The Logic Of The Fruit

I cannot for the life of me figure out the problem with gay marriage.

That I’m framing the question as a “problem” is a product of my upbringing, my theological formation for well over thirty years. But I can really only begin here. If I persist in asking what seem to you questions that seem oddly posed or desperately accounting for socially antiquated concerns it is because I still believe there is some truth to be retained in my tradition.

Or because I am simply socially incapable of abandoning it.

Or because I have so succumbed to the sunk cost fallacy I am simply trying to recoup value from the last three decades.

It’s difficult to tell. Probably a bit of all three.

What is so frustrating and conversely what may be most worth retaining about the Evangelical tradition is the way in which an ancient text retains its constant presence, that it is read as if it is always first century Rome or ancient Egypt, or the middle of the Bronze Age. This alternates wildly between feature and bug for me.

In a FB conversation in the wake of SCOTUS’s refusal in Obergefell to uphold discrimination against same sex couples seeking legal marriage, I asked what it was specifically about a same sex relationship that was a problem. I’m unable to articulate one. But I asked because I concede I might be missing something. Others might be able to fill in my gaps. I’ve been thinking about it on and off for several years. I’ve not done serious research on the topic though I’m familiar with the broad-brush arguments and the details here and there. But I genuinely wanted to know. Unable to come up with any myself, having exhausted all explanations, I thought I’d crowdsource a coherent response.

But ultimately the answer was, as it has been and continues to be: “Because God said so.”

I suspected this was the only real answer left. All the other ancillary empirical, sociological arguments have slowly fallen away—that it is a “choice,” that gay parents are insufficient parents betraying some inherent flaw in the relationship, that specific homosexual acts are uniquely gross or pointless—have all lost their force for many both publicly and privately.

I do understand that if you think the “government” is doing something wrong, that you’d be upset about it. I was confused, however, by the sheer ferocity with which people responded to the ruling.

Compared to the previous week in which nine people killed (in a church no less!) by a white supremacist the outpouring on FB was nuclear. People who had been all but silent about the former event were practically volcanic in the wake of the ruling.

Of course I understand that for many in the modern evangelical church the tragedy that befell Charleston was bad but frankly the greater danger was that people would be distracted by–as one pastor’s quote passed around on timelines put it: “sociology” and not “theology.” And really when what you’re selling is ultimate escape from bad things, the more bad things are perceived to be happening, the better for business. Tragedy, in the modern apologetic regime, is not so much a crisis as an opportunity.

But SCOTUS’s ruling on gay marriage was as one of my friends put it: hitting a national “self-destruct button.” The beginning of the end for the “greatest nation on earth.”  So the question was why? People actually died in Charleston. No one will die as a direct result of the SCOTUS ruling. No one.

What was it about this and not that?

The answer, it would seem, is in Genesis.

Marriage, I was told, gets “defined” in Genesis as a man leaving his father and mother and being “cleaved” to his wife. A woman. ONE woman. (That it was “before the fall” heads off any nonsense about Solomon’s many wives and concubines, I suppose.) The problem was “re-defining it.” Which is all well and good. But I was expecting everyone to understand that you should still be able to say something about what that “redefinition” ruins or destroys or . . . something.

Thanks to people being “out” and increased sexual education nation- and world-wide AIDS and STDs are no longer an inevitable “penalty” for “perversion.” So it’s not clear what the problem is necessarily. This particular problem is further compounded by the fact that what was being argued for in Obergefell was precisely the validation of those committed, monogamous relationships which would counteract the spread of any “penalty” whether we knew what caused it or not. Thusly the old apologetic arguments of my youth have slowly faded.

The perception that there is a unique national or political implication for this decision (recall the “self-destruct button”) is even more intriguing. For the average person there is probably only the vaguest of connections between a nation “turning away from God’s law” and incurring his wrath in some way. Though why THIS would be the boiling point and not (to beat a dead horse) the rampant racial violence visible and invisible that undergirds our past and current political/economic structure is genuinely beyond me. There may be genuine concerns about the relationship of a Federal government to State, but whatever claim to superiority States had in these matters got wiped out in 1865, in my opinion. So that people insist on making this argument, seems to me more than mildly embarrassing. And there’s nothing in Jewish or Christian scripture about how God feels about representative republicanism or democracy broadly conceived. Certainly not enough to warrant the ferocity.

So I pushed on these points and the conversation ended without an explanation but rather a pivot to notions of “testimony” or naked (!) commitment to the “Word of God.” Asking for an explanation is evidence of . . . well I’m not sure. Lack of faith? It’s still not clear. I shouldn’t “need” more than the declaration that “God said so” to just go with it and get upset like everyone else?

And this is where we come to what I want to call “the logic of the fruit.”

Recalling that the key feature/bug of Evangelicalism is that it maintains a common “presence” to every and all scripture, it is always and everywhere Genesis 3.

Because Evangelicals tend to read the Genesis account with a relentless literalism, the conversation with the snake is real. Its contents always and everywhere, immediately relevant. You’ll recall that God says don’t eat from this one tree (“of the knowledge of Good and Evil”) or you will “surely die.” There’s no explanation as to WHY, only the consequence. It’s the devil that proffers an explanation (“God knows . . . your eyes will be opened and you will be like God”). That seems to make sense to ol’ Adam and Eve and of course the fruit is “pleasing to the eye” so they disobey and eat and the rest is history.

I am beginning to suspect that this is the core analogy for evangelicals when encountering any moral or ethical question. There is no question of “explanation” but only “what did God say.” If you can come up with an explanation, cool beans. But if not, no problem. It isn’t the point.

That “what God says” is in every single case obscured to one degree or another behind divergent traditions and an untranslated text whose meaning has been copiously engaged by interpreters who, all along have offered, um, explanations as to why they are interpreting this way and not that seems lost on everyone.

That God does not provide the explanation for the rule I suspect is—intentionally or not—taken to be the point. It is precisely the “arationality”—I hesitate to say “irrationality”—of it that is the point. You’re just supposed to believe. That’s the core test of human existence for the protestant evangelical: Can you just believe?

There are relatively sophisticated variations of this: “faith seeking understanding” found in Augustine, Anslem, Kierkegaard, Barth and others. All take some kind of initial step of faith and seek the explanation only after the fact, an explication of the inner rationality of the faith if there is any to be had.

Catholics, when it comes to sexuality and marriage, are overall much more consistent on the matter with the defining nature of procreation for marriage and its sacramental quality, though once again these explanations don’t hold together when tested with what actually happens in the world. But both these approaches are slightly different in that there is still an inner rationality to them. They aren’t just a content-less object of faith.

My FB conversation ended with one person defending the acontextual citation of (a particular interpretation of) scriptural texts as a necessary act of “testimony.” The content, the substance, the “explanation” was that to be who they were, required that they do this thing, whether it makes any sense to anyone else or not. Another implied that I was deficient for needing “more” explanation than the (again particular interpretation they were offering of the) “Word of God.”

My questions, I understand, are mapped on the Genesis story as the snake’s question “Did God really say . . .?” (Though I must insist that the question is really “WHY did God say . . .?” which is different.) Homosexual desire also maps quite well over the story for people whose faith seeks no understanding  because it is precisely desire which is the problem with the fruit, that it is desired period. The desire contra the “Word of God” is the problem. So it all works out. That there is no real explanation for the prohibition is only slightly troubling and if anything can become the actual site of the “test.” It’s actually a useful feature because then the desire for the fruit can be mapped on literally any desire in any situation and viola! it’s always relevant.

But then life easily devolves into a sadistic and sociopathic obstacle course where you work to believe things with no explanation.

A lot has been said about the controlling nature of “desire” for making decisions. A lot of people poo-pooing “feelings.” Again, at issue in Obergefell was not desires generally or even homosexual desire in particular but a desire to commit. I have a rant here about analogy-making, but I’ll save it for another time.

Regardless, what truly bothers me is the way this content-less belief ultimately serves as a group marker and that it does so on the backs of the marginalized: We know who we are as the ones who “define marriage” in this way and not that.

One couldn’t help thinking that there was a bit of a primal thrill among the American evangelical church after the SCOTUS decision. It enabled everyone to unleash their inner Martin Luther: “HERE I STAND! I CAN DO NO OTHER!”

God, it must have felt good.

Hard to do that in response to a mass shooting.

But it is done on the backs of a marginalized group’s desire. And it is always someone else’s desire that defines. I know the fever swamps have made it seem like The Gays have been this violent, militant juggernaut trampling all that is good and holy in the world. They don’t give any indication that they see the kids kicked out of homes, the (often church sanctioned) abuse of queer and trans persons, the deep psychological burden borne by anyone with any kind of non-normative sexual desire.

And the worst, most pernicious variation on this theme is the attempt to, ahem, redefine love. The hurt feelings for being called a “bigot” for “just believing what God says.” Sure, gay people have suffered immensely (regardless of what their sex life is or is not like). Sure, you can still be stoned to death in Uganda for being gay (at least we’re not THAT bad, amIright?!). But really I’M the one who’s hurt, who’s being discriminated against. And the worst part is I LOVE you! I know that “love” often FEELS like it should be something that at least does no harm—in fact has been defined for, uh, millennia that way. But sometimes love involves doing painful things, like removing cancer—what? No I can’t really explain how monogomous gay commitment is like cancer, just trust me, it is. And so when you think about it, when I oppose the monogamous, caring commitment of two gay people I’M the one who’s really loving. That’s Christian love. It tells you that you are a sinner without concrete explanation, but is like, you know, “winsome” about it.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this song. Yes, of course slavery seems like a grave evil. But there are some verses and really in an effort to be faithful to my text I have to support your subjugation.

Ultimately the suffering of the marginalized serves as orthodoxy’s spiritual currency. It builds up the piety of the faithful.

And so while I’m bewildered by my friends’ feelings, it is the effect of those feelings I find deeply troubling. There may still be an explanation regarding the problem with gay marriage. I’m open to learning about it. But as for the assertion of arationality as the mark of piety, particularly it’s tool as a mode of intellectual attack and control, increasingly I feel  like Bourne at the end of Ultimatum:

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what is that song you sing for the dead

“This is not A Thing We Cry About.”

I’ve taken to saying this to my children when they are coming unglued about something trivial or irrational. Not being allowed to eat a fourth Oreo after they’ve brushed their teeth and should have been in bed an hour ago or some such nonsense.

I’ve tried to be cautious with this comment because of course there are indeed Things We Cry About. Places where the only appropriate response is not a platitude or quick comfort but weeping in grief. Sorting out when one ought to respond that way or not is skill learned with time, beginning, I suspect when we are 4 or 6. Perhaps 36.

There’s only a shadow of me / In a manner of speaking I’m dead

Sufjan Stevens new album Carrie & Lowell was recently released. It is as my rock-star younger brother declared: “punishing.” It simply refuses to sugar coat loss or blanch from the psychic and emotional pain of loss.

Stevens wrote the album as a mediation on the loss of his absent mother’s recent death.

While early listens did not speak to me, several lines leapt from the album and increasingly burrowed under my skin, refusing to dissipate. It has been on repeat since.

There is no shade in the shadow of the cross

But the most striking thing for me was a particular response to the album that intersects with a larger cultural theme I find disturbing.

Carrie and Lowell cover

In an interview with Pitchfork, Sufjan shares his initial response to his mom’s passing:

I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane, like a dead pigeon on the subway track. Or my niece would point out polka-dotted tights at the playground, and I would suffer some kind of cosmic anguish in public. It’s weird.

I was so emotionally lost and desperate for what I could no longer pursue in regard to my mother, so I was looking for that in other places. At the time, part of me felt that I was possessed by her spirit and that there were certain destructive behaviors that were manifestations of her possession.

He continues:

I started to believe that I was genetically, habitually, chemically predisposed to her pattern of destruction. I think a lot of the acting-out was rebellion, or maybe it was a way for me to… ah, this is so fucked up, I should probably go to therapy.

In lieu of her death, I felt a desire to be with her, so I felt like abusing drugs and alcohol and fucking around a lot and becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her. But I quickly learned that you don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering, and that, in spite of the dysfunctional nature of your family, you are an individual in full possession of your life. I came to realize that I wasn’t possessed by her, or incarcerated by her mental illness. We blame our parents for a lot of shit, for better and for worse, but it’s symbiotic. Parenthood is a profound sacrifice.

The interviewer responds: “The sort of rebellion you’re talking about almost sounds like more of a teen-angst sort of thing.”

To which Sufjan replies:

Fun, flirty, and 40! [laughs] I do feel like I’m 40 going on 14 sometimes. I wasn’t rebellious as a kid. I was so dignified and well-behaved. But that kind of [destructive] behavior at my age is inexcusable.

It occurred to me that regardless of intention the interviewer’s comment (to which, admittedly, Stevens acquiesces) infantilizes a particular response to grief in a way I find cruel.

Perhaps I’m reading to much into it. But one of the first comments on the interview (kids, seriously, never read the comments) also had a profound and not unrelated impact me. The commenter, while conceding the quality of the album itself, rejected its overall reception (very positive) and in a blog post of his own calling Stevens “pathetic” and expanding on the point. There he laments the gushing critical praise the album seemed to be garnering. The quality of the sorrow of the album was being overblown and lacked perspective (he links to a sad Irish song as an example of a “real” sad song).

I’m less interested in the specifics or validity of the Pitchfork interviewer’s comment or the commentor’s post than that this kind of reaction exists in the world at all. It’s troubling that someone would denigrate an expression of grief as insufficient or “pathetic” which carries with it the infantilizing connotation that bothered me in the interview. Certainly it would be possible to be overcome with grief in a manner we would call “inappropriate.” It’s not clear how Steven’s attempts to numb grief via drugs, alcohol, or sex this album could be construed as such or should be in any way minimized as a result.

It is an easy critique, I suppose, that Stevens’ album is just self-aggrandizing, white-people sads on angsty display. But I’d be more concerned about the person making that critique than Stevens himself. Critics will take care of an emotionally overwrought album. But the impulse to infantilization or dismissing others’ pain quickly takes on even darker tones when expanded to personal expressions of vulnerability that emerge from the social margins. If it exists at the “center,” be assured it only grows worse on the edges.

This strain of thought is linked to the aforementioned cultural theme that bothers me so: western cultural masochism. That masochism runs as a psychological strain through much western philosophy, art, theology is not a thought remotely original to me. I just see it more clearly now and increasingly in more mundane places.

This masochism hides behind the fiction that the difficulty of life, its griefs, its pains are simply a given, a social-biological physics that must simply be borne or at least borne quietly and politely by one’s self and that failure to simply bear them impedes some larger social harmony. One could claim that there is no jouissance involved in telling people they ought to man up, that it pains them, but is a quasi-parental necessity, a public service, really.  Of course we know this is not true . . .

Lord hear my prayer

In a recent post, a blogger critiques an argument made about the difficulty of growing up a male “nerd” as counterpoint to the claims by women in tech who are drawing attention to the gendered verbal violence and isolation they experience. Again, the comments (seriously, kids, don’t read the comments) veer very quickly into some variation of “grow up!”

When uttered by a white male whose socio-cultural hegemony is always and everywhere already protected, silencing via infantilizing, there is created, again, the masochistic refrain that life is hard (and indeed should be) and to call attention to or lament these kinds of dynamics is a weakness, an unwillingess to embrace the necessarily “hard work” of whatever you’re trying to do.

This notion that if it is not painful it is not real and must be borne and indeed embraced– one imagines even gleefully, celebrated with some unspecified maturity–is profoundly pernicious.

Particularly because it does not remain safely confined to Twitter rants, blog comments, and middle class dinner part rants about “all the kids winning trophies these days” but rather suffuses our police state creating things like the school to jail pipeline that is disproportionate and long-term in its effects.

We are all going to die

Who have we become that you would feel this is a necessary or even remotely acceptable response to the grieving, abuses, marginalized? Or a response that even if you had you would feel compelled to share?

What is that song they sing for the dead?

drunk with the sky

The sun is setting. I am drunk with the sky over Maharashtra. I am sitting on a hubMaharashtrabus between the driver and the passenger seat. There is no passenger seat. My memory fails me. I cannot remember what was to my left where the passenger seat should have been. I am looking into the faces of passengers looking back at me. My fellow travelers. Our heads swaying in unison as the bus hits. every. single. imperfection in the road. I wonder what my fellow travelers are thinking. I assume they are thinking about the remainder of the trip ahead, how long it will take us to get to Pune or the sharp words of their boss as they left the office that afternoon, the slight hesitation from their husband as they went to peck them on the cheek or the chanting of their neighbor’s puja at six a.m. that morning. Perhaps they are thinking about the white man in front of them sitting on the hub between the bus driver and where the passenger seat should be. I fancy they think me chivalrous. We white men are not all alike. I am sitting on the hub because the young father who boarded with his infant daughter had no place to sit and sat on the hub with his daughter. I am a young father too. And this will not do. So I insist and change places with the man and his daughter. I am surprised that my colleague did not offer his seat. But it does not matter. The young father is grateful. In a Nyquil induced haze I behold my kindness smugly. Trapeze Swinger plays on my ancient ipod as we sway. Music suggested some time ago by my brother, my tastes uncertain but often enough in sync with his. That morning I had refused the generosity of the men on the first bus I rode. They had offered a seat. “You are guest in our country.” “Thank you but please let uncle sit.” The truth is we are crammed in this goddamn bus and I’ve just finally gotten settled, standing in the aisle with my bag between my knees and I do not want to try to move again. I insist that uncle sits. He is after all older. “This is not better for us. You are a guest,” ana says as Uncle sits firmly between two brothers. He seems genuinely angry that I have refused to crawl over the woman and her young son in the aisle and place my enormous duffel on my lap and theirs. I am sick and the drugs are not yet working. I do not respond. Only shrug apologetically and smile sheepishly. Perhaps they will forgive me because I am a foreigner. As I sit on the hub of the second or is it third bus I have ridden that day I think of the good I am doing. I immediately feel bad for feeling good and because the hub is uncomfortable. And because my fellow travelers, like my angry young friend that morning are thinking this is not better for us. But no one moves. No one says a thing. It is silent on this bus. So I watch the sky grow brilliant. I will grow drunk on this horizon. Even now. The dust and the haze. The trees and the trucks. Men in turbans in the fields. There are no women. That I recall. I listen to the music my brother has picked out. And watch the sun set on Maharashtra.

He’s talking to us, White People.

Today the president gave short, impromptu remarks on the Zimmerman verdict handed down a little less than one week ago.

The impetus for the speech appears to be his personal reflection on the events of this week in the wake of the verdict, the discussions that have happened in the news, in social media, etc. He was given an enormous amount of grief for his comments about the case last year. His assertion that “if [he] had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” was immediately vilified in certain quarters as “injecting” both himself and race into the case. No doubt the same cast of characters will fall over themselves to castigate him for inflaming racial hatred by claiming that he “was Trayvon”.

Haters gonna hate. What can I say?

But I was struck by the remarks when I read them. One of the first concerns of rhetoric is “who is your audience?” And I couldn’t help but feel that while the remarks certainly served as an act of identification and solidarity (“we, in the African American community”*) they also served as an act of explanation to those NOT in that community. And while there are certainly more than white and black in our country, I am convinced that those who most need to hear what he had to say (and frankly are most likely not to) are white-skinned folk. I’m asking as a white male is that we try to hear, past the noise, the conservative outrage machine, our own fear, impulse to self-justification, and . . . listen.

Several things stand out to me: The first is the testimony to the experience of black men in America. White people don’t hear this. They don’t know about getting followed in stores. They don’t know about locks clicking, clutched purses. They don’t know about hands placed automatically out the window at a police traffic stop. We need to hear that. These things are called “micro-aggressions.” (So–just so you know–is anything that follows the phrase “I’m not prejudiced, but . . .”)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Those things happen because people watch the news. Black people do horrible things!” Well, actually, people watch a lot of movies. And a LOT of TV. The facts are not as nice and neat. White people are not being overrun by the black hoards (an old and dangerous racial canard).

“Stereotypes come from somewhere.”

Yes, they are just as likely to come from the repetition (and belief) of lies (“they are RAPING our women”–the 1950s version or “they’re all ‘gangsta’ thugs”–the 2013 version)–or the excessive focus on a single case and the lazy assertion that that case is normative–more so than any truth.

If we learned anything from the Zimmerman/Martin case is that there is huge problem with these assumptions. They can be wrong. Violently wrong. And that’s why we need to stop making them.

There has been the attempt to assert that this case is not about race. Was never about race, never had a racial element. I suspect only white people truly believe that.

Attempts to assert that Zimmerman is “Hispanic,” again, only betray a deep ignorance. That “white” is a biological reality and is either operative or not. Not a position to be taken. A role to be played. That “Hispanics” can’t also be racist towards blacks. Nevermind that Zimmerman is white. He was certainly calling upon (intentionally or no) white supremacist-inflected narratives as he ran down the street with a gun after a “fucking punk” who may or may not have been (he was not) stealing the property of his neighbors.

Zimmerman was playing cowboy. Cowboy in the White Hat. Calling upon the 2nd amendment and the valorization of self-defense. A history that has been sharply one-sided, racially. Cowboys, as we know, chase dark skinned “others . . .”

Or worse, he was playing cop.

So the president called attention to the racial elements in the case that were already present. He was not “injecting” them. He was not playing a “card.”

His question that if the races had been reversed, or if Trayvon had been armed, would he have been able to “stand his ground” makes the racial element crystal clear. Martin would have been in cuffs (if not shot by the responding units).

That the NRA did not assert that had Martin been armed he would have had a chance (as they did in the wake of Sandy Hook), that Marissa Alexander is still in jail tonight for a far more justified discharge of a firearm than Zimmerman could ever dream, all makes clear what everyone knows and the outrage machine can’t seem to admit: The race of the person holding the gun in our hero stories matters.

But even more significant is that the very logic of “self-defense” has come under sharp scrutiny in this case. We have idolized and deified our right to self-protection in this country at a national level (War on Terror, anyone?) and now at the individual level, in the form of Stand Your Ground. Who’s life is worth more in a moment of confrontation?

Presidents_remarks_7.19.13

That the president took Trayvon’s “side” in this story is telling. Obviously, I agree with him. Adults are supposed to protect minors. I don’t feel like this is all that controversial. But the attempts to make Trayvon an adult (“stop calling him a ‘kid’ he was 17! And, uh, TALL!”←pro tip: don’t do this. It’s racist), to put his body on display (the defense showing an image of Trayvon standing, shirtless so we and the jury could evaluate whether he could’ve killed Zimmerman with his bare hands, was dark in ways that make me nauseous when I try to articulate them. . .), all of these things reek of our collective attempt to justify this. To betray our darkest selves. To try to make this an act of “self-defense” that was “ok” at worst and amorphously “tragic” at best.

But if I, as a citizen, have any say about the world we live in, then let me be clear: I don’t want to live in this world. I repudiate the right to bear arms at all costs. I reject the notion that you must protect property with violence. I assert that adults must do what they can to protect the young.

The thing that galled me personally about the Zimmerman debacle was that in the trial we were being called upon to do for Zimmerman PRECISELY what he failed to do for Martin. We were supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt. We had to withhold judgement until the facts were in. Presume innocence. This is, I was told, what makes our republic so great. But it is exactly what Zimmerman did NOT afford Martin on Feb 26th, 2012.

Like a nightmarish reverse-Golden Rule.

The Daily Caller sent some snot the other day to ask Jay Carney if the president would extend federal protection to Zimmerman. The question seemed to be: would the “system” protect Zimmerman? This only betrayed the truth that the system already had. Quite well. From the failure to arrest him on the night of the murder (again, try to imagine Martin being let go after some questions and some pictures with Zimmerman dead on his back in the grass . . .) to the studious concern for reasonable doubt by his apologists, to the helpful appeal of juror B37 to the stand your ground provisions of Florida law on Zimmerman’s behalf, and her deep concern for “George’s” “heart” which was, of course, “in the right place” (how could it have been otherwise?).

The system worked fine for Mr. Zimmerman. He gets to keep his gun. His family will continue to protect him. He’ll be fine . . . in a physical sense. Trayvon, as far as I know, is still dead tonight. I’ll confess I hope that reality is grinding away at Zimmerman’s soul.

The president bore witness to these two things: race matters and our logic of self-defense is perverse. He also bore witness, at an extraordinary level, to the humanity of the African American community. People have dismissed complaints like these as “race-bating” by the “grievance machine.” Plenty have spoken for Trayvon. But to have the President do so, was profound.

It is politically dangerous, it might even be politically disingenuous**.

But I submit it needs to be listened to. And it needs to be listened to especially by white folk.

Will we have the courage to hear?

*I’m aware that one man cannot, no matter how powerful, truly speak for all men–and certainly not all women–he shares skin tone with, but c’mon, he’s the president and he’s black, it’s a big deal.

**It is a little absurd for the President to be castigating racial profiling while dangling Ray Kelly, advocate of NYC’s racially charged “stop and frisk” program with a little pointless surveillance of Muslims for good measure, as potential DHS. Obama is implicated in the War on Drugs, a war that hyper-criminalizes drug possession and facilitates the mass incarceration of men who “look like him.” And don’t even get me started on the drone program. I suspect it’s the office that demands this, but still, we all hoped for better . . .

Adventures in Children’s Television: Disney’s “Sofia the First”

As an adult with two small children, I am subject to no small amount* of children’s programming, often repeatedly. This is my attempt to cope. I love my children and love that they love things even if their shows drive me insane, often for no other reason than I’ve now seen them a kabajillion times . . .

I have a two year old daughter and a four year old son. As a burgeoning feminist, newly sensitized to the mere fact of–nevermind the absurdities of–the ways in which we are socialized to perform our gender, I am preoccupied with my children’s gender formation. Largely in a theoretical sense. I’m not sure how you direct a two year old girl’s gender formation. I’m a man in my thirties. I’m hardly qualified. But I watch.

Sofia The First Logo

Sofia the First is a young girl whose mother, a “commoner” (still a thing in Disney’s world, I guess?) marries the king (oh RIGHT, the Middletons . . .). She then has to go to school to learn to perform her role as “princess” along with the king’s children from a previous marriage, a young son and daughter.

The episode I saw the most of (oh come ON, I can’t watch the whole thing!) involved Sofia joining the flying horse racing team at school. This was something of a scandal as girls had not previously participated in the flying horse racing team at school.

It is decided that Sofia will participate but is forced to ride a small Shetland-pony-like horse who no one believes could possibly help Sofia compete or even win until of course (in true Disney fashion) they do.

Several things about the broad dynamics of the show generally and this episode specifically jump out at me. I totally approve of the way the arbitrary gender-defining social boundaries regarding, for example, which sports girls play or do not is critiqued. Both parents immediately demure that OF COURSE Sofia will participate in the sport and the minor scandal that she doesn’t have the proper attire is swept aside. “She will have them by morning,” her step-father insists.

This is what I imagine parents in New York City are like.

I approve too of the notion that “what matters is inside” and is not simply a matter of outward beauty. Sofia is a little cute light-skinned girl, but a ginger. A minority in her own right, I suppose. That “being a princess” must be learned (hence school) is a nod to its social construction and thereby a recognition that it can be deconstructed (as Sofia does when she joins the flying horse-racing team).

So, you know, props to Disney. My daughter stood transfixed through the entire episode, so they win. My son was less impressed, but then he wasn’t the target audience, I guess.

What did stand out were three particular moments. In the opening credits there is a quick overview of the show’s world and the characters. I took note that there is a little Raj character in the school, a prince, no doubt of some eastern kingdom. I did not notice him in the episode and cannot speak as to whether he appears in later episodes. The second was that when the kids all pile into the flying horse drawn wagon I noted that there was a footman responsible for “driving”? “flying”? the thing. And this person, I kid you not, was a person of color.

And this moment drew attention to a moment previously mentioned, when the step-father calmly asserts that Sofia will have the proper riding attire “by morning.” Now to be fair, Disney once had a group of woodland creatures produce a dress for a woman so, the promise that riding attire and equipment will be produced “by morning” may not be as ominous as it sounds. It’s not clear where the boundaries of “magic” exist in Disney’s world.

But one could easily imagine a “Downtown Abbey-like” scenario in which the household into which Sofia has been brought is propped up by a labor scheme that forces people of color, perhaps, or woodland creatures (would it be less insidious if this was the case?) to support the machinations of the bourgeoisie–or, rather, more precisely–the royal elite’s lifestyle? This struck me as incredibly dark. A weird, discordant note in an otherwise unobjectionable children’s television show.

I do believe a white stable boy appears later in the episode so it would be unfair to characterize the whole split strictly along racial lines, though the footman of color was jarring (the Raj character notwithstanding). But it brings to the forefront the problematic that many of elements of the larger liberal democratic project are being built on a class dynamic that remains unexamined (or at least it has been by me). This debate has occurred intramurally between second- and third-wave feminists for some time now. So there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering in pointing out that there are class and racial differences being papered over even in today’s feminist project.

But it did occur to me.

And I should also note that I don’t think my daughter noticed this at all. It remains to be seen whether I shall point it out to her when she is older . . .

Tune in next time when we compare Pingu and Curious George!

(*To be clear: I believe my children watch significantly less television than the average. My wife is very good about managing the time they spend watching–with reasonable exceptions for when the kids are sick or we’re at Nana and Papa’s house–and making sure the kids are doing their “homework”–math, spelling, and the like. As a grown adult, anything above “0 hours of children’s television” would count as “no small amount.”)

The WIC Chronicles: The Conclusion

I’ve been out, I know. You’ve been worried. I appreciate that. I’m trying to get back in the saddle.

What fascinates me sitting in the WIC office wondering if the nurses are judging us as we play with the three year old not-an-ipad android knock off we bought before we knew we were poor is the question: how did I get here?

Or more esoterically, what exactly should I have done differently to avoid getting here?

Because the conservative narrative I thought I remember was: if you are “poor” this is largely your fault and if not you “fault,” it’s at least your problem. It’s your responsibility to make “good decisions” about money, jobs, spending, whatever and NOT be poor.

This is especially fascinating to me as I stare every semester (virtually this semester as I teach online) into the faces of freshmen who have to make decisions about which major they should choose which will track them into a career in law or business or whatever . . .

I studied Theatre Arts.

“THERE YOU GO. That was stupid.”

Yes, thank you. I know that NOW. And that’s the point. Choices made when we’re young have a lot of repercussions. Repercussions far beyond what might be reasonable to expect an 18yr old to be held responsible for.

It’s one thing to tell the young person that clearly their choice to study “theatre” AT AN AGRICULTURAL AND MECHANICAL SCHOOL was not a good idea and clearly they deserve whatever’s happened to them since.

It’s another to judge an 18 yr. old who has to make decisions about an incredibly complex and technologized market whose future looks less likely to steadily evolve in much the same way it always has, rather expanding and contracting into ever more complex markets with bubbles possible in even the most historically stable environments (“Invest in real estate! It’s a sure thing!”). You’re right, you’re right I suppose everyone should go into accounting and/or undertaking . . .

It is precisely the complexity and the inability to navigate “the market” which those who oppose broadscale government intervention in the form of the social safety net can’t seem to account for when insisting we are all always and everywhere responsible in an absolute sense for the decisions we make in our attempt to support ourselves in this market. And never mind the even more problematic dynamics of which family you were born into or, God help you, what your skin color is.

Which brings me back to sitting in the WIC office. Sure the theatre degree was a bad choice. Though not as bad as it could’ve been. I’ve no fear of speaking in public. Graduate work in Divinity and Theology was clearly never going to be a winner in terms of “marketability” but . . . well . . . that was never the point. (Though it’s still an obnoxiously expensive endeavor for reasons that make less sense as the days go by . . .)

Those decisions were made when I had the temerity to believe that “profit” was not the end all be all of human existence. More on that later, I suppose.

And before I realized that we are far more vulnerable as individuals than the makers would us believe.

And so, the person in the WIC office or fumbling with the food stamp card in front of you at Wal-Mart may have made some horrible life choices.

Or the bottom may have fallen out quicker than they (or you) would imagine which is why the car they drive is nicer than you’d expect. Or perhaps they didn’t have the support and family/friend network you did to help you avoid poverty. Or perhaps they were sideswiped by a market and a system that does not care that they are there or whether they can keep up. And it never asks if it should and it never asks the later questions first . . .

Sunday Sermonettes: Romans 10:8b-13

Sunday Sermonettes: In which I attempt to not completely waste my seminary education and reflect on a text from this week’s liturgy.

“The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

[Romans 10:8b-13 Text available at biblegateway.com]

I was talking recently with a friend who had become atheist after growing up in a small, conservative faith community. We discussed the emphasis in our childhood on “being saved,” how the mechanics of it were discussed, the concern with “assurance” and the peculiar mechanics of “choosing” to believe a thing, the anxieties over eternal punishment.

In that context these passages took on an axiomatic role:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

There it is. This has become the whole “gospel.” Everything else for many has been marginalized out. All one is left with then are the questions: “have you confessed? (I was six) and “do you believe?”

This drives so much of the western expression of modern Christian faith inward. It’s a breathtakingly cognitive affair. The most pristine example of this approach being the Puritans with their endless self-examination and the persistent question “do you really believe?” With no small irony being that the shift to the cognitive still demands some outward sign and so the supposed historical novelty of having “faith” and “belief” be the “work of salvation” is absorbed by a rather complex system of using the right kinds of words or being diligently hard working (and of course the sign for this is financial self-reliance if not outright wealth of varying degrees–a la Weber).

These are all interesting (or not) questions. But they are not the point of the passage. Given the boundary maintenance impulses of second temple Judaism, the point seems to be that what marks the people of God is now housed in something everyone has access too (a heart, capacity to belief) and the persistent outward distinctions that divide us (Jew/Greek, etc.) must not. The “marker” then is not one’s ability to manage and deploy a particular vocabulary or demonstrate a sufficient amount of concern for the “real-ness” of one’s belief as a sign of sincerity. Rather one’s disrespect for these rather insistent boundaries is the marker.

In an age of resurgent olde timey racism and ever increasing distance between rich and poor perhaps the time has come to stop cognitive navel gazing (which is exhausting and boring) and seek to enact the fierce iconoclasm of boundary transgression. A Lenten season unconcerned with chocolate and Facebook but rather to abandon the social, political, racial/ethnic boundaries that keep us from one another might be truly transformative.

England 1 web version

Sunday Sermonettes: Luke 9:28-36

Sunday Sermonettes: In which I attempt to not completely waste my seminary education and reflect on a text from this week’s liturgy.

28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, 31 appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)

34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

(Luke 9:28-36, TNIV available here at Bible Gateway)

“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” The older I get, the more humor I find in the Bible. This moment makes me laugh. Confronted with the mystical and mysterious, Peter suggests they all settle down and live there.

But his comment is not totally absurd. The event’s inclusion in the gospel narrative is, I suspect, to situate Jesus life and work in relation to what had gone before. Jesus stands between the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) and the voice (the Father) insists that everyone listen to the one in the middle.

The Barthian Christian in me takes this as a clear indication that Jesus is the mode of interpreting the Law and Prophets (and not the other way around). One reads the rest of Scripture (New Testament or “Old”) “through” Jesus as it were.

Peter is “reading” Jesus through the Law and Prophets. And taken as the Jewish historical memory was (rightly so) with the Exodus and with the “tabernacling” of YHWH in their midst in the wilderness and then again in Jerusalem, preoccupation with divine domesticity was understandable. It also preoccupied the minds of the Second Temple community to the point of being socially and spiritually determinate.

Peter, confronted with the wonder of the Transfiguration, wants to enact that prior domesticity again. He is not rebuked by the voice (only by Luke who gently insists he just didn’t know what he was saying). There is only the reminder that Jesus is normative. He is the one to be “listened to.”

Jesus will insist that the temple is now in his very body and then that his body is diffused (by the Spirit) into the people of God (the church).

Lest we be too hard on Peter, this impulse to domestication persists into the Christian era. I propose that we do so in at least two ways. One, we reduce him to a candidate for God, requiring an up or down vote. The trick is to “mean it” when you vote and show it to everyone else by engaging in the appropriate manner of “God talk” at the appropriate time and embody some variation of appropriate, bourgeoisie, middle-american values.

The second way is quite literally one of domestication in that we continue to fuss about with a “house” for God, or at least his people. Some variation on a building that absorbs energy, funds, creativity in the hopes that something authentic will happen.

We will only be free of this impulse if we listen to Christ as the father insists to Peter, and Go. Out into the world. Doing good. Healing. Preaching good news.