Monday, May 29, 2017

Why I give.

As part of a stewardship campaign at my church, I was asked to speak for about 2-3 minutes about why I, personally, choose to give. Saying yes was the easy part. Keeping it short was the challenge. Put me in the pulpit, ima wanna give a sermon. Especially on this topic, where the theological aspects of "putting money where my mouth is" are deeply meaningful and intellectually fascinating to me. Here is what I settled on saying.

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Giving as I am able is second only to the sacrament of communion in my experience of connection to the Body of Christ. But that's kind of abstract. Let's try for direct and concrete:

I give because I know that when someone walks through the door at Metropolitan Community Church of Portland, they will hear that God loves them and feel that the people on the pews beside them welcome them.

Being welcoming is not simple. In the nearly 20 years I've been an actively practicing Christian, I have been involved one way or another in nine faith communities: three United Church of Christ, two Unitarian Universalist, two MCC, one Lutheran, and one Quaker. All of them proclaimed themselves to be welcoming to everyone. None are perfect. In my experience, though, the MCC congregations come closest.

Explaining what makes MCC different would take a sermon. So here are two highlights.

First, whether as a deliberate choice or through the combined weight of our personal histories, MCC Portland (and MCC as a denomination) practices trauma-informed care. We understand that trauma is "broad, deep and life-shaping" and that it "affects how people approach services."

The queer community has faced decades of active discrimination and centuries of casual abuse. We endured the death and demonization of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than 40% of transgender or gender-nonconforming people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes, and more than 30% have experienced homelessness. I doubt anyone in this room is a stranger to trauma.

The second distinctive thing about MCC is that our dominant culture is natively queer. Everywhere else, being welcoming has been a reactionary posture. Here, it is who we are and have to be. Going back to that 2015 survey, more than a third of transgender folks identified as non-binary or genderqueer. Researchers estimate that 4-5% of American adults participate in a form of consensual non-monogamy, such as polyamory; it appears to be more common in queer communities.

(Which reminds me, the Marriage section of our website still needs updating. People who aren't already here, or who aren't paying close attention, won't know that families like mine are welcome.)

Somewhere, I bet MCC theologians are considering how being a furry reflects creation theology. If it hasn't happened already, someday a person in full animal persona is going to walk through that door, and I trust we will shake their hand or paw or hoof and greet them with the Peace of Christ.

And that is why I give. Not for my own sake, but for everybody's. Even when I don't have it in me to come to church, even when I acknowledge that we most likely will never remove every barrier that keeps someone from feeling comfortable here, the need for this place remains.We can't help everyone, but some of the people we help, nobody else can.

That is why I give and keep giving. And I hope you will too, as you are able.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Radsplaining, or: Why I rarely aspire to be an ally.

Before I get to the main point of this post, I will ask you to indulge me as I share a lengthy anecdote about what was probably the single most formative experience in my commitment to working towards a world that is more just, equitable and inclusive.

A dozen or so years ago, I worked for an independently endowed library housed in a liberal Christian church in the Northeast. As part of my work there, I became part of an anti-racism taskforce that met at the church I served. Its meetings were a combination of education and activism; the publicity for them declared, “All are welcome.” Emotions ran high but were contained within a strong sense of shared mission and vision. At one meeting, a new (white) participant and one of our established (African American) leaders got into an extended shouting match. I was concerned for the integrity of the group. We put “all are welcome” on our meeting announcements. The meetings were in my library. How could we invite people to come and then yell at them?

This same leader had expressed anger with me before, and raised voices were not unknown. It was a natural part of a multicultural group discussing charged issues. The difference in this case, for me, was one of hospitality. Interactions between founding members were, in my understanding, interactions between hosts; we had collaboratively set the agenda and shaped the conversational space. Newer participants, in contrast, were our guests; they came into the space to which we had invited them. We hosts had the power of influence, as recognized leaders of the group. We also had the power of coercion: as the organizers, we controlled the space and could eject individuals who behaved harmfully within it.

I was concerned about how we used the responsibility that came with our power. I suggested that we talk about the shouting match at our next meeting, because it had highlighted differences in our understandings of what it meant to be a host. The suggestion was declared racist. I reiterated that I was not proposing any specific behavioral standard, e.g., emotional neutrality and calm voices; I just wanted us to talk as a group about what we all thought might be hospitable and what might not be, and why. The reiteration was declared a denial of my racism.

At this point, I felt in a bind. On the one hand, I felt (and feel) that it is important for white people to be deferential to people of color when they report experiencing harm from racism. On the other hand, I was not comfortable continuing to act as a host in a setting where we could not clearly communicate to guests what they might encounter during meetings.

I did the only thing I could think to do that would walk the fine line between these two tensions: I offered to drop the subject and step back from active participation in discussions, remaining the secretary and organizational conduit for funding. The offer was declared an unacceptable attempt to exercise my white privilege. Things went downhill from there, because the objection was that only people who “participated equally” in the conversations of the group would be welcome.

In other words, it was unacceptable for me to either voice my authentic concerns or to respectfully allow others to have the conversations they felt were important under the conditions they felt were necessary in order to have them. If I spoke, they were harmed; if I listened, they were harmed. I could not avoid harming them without lying, and unfortunately, it appeared to me at the time that they were quite comfortable with the idea of me lying.

Under these conditions, I could not continue to participate in the work. As far as I know, the work stopped entirely. In my view, some members of the group had been unable to navigate the rocky waters between their marginality in the broader society and their power within this specific educational and activist context. It was very hard for me to accept my inability to find a way for us to continue doing God’s work together despite our unresolvable differences, but I had to, or else I would have been paralyzed when engaging with these issues in the future.

Similarly, I could not find this acceptance through shifting all the blame onto the people with whom I had the differences, or else I would have inevitably acted in bad faith when engaging with these issues in the future. After all, I had apparently been unable to navigate the rocky waters between my privileged position in the broader society and my more precarious position within this specific educational and activist context.

This experience was formative for a couple of reasons.

First, it established for me that there is, in fact, a point past which I am okay with people believing I am racist. The people who endure racism get to make that call. That's their moral right and a necessary part of them defending themselves from a hostile world.

Second, it established for me that my instinctive reaction to situations where claims about fact and history come into conflict--READ ALL THE THINGS--is actually productive. I usually learn that the argument I've walked into has actually been going on for a long time, in one form or another. Group insiders disagree about analyses of the forces affecting them and the actions that should be taken in response to those forces. Consensus views ebb and flow. Group outsiders grasp reflexively for something, anything they can use to either confirm their prejudices or guide them in making choices that can help ease the suffering of the oppressed.

Third, it established for me the existence of what I now (unoriginally) think of as "radsplaining," whereby one progressive lectures another about how, actually, it's false consciousness or unchecked privilege or lack of empathy that explains a disagreement--instead of the fact that the world is complicated and people can think long and hard about an issue in good faith and still reach different conclusions.

And now, as promised, the main point of this post.

For at least a year, there has been an ongoing argument about whether using "poly" as shorthand to cover polyamory, polyfidelity and other forms of ethical non-monogamous relationships makes it harder for Polynesians to preserve and expand their cultural ties to each other in the face of colonialism and diaspora. I first encountered it not as an argument at all. On the social media site Tumblr, where hashtags are a common way of connecting people with shared interests, a request made the rounds to reserve #poly for Polynesian spaces. The polyamorous Tumblr users I interact with basically said, hey, that makes sense, we'll change our tags.

The internet being the internet, and humans being humans, it didn't end there. A lot of (primarily white) people apparently took to the broad spectrum of social media to mock, dismiss and otherwise crap on the whole idea and its advocates. I say "apparently" because it happened places I don't generally go, so I don't have much direct evidence, but I completely believe it.

Aida Manduley provides a good overview of the controversy and some suggested action steps for people who try to make a habit of being considerate with their language use. Whether it sufficiently meets the concerns of the Polynesians it matters to--as Manduley notes, and as should be expected, she's received a very wide range of feedback from self-identified Polynesians--is for them to decide.

One of them, Lily Stone, decided it very much was not sufficient. Beyond it being a confusion of labels, she argues that poly-for-polyamorous "co-opted, white-washed, and repackaged" the true poly of Polynesians. As such, using it in any context whatsoever is violent and oppressive, even in private off-line conversations--or as she describes it in reference to Manduley, "away from accountability and call-outs."

Remember my tendency to READ ALL THE THINGS? A lot of those things have fallen into the categories of linguistics, classification and description of information, and group discernment in pluralistic environments. So I have thoughts in response to Stone's piece as an attempt to convince readers of the exclusive correctness of both her analysis and her demanded course of action.

But those thoughts can be (and to a lesser extent have already been) radsplained away. So let me explain in direct personal terms what the cost of categorically abandoning "poly" as a shorthand for relationships and sexuality would be.

"Poly" is the word that has held my family together through reconciling our different backgrounds with, and impulses toward, multiple relationships. "Poly" is the word that lets me blog about Christianity and multiple-adult families without throwing people who aren't polyfidelitous under the bus. "Poly" is the word that makes it possible for me to talk with friends and family on Facebook about my life and the problems with compulsory monogamy without linking myself to the popular movement of "polyamory" that I have very few formal ties or ideological commonalities with. "Poly" is the word that unites me and others in my MCC congregation who structure their lives very differently from me.

"Poly" is a lifeline, an existential necessity in the face of the fact that my family has no culture we can call ours. Mainstream white culture? Ha. Queer culture? We're either slippery slope speed bumps on the road to acceptance or assimilationist squares. Radical culture? We're not radical.

We've been cut off from our roots and have no branches. And we are committing an act of violence against Polynesians and their culture? Simply by using the tools we have available to survive? No. I empathize with Stone and others who agree with her analysis. I affirm that they have the right to advocate for whatever they feel is necessary for their own existential defense. I am happy to not tag things as #poly on social media. But I feel no moral or ethical pressure to say yes to the broader demand, the true nature of which they don't even know they're making.

And that's one example of why I don't aspire to be an ally. There is no amount of listening or empathizing I can do here that will change the fundamental impasse. If "white-washing Poly to mean anything other than Polynesian reinforces the imperialist colonialist erasure and eradication of [their] peoples," and abandoning "poly" as an identifier for myself and my family means I have to burn down and re-build decades of delicate psychological and theological self-construction, then I guess I'm gonna have to go with being an imperialist cultural eradicator.

Which, just so we're clear, I don't think I am. (At least, not any more than I already am by virtue of being a United States citizen and consumer of capitalist products, or whatever.) But they do. And the same will be true for some portion of any other marginalized group. Heck, even groups that I myself belong to--did you know that marriage equality "has nothing at all to do with any kind of social justice," for instance?

I wish empowerment and justice and thriving for everyone. I do my best to support them. But sometimes people will think I am counter-productive or actively destructive when I disagree with them. And I'm okay with that. Since I need to leave people the freedom to see me as their enemy, I rarely aspire to be an ally.

EDITED TO ADD:

Some may ask why, if I am uncomfortable in applying the word "polyamorous" to myself, it's right there in the subtitle of my blog ("Welcoming Polyamorous Families into the Life of the Church"). I could write a treatise, but here are the bullet points:

  • Even before this controversy, I strongly believed in clarity and disambiguation. Sticking "polyamorous" at the top of each page was always intended to let readers (and search engines!) know what sort of "poly" I am writing about.
  • I am more comfortable with "polyamorous" as a clinical descriptor of relationships (including my family) than as a personal identifier that applies to me. I am writing about relationships that include more than two adults. They are not monogamous. (They are also not necessarily "non-monogamous," a category that includes swinging and monogamish arrangements.) The people in those relationships might apply any number of labels to themselves, up to and including "monogamous" or asexual and/or aromantic.
  • I do want all families that fall under the umbrella of "polyamorous" to be welcome in the life of the church, even if I can't myself currently reconcile some of their life choices with my understanding of Christian discipleship (or good sense). The subtitle is a reminder to myself as much as to others.
  • Look at the actual URL of my blog: christianpoly.blogspot.com. I seriously considered calling it christianpolyamory.blogspot.com (see above re: search engines). The thought made me feel then, as it does now, physically ill. 

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Go tell it on the mountain.


There are two Christmas stories.

I mean, literally, there are two. We have four Gospels, but Mark and John do not consider the circumstances of Jesus' birth to be significant enough to mention. Instead, they both start the action with John the Baptist doing his baptizing thing. Jesus enters the story fully grown and ready to go.

The Christmas story most people think of, the Charlie Brown special one with the shepherds and the angels, comes from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered...All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
 
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them...The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The...other Christmas story is in Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit"...When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him...Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was...On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and...opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him"...When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
 
It's not very festive. But it is enlightening. We are used to the idea that The Establishment grew increasingly frightened of Jesus and his message throughout his adult ministry, eventually killing him in an attempt to silence him. Matthew reminds us that Jesus, as the promised Messiah, was understood by The Establishment as a threat from his first breath.

We do get some of the same message earlier in Luke with Mary's hymn of praise to God for the child God has given her, shared with her relative Elizabeth, herself the mother of John the Baptist under miraculous circumstances:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Magnificat explains concisely what Jesus' people hoped for and expected. It is, in a sense, the job description for the Messiah.

So it's not a question of different people having different understandings of what Jesus meant if God's promises indeed came true through him. It's a question of different people having very different responses to a singular truth. One group of people is frightened and lashes out. The other group is overjoyed and celebrates.

Quaker pastor Mike Huber frames this distinction as worrying about "what if?" instead of worrying about what is. For the more powerful or privileged who benefit from the status quo, change is a threat. For the less powerful or privileged, the status quo is a burden that change may relieve them of.

When one embodies change--say, by forming a strong, healthy and openly proud family that has more than two adults in it--one has to decide how to deal with the fears that others have. One common way of looking at it is to say: You should stay quiet. Don't draw attention to yourself. Be as deferential and non-threatening as you can.

But that approach doesn't work. You will still scare people, and they will still come for you.

In late August, Katherine Willis Pershey published "Get Ready for the Polyamory Movement" on the Patheos website. As a pastor in the United Church of Christ, a denomination that understands itself as a progressive champion of inclusiveness, Willis Pershey struggles with how to condemn polyamorous people without coming off as, y'know, judgey:

I admit that much of what I know about polyamory came from a single article by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic...The few polyamorous relationships with which I have more than a passing familiarity haven’t ended well...It would be wholesale logical fallacy of vividness to presume stories such as this are the norm, but I nevertheless suspect that they are more than merely the exception...Because I do wholeheartedly affirm the love and commitment between same sex partners, I can’t just parrot a line about marriage (and sex) being designed for “one man and one woman.” Still, I am convinced that there’s something to the one and one...(At the risk of really sounding like those people who argued against same sex marriage 20 years ago…what about the kids?)...Just as Christians are monotheistic in our religion, we are called to be monogamous in our relationships. No gods before God; no lovers on the side.

After some choice words to myself about the piece proving my point about the blind spots of liberal theology, I experienced the usual sequence of anxiety, anger and despair. My denomination, Metropolitan Community Churches, has an agreement with the UCC that they reciprocally recognize the credentials of their ordained clergy, and it's not unknown for MCC congregations to "defect" to the UCC--would a dust-up over polyamory in the one spill over into the other? Why would a UCC pastor with a moderately high public profile, in the absence of any formal polyamory advocacy in the UCC or significant pastoral experience with polyamorous people, decide to use their visibility to abstractly stomp all over the hearts of real people with real families? When would institutional Christianity stop being actively hostile to me and mine?

But as I watched the supportive comments roll in, and participated in my own restrained way, I started to feel hopeful as I realized it actually is the same pattern as it was with "those people who argued against same sex marriage 20 years ago" in the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations. While MCC blazes a path in the wilderness, the others use intellectual debates to stall for time, calculating what their reputations and internal sense of moral authority can bear. Eventually, they will come around as the cognitive dissonance falls more on the side of "aren't we supposed to be the open-minded ones?" and less on the side of "aren't we supposed to be the respectable ones?"

I didn't expect to see confirming evidence quite as quickly as I did, though. In October, Rev. Rachelle Brown began her term as Interim Moderator of  the MCC. Buried in her resume--but still there! in public!--is her role as the Convener of the MCC Polyamory Affinity Group at the 2016 MCC General Conference. In December, Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell offered a webinar approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy:

This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of non-monogamy, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to non-monogamous families in our churches and communities--because do not doubt that you know and interact with such families, in church and elsewhere.
This description comes from the presenters' blog. Eventually, the webinar should be available as a screencast on MCC's Sacred Space Online Learning site. Amy was able to attend it live; she got Rev. Dr. Gorsline's permission to share some of his comments on Facebook. I can't share them all here, but I want to highlight that he said he has "become convinced that Metropolitan Community Churches must take the lead among faith communities, at least the Christian ones, on this issue. We helped the larger church begin the long journey toward more openness to homosexuality, and now we need once again to step up on non-monogamy."

And I returned, glorifying and praising God for all I have heard and seen, as it has been told us.

In the meantime, the United States also had elections. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for President despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. The Republicans held onto their majorities in both houses of Congress. With a few exceptions, the story was much the same at the state level. In the face of changing demographics and social norms, large swathes of the American populace asked themselves "what if?" and did not like the answer they got. They looked at what is and chose to see only their own (often parochial and self-aggrandizing) suffering.

Understandably, equally large or larger swathes of the American populace have felt we've gotten a Matthew Christmas instead of a Luke one. I'll readily admit I am among them. We'll likely avoid a literal slaughter of the innocents--at least, more than we already have with unaccountable police, violent transphobia and under-addressed domestic violence--but I see a high probability of pruned or shattered lives amounting to a metaphorical slaughter.
 
And yet, I have hope. Because the response to the elections has not been what I expected. I thought that both the fears and the responses would slip into abstraction. The thing about abstractions is you lose even if you win. Your story is lost.

Instead, the focus has remained significantly on people's stories, told by the people who have the most to lose. People are refusing to stay silent as mere data points in debating The Issues. Whether it is health care, immigration, civil rights or criminal justice, people are already creating the record of the human cost of regressive policies. This multitude will not tell Trump and his supporters merely that they are politically wrong. They will say: Here is my family, which you have torn apart. Here is my parent, who is now dead. You did this to us. You. Us.

It is important to tell these stories. Under oppression, resistance arises. And more importantly, where resistance starts early, oppression finds it harder to gain a foothold. More people are going in haste, and seeing, and sharing what they have seen. More people are understanding that just because someone is nice to you, it doesn't mean they're incapable of hurting others. More people have stopped pretending not to notice the disgust, fear and entitlement that have consumed so many (white, Christian) Americans for so long.

We tell each other our own stories, instead of waiting for the Wise Men to interpret them for us. We share our stories, instead of holding them in the privacy of our hearts. We stand together. And so God's promise comes into the world, with the specter of tyranny kept at bay a little longer.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

So how's that working out for you?

In my last post, I talked about what I would be doing the next six months. And it's been six months! So I have an excuse and/or obligation to write this post. In my head, its title has been, "Your theology is bad and you should feel bad." I'm going to do my best to write with clarity and compassion, but that's not where my thoughts have been. (Another potential title was, "Reclaiming hate as an appropriate emotional response.")

Amy's blog is currently on hiatus, which is what she needs to do for herself, but it does unfortunately deprive me of the ability to link to her much more thorough and moving updates on our experiences at her former faith community, West Hills Friends. Specifically naming them here is not a call-out thing, as some people worry about (in an overly deferential way, in my opinion). It is, instead, both a public service for queers of all stripes who might wish to know the potential limits of a community that is proud of its self-identification as welcoming, and an invitation to that community to fully embrace their understanding of Quaker process as group discernment led by the Spirit. If their words and actions are indeed the result of God's leading following earnest contemplation and prayer, then they should stand confidently by them, whether they supported our family or did not.

Short summary of the past six months: it was full of tiring and frequently intense conversation with the leadership of West Hills Friends. (As a reminder, years of talking came before and led up to the past six months.) The end result was that we chose to put a question forward to the congregation: Would they allow us to use their space for a celebration of our family's mutual love and obligation, and would they allow their pastor to make his own decision about whether he wished to participate? The question was first introduced at a business meeting (roughly equivalent to congregational meetings in other traditions) earlier this spring. At their business meeting in early June, they discussed whether they could answer yes. (Quakers use consensus for their decision-making, instead of voting.)

The result was: at this point and for the indefinite future, no. There were still some members of the congregation who do not feel clarity that it would be okay; there was no "sense of the meeting," which is the prerequisite for moving forward. (As many people on the pointy end of the status quo know far too well, "we haven't decided yet" means "we're not going to stop hurting you.") We emphasized that we were not trying to establish precedent. This request was not a social justice issue. It was a cry for help to give our family access to the tools we need to stay strong in an actively hostile world. Despite every single person who spoke having kind words for our family's rightness, goodness and truth--and their desire for us to feel loved and supported--there were still those who had to add a "however."

Here is a list of the concerns raised:

--Our family might get in legal trouble. (Nope; we are quite open about the fact that there is only one legal marriage in our family.)

--The congregation might get in legal trouble. (Nope; no marriage licenses involved.)

--Generalized, free-floating unease. ("Yeah, don't bother trying to address my concern, even I don't know what it is." In healthy consensus environments, this kind of position results in a "stand aside" instead of a "block.")

--The congregation won't have the time and energy to discuss the request for at least a year. ("Hey, drowning people? We gotta finish painting this lifeboat, grab some lunch, maybe take a little nap. Nothing personal.")

--It's inappropriate to approve one ceremony specifically for our family before taking a public stand on the abstract issue of non-monogamous marriages in general. 

The concern about insufficient time and energy pissed me off the most, to be honest. It's what made it hard for me to keep my composure during the traditional post-meeting "thank you for participating and sharing your truth" interactions intended to reinforce the idea that we're all in this process together. In at least one instance, I had to make an actual choice between shaking someone's hand, walking away, or punching them in the face. It took me a full 3, maybe 5 seconds to make up my mind. I went with the handshake.

To the extent that the last concern--an institutional need to establish clear precedent and guidance for the future--is genuine and not an expedient stalling tactic, I can accept it as a valid starting point for conversation. It just happens to be theologically unsupportable and contrary to the Gospel message. That message begins in the life and ministry of Jesus and continues in the work of the early Church.

When people came to Jesus seeking healing, his reply was consistently a variation on "your faith has made you whole." Jesus never said, "Because you followed policy, I have healed you." When the friends of the paralyzed man tear a hole in the roof of a house so they can get through the crowd to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26), their determination is rewarded. When the woman with hemorrhages seeks his healing power without even asking his permission (Mark 5:21–43, Matthew 9:18–26, Luke 8:40–56), her boldness is rewarded. When the Gentile woman rejects his claims that only Jews deserved his help (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30), her persistence is rewarded. The act of seeking healing, for oneself or others, in and of itself justifies the healing.

Apostles and evangelists of the early Church followed the same principle. Well before the Council of Jerusalem formally declared that Gentiles didn't need to convert to Judaism in order to be Christian (Acts 15:1-35), Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Peter baptized the Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10). Paul and Barnabas expanded their mission to include any Gentiles who would listen (Acts 13:42-49). The act of seeking salvation, in and of itself, secures that salvation. What is there to stop this person from being baptized? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The entire tradition of Quakerism is built on this idea of continuing revelation. Quakers are called to recognize evidence of the Light in the lives of those around them, and to have the bravery and integrity to acknowledge and respond to that Light appropriately. As I said, nobody at West Hills Friends (openly) questioned our family's rightness, goodness and truth. All the way back in 2014, I was writing on this blog, "I am grateful beyond words that Amy's faith community accepts our entire family, so that we can care for our neighbors and brothers and sisters." I am still stunned and furious that some people we considered our friends--people who supported our family in both words and concrete actions when we experienced disapproval from others--would draw this line and justify it in the name of waiting for God's leading.

What more faith in them could we have shown? Several times over the past years, I defended West Hills Friends when they as a community would do something--usually not directly related to our family--that worried or angered or hurt Amy and made her question whether it was the right place for her. I spoke of their earnestness, their willingness to listen, their warmth and their care, the way their shared spirituality was so compatible with hers. I spoke of how her thread was woven into the fabric of their life now, and how I trusted that they would not tear it. Other times, Amy would be the one to talk me down. Dave, a self-identified atheist, put up with the time and energy we invested in all the ups and downs, because he knew them as decent folks who offered something desperately needed by people he loves.

What more desire for healing could we have shown? We were candid about what the possibility of this celebration had meant for us last year, what the bait-and-switch of the withdrawal of its approval did to us, what the lingering uncertainty about our access to the life of the community cost us. We held nothing back, and in return, it not only didn't affect the outcome, we had some people actively erasing our pain and telling us we shouldn't be hurt. That's not discernment. That's not consensus, which calls for collaborative solution-finding, not just shutting down conversation after a pre-determined amount of time and leaving the problem to fester until the next meeting. That's decision-making by Internet comment thread.

Amy suffers far more pain and consequences than I do from how things ended up. She was much closer to all the individuals involved, and she relied on West Hills Friends for much more of her spiritual nourishment and connection to the Light. But the impact on my life has been drastic. I've written before about how church--not simply Christian faith, but the ritual and practice and community of church--has long been the bedrock foundation of the rest of my life. My trust in the very idea of church has been shattered by this experience. I've resigned my Board position at Metropolitan Community Church of Portland, haven't been to Sunday worship in weeks, and don't expect to return for months. I try to ignore the little voice insistently whispering, "...if at all."

Don't get me wrong: I've had plenty of bad church experiences over the past 17 years. Churches are no more or less messed up than any other human institution. Okay, sometimes it seems like they are more messed up, on average, because people have such a sense of investment and ownership without much actual cost or obligation, in practice. But never before have I felt that the things that make that mess worth it--the promise that God works through you to make the world a better place, that bringing together a diversity of convictions and temperaments reveals more aspects of God, that sharing burdens leads to empathy and understanding--could be so thoroughly weaponized. That people will love you so that they can control and contain you, and maybe that's not the exception. Maybe that's the norm.

I'm becoming more and more radicalized, and I'm not entirely comfortable with this development. I look at the recent United Methodist General Conference, for example, and the social media storm over that denomination's continued abusive treatment of queer clergy and laypeople, and mostly what I feel is disgust that people are still engaging with them. People I am acquainted with, and largely respect, I want to yell at and tell them to give it up already. I don't care about personal relationships or historical tradition. They've had years of second, third, fifteenth chances. There are several viable alternatives that Methodist individuals, or congregations that are in internal agreement on being open and affirming, can take. The moral imperative now is to pick one and go. Strengthen the institutions that are doing the right thing. Starve the institutions that refuse to do the right thing.

But since the Reconciling Ministries Network is publishing think pieces about the unlikeliness of ethical multi-partner families, I'd still probably want to yell at them, even if they dumped the UMC.


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Saturday, January 2, 2016

The past six months, the next six months.

Among almost everyone I know, or keep up with by reading what they write, the general consensus appears to be that 2015 was a Very Bad Year that will not be missed. That assessment certainly holds true for me and my family. Since the last time I wrote a blog post, here's what's happened around us and to us:

-- In July, Amy's Quakers were kicked out of their broader fellowship.

-- In August, the oldest member of our extended family died.

-- In September, Amy and Dave were literally compelled to fly to Colorado to face an abusive relative in court, because she was finally legally allowed to challenge the civil protection order against her that had helped our family stay safe. The challenge was successful; it was a horrific experience for all of us.

-- In October, the youngest member of our extended family died, at only five days old.

-- In November...to be honest, November is kind of a blur. I'm on the Board of Directors at my church. Several situations arose that required immediate attention. Also, I ended up becoming Treasurer.

And then came December.

If you read this blog, you're already aware of the importance of church and community to me. I mean, it's right there in the title, isn't it? It's the reason the blog exists and the focus of the great majority of posts. It should be no surprise that, through everything, I relied heavily on the comforting, solid and predictable presence of Amy's church and mine in our lives. A lot of our friends are part of one or the other. I had places I could go where I could just sit there and have all my senses report back to me: God, reassurance, company. As someone whose two largest weak spots are fear and loneliness, I can't exaggerate how much that sense of belonging enabled me to keep moving forward.

All the way back in January 2015, Amy and I had approached the pastors of our churches about the possibility of holding a formal celebration of our marriage and family on October 14, 2016. (October 14, 2011 is the date that Amy legally changed her last name to include both mine and Dave's. In the absence of any legal way to get married, we've settled over time on that day to be our anniversary.)  We had wanted to give both the chance to say no privately, and to allow time for whatever public conversations might be needed or wanted to keep such a celebration from becoming scandalous or divisive. We received an enthusiastically positive response from both. In October, we posted a "save the date" message on Facebook for our friends and family.

In December, Amy's pastor informed her that he did not feel empowered by his congregation to participate in our celebration in any active way. He might come as a guest, but he had to avoid any appearance of offering any kind of official endorsement. His "yes" had become a "no." Amy's Quakers' lack of inclusive language about families like ours had gone in practice from "no comment" to "no way." We immediately put out a cancellation announcement on Facebook.

Amy can tell her own story about these events, and she has, including plenty of detail about Quaker theological distinctives and organizational culture. Speaking only for myself, it was the worst part of the entire Very Bad Year. I felt afraid, and isolated, and angry, and cornered.

I am not what one would call a strategic thinker when it comes to seeking a world that is more welcoming for my family and families like mine. Mostly, I find spaces where people already hold interests and values that are very similar to mine, go about my life openly, and let them realize that my atypical family structure isn't incompatible with those interests and values. In practice, I suppose it amounts to an appeal to empathy.

When it comes to empathy, Hari Ziyad writes fiercely about its limits. I agree with everything they say (except, unsurprisingly, their dubiousness about the importance and impact of marriage equality). They accurately describe not only my observations about how other people behave badly, but about how I behave badly myself, too. Ziyad's most cutting point is about the obligatory spectacles of pain that marginalized people have to produce again, and again, and again in order to earn and maintain acknowledgment of their existence, let alone decent treatment, from people who sit in cozier socioeconomic positions.

Where they are incomplete in their critique, I believe, is not recognizing the ways that the appeal to empathy creates a social contract in the minds and hearts of the comfortable. "We understand you and your pain," the contract says, "so you will understand and sympathize with our struggles." In return for basic human decency on their part, they expect others will nod gravely and pat them on the back when they are unable or unwilling to move past that very low bar.

I should be clear that, as this dynamic applies to my own personal situation, I am not picking on Amy's Quakers here. I went through my Facebook friendslist, and there are about 25 clergy ordained in mainline Protestant denominations on there. I believe all of them would welcome my family's attendance at a church that they served. I also strongly doubt that any of them would put their "congregational capital" on the line for my family if we asked for the same open recognition and blessing that traditional married couples are routinely given, and I am unsure how they would react if other congregants complained about our presence.

I should also be clear that we face low risk of physical assault from society, unlike, say, Black people or trans folk or Muslims in America today. Talk about your low bars, though. "At least nobody goes out of their way to kill us!" Yay!

To sum up the past six months, then: We felt acceptably safe. Then we didn't.

Now we don't.

The next six months, I will not be relying on empathy. I am going to be noisy and demanding in the spaces I can be. (Not Amy's Quakers. That space is hers, to engage with how and if she chooses.) If my family doesn't get to feel safe anymore, other people who are safe don't get to feel comfortable anymore, either. As I said, I am not what one would call a strategic thinker.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Evaluating identities: beyond Jenner and Dolezal.

In contemporary American society, few concepts are as central as “identity” to how we understand what it means to be human. The relationship between personal and social identity--not only what it is, but what it should be--is often hotly contested. The Internet exploded last month with two high-profile examples: Caitlyn Jenner, a celebrity transgender woman, and Rachel Dolezal, a now-infamous woman who identifies as Black despite a personal history and genetic background that ordinarily marks one as White in the racial categories of the United States. With varying levels of sincerity and understanding of the issues involved, many people are asking, "Why is it okay for a man to become a woman, but not for a White person to become Black? Where does it all end? Do you have to respect someone's self-identification as a cat?"

Before I give my own take on it, I need to take care of a few preliminaries. First, here is a very short list of highly recommended reading:

Desmond-Harris, Jenée. "How to make sense of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP official accused of passing for black." 
St. James, James. "6 Reasons Why Being Called a Cis Person Is Not Oppressive."
Read, Max. "From Otherkin to Transethnicity: Your Field Guide to the Weird World of Tumblr Identity Politics."

I suggest reading them before moving on with the rest of my blog post, but if you're impatient or don't want to take my word for it, reading them afterwards works too. Just: read them, if you haven't before.

Second, this blog post isn't an academic research paper. I'm not providing a literature review. I wouldn't be qualified to provide a lit review. I provide some representative citations and links to support some of my claims (and some of them have lit reviews), but they are meant to say, "here is the kind of evidence that has led me to my conclusions," not, "aha! here is the proof!" I'm always in favor of people doing their own research and drawing their own conclusions about what subject matter experts are thinking, or not thinking.

Finally, in the time-honored tradition of locating oneself in one's own identities before talking about identity in general, I can tell you that I am a cisgender White man. (I'm also polyamorous and bisexual and Christian and married-but-not-legally and lots of other identifiers, but gender and race seem the most salient to mention here.) I don't take it on myself to make declarations about what it means to be a woman or to be Black or what have you. I am taking it on myself to speak up out of personal loyalty to people with great integrity who are dear to me, out of respect for the women and people of color I have learned so much from through reading and conversation, and out of my vested interest in supporting a particular method in evaluating identities (for when the talk does turn to polyamorous bisexuals). I'm not talking as an ally--a problematic label that I rarely aspire to--but as someone with a conscience that's been tugging at me.

Okay then, with the preliminaries out of the way...

There are a bewildering number of identities people are claiming these days. Along with the ones already mentioned above, there is demisexual, demigender, agender, genderqueer, asexual, aromantic, aracial, biracial, multiracial, transabled, transpecies and many more. I don't have any particular links that I can recommend over others. Google can easily get you the gist of the claims and counterclaims. My point in listing them is that, even if one feels philosophically or ethically constrained to respect any and all self-identifications an individual may disclose, there comes a point where one just can't. One can be polite to the person standing in front of you, but one can't buy into the story they're telling. Different people have different breaking points. Being a stubbornly empirical sort, I have four questions that I have found to be useful in drawing my own conclusions.


1. Is the identity cross-culturally attested? 

I'll be blunt: I'm dubious about any core identity that is only claimed within a particular geographical region or by people who fit a particular demographic profile. Transgender folks are found all around the world. Transgender folks belong to all races and ethnicities. (In the United States, trans women of color are especially at risk for violent assault.) There are trans men and trans women. (And even people who identify as both trans and non-binary, which is outside of the scope of this blog post.) In contrast, I haven't been able to find documented cases of people claiming a transracial identity outside of the American context, and those Americans are White.


2. Is expression of the identity documented to occur in some cases at an early age?

I am cautious about the "born this way" narrative for legitimizing LGBT+ folks, for a lot of reasons (one example). However, it is true that the example of people who show early awareness of their belonging to a gender or sexual minority provide support for the claim that it's not a conscious choice or the result of a process of psychological development extending into adulthood, i.e., it's not a matter of pretense or habituation.  Parents have reported children expressing transgender identities as young as age 3 [2], and many transgender young people have reported that their first awareness of their identity came at age 11 or younger [3]. (See also the Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline for transgender folks for more background info.) It is significant that Rachel Dolezal soon claimed that she "was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon” when she was five years old--she has to know that it is a narrative that could give her legitimacy if accepted by society.

Of course, her family of origin disputes that claim, and we don't hear in the media about parents freaking out over such behavior. Since freaking out by some American parents over every given little thing is one of the most reliable and predictable contemporary phenomena, its absence in this case speaks volumes.


3. Is expression of the identity persistent?

The less said about conversion therapy the better, okay? It's depressing and it doesn't work. Not for queer folks, and not for transgender folks either [2].  The number of older adults transitioning as social condemnation lessens is another sign that transgender folks don't "grow out of it" or "snap out of it." (It does appear to be true that a majority of children presenting with gender dysphoria do not end up as transgender adults, but feeling uncomfortable in one's body is emphatically not the same as being trans.) I can't really say anything about the apparent persistence, or lack thereof, of transracial identity. It doesn't happen enough to study in any systematic way.


4. Is there a plausible mechanism or marker for how the identity develops?

Not all identities are claims about the type of body one has (or should have), of course. When I had my born-again experience as a Christian, society didn't expect me to look or sound or smell different. When talking about gender and race, though, we are in fact talking about bodies, and therefore at least in part about the science of biology. Even when we are talking about personality and self-perception and affinities, we are talking about phenomena that are biologically mediated.

Although there is no evidence that it leads to behavioral or intelligence or skill differences, decades of neuroscience supports the idea that, on average, it is possible to identify structural differences between male and female brains. Some researchers have further found differences in brain structures in transgender folks that "did not differ significantly from controls sharing their gender identity but were different from those sharing their biological gender" [4], e.g., those structures in trans women were similar to those structures in cis women but different from those structures in trans men. One possible explanation is that it "might be the result of the fact that the development of the sexual organs in the fetal life occurs well before the sexual differentiation of the brain" [4],  with prenatal hormones playing a major role in "feminization" or "masculinization" of the developing brain.

Of course, the concept of biological gender is itself very hard to pin down, since neither chromosomes nor hormone levels nor any specified set of anatomical features are shared by all men or all women: "Humans like their sex categories neat, but nature doesn't care. Nature doesn't actually have a line between the sexes. If we want a line, we have to draw it on nature" [1].  About 1 in 5000 female babies is born with an under-developed or absent uterus and vaginal canal, which are frequently pointed to as the gold standard for womanhood because of their critical role in pregnancy and childbirth. Some women are born with testes. Given the empirical reality of human physical sexual diversity, it doesn't make sense to either reject the legitimacy of trans women's (or trans men's) identities or to accept their legitimacy but insist they aren't "real" women (or men), especially after the initiation of hormone replacement therapy. The natural variability of human bodies is also the reason it makes no sense to question the sincerity of those trans folks who decide against radical surgical alterations of the bodies they were born with. (One of the most moving statements I ever heard a trans person make was, "I wasn't born in the wrong body. This body is awesome!")

I am unaware of any genetic, hormonal or anatomical marker that can be definitively linked exclusively to one race or another. Skin color, facial features and hair texture are the most common points of reference, but the Desmond-Harris article cited above does a good job of explaining why they are unreliable. Certainly there aren't observed brain structure differences between races as there are between genders. I also have not seen a plausible mechanism proposed for how one could develop a transracial identity outside of a conscious choice or the result of a process of psychological development extending into adulthood.

In case it isn't obvious from my post so far, I fully affirm the gender identities of trans folks but feel no obligation to validate the racial identity of someone who considers themself to be transracial. I don't think that intellectual assent (or dissent) should be the end of the conversation, though. Identities aren't passports or club cards, and the point of identification isn't to merely keep the social bureaucracy running smoothly. Anyone who claims a particular identity takes on a large number of obligations along with any real or perceived benefits.

One of those obligations is to respect one's metaphorical elders and the struggles of one's peers. I can't summarize all the different negative reactions to Dolezal's inistence that she identifies as Black, and I wouldn't try, even if I thought I could pull it off. But one recurring complaint is that she didn't grow up personally experiencing all the crap (and joy!) that comes from being Black in the United States. On the one hand, I don't think experience alone defines identity. A typical Nigerian immigrant fresh off the airplane has little to no experience being Black in this country, or as a racial minority more generally, but they're very obviously Black here (though not ethnically African American as usually conceptualized). On the other hand, that hypothetical Nigerian immigrant should also hesitate before jumping into a leadership role in an organization dedicated to protecting and advancing Black lives in the American context unless nurtured for that role by African Americans who respected their perspective as a West African immigrant.

Dolezal could have been a great NAACP president for her local chapter as a White person with close ties to the African American community. Theoretically, she also potentially could have been a great NAACP president as a self-identified transracial Black person after thoroughly vetting that identity and its origins with the demographic group she claims to be a member of. (MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry showed what the start of that vetting could theoretically look like.) Taking that position of leadership and others without directly addressing questions of authenticity, passing and skin-color privilege--when she has to know the urgency of those questions for generations among African Americans--undercuts her claim to be Black and is suggestive of ambivalence in her own mind. If Tiger Woods, Barack Obama,  Zoe Saldana and Touré can openly face that tension within their community, so can Dolezal.

For some transgender folks (and their allies), the closest analogous behavior is things like the uproar over the "Night of a Thousand Vaginas" fundraiser for abortion funds in Texas last year and the public statement accompanying the decision of a Mount Holyoke College student group to cancel a performance of The Vagina Monologues earlier this year, specifically on the grounds that the work excludes the experiences of trans women. It is certainly true that not all women have vaginas, as discussed above. Nor do only women have vaginas, as many trans men will quickly and rightly point out. And trans folks pay real costs--social, medical, financial and even physical safety costs--when they are constantly excluded by cis folks as not being "real" women or men. But women have fought for generations for the right to control, admire and accurately describe their own bodies. And the great, great majority of those bodies have had and continue to have vaginas. Meanwhile, less than five years ago, lawmakers in Michigan and Florida had fits that the words "vagina" and "uterus" were uttered on the floor of their chambers. When the bodies of women are still under attack--successfully, in far too many cases!--solidarity should mean not publicly undermining some of the strongest defenses against those attacks.

Not everyone agrees with me, and solidarity with them means I don't, say, go around on social media shaming them for their disagreement. But I do feel I put my metaphorical money where my mouth is, on this principle. As the movement for marriage equality has snowballed over the past few years, I have gotten to listen to a constant stream of "couples language." It is undeniably exclusionary, and the erasure of polyamorous families from the conversation has tangible negative effects on the health and well-being of families like mine. All the same, my queer community has sought marriage equality since at least 1968, a little less than a year before the Stonewall riots. I am not going to drag down same-sex couples in the United States by declaring that cause illegitimate, just because it doesn't yet explicitly address my more narrow interests. That's what it means to claim an identity as part of a community.


JOURNAL ARTICLES CITED

1. Dreger, Alice. "Sex Typing for Sport." Hastings Center Report 40, no. 2 (March 2010): 22-24. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 19, 2015). 
2. Mallon, Gerald P., and Teresa DeCrescenzo. "Transgender Children and Youth: A Child Welfare Practice Perspective." Child Welfare 85, no. 2 (March 2006): 215-241. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 20, 2015). 
3. Reisner, Sari L., et al. "Monitoring the health of transgender and other gender minority populations: Validity of natal sex and gender identity survey items in a U.S. national cohort of young adults." BMC Public Health 14, no. 1 (December 2014): 1-19. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 20, 2015). 
4. Simon, Lajos, et al. "Regional Grey Matter Structure Differences between Transsexuals and Healthy Controls—A Voxel Based Morphometry Study." Plos ONE 8, no. 12 (December 2013): 1-10. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 19, 2015).


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Friday, May 1, 2015

The weight of resurrection.


Malack the lizardman vampire cleric: "Sadly, three days in the grave is time we do not have, refreshing though it is."
Detail from Order of the Stick #878 by Rich Burlew

Easter is my favorite holiday, by far. It has been for as long as I can remember. As a kid, it had the happiness of candy and a couple small gifts without the anxiety of waiting a month for it to finally come. (I like Christmas a LOT more now that I experience it as "the end of Advent" instead of "the day I get mine.") As an adult, it has the theological weight of a major Christian holiday without nearly as much secular static around it. And, hey, every once in a while, it happens on my birthday.

Each year, I think I appreciate Easter all the more because I am taking Lent more seriously. I said something on Facebook this year about Lent being the Christian season of contemplating exactly how f'ed up the world actually is and which parts we most directly share responsibility for. Since I possess just about every privilege there is--excepting only my unconventional family, my lack of inherited wealth, and my sub-standard neurotransmitters--while living in the most privileged society on the face of the Earth, I have a lot to contemplate. Easter comes as a blessed joy. God has promised me a place in a world where all meaningful differences of power and worth will be stripped away, and not even death itself--let alone my own privileged stumbles into complacency--can stop that world from coming!

And Lent for me and my family, this year, was particularly Lent-y. My aunt died after a brief and unexpected illness. Some things with our son's biological mother we thought were settled got suddenly flipped over. And probably most dramatically, Amy's parents, who had completely rejected our unconventional family for many years, nearly died in a terrible car accident that did kill one other person. In the aftermath, I suppose one could say we've reconciled. I and our son are no longer They Who Must Not Be Named. We've been invited to "pick a day" and all come visit them at their home on the Oregon coast. They haven't apologized or otherwise shown any sign that they think they've been anything but reasonable and righteous, but they accept that their daughter has six other people in her family instead of four, and that's positive.

My reaction to their change of heart is mostly celebration. I've always longed for them to acknowledge me and let me love them. But my celebration is private, and jealous. When other people express their own relief and hope, I feel anger. I want them to have my back. "These people hurt me," I want to say. "They hurt Dave, they crushed Amy, they did harm to our children! Why are you so ready for me to embrace them?" I want them to insist on the rightness of repentance and the wrongness of entitled grace.

Forgiveness is a central Christian doctrine. It is arguably the central Christian doctrine. Although I fail again and again to act out of true love for all my neighbors--and, by extension and less importantly, to love God--still my God is always ready to embrace me. And Christians are called to conform to the image of God within all of us, which we can best understand by studying the life and ministry of Jesus. And Jesus, famously, forgives all kinds of people who never do anything to make up for the harm they have caused.

However, the call to forgiveness has also famously enabled ongoing bullying, abuse and other forms of physical and spiritual violence. (Feminist and liberation theologians have provided the most insightful and detailed critiques; this essay by Rachel Held Evans hits the high points well.) Since the Easter promise has no room for such injustices, it's worth looking a little closer at what the New Testament says about Jesus and forgiveness.

First, yes, Jesus did command his disciples to go above and beyond the contemporary expectations for forgiveness:

Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." Matthew 18:21-22 (NRSV)

But Jesus also included the idea that someone seeking forgiveness should also show repentance:
"If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." Luke 17:3-4 (NRSV)


These days, people have a tendency to define repentance as "feeling really really sorry." If there is no opportunity or ability for someone to offer reparation to the people they've wronged, then that subjective feeling of regret has to be enough. If someone can make reparation, though, they are expected to, as in the story of the repentant self-serving tax collector:

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house." Luke 19:8-9 (NRSV)
(It is also interesting to compare the story of Zacchaeus with the story of the rich young man, to whom Jesus made the more demanding recommendation that he should sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Maybe we need different lessons about attachment than we do about repentance. But I digress.)

For better or worse, the story of forgiveness that is probably told most frequently is Jesus' forgiveness of Peter's desertion after his arrest , with a touching reunion scene on a Galilean beach:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me." John 21:15-19 (NRSV)

Jesus forgives Peter, yes, but more importantly, he gives him a job. Do you love me? Aw, you feel bad about denying that you knew me? Fine, then: show me. Take care of my children. Even though it's going to get you killed one day.

I am not a biblical scholar, so I won't belabor the point at the risk of overstating it. I won't even get into comparing and contrasting where the Greek "charizomai" gets translated as "forgiveness" versus the more common "aphiémi" in the New Testament. Even though it's really, really fun! Ahem. What matters is that forgiveness is generally portrayed as the proper response to a genuine attempt to fully repair a strained or broken relationship.

What I am really looking for from other people, then, is permission to still grieve the parts of the relationship that remain unrepaired. I can't deny the power of a good resurrection story, so I understand why people might want to look at Amy's parents and us and say, hallelujah, it is risen--and might expect me to reply yes, it is risen indeed. This expectation is a weight.

Westley from The Princess Bride: "My brains, his steel, and your strength against sixty men, and you think a little head-jiggle is supposed to make me happy? Hmm?"
Image and quoted words from The Princess Bride

In contemporary American society, we frequently drop the weight of resurrection on people individually and communities collectively. Ever more mainline Protestant denominations embrace the cause of marriage equality, and queer folk are expected to rejoice at the seismic social and theological shift while politely brushing off the damage that these exact same institutions, at every level, have exposed them to for decades. Jim Crow and other official legal discrimination against African Americans no longer exists--we even have a Black president!--and African Americans are expected to praise American progress and move past the empirical reality of generations of mistreatment by law enforcement, banks, schools and other institutions dominated by and historically intended to primarily benefit white Americans. Native Americans...well, okay, almost everybody admits the United States is still a horrible deal for them.

What burdens do these communities shoulder when they are asked to celebrate progress standing next to the people who have thwarted it for so long? Is there room for their pain, anger and reasonable expectation for some kind of reparation from the institutions that have failed them? If not, then we are not talking about seeking forgiveness from them, but submission. Of course, a sadly large number of people don't think our shared institutions have done anything that needs forgiving in the first place. The Gospels have something to say about them as well. 

As for my own situation...I guess I am forgiving without expecting repentance. (What, should they join us for four times the number of holiday dinners we missed out on or something?) It is my choice, though, and not my obligation. It is an important distinction.


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