear like measles or mumps? Of course, most people have AIDS because of freely chosen immoral sexual behavior: adultery, fornication and homosexuality. Others develop AIDS by sticking needles in their bodies as they attempt to escape reality. By their sinning they condemn millions of innocent spouses, children, blood transfusion recipients and rape victims to living hell on earth. We should only honor the innocent victims of HIV/AIDS, not the immoral ones who bring this venereal disease on themselves.

Put another way, we should truncate the scope of our compassion. Before we reach out to those ravaged by a disease, we should investigate how they got it. And if sin is involved we should turn away from them in disgust, but not before blaming them for the misery and death of the innocent—as if the line between villain and victim could be drawn in thick black ink.

Most Christians, when confronted with such venomous “God is hate” Christianity, will quickly distance themselves from it. But what they are distancing themselves from is a distillation, a purified form of thinking that permeates much (not all) of the Christian community.

Usually it wears a nicer face, hides behind gentler language. Most of the time it keeps company with kinder sentiments, wiser ideas, and more loving practices. And so it can be hard to see it for what it is.

In a way, William’s letter and Westboro’s hateful signs do us all a kind of favor. They expose something that is most insidious when hidden.

What they expose is the psychology of ideological hate, the kind characterized by Jean-Paul Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew. Sartre points out that taking responsibility for creating meaningful lives can be frightening. It is hard work fraught with the risk of failure.

And so we try to hide, and one common hiding place is in mythologies of division: anti-Semitism and racism and other ideologies that divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, mythologies that tell us we have value simply by belonging to this group rather than that one. The value is all about comparison, about being “better than.” Our goodness depends on their being bad.

And if we’re uniquely valuable just because we belong to the chosen group, then we should be uniquely happy as well. Unless some evil systematically operates to thwart our happiness. That’s what the Children of Darkness are: the evil that menaces the happiness of the Children of Light.

This sort of thinking is seductive. It’s so much easier to destroy than create. If our happiness depends on our own creative effort, we only have ourselves to blame for our misery. How much easier to imagine that it’s the fault of some enemy—and that joy and peace will bloom all around us once the enemy is beaten down.

Christianity is, by its nature, ill-suited to this sort of bifurcating ideology. It teaches that we are, all of us, “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” And it teaches that all of us carry the stamp of our perfect creator: the image of God. We’re all stuck in this common human predicament, characterized by an essence that’s profoundly good and a lived reality that falls so far short of our potential.

Christianity also teaches that when it comes to the creative effort to build meaningful lives, we aren’t alone after all. The fear of failure is mitigated by the promise of cosmic companionship. When we turn to the task of constructing the good, we make ourselves instruments of a good far greater than we can dream.

But how many Christians really believe this? The answer, I think, is found in the number of Christians who retreat into ideologies of division, seeking self-worth by fabricating villains.

Is it just the Fred Phelpses of the world who are guilty of this? Hardly. Consider James Dobson, founder of the large and influential Focus on the Family. The organization’s stated mission is to provide resources for building healthy and loving families shaped by the Christian faith. But over the years, Dobson’s rhetoric has functioned as a more sanitized variant of Westboro’s “God Hates Fag” signs. While Pastor William digs his pen into paper, unable to contain the pressure of his hate, Dobson delivers his message in a pleasant, pastoral baritone.

Consider this nugget from one of Dobson’s Focus on the Family newsletters: “For more than 40 years, the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family.” Or these words, spoken in a 2004 televised simulcast to hundreds of churches: “Traditional marriage between one man and one woman cannot co-exist with homosexual marriage. It will destroy the family.”

Whatever he means by “the family,” it clearly does not include same-sex couples rearing children with tenderness and care. Such an arrangement, for Dobson, is not a family but a threat to it. The mere existence of what’s different will destroy us. The survival of the heterosexual family depends upon breaking apart homosexual ones or, failing that, denying them social and legal legitimacy.

In slightly different clothes, this is the same anti-Semitic ideology that Sartre describes, where we achieve success not by building ourselves up, but by identifying the enemy and then tearing them down.

In his book, Bringing Up Boys, Dobson’s rhetoric is even more disturbing. He insists that a key to raising healthy boys is protecting them from the pernicious influence of “homosexuals,” who “desire to gain access to boys” because “man-boy contact increases homosexual outcome.”

This is fear-mongering: fear of the other, fear of those who are different. “Moms and dads, are you listening?” Dobson says. “This movement is the greatest threat to your children. It is a particular danger to your wide-eyed boys, who have no idea what demoralization is planned for them.”

According to Dobson, the greatest threat to our children isn’t school violence or poor educational systems or a rapidly degrading natural environment. It isn’t easy access to harmful drugs or the alienation that drives kids to try drugs as an escape. It isn’t neglect or abuse.

It’s “homosexuals.”

As a father, I know that parenting is hard and frustrating. And so I see why this sort of message can be seductive. It frees parenting of the mystery and anguish of not knowing what to do. We no longer need to struggle over when we’re overindulging our kids and when we are being too strict. We no longer need to maneuver the delicate balance between nurturing independence and imposing healthy boundaries.

Parenting isn’t about all of that. It’s about keeping the perverts out of our schools. And if we fail as parents, at least we don’t have to blame ourselves.

No, Fred Phelps isn’t dead. And if we deplore the hateful spirit that defined his version of the Christian message, we can’t pretend that what he stood for has been wiped out by his passing.

Because the evil here isn’t a man who died. Nor is it Pastor William and his heavy-handed penmanship. Nor is it James Dobson or Focus on the Family.

The evil is our susceptibility to ideologies of hate. The evil is the fear of inadequacy that leads us down the path to hate, a symptom of our failure to believe in a grace that really can work miracles.

And just in case progressives think themselves immune to these evils, consider how easy it is to treat Fred Phelps, Pastor William, James Dobson and the rest as Children of Darkness. Consider how easy it is to fall prey to the idea that if only we can cast the fundamentalists down from their places of influence, human happiness will blossom on its own.

Fred Phelps and his Westboro congregation have, for years now, taken very public delight in the thought of gays and lesbians roasting in eternal torment. And so long as any of us takes delight in the thought of Fred Phelps burning in hell, we are doing our part to keep his spirit alive.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

"Children Need a Father and a Mother": A Reply on Behalf of Androgynous Parents Everywhere

Here’s something I hear a lot: “Children need a father and a mother.”

As a man raising two lovely children together with my wife, I find this statement insulting. I take offense at it. Personal offense.

Let me explain why.

Those who say this aren’t merely saying that two parents are better than one. They aren’t merely saying that two biological parents (who, of course, will be a mother and a father) are better than two non-biological ones. After all, they seem to think that their mother-and-father principle applies to non-biological parents as much as it does to biological ones.

But why think that?

I suspect it’s because they embrace what’s often called the “complementarity thesis”: the view that men and women are essentially different but complementary—that men are imbued by nature with masculine character traits, women with feminine ones, and that these traits complement each other in the sense that masculine strengths make up for feminine weaknesses and vice versa.

Put another way, the complementarity thesis holds that men and women have different native abilities and psychological characteristics, and these are distributed such that men and women “complete” one another. When a man and a woman get together, they combine to offer a toolkit of resources greater than what two men or two women can offer.

On this view of things, there are distinctly “masculine” parenting strengths and distinctly “feminine” ones, and children do best when their parents have the full complement of parenting strengths.

But this way of thinking about parenting strengths won’t take you to “Children need a father and a mother” unless you assume that men never possess the “feminine” strengths, and women never possess the “masculine” ones. If you think the distributions are merely probabilistic (women are more commonly possessed of more of the feminine ones, etc.), you open the door to two mothers or two fathers been just as well-situated to successfully parent children than a mother and a father.

So those who say that kids need a mother and a father need to hold that these “gendered” parenting strengths just can’t cross the borders of biological sex. They need to hold that women, by virtue of their plumbing, cannot possibly possess the “masculine” parenting strengths, since those are the exclusive province of men

You rarely hear the point put so starkly, because it sounds absurd. Ordinary human experience tells us that the sorts of character traits that can contribute to parenting success are diverse, that few people have all of them, that any two people will likely complement one another (in the sense that the one will have strengths the other lacks), and that no character trait is the exclusive province of men or women.

All of us know, from our experience of the rich, messy complexity of humanity, that mothers and fathers come in all shapes and sizes. I haven’t compiled a list of parenting virtues, but I suspect it would be a fairly long list. I suspect that any particular person has only a subset of them. And I suspect that if you want to pair people off so that the strengths of one parent make up for the weaknesses of another, focusing on gender is probably a far less effective strategy than pairing people off in terms of Myers-Briggs personality scores.

“Children need an extrovert and an introvert.”

“Children should have one ‘sensing’ parent and one ‘intuiting’ parent.”

“Children do best when they’re raised by a thinker and a feeler.”

Following these rules probably won’t guarantee successful parenting teams. The presence of love all around is probably the best guarantee of that. But it seems rather blindingly obvious to me that you’ll get a greater diversity of parenting strengths by demanding Myers-Briggs diversity in parenting teams than by demanding heterosexuality.

And if you think that the virtues linked to “masculinity” and “femininity” are especially important for parenting, you’d probably have more success pairing people off in terms of how they score on personality tests that measure how masculine or feminine you are.

Back when I was in college, as part of a psychology course, I took a test like that. It was supposed to measure how “feminine” or “masculine” I was based on fairly conventional understandings of masculinity and femininity.

My test pegged me as androgynous. Completely androgynous. Absolutely smack-dab in the middle of the scale.

I decided, as I was writing this blog post, to take a couple of masculine/feminine personality tests online, to see if anything has changed over the years. The first one I took pegged me as…androgynous.

The second one determined that I was 53% feminine, 47% masculine.

So I guess not much has changed. Biologically, I’m male. In terms of sexuality, I’m heterosexual. In terms of personality, I’m androgynous.

This fact raises some rather personal questions I have for those who say that children need a father and a mother.

After all, I’m not a “masculine” parent. I am (apparently) an androgynous one. So, although my kids have a father in terms of plumbing, they don’t seem to have a “father” in the complementarian sense of fatherhood.

Knowing what I know about my personality—about my failure to be “masculine” in my character and hence my inability to be a “father” in the complementarian sense—was my decision to become a parent wrong? By raising my own children, am I committing the moral offense of denying them a father?

I’m a good parent to my kids. I love them to death, and they know it. I spend time with them. I’m devoted to their success. I cheer for them and grieve with them. I have a number of parenting virtues, but they don’t fall into that “masculine” cluster. And they aren’t in the distinctly feminine cluster, either. They’re just mine.

I’m a good father, not because I’m masculine but because I love and care for my kids. What makes me a father is that it is a biologically male person who is loving and caring for them. That’s it.

Put simply, what I bring to my role as a father isn’t anything distinctly tied to my maleness. Had I been biologically female—had I been a mother—I would have brought the very same things.

And so when people say that children need a father and a mother, they must have in mind an understanding of these categories that doesn’t include me-- a normative understanding of fatherhood that I don’t measure up to. They can’t say what they say and mean it without implying that I am being a poor father to my kids.

I take offense at that. Anyone who thinks such a thing is wrong.

And so, it seems, they’re wrong to believe that children need a father and a mother. What they need are loving parents, preferably more than one of them, parents who bring their diverse strengths to the complex task of raising children. Some of those parents will be introverts, others extroverts. Some will be INFP's and others will be ENTJ's. Some will be masculine, others feminine. Some will be androgynous.

There’s no one template for a successful parenting combination. Hence, there aren’t any rigid normative understandings of what makes for a good father and a mother. And without such inflexible categories, the claim that kids need a father and a mother becomes, not so much false, as meaningless.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

E-Book Formats for GOD'S FINAL VICTORY

God's Final Victory

While there remains no Kindle version of God's Final Victory, and while the American Bloomsbury-Continuum site continues to indicate only two formats for the book--hardcover and paperback--the UK site has two different e-book formats available for download: PDF eBook and EPUB eBook. 

The cost of an electronic copy of the book is the same as the paperback--and, as I said, it is only available at the UK site, where it is listed for £17.99. But since some enjoy the portability and other convenience features offered by an e-book, I thought I'd pass along this option. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Jesus Tea-Strainer, or the Jesus Poisonous-Seed-Strainer? Or Maybe the Jesus Gold-Sifter

Andrew Wilson just posted a piece on the Theology Matters blog, "The Jesus Lens, or the Jesus Tea-Strainer?", which begins as follows:
I had an interesting series of debates with Steve Chalke recently, on Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement and sexuality. There are all sorts of things I could say about them (and I probably will, in time), but for me the most striking feature of Steve's presentation was his continual reference to "the Jesus lens". In his view, the Bible should be read through "the Jesus lens", that is to say, in the light of God's self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text - say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger - figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.
Wilson goes on to list a series of biblical passages in which the Gospel authors attribute to Jesus angry words that Wilson takes to be in the spirit of the wrathful God that Chalke wants to reject.

There are several concerns I have about Wilson's post: his too-easy conflation of progressive Christocentric hermeneutics with postmodernism, his caricatured understanding of the "Jesus Lens" approach that Steve Chalke and those like him favor, and--most seriously--his failure to distinguish between the angry rhetoric sometimes attributed to Jesus in Scripture and the genocidal acts sometimes attributed to God.

It is one thing to note, in all honesty, that the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels got angry, and expressed that anger in hyperbolic outburst against those who neglected the poor and in other ways failed to live up to the demanding love ethic. But to interpret those outbursts out of the context of the whole gospel story, in which Jesus preached love and forgiveness and died on a cross for the sins of all--including those who were the targets of his angry outbursts--well, that is another matter.

As to the conclusion Wilson reaches based on such an out-of-context reading of these texts, to the effect that the Jesus of Scripture "fits well" with the unfiltered whole of the Scriptures, with all the horrific parts included (the ones that Chalke--wisely, in my view--wants to treat as reflecting an evolving understanding of God within the Scriptures)--well, let's just say that a lot of arguments need to made and critically assessed before such a conclusion is anywhere in the remote ballpark of having any promise of ever enjoying a hint of warrant.

Let me approach my main concern here by looking at the last sentence of the passage quoted above. Here it is again:
Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.
Wilson means here to offer an unappealing metaphor, but word choice can often influence how attractive or unattractive a metaphor seems. There's a difference between a mechanism that sifts out what we take to be unpalatable, and a mechanism that sifts out moral horror.

Let us imagine a Chistocentric hermeneutic whereby moral horrors attributed to God are set aside as unworthy of the God revealed through Jesus. It's not a tea-strainer sifting out the bits we don't like, but a poisonous-seed-strainer, straining out the bits that are objectively awful--not the "bitter bits" we don't want to deal with because of culturally situated sensibilities, but the seeds that grow poisoned fruit, the things that when treated seriously by the body of believers tend to have ruinous effects.

Talk about objective evil isn't popular among postmodernists, but Christian progressives like me aren't postmodernists, so we don't care. We think some things are objectively, timelessly evil. We think Jesus helped to shed light on these timeless evils, transforming and refining our ethical systems through his singular witness. And we think that in the light of that witness, certain Scriptural narratives turn out to attribute objective moral evils to God. We think these narratives reflect the errors of primitive peoples, as opposed to honestly describing the nature of God. And we think that those who insist on treating them as honest descriptions of the nature of God are doing something very, very dangerous.

But maybe it's even more helpful to shift metaphors. Consider Martin Luther's preferred metaphor for the Bible. It is like the manger: it contains the baby Jesus, but it also contains straw. And if we refuse to attend to this difference, we're in trouble.

Straw is a milder metaphor than poison. The straw in the manger offers some softness in which the baby can lie more comfortably. But it could be very bad to mistake the straw for the baby. At best, you're going to waste milk by trying to feed it to the straw. At worst, there won't be enough milk left for the baby. The baby is starved because the straw is treated as warranting the same level of attention and devotion.

This metaphor leads me to think about yet another one. Maybe what we need isn't a strainer to eliminate the bad bits from the Scriptures. If Luther's basic approach is right, maybe what we need is a gold-sifter, something that helps us to focus in on what really matters. Maybe the right hermeneutic is the one that helps us identify what deserves our attention and devotion.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Bachmann/McDonough Principle of Non-Discrimination

I'm thinking academic blogs might be a good place to toss out first drafts of things that may eventually make it into professional articles. Now may be a good time for that, since I've starting work on a philosophy article that brings together some things I've talked about before on this blog.

As I've noted before on this blog, Michele Bachmann maintains that civil marriage laws restricting marriage to heterosexual couples are non-discriminatory. She doesn't say that it's justified discrimination. She says that no discrimination is going on at all.

Why? Because all persons--gay and straight--face the very same marital opportunities and requirements: all are free to marry someone of the same sex, while none are free to marry someone of the opposite sex.

One section of the article I'm working on will look at an argument along these same lines that was put forward by a philosopher, Richard McDonough, in Public Affairs Quarterly (a rather prestigious journal of political and social philosophy). McDonough puts the main line of argument succinctly as follows:
DSSMs [Defenders of Same-Sex Marriage] want to legitimize the right to marry persons of the same sex...But since no one has the right to marry persons of the same sex, the DSSM's demand for the right to same-sex marriage is not analogous to the blacks (sic) demand for the right to study at the same schools as whites or a woman's demand for the right to vote. 
McDonough goes on to argue--in a gesture towards conservative slippery-slope arguments--that the call for the right to same-sex marriage is much more akin to the call for the right to incestuous marriage or polygamy.

In each case, it is a call for a right that, previously, no one had enjoyed. Granting the right, then, "effects a material change in everybody's rights."

When I talked about Bachmann's version of this line of argument, I said that it wasn't any good. Is McDonough's version of it any better?

Well, it isn't much different, except insofar as McDonough repeatedly drums the claim that "DSSM's, DIMs (Defenders of Incestuous Marriage) and DPMs (Defenders of Polygamous Marriage), are arguing for a substantial expansion in everybody's rights" as opposed to seeking equal rights. He also offers his own analysis of why so many think that same-sex marriage is an equal-rights issue: because the gay community is, he thinks, wanting a new right which has an equivalent function for their community that traditional marriage has for the straight community.

This way of putting things, of course, is premised on a kind of segregation of gays and straights into separate communities--which is to my mind a highly problematic way of putting things. But let me set that point aside and explain exactly why this really is an equal rights issue, not an "equivalent" rights issue.

There are, in fact, two distinct ways that one can discriminate legally against a class of people. The problem with both Bachmann an McDonough is that they only recognize one of these ways. Hence, their principle of non-discrimination is artificially truncated.

Here, in brief, is the Bachmann-McDonough Principle of Non-Discrimination (hereafter, BM POND):

When laws subject all persons to identical restrictions and opportunities, no persons are subject to legal discrimination. 

But all of us intuitively know that this principle is false. Suppose that a city is considering a free public school lunch program. Imagine that the following two programs are proposed:

Free Lunch for Non-Redheads: All public school students will be provided with a free cafeteria meal featuring one entree and a beverage--except redheaded students, who must pay for their meal.

Free Peanut Butter Sandwich Lunch for All Students: All public school students will be provided with a free cafeteria meal featuring a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk. Students who want anything other than a peanut butter sandwich and milk must pay for their meal.

Now consider eight-year-old Joey--a lactose-intolerant redhead with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts. The first proposed program discriminates against him explicitly--by identifying a class of people to which he belongs, and overtly denying members of that class access to the good that the program makes available to others.

But the second proposed program discriminates against Joey, too--just not in the same way. The first program is overtly discriminatory. The second is what we might call formally discriminatory: It makes a good available, but in a form that is not equally accessible to all. The entire class of school kids with peanut allergies is excluded from access to a social good--namely a reasonably healthy and filling lunch--which the program makes available to everyone else. If Joey avails himself of what the program offers, he risks death. As such, he cannot get from the program the good that the program is making available to his classmates.

That's discrimination. It's this sort of formal discrimination that the Americans with Disabilities Act is designed to redress. If a government program makes a good available to the public--but the good is physically located on the third floor of a building without elevators--then people in wheelchairs are being discriminated against. The discrimination is not overt. The policy does not explicitly say, "Everyone can have this good, except people in wheelchairs. They are excluded." But that fact is hardly comforting to someone in a wheelchair who wants access to the good others can enjoy but has no way of getting it.

BM POND only recognizes overt discrimination. It completely ignores formal discrimination in the law. Under the peanut butter sandwich program, Joey faces the identical restrictions and opportunities that everyone else enjoys. He has the opportunity to eat a peanut butter sandwich for free, and he is restricted from eating anything else without paying for it. But there is a fact about Joey which means that the restriction restricts him in ways that it doesn't restrict others, and the opportunity which is a real for others is no opportunity at all for him.

Bachmann and McDonough are correct that traditional civil marriage is not overtly discriminatory. But they are wrong in concluding that it is not therefore discriminatory. Traditional civil marriage law discriminates against persons with a homosexual orientation by offering marriage only in a form through which they cannot access the key social goods that heterosexuals can access.

In case it's not obvious what that key social good is, let me spell it out. Heterosexuals in our society are not only free to form an intimate romantic partnership with someone they are sexually and romantically interested in, but they are free to have that partnership legally recognized and bestowed with a range of legal rights that are otherwise much harder to receive, and in some cases impossible to receive. The official recognition by the state also communicates a broader social message--an announcement of the intent to establish an enduring union and an expectation that the broader society will view the loving couple as a family unit.

Of course, heterosexuals might seek marriage for reasons other than to get legal and social standing for their intimate romantic/sexual partnerships. They might enter a "sham" marriage to sponsor some person they don't care about for immigration--and when the authorities find out that the two people involved are not in fact pursuing an intimately romantic and sexual partnership, they'll get in trouble. They court fewer legal risks if they marry some filthy-rich 90-year-old who sexually disgusts them out of a desire to inherit a ton of money.

But it is acquiring legal and social standing for an intimate romantic/sexual partnership which has become the distinctive special good for which marriage is prized today. It is for this that people generally get married.

A restriction of marriage to heterosexual pairs affects heterosexuals far differently than it affects gays and lesbians. Such a restriction bars heterosexuals from marrying a certain class of people with whom they cannot experience this social good anyway--and thus does nothing to reduce their access to this distinctive social good. By contrast, gays and lesbians are barred from marrying those with whom they can experience this social good but are free to marry those with whom they cannot. Thus, they are decisively excluded from access to the social good by the form in which the marital institution is made available.

Expanding marriage to include same-sex partnerships erases this inequality. Keeping the restriction in place is legal discrimination. Whether such discrimination can be justified is a different question. But there is no doubt at all that it is discriminatory. Those who say otherwise are working with an artificially truncated understanding of when legal discrimination exists.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Apparently, Atheists Are Grumpy Goats

I found the following image posted at Sarah Brown's blog, and felt compelled to repost it here:





atheists.. why are they always so sad?

and they’re also goats

Happy 2 b a goat

That goat looks very content with his bathrobe and coffee.

That goat looks cozy as hell.

On the one hand, the image--not to mention the reference to "very advanced witnessing techniques"--makes me want to chuckle and roll my eyes. I know nothing about the flyer's origins, and a part of me wants to dismiss it as a bit of satire.

On the other hand, there's the possibility that a real church actually distributed this flyer to its children. And there are things going on in it that make it a bit more serious than something just to be laughed off: the stereotyping (atheists are always sad, often grumpy and bitter); the implicit dehumanization (goat-man, anyone?); the fear-mongering (they "will lash out at children") and the warnings against engaging with them.

These tropes are reminiscent of what I have seen in anti-Semitic and racist tracts.

I doubt that most churches create flyers like this. But how many communicate similar messages to their children without the benefit of a grumpy goat in a bathrobe? In The God Delusion, Dawkins spends some time discussing the ways in which atheists are the targets of prejudice and discrimination.

He's right about this. And as with all prejudice and discrimination, it's learned in childhood. And as with all prejudice and discrimination, it's contrary to an ethic of love.

In the end, if this is an authentic flyer, the motive behind it seems to be fear: fear that a conversation about religion with an atheist might inspire the child to ask questions about what they've been taught in church. Fear is the wellspring from which human divisions and long-term prejudices are born.

On the one hand, there is the Christian faith that drives out fear and inspires love across the gap of human differences. And then there is the Christianity that nurtures fear and builds walls. Both Christianities are alive and well in the world today--and the latter is probably a greater threat to authentic Christian values than any grumpy goat, atheist or otherwise.