Monday, November 24, 2014

Wisdom & Word

My first bible column for the Mennonite World Review is out. You can read it in print or online here.

In the meantime, as you liturgy nerds out there probably know, yesterday was Christ the King Sunday. And so, I give you Stephen Colbert's liturgical dance:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Unspeakable Things

When reviewing a book, I like to give a sense of its trajectory, and pull out a few specific examples from the text that highlight the book’s strengths and weaknesses. With Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, I find that approach difficult, because each chapter is so vibrant. Penny considers her subjects with such depth and grace, such honesty and intelligence, that to leave anything out is unsettling. I can’t quote the whole book to you; I can only say that I really hope you will read it. Penny, who is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, has long been one of my favorite political writers, due to her clear grasp of the intertwined nature of the political and the personal.

Unspeakable Things arrived at my doorstep at an opportune time. As a young writer, I am learning the consequences of speaking one’s mind in public, that it’s dangerous business simply to exist as a woman and be good at what you do. Why, I wonder, are so many men shocked and offended that women have the audacity to narrate their own stories, instead of letting someone else do it for us? With this question on my mind, I cracked the spine of Unspeakable Things:
This is not a fairy tale. This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine. (1)
Laurie Penny is not afraid to name the causes of women’s legitimate anger, nor the repercussions thereof. “One sure test of social privilege,” she writes, “is how much anger you get to express without the threat of expulsion, arrest, or social exclusion” (1). She goes on to lay out the realities of love, sex, and gender under neoliberalism, and the prevalent ideologies that dictate discourse about these subjects across the political spectrum. Penny understands that the problems we face are structural, and that their solutions will involve more than simply tweaking the existing rules. The system is broken; the storyline is flawed. And we need to overturn it if there is to be any hope of moving beyond misogynist norms. She writes:
There comes a time when you have to decide whether to change yourself to fit the story, or change the story itself. The decision gets a little easier if you understand that refusing to shape your life and personality to the contours of an unjust world is the best way to start creating a new one. 
There comes a time when you have to decide what you will permit yourself to want. 
While we’re on the subject, here’s what I want. I want mutiny. I want women and queers and everyone else who’s been worked over by gender and poverty and power, which by the way means most of us, to stop waiting to be rewarded for good behaviour. There are no gold stars coming and there are few good jobs left. Even if we buy the right clothes and work the right hours and show up every day with the same cold gag of a smile clenched between our teeth, there’s no guarantee we’ll be left alone to grow old before the flood waters come in. 
Forget it. It’s done. The social revolution that’s been clocking and stumbling down a gauntlet of a century and more, the feminist fightback, the sexual re-scripting, the tearing up of old norms of race and class and gender, it has to start again, with all of us this time, not just the rich white kids who needed it least. So it has to be mutiny. (21, emphasis mine)
What do we want, anyway? What are we supposed to want? Desires are constructed within a web of expectations about right ways of being women or men, such that sometimes what we think we want and what we actually want are not the same thing. And when you begin to realize that, to reject the story you’ve been told, the trajectory you’re supposed to follow, what then? You are confronted with the choice of refusal, of saying no to the world as is, and yes to wanting something else, something better. And you will likely be punished for that desire.

Throughout Unspeakable Things Penny lays bare truths both women and men don’t want to speak of, don’t want to hear. From “Fucked-Up Girls” and “Lost Boys” to sexism on the internet and love in dangerous times, each chapter is a treatise on a particular feature of the current landscape of gender and sexuality. Together, they make a compelling case for her central claim: that gender polices our dreams, and that all of us -- each and every one -- have to imagine a way forward together, a way out of the tangled web of categories and boxes we try to squeeze ourselves and everyone else into. We have to dare to want something more than what is currently offered, something more than “hard work, bland beauty and romance leading to money, marriage and kids: the definition of total freedom that has been allowed to conquer our imaginations, leaving no space for any other lives. But what if we want something else? Is that still allowed? What if we want freedom?” (21).

I worry that it’s not allowed. Not now. And we must dare to want it anyway.

Doubtless there are theological connections here, which Penny herself would not make but would, I hope, excuse me for wanting. The current matrix of neoliberal capitalism, of violence and social control, is not the kind of freedom Christians are called to, despite how the church has been sucked into that narrative. A vision of life beyond human categories that define and separate, of freedom made possible in the Christ who heals us all and makes us whole, as creatures who are more than the limited definitions we try to project onto one another -- sadly most of us are not taught in church to imagine that kind of freedom.

Unspeakable Things left me with a deep hunger, one that has gnawed me for years but has only now been named. I decide, daily, what I will permit myself to want -- not only for myself, but for the world I live in, for the children I may never have, for the sisters and brothers who labor day in and day out in a system that it seems will never change. What will you permit yourself to want?

I fear that I want too much.

What does it mean to refuse to change my life to fit the story, and instead to change the story itself? To use my body, my life, my voice, to help reshape the contours of an unjust world?

Penny named so many things I have felt, so many injuries I bury deep down, wounds I have almost forgotten are there but can never fully leave behind. Wounds I know are only a small part of widespread epidemics. And yet, Penny ends her book with more hope than I can sometimes muster. “Revolution begins in the human imagination,” she writes, and I want to believe her. I don’t have that kind of hope in us, though I think she is right that we must dare to imagine something more, something else, and that means relentless hope, rejecting the story as it is now being told, and joining in the re-scripting of a world turned upside down by grace.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Femmonite Book Club

I had so much fun reading and reviewing Roxane Gay’s fabulous essay collection, Bad Feminist, last month that I decided this sort of thing should become a regular feature on the blog. A Femmonite Book Club, minus the need to squeeze an extra meeting into your no doubt already overstuffed schedules. You might think of this as me turning the Femmonite into a mini virtual classroom on feminism and literature, or simply as a way to choose which of the many books published each month are, in my highly subjective opinion, worth your time.

If you’re interested in reading along, here’s the full schedule:

September: Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution
October: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
November: Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre
December: Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

Look for my review of Unspeakable Things TOMORROW!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When an Apology is Not an Apology

During a New Student Orientation panel on Diversity & Inclusion at Duke Divinity School last week Dean Richard Hays made some comments about homosexuality, and read a passage from the Methodist Book of Discipline, that many students found inappropriate and unwelcoming. In response, students planned a peaceful gathering at the DDS opening convocation on Tuesday, which you can read about in the Durham Herald-Sun here.

Then, yesterday evening, Hays sent a letter to the Duke Divinity School community in response. Even though I have tutored and precepted at Duke for two and a half years I don’t receive community emails, so I asked a student friend to forward the letter to me. Turns out I could have just waited, because the letter was publicly tweeted by DDS a while later. This should not have surprised me. The letter sounded more like a public statement than a personal letter to the community to begin with.

When people are writing letters to you about violating the university’s diversity policy and CC’ing President Brodhead, and when the newspaper is reporting that one of the top divinity schools in the country is not welcoming to LGBTQ students, as Dean you have a bit of a PR problem.

That letter was not an apology. That letter was an attempt to make sure Hays doesn't get in trouble for violating university policy. Dean Hays’ response during orientation was inappropriately timed, and his words poorly chosen. Then, to make matters worse, instead of simply acknowledging the pain he caused and apologizing, he wrote a letter attempting to explain it all away as a big misunderstanding. The letter was dismissive and disrespectful, not to mention a poor model of leadership for incoming students training to be pastors. His letter was a form of crisis communications, a PR document designed to set the record straight by putting, in print, publicly, his version of the story.

The irony of the situation is that he got himself into this mess in the first place. He was not even one of the faculty members speaking on the Diversity & Inclusion panel. He did not need to say anything. He did not need to insert his voice into the discussion. He did not need to take the mic and make sure his voice was heard. But he did. And no, people did not mishear him. They heard him loud and clear.

Dean Hays’ views on homosexuality are no mystery in the halls of Duke Divinity School. There was nothing surprising about what he said. What was surprising, and hurtful, was the time, the place, and the manner of delivery -- the context. People who were not there have asked for a transcript of what was said initially, but I do not personally think that makes much difference. More than simply what he said (which has been clearly communicated by the intelligent, capable students in attendance), what makes the difference here is when and where and how he chose to say it. I am choosing to trust the room full of students who shrank into their chairs when he spoke, who in a few brief moments went from feeling welcomed to feeling scared. Multiple eye-and-ear-witness testimonies.

I have always disagreed with Hays’ stance on sexuality, but I respect his work as a scholar and I believe in academic freedom. He can research and write what he wants, and I will research and write what I want. But this situation is different. This situation is not about whether or not Hays is himself welcoming in his theological position about human sexuality. This situation occurred because Hays overstepped a boundary, as Dean of a Divinity School that is part of a wider university that does not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation. Because he is the dean, because he can, he inserted his voice into a conversation on a topic he had not been asked to speak on -- a textbook example of the privilege of straight white men with PhDs.

When you are in a position of power, you do not get to decide what is or is not welcoming to those who are not. You cannot tell people how they should feel.

Perhaps what irked me the most about the supposed “apology,” though, was the implication that Hays is doing so much to promote inclusion in the Divinity School. It is deceptive to act as if he has ever been supportive of the Gender, Theology, and Ministry certificate program or Sacred Worth. Both of those programs are wonderful and do a lot to make DDS a safe, welcoming, thriving community for students.

Hays is not involved in them.

Other people may work hard to make the divinity school a welcoming place for LGBTQ students, but he is not one of them. To appeal to their work to absolve himself of offering a real apology is a desperate move indeed. Normally Hays walks the line between his own beliefs about sexuality and university policy, creating an atmosphere of silent unwelcome rather than this more vocal outburst. But it is frankly dishonest to imply that he is actively making DDS a welcoming place for those who identify as LGBTQ.

If Hays is serious about being supportive of the programs he name dropped, then I would suggest that he attend the GTM certificate program graduates’ final presentations every year, and learn about all of the important research they are doing. I would suggest, also, that he meet regularly with the leaders of Sacred Worth and listen to what they have to say about how to make DDS a more safe and welcoming place.

And after he listens, he should listen some more.

The use of the word "reconciliation" in that letter disgusts me. You do not get to use that word unless you are willing to do the work. You do not get to jump to reconciliation if you are not also willing to repent for the pain you inflicted, purposefully or not. Deploying the word “reconciliation” as a weapon in a letter meant not to apologize but to placate, to dismiss, is not reconciliation. It is a reminder of who controls the PR machine, of who narrates the events that take place within Duke Divinity School walls, of who decides which stories matter.

It is not the students. They do not get to tell their own stories.

They will be told what they heard, how they should feel, and that, apparently, as leaders they never have to admit that they were wrong.

Most days I am proud to be a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Studying with Amy Laura Hall, Willie Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and others (not to mention the many doctoral students who precepted my classes and have now moved on to other institutions) has formed me as scholar and as a Christian. Many of my closest friends are people I met within the walls of Duke Divinity School. But make no mistake: those hallways do not always feel safe and welcoming, not even to me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


I don't usually do "link round up" posts, but given the shoddy reporting the mainstream media has been doing in Ferguson, I want to share some links to good commentary, as well as places to find ongoing, on-the-ground updates in the wake of Michael Brown's death.

For the Sake of Michael Brown, from the St. Louis American

The Front Lines of Ferguson, by Rembert Browne, for Grantland

Black Kids Don't Have to Be College Bound for Their Deaths to Be Tragic, by Jasmine Banks, for The Root

Reparations for Ferguson, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Atlantic

A Movement Grows in Ferguson, by Jelani Cobb for The New Yorker

How to Deal With Friends' Racist Reactions to Ferguson, by Jenée Desmond-Harris for The Root

fergu(losta)son: mourning michael brown, by J. Kameron Carter, for The Marginalia Review of Books

What Will I Do? A Call to Theologians, by Brian Bantum

For ongoing news updates from Ferguson, head to Twitter and follow:

Finally, if you're not already following @tanehisicoates and @AntheaButler, what are you waiting for?

Educate yourself. Keep paying attention. And get involved in your own city.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Voices in the Streets

A sermon for Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, August 17, 2014. Lectionary texts: Matthew 15:21-28, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-31, Psalm 133, Genesis 45:1-5.

This week I was glued to Twitter on more than one evening, watching the events in Ferguson, Missouri unfold in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder. In light of these events, today’s gospel passage, one that always frustrates and challenges me, has mostly saddened me. Here we are again. Mourning another life cut short, yearning for a gospel that can make sense of the senseless.

In Matthew 15, we read that Jesus is with his disciples when a Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting for mercy, asking for help, for healing for her demon tormented daughter.

And Jesus? At first, he doesn’t even answer her. His disciples urge him to send her away, and he responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. He uses a kind of insider/outsider language that seems to tell only half the story of who he is and why he has come.

Why, Jesus? Why do you blow off this child of God who wants nothing more from you than the healing you have offered so many others? Why do you call her an outsider?

I imagine the story going down so much differently. I imagine Jesus listening to the woman immediately, rather than waiting for her to call him out. I love it when eventually she does, though, this Canaanite woman who supposedly has no place bringing her request to Jesus. She challenges him, even as she restates what she knows others think of her: that she is no better than a dog, eating scraps from the master’s table. And he listens, albeit belatedly.

I thought of this passage this week, as I watched horrific footage from CNN of an officer in Ferguson referring to the largely peaceful protesters as “animals.” I thought of it again and again as we saw proof in hateful language and violent images of all the things that have not changed in the last fifty years. I thought of it while reading about the history of race, class, and education policy in Ferguson, about the series of choices and laws over long periods of time that shaped this city to be what it is today: a town where a police officer killed an unarmed boy with his hands in the air, asking for mercy he should not even have had to ask for in the first place.

Ferguson’s story, and Mike Brown’s story, is an American story. This is not the story the dominant voices in this country like to tell -- it’s not the story of American exceptionalism, of a “City on a Hill.” It’s a story of sin, of brokenness, and in response to that sin and brokenness, of a deep need for healing and hope in the face of despair, anger, and violence.

Returning to our text from Matthew, my frustration with Jesus eventually turns back onto myself, as I wonder how many cries, like the Canaanite woman’s, we close our ears to. Why does it take a cold blooded murder, a body bleeding in the street, to capture my attention like this? This event wasn’t isolated; this story isn’t new. Perhaps what is most frustrating in Jesus’ behavior is how easy it is to act similarly, to play the insider/outsider game, or to simply believe the lie that we’ve moved on. We would have listened, wouldn’t we? Yet a headline this morning described how images from Ferguson bring up “memories” of historic racism -- when in fact, they reveal our racist present.

Even the language police and news reports used this week tried to turn a blind eye to moral responsibility, stating that “bullets were fired,” and “violence escalated,” as if the gun somehow fired itself, as if a person -- a white police officer -- did not make the decision to execute a black boy for walking down the street. “Who did what?” I would write in red ink next to that sentence, if any of my students were to write it, trying to help them see why passive voice matters, why they need to clarify who is responsible for the action in their narrative.

Though Mike Brown was shot over a week ago, it took several days for the story to make its way into national news -- and even then, much of what was reported was grossly skewed, if not downright wrong. But the stories from tweeting reporters and online news outlets were plentiful, and I have tried if nothing else this week, to listen: to be a sponge, soaking up as many words from as many sources as I could, such that I didn’t know when I would ever stop and write, what words I could add to the chorus on social media, what truths scripture might speak to what we’ve seen and heard.

Roxane Gay uses the language of this Matthew passage (whether intending the connection or not) in an essay where she describe the kinds of representation black folks are expected to settle for in movies, literature, media -- scraps from the table, she says. And when I look at Ferguson, I can’t help but think that perhaps, if I were to have the audacity to make any sort of statement about what it is to be black in America, perhaps part of it is that one is expected to settle for the crumbs, for the scraps from the master’s table. Things are better, people will say -- so much better than slavery, so much better than Jim Crow -- look how far we’ve come! We even have a black president!

Settle for the crumbs. Don’t ask for a seat at the table.

I’m still not sure what it means to try to compare a Canaanite woman kneeling before Jesus, saying “Have mercy on me!” to a boy in 2014 St. Louis kneeling with his hands up, saying “Don’t Shoot!” -- a posture of surrender, a posture that should have been more than enough to save an innocent young man, but was not, and never has been.

If I’m honest, sometimes Jesus’ response in this passage doesn’t seem like enough. There will be no instant healing here, as there was for the daughter in this passage. Yet this is only part of the story. Just a few verses later Jesus is healing everyone who comes to him, and turning a few small loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. There is enough for all.

Romans 11 asks, “Has God rejected [God’s] people?” No, as Jesus said, he is sent for the lost sheep of Israel, and in God’s acceptance of Israel we -- we Gentiles who are not God’s chosen people -- we are grafted in, their salvation a salvation for the rest of us. We become kin. The Canaanite woman is not an outsider; we are not outsiders; the people of Ferguson are not outsiders.

As our Psalm declares, it is good to dwell together in unity.

But the world we live in today is one in which that unity is unrealized, and the cries of many go unanswered, at best, and at worst, are answered with bullets and tear gas and riot gear.

It’s tempting to talk of unity in order escape the evil in front of us, to say that Jesus is the answer, as if that were the end of the conversation instead of the beginning.

What glimmers of hope I saw this week came from people who, like the woman in Matthew’s gospel, refused to settle for same old stuff. People who refused to be overlooked. Parents and children singing and dancing in the streets in memory of Mike Brown, and others continuing their protest into the night, asserting their right to gather. Reporters on the ground in a city where they knew full well they might be shot, where some were arrested, enveloped in tear gas, nonetheless committed to making sure the rest of us saw the truth of what was happening, committed to revealing the harsh reality, the new normal of militarized police, committed to telling the story of racism in America that isn’t over -- not nearly. And then there was a St. Louis alderman tirelessly working in the streets with legitimately angry young black folks fed up with the world they’ve been handed, not trying to placate them, but trying, rather, to redirect anger into constructive action -- to refuse violence, yes, but not to stand down. Haven’t we all settled for long enough?

These voices calling out from the streets of Ferguson remind me that the unity Christ calls us to is reached by a long and winding road that we must tread together. Our feet have many more miles to walk -- some in protest, some in penance, none of them easy -- before we will see our sons and daughters healed, and truly dwell together in peace.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Party of One

Note: Last fall I attended the Collegeville Institute's "Writing Spirit, Writing Faith" workshop with Mary Potter. Before we arrived at the workshop Mary instructed each of us to prepare a 1-page "self portrait" to share with the group, to introduce ourselves. This was mine.

When I returned from a solo train trip to Chicago to visit the Art Institute one summer while I was in college, in Michigan, I told my roommate Mackenzie that I’d had an epiphany at Giordano’s Pizza. The place was packed when I went there for lunch, but because it is my favorite I put my name on the list. It couldn’t take that long to get a seat at the bar. Sure enough, twenty minutes later the hostess called out, “Meghan, party of one!”

“Yeah,” I told Mackenzie, “I am my own party.” It became a running joke between us, but it comes to mind often as I travel or even when I go places by myself in Durham, where I live. I used to avoid going anywhere without “armor” -- a magazine or something to occupy me if I ended up stuck by myself in a restaurant. But a couple weeks ago I sat at the bar at my favorite brewery on Friday evening, no armor, waiting for my friend Ruthan for nearly an hour while she sent apologetic texts about waiting for a pie to finish baking. I was almost done with my first beer by the time she arrived, but I didn’t really mind, especially since she brought me a piece of the pie. After a long week I enjoyed the time alone with my thoughts. Besides, as Ruthan likes to remind me, if the bartender knows your name it’s not drinking alone. It felt good to sit there, by myself.

I don’t ever want to choose not to do something I really want to do simply because I might have to do it alone. One of my favorite bands played a show in Richmond, VA recently and no one would go with me because, well, it was Hanson -- the blonde heartthrobs of the 90s hit “Mmmbop,” though they’ve made a lot of music since then, most of which I own. I wasn’t about to let some teasing or the lack of company stop me from seeing the band I have followed for fifteen years, in whose songs I can trace my life from junior high to the present. So I bought a bus ticket, found a room on AirBnB, and took a mid-week 24 hour vacation. I danced my heart out. I sang along. I regret nothing.

It feels like a peculiar, small act of feminist rebellion, proclaiming I have a right to sit at a bar alone or take myself out for dinner and concert. Not to mention that I love music that hardly anyone else of my generation would be caught dead listening to, unless they’re being ironic.

A party of one is small, but it is still a party.