And the Winner of the Worst Ally Ever Award Is…

Me. I’m the worst ally ever. Us white people like to talk a lot about being allies. Especially us progressive protestant academic types. We love this language. It lets us of the hook of our own complicity.

“I’m an ally! Look! Loot at me!” Bullshit. Mostly I’m just trying to survive. And sometimes I’m shy and down-right cowardly.

I’ve been thinking about this the last week, thinking about what it means to sit there shocked and stupid when stuff like this happens. Clearly I’m beyond useless as an ally. I had a chance, in one of those spaces where the people who needed sticking up for have no access to stick up for themselves, to have their own voices, to say something. And I said nothing. And if I say nothing I am doing nothing to make room for those voices to come to the table.

I thought a lot about this this week, about what’s wrong with being an ally. Everything. Everything’s wrong with it. Being an ally is remaining complicit in the systems that make so much injustice possible. It’s being conscripted into being one of the “good” slave owners, good nazis, good patriarchs, good capitalists, good homophobes, etc. etc. that other privileged people can hide behind as part of the false “progress narrative” of tolerance. And I want no part of that.

Tolerance is part of the problem.

I went and talked to the man who said that BUT statement I was so irate about. I did. I scraped myself together and sat down and told him that it was wrong to say and that I have a problem with it. And he took partial responsibility for it. But only partial. It was a duck-and-dodge conversation, deflected to be about him and about the good interfaith charity programs our denomination and congregation participate in. Tolerance again.

Tolerance is what I do when the spring winds pick up and suddenly the air is filled with pollen and I’m sick as a dog. (I’m proof that you can grow up in the dirt, with all sorts of animals and plants, eating peanut butter everyday and still have an immune system that over-reacts to plant sperm like it’s some new kind of biological warfare weapon.) Tolerance is taking an antihistamine pill every morning and trying not to complain to everyone I meet about how miserable and dysfunctional I am surrounded by something I hate but have no choice about. I tolerate it.

And tolerance is not what people on the receiving end of bigotry and oppression deserve. I don’t want to be an ally of injustice systems and privileged white men who talk a lot about tolerance and diversity. And when we call ourselves allies that, too often, is what we become. We end up being the privileged allies of privilege. We’re nicely able to play both sides and because we think we’re woke we think it’s cool.

I don’t have all that much privilege. I’m a single mother. I’ve dealt every day with gender discrimination, with economic inequality, with the stigma of being a poor woman who lives outside of the hetero-patriarchal family norm. I know how much this shit sucks in my own life. But I’m also white, Christian, have USA birth certificate, and a college education. And I can’t imagine how much harder life would be if I didn’t have those advantages. Hard. I’m sure of that. I can still blend in, I can wear a fake wedding ring if I want to, I can let people think that I’m middle-class, I can access those all-white spaces. No one is trying to fire-bomb my house of worship or build a wall to keep my family out.

I don’t want me and my family to be merely tolerated. We know how shitty that feels, to be the black-sheep family of the community, the family that doesn’t fit in, that’s missing the piece with the penis that makes us OK in the eyes of the people with the power. It sucks. It’s isolating and lonely and alienating. I’m always so happy when my kids make friends with other kids who also come from “broken” homes. People like us, people who want us.

People who want us. Isn’t that what we all need, what community is really about? And sometimes the “people like us” maybe aren’t like us at all. Our people like us, people who like us, are over and over, people who don’t look like us, don’t talk like us, don’t pray like us. And that is what inclusion and pluralism and diversity are really about. People like us who aren’t at all like us and still like us. And I think that this is true for all those “other” people out there.

And it is more than that. Inclusion isn’t just inviting someone to the church book study but understanding that maybe they can’t afford the book or the gas to drive to the nice part of town. It’s addressing all those barriers that keep people out. Things like generations of systemic racism. Or centuries of genocide. Or colonialism and resource theft. And being a mere ally doesn’t cut it for these issues. Opening the doors isn’t enough when people have shackles on their ankles.

Yeah, I slightly redeemed myself as an ally. I went and had that hard discussion about antisemitism and not saying BUT and not sweeping it aside. I stuck a microscopic jamb in the door. But that isn’t at all what’s really needed. It won’t to a damn thing to stop synagogues from being targeted, to alleviate the suffering caused by 2,000 years of twisting the Gospel of John. (Which is what brought up the topic in the first place.) No, being an ally not only doesn’t help, it’s also a thin shield to protect my own ego and avoid my own complicity.

I’m a pathetic excuse for being of service to the people who most need it. And there’s a lot of freedom in facing that. It’s the freedom to not be an ally any more, to not tolerate mere tolerance. Maybe someday I will be able to afford allergy treatment, to try those shots that are supposed to reprogram the immune system. Maybe then I’ll be able to include lilacs and tulips and junipers and alfalfa and all the other plants I now merely tolerate in my life. And that’s what we need, collective immune-therapy to become includers rather than toleraters.

 

 

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Some words that should never be followed by BUT

I was in a church discussion group recently where someone (older, white, male) said, “some people say Martin Luther was anti-Semitic BUT…” and then proceeded to attempt to justify this fact and brush it aside.

I seethed. I’m still seething. I, probably wisely, said nothing at the time and excused myself as soon as possible. But it’s still bothering me. I should have said something, wisdom be damned. It’s worse than just not cool. Letting things like this slide is part of why “Progressive” Mainline churches are dying, maybe need to die. There’s no good news in obfuscating reality to save a few old dudes from a little discomfort.

And there is no excuse for shit stuff like this to still be said. This is a problem. It’s a problem we have to deal with if we want to have authentic Good News, real Gospel truth. There can be not set-free-by-truth while we’re running from the truth. And in this case the truth is that Luther was nastily anti-Semitic.

Let’s try a better way. Something like, “Martin Luther was anti-Semitic AND we have to grapple honestly with that reality and face it head-on and admit that he wasn’t perfect AND here are some things we can do to deal with our own complicity in the perpetuation of injustice.”

I think it’s not only OK, it’s beneficial and beautiful, to acknowledge that Luther got a few things really right AND that he was only human, still all-saint and all-sinner, and also got a few things really wrong. People aren’t perfect and shouldn’t have to be. It doesn’t invalidate his other work for me to say that he was really, really, really wrong in his view of Jews.

For me, I’ve found that having long talks with Jewish friends and taking classes on Hebrew Scriptures from Jews teachers has been an excellent way to gain a much better understanding of Jesus. It’s good for me, for my faith, to have an open mind and open heart. (Same thing on learning from Muslims and Buddhists but those are other posts.) So often we Christians get shit stuff twisted up and bassackwards because we aren’t willing to stick a toe out of our comfort zones and learn and grow. This is so sad for us that we miss out on so much. And it’s dangerous for others because it means that too many of us are still covering for anti-Semitic dead dudes or voting for Islamophobic policies. It’s not Good News for anyone.

It’s not Good News and it’s not Jesus-following. Jesus was willing to engage with and learn from all sorts of people. (See Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30 for a lovely example of Jesus getting out-argued by the least-likely of people.) It’s not Good News for us or for anyone else when we’re sweeping the truth under the rug or keeping skeletons in the closet.

And I have no idea how to explain all this to an arrogant old white guy who dominates discussions and already seems to be hyper-protective of what his imagines Lutheranism to be. I don’t know. I don’t know how I should have handled the specific situation and I don’t know how to address the larger issue behind it. But I do know that any real truth and any real person is messy and complicated and full of paradox. It might seem like a contradiction to people who want binary answers, who want their hero to be all-good instead of all-human and sometimes Wrong. But it’s not. A willingness to accept paradox is one of the things that draws me back to the Lutheran thing, that basic idea that we are all all-saint and all-sinner all at once. (Or, to paraphrase something a Muslim who’s dear to my heart likes to say, we’re human: we’re part angel and part devil.)

So I don’t know what “The Answer” is. But I know we need to work on this, know that there are many, many reasons why we need to clean up this mess rather than pretend there is no mess. Mostly I know that I’ve felt like puking since hearing that, after finding myself speechless and powerless to confront it. I’m open to suggestions here. But I’m not open to hate with a thin layer of BUT covering it. Some words should never be followed by BUT and those are some words. They should be followed by a long pause, a moment of silence and mourning, and then a huge AND where the truth is faced. But (damn that word!) I don’t know how to be the change that needs to happen here. I don’t know how (or if it’s even possible in this specific instance) to actually go about doing it.

 

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February Reading BLog

It’s been eye-opening to keep a list of what I read. I’ve been a vicious (not voracious!) reader most of my life. Counting chapter books I read aloud to Kid 2 I’ve managed to finish 26 books in two months. Reading is one of those activities that I couldn’t live without but often don’t really have as much time for as it might look like I do. So I thought I’d take a minute and drop a few suggestions for squeezing reading time into hectic, productive lives. The first thing is that at any given moment I have between 4 and 6 books in progress. And I read them all one word at a time. I’m not a skimmer. Not even when I’ve had mountains of school reading to get though on a timeline. One word at a time. Every word. Sometimes reading paragraphs or pages several times in a row because suddenly I can’t remember what I just read or else it is good that I have to go back and write notes all over it or it was so bad/questionable that I leave snide little comments in the margins. And I do most of it in little 5-15 minutes bits. (That might have something to do with not remembering what I already read and doing a lot of re-reading….)

So here’s how I do. I have books in every room in the house and always carry one with me when I leave. At the moment The Name of the Rose has been sitting on the top of the toilet tank since August. I read a few paragraphs a day. I’ll probably finish it around next August. I read ten minutes of something in the scripture category every morning, currently The Harper Collins Study Bible. And 10 minutes of poetry. And 1 chapter-ish of something in the recovery/inspirational/spiritual/theological/self-help category. Most of this is slow reading, it takes a long time to read an annotated Bible 2-3 pages a day. That’s OK. Reading isn’t a race. One letter becomes one word becomes on phrase becomes one sentence and adds up bit by bit. Life is lived on breath at a time.

Then I have one or two books that I keep handy and squeeze in bits and pieces every chance I get. Waiting for tea water to boil? Read. Waiting for the kid to finish her shower? Read. Waiting for dinner to cook? Read. Waiting for a friend to arrive for coffee? Read. I try to book myself an hour of just-reading most evenings. Not having a TV makes this easier. But it also frequently happens that kids just can’t resist the sight of a mother sitting down with a book. There’s something about that that makes even the best of children itch for attention. So even my hour-ish of “me time” is usually broken and fragmented into little bits. By now my brain is trained to be distracted every 15 minutes. When I have those few precious child-free moments I still can’t focus in longer stretches. Such is life. Right now those books I squeeze into my spare moments are mostly for a class I’m sitting in on. But in general I try to rotate subject and genre. This keeps it from ever turning into a chore or an obligation. But I do try to make myself finish what I’ve started and include the occasional unpleasant read. I’d hate reading if I only read dull books but I also think it’s important not to be lazy about either reading or life.

So here’s what I finished in February, alone with a few thoughts. Have you read any of these? What do you feel, think, suspect about them?

14. 2/1/18 Junie B. Jones and Her Big Fat Mouth, Barbara Park. Don’t get your kids started on these. Just don’t. Kid 2 things there hilarious. I hear most kids do. But these books are like giving your kids cola for breakfast. They’ll love it. Then they’ll expect it. Then it will be a habit. Next thing you know you have a spoiled little junkie on your hands.

15. 2/6/18 Our Strange New Land: Elizabeth’s Diary. Settler-colonial propaganda. But Kid 2 and I did have some good conversations about slanted history and how these stories are told to make it sound like the poor colonists didn’t mean to commit genocide. Oh, and about the Pocahontas myth and other bullshit stories we white people tell ourselves. (I didn’t actually use the word bullshit. Kid 2 threatens to wash my mouth out with soap when I do.)

16. 2/6/18 Blood: A Critique of Christianity, Gil Anidjar. I have mixed feelings about this book. Part of me thinks it’s brilliant and beautiful. Part of me thinks it’s no different than Orientalist clap-trap only saying “Christianity” instead of “Islam” and “blood” instead of “jihad.” Which is pretty much what he did. It’s “scholarship” based on taking little bits or Western literature out of context and sewing them together to make a point that isn’t really a point. But it’s also kinda brilliant to flip the frame and read “the West” like “the West” reads the world. This isn’t a fun book and I don’t recommend it. Except to white Christians who need a taste of their own medicine.

17. 2/7/18 12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee, John Fischer. This is another mixed feelings book. I think he’s on to a good idea. But I also found him to still be a bit misogynistic and homophobic. He actually explained that gay people shouldn’t be judged for being gay because they were probably abused as children. Not cool. Really not cool. It also seems to me that he doesn’t really get the brilliance of the original 12 steps. I would suggest getting a sponsor and working the steps before being arrogant enough to completely rewrite them. Also, may I recommend Al-Anon for anyone who wants to do some real step work on not being a judgemental, self-righteous Pharisee? Again, only my opinion and it’s just a suggestion. For all I know this is a great book for people who think LGBTQIA people are sick or who want to be really careful not to actually be associated with the original 12 steps. But it’s not one I’ll re-read or recommend to a friend.

18. 2/11/18 Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment, Leigh Eric Schmidt. I enjoyed reading this and recommend it for anyone interested in religion, secularism, atheism, or history. It’s solid and well-written and does a good job of raising important questions.

19. 2/12/18 Freedom’s Wings: Cory’s Diary. Slavery softened for children’s education. I think there are better books on the topic but this isn’t too bad as far as trying to help kids understand that slavery was brutal and ugly and hurt real people. But it also tries to soften it with the “not all white people” perspective and touches of the progress narrative. Kid 2 picked the book so I read it to her and we concluded with conversations about how slavery was actually a lot worse than books like this make it sound and how structural racism is still a really evil reality and big problem.

20. 2/15/18 Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Rob Bell & Don Golden. Meh. OK but it isn’t Bell’s best book.

21. 2/17/18 Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature, Tracy Fessenden. This is a fairly dense book and isn’t for the casual reader. I enjoyed it, but then it is exactly the kind of thing that makes my little nerd heart palpitate. Recommended for people interested in, well, the subtitle says it all.

22. 2/20/18 The Collected Poems, Sylvia Plath. I’m actually not really a Plath fan. Sorry, not sorry.

23. 2/20/18 The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America, Sarah Barringer Gordon. I thought this was interesting but it is legal history and probably not everyone. It did raise some interesting questions for me about polygamous cultures and women’s rights. And, just because I’m an opinionated pain-in-the-backside, I feel like putting it out there that in my opinion Islam is theologically closer to American Protestantism than Mormonism is so yes, it is racism to tolerate Mormons as neighbors but not Muslims.

24. 2/23/18 Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, Janet R Jakobsen & Ann Pellegrini. I’m not totally in agreement with their claims but it’s still a book worth reading. And it does make a solid point the tolerance is problematic.

25. 2/25/18 A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. This is a Reader Beware book. It’s a page turner and his writing is superb. Some sections are laugh-out-loud funny, if you’re solidly cynical. It is, however a very dark book and not for people who aren’t emotional mature and stable. This book could fuck with your head and your heart and give you nightmares for weeks. I’m still recovering from it. Not going to give any spoilers but don’t get attached to any of the characters and don’t have any expectations for any kind of resolution or redemption.Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have a worthwhile message. It does. And want to say that I feel like it is important o read books by people and not books about people. There’s an important distinction.

26. 2/28/18 Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh. Good stuff in here.

So there’s the 13 books for February. What have you been reading?

 

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