Friday, March 31, 2017

100 Tweeds

I am wearing 100 Tweeds today because it is the scent of being the smartest person in the room - old books, cigars, leather armchairs, understated brilliance that doesn't need to prove itself. It's "masculine" in that silly way that we gender things without gender, like perfume, like beverages, giving them meanings that expand or constrict without warning. I wear it to feel expansive, to take up space literal and metaphorical, to refuse the shrinkage this world asks of women every day.

I am thinking, too, about how much of my writing life consists of pointing out connections that appear logical to me, indeed almost obvious, yet which people writing for big publications often miss entirely. Right now, that's the fact that Mike Pence's views about dining alone with women have everything to do with his tie breaking vote yesterday to block family planning money. The need to control women's bodies, the narrowness of who and what we are, the risk our bodily freedom poses to men in power - these are integrally related. I studied philosophy in college - a "masculine" subject, one of three women in the class of '07 to earn that major (in a small department that amounted to 30% of that year's phil grads) - so I've been trained to think in certain ways. No doubt this is one result.

Bringing the above thoughts together, then, I wonder how much of my surprise that others do not always see the connections I consider so obvious stems from not grasping my own intelligence. Saying "Isn't it obvious?" is as much about my inability to acknowledge my own authority on certain matters as it is about naming a clear "If a, then b..." connection. In saying it's "obvious," I diminish my own importance. I shrink, even as I am trying to expand.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

When Harry Did Not Meet Sally

A couple of years ago I confided to a married male friend that, even though I’d long since rejected the idea that cisgendered heterosexual men and women can’t be friends, I still worried sometimes about other people’s perceptions of my friendships. I know better than to think people will not make incorrect assumptions about my friendships with men, single or married, and I felt the need to tread carefully. I still assumed I would be considered “the other woman,” no matter that my friendships were platonic, open, and honest - nothing secretive about them. My friend was surprised that I would feel this way, and in a weird way that has helped me in the years since to stop wasting time or energy on the matter, to chalk these worries up to my conservative evangelical past and its resulting internalized sexism and self loathing. Of course some people might have their own ideas about my friendships, but so long as my friends, their partners, and I were all on the same page, why waste time worrying about what anyone else thinks? Unfortunately, the simple suggestion that “men and women can’t be friends” has darker implications, beyond my own day to day life.

This week’s flurry of hot takes about the fact that Mike Pence won’t eat alone with women other than his wife (a throw-back to the “Billy Graham rule”), and the number of people like blogger Matt Walsh who’ve defended the position, are a sad reminder that this belief is still prevalent, that it is anything but fringe. Some might laugh it off as an unimportant aside, but I would argue that rather it has everything to do with who we understand women to be and how they are (and will be) treated. That a married man like Matt Walsh cannot think of a single good reason to spend time with a woman who is not his wife tells me in no uncertain terms that he believes women are for sex, for reproduction, and for raising children. Full stop. He cannot imagine that half of his fellow humans have anything else to offer in personal or professional relationships. The caution against spending time with women is framed as a matter of avoiding situations of compromise or suspicion, which on its surface might seem harmless enough - but what that means, specifically, is that women are a source of suspicion. Always.

Coming off the controversy around Tim Keller over the last couple of weeks, as a woman and particularly as one who studies and writes about theology, who teaches and preaches and may hopefully one day be a pastor, I am hyper aware that this kind of misogyny is alive and well even among mainline and some so-called liberal Christians. Others with closer ties to Princeton and the Presbyterian church have written with nuance and heart about that situation, so I don’t feel the need to add to their work (though you should absolutely click those links and read it). Rather I want to point out that the resurgence of these ideas, indeed the fact that those who aren’t as familiar with the religious right are learning for the first time that people think such things, has everything to do with this brand of misogyny becoming mainstream.

Perhaps you think people are being alarmist when they reference The Handmaid’s Tale in relation to the current administration's ideas about women. But these conversations about women and friendship, about whether there is such a thing as “debate” with someone who doesn’t think women can preach, have everything to do with who counts as human, and all the civil and religious liberties that go along with it. If women are only for sex and reproduction, if women should be avoided as temptresses, their bodies carefully controlled, it is not a far leap to the handmaidens Margaret Atwood imagined. Inherent in Walsh’s question, posed as a response to the outcry about Pence’s statement, is the belief both that women’s bodies are for sex and that women exist for men, but that even in existing for men they only offer their bodies, not their whole selves. “Why,” he seems to be asking, “would I spend time with a woman, if not to sleep with her? Therefore I should not spend time with her, lest I be tempted to cheat on my wife.”

I meet with married men alone all the time, as professional women must. As a writing tutor for graduate students in a divinity school, I simply couldn’t do my job if I didn’t. I meet with them in a dull beige office, a professional context, to offer my expertise on theological writing. It is not nearly as sexy as men like Walsh seem to think it is. In fact, it’s quite boring. We mostly talk about commas, active versus passive voice, nouns, verbs, and when it’s appropriate to use “I” in academic writing. Not exactly fodder for anyone’s fantasies.

I also meet with colleagues and former classmates to talk about our careers. I meet male friends for coffee, or for drinks after work, to talk about our lives, our relationships, about books and music and ideas - about many of the same things I share with my women friends, in fact. I cannot speak for them, but I would wager that these men benefit from their friendships with me in many ways. I shouldn’t have to say this next part, but I will: I don’t want to sleep with any of them. And despite what Walsh would have us believe, it is far from “normal” to insinuate that it’s bad for men to make friends with women. It’s disturbing and misogynist and deeply unchristian. It tells me much more about his preoccupation with women’s bodies as sexual objects than it does about anything else.

I hope I can avoid sounding trite in turning here to Galatians 3:28, a verse in some sense both over and underused to discuss the truth that we are neither male nor female but are rather one in Christ. When I read this passage I hear two things: one, a divine reality that in Christ we have been made one, our differences not erased but woven together, freed from oppressive categories; and two, the call to embody that truth by doing the difficult work of making it true in our lives and communities. Make no mistake: it is work. Change is not inevitable on this or any other matter.

In my more generous moments, I feel bad for people like Walsh. They miss out on so much that women have to offer. If they did have women friends, they might learn a thing or two, might even change their minds about some of their toxic theology, though I don’t hold out much hope for that. On the contrary, I would caution any woman to refrain from befriending men with such an evil perception of who they are, for fear of the emotional, spiritual, and physical trauma that too often results. Men like this will continue to subjugate women’s bodies and intellect, perpetuating cycles of abuse, and ultimately turning people away from the church, because of their distortion of the gospel. A distortion that currently resides in the White House, and will dictate policy for years to come. While stepping away from the proliferation of hot takes and internet controversy is important, sometimes it’s the small things like this that point to the bigger, scarier trends that affect us all.

Perhaps most scary to me is how easily moderate and liberal men dismiss women's responses to people like Keller, Pence, Walsh, and others. Have you so quickly adapted to this "new normal"? Do you really need to "hear both sides"? Do we really mean so little to you?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Uncertain Present

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21

In today’s gospel text, we enter the story of Jesus’ public ministry in the middle of things. John has baptized Jesus, the devil has tempted him, crowds and crowds of people have listened to his words, and he’s healed people who thought they might never be well. Jesus has also called twelve particular people to follow him as he teaches and preaches, healing people in God’s name. The disciples answered his call, following him, listening as he tells multilayered stories, parables that teach lessons but also begin to reveal his true nature. Over and over throughout the gospels they just don’t quite seem to get it, though. This interests me, because responding to a call like Jesus’ call when you don’t really know who this guy is yet is more mind boggling to me than, say, reading these texts centuries later and thinking, okay, yes, this guy triumphs over death, seems worth dropping everything to follow him, to be part of what he’s doing in the world.

But the disciples don’t really have that kind of knowledge yet. He is their rabbi, their teacher, and certainly they know he’s something special. How could they not? They’ve witnessed the healing, they’ve heard him speak. They left their old lives behind to join him. Here in Matthew 17 things become more clear. This chapter sheds some light – literally – on what is to come.

Jesus has already told the disciples what’s ahead, though Peter refused to believe it. And now Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up a mountain side, retreating from the crowds, echoing Moses’ mountain top sojourn in Exodus 24. And lo, Moses himself, along with Elijah, joins them there. At first Peter wants to stay, to build some shelters and set up camp and spend some time here with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Things have been chaotic for Jesus and his disciples, traveling around, followed by crowds. And things will become even more intense in the days to come. The disciples are following Jesus, but they’re still learning who he is, and I think they’re unsettled by what he tells them is on the horizon. This mountain top transfiguration reveals something new to his followers. Some call it the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

“He was transfigured before them,” the text says, “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” This interruption, this revelation, is scary, what with the voice booming from the clouds: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Jesus is glowing, resplendent. His terrified disciples fall to the ground, overcome by their fear. The text continues, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Jesus tells the disciples to keep what they’ve seen to themselves until after he’s been raised from the dead, which no doubt confuses them, though they seem to comply. Later, in 2 Peter, this story is retold, an eye-witness account for posterity. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter says, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

This idea of accounts of the transfiguration as a lamp in a dark place resonates with some of what I see going on around us, as do Jesus words of comfort and instruction, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This week the Washington Post unveiled a new motto, “Democracy dies in the dark.” And while theologically I think we’re concerned with something other than mere democracy, I think there’s a resonance here that I hope I can make clear.

I read a novel this weekend, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani author who spent many years living in both New York and London before returning to his home in Lahore. In the novel, a young Pakistani man named Chengez has recently graduated from Princeton and been hired for a highly competitive position in finance. He is living an American dream of sorts at 22, brilliant and successful and dominating his new job. And then the planes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11 and everything changed. Not only how others perceived him, not only his fear for his family back home in Lahore, but also in how he saw himself, the path he was on, what it meant to be working twelve hour days to build a capitalist empire intent on destroying people like him, and his home.

Suffice it to say that this felt like a timely read for many reasons, especially following the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Pakistan last week, which drew little media attention. While our president continues to fight nonexistent boogie men, people are dying. Who has reason to fear whom, when Muslims and people of color in the U.S. who “look” Muslim to some are told to “go home” – or worse, violently attacked, sometimes killed, as happened this week in Kansas. We cannot claim to be a country that values religious freedom. And increasingly it’s clear that for many, faith in God is not stronger than faith in America.

Hamid has this to say about the challenges of moving home to Lahore after his time living abroad:

My faith in this place has, I will admit, been shaken. But my faith in New York was once shaken, when I lived there. My faith in London was once shaken, when I lived there. 
I suppose I have learned to live with intermittent faith in a place. I leap from moments when I think, yes, my home will flourish, to others when I think, no, all that awaits is decline. Maybe this ebb and flow is common. Maybe it has more to do with me. Maybe it is the nature of a fiction writer, some fiction writers, to exist suspended between what is and what we desire there to be, unable, in the end, to pick one over the other, to commit to the life, to reality, or otherwise to the dream.

Hamid’s words about his home connected with a lot of what I hear in people’s fears in the U.S. lately. Some of us probably gave up our faith this place we call home a long time ago, if we had any faith in it to begin with. Many more of our friends and neighbors are for the first time struggling to hang on to their beliefs in this thing called America, this empire, this crumbling democracy. Others double down on that dream, claiming alternately that this seeming crisis is making us great again, a return to a past viewed through rose tinted lenses. And still others respond by noting all the ways a nation built on slavery and genocide has never been great, but dreaming that we could be, someday. In Hamid’s novel, after 9/11 Chengez says, “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.”

I wonder now if the dream that is dying needs to die – much as the disciples’ visions for who Jesus is and what he would accomplish died in the time following this mountain top transfiguration. This is not to say we shouldn't resist the current sad excuse for national leadership, but rather that our Christian and particularly Mennonite resistance is to dream, and to live, for something different. To get up, and not be afraid, to resist the current regime not in order to maintain the status quo of the U.S. government and so-called “American” ideals, but to shine light on all the dark places created by human lust for power.

2 Peter says, “no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Would that we might also be so moved by that Spirit. We'll enter Lent later this week, the journey toward Good Friday followed by Easter morning alleluias. The world will turn. But it does not turn on the transfer of human power – peaceful or not – in the US, or anywhere else. In revealing himself on the mountaintop, Jesus' otherness is obvious. He is not the leader we expect or even want, at times. What sort of world does that usher in?

Hamid wrote of existing “suspended between what is and what we desire there to be,” and that is precisely the story that narrates our lives together, as followers of Christ – an imperfect past, an uncertain present, a future we have yet to grasp.