Jesus Wept

This past week, a US airstrike in Iraq killed over 200 civilians. While the US military says that the rules of engagement have not changed, it seems a rather suspicious coincidence that the civilian death toll skyrockets just after President “You have to go after their families” Trump takes power. Particularly when Iraqi special forces told the New York Times that “there had been a noticeable relaxing of the coalition’s rules of engagement since President Trump took office” and that it’s become much easier to call in airstrikes.

There are no easy answers, and I don’t want to armchair quarterback a war when I myself have no tactical expertise whatsoever. But I know without a doubt that we have to give a damn about civilian casualties. If the simple fact that they’re precious human beings who don’t deserve to die alone in the dark doesn’t do it, the fact that it gives civilians in ISIS controlled areas more reason to hate the US and the new Iraqi government should.

Christianity, Relevance, and No True Scotsman

Let’s Stop Pretending Christianity Is Actually Relevant, Okay?, despite a pretty clickbaity title, is a very good article. The author laments that so many Christians have become so focused on keeping out refugees, plastering the Ten Commandments on everything, and keeping the legal definition of marriage tied to their particular religious definition. All of this at the expense of loving your neighbor and doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you.  I share his frustration with some Christians’ total inability to grasp the concept of freedom of religion.  The money quote is:

It’s a strange practice to ask people who don’t hold the same beliefs as you to conform to your morals because you quoted a book they don’t read.

He gets into the history of Christianity, talking about how in the early church, Christianity was about radical love and inclusion. Church funds were used to free slaves, women were treated as equals, the poor and the sick and the dying were cared for.  I think every progressive Christian on the planet, myself included, wants to go back to that as the core definition of Christianity, especially if it doesn’t come with a side of being thrown to the lions. (Actual lions that eat you, not fake lions who require public businesses to serve the public or courthouses to refrain from endorsing a specific religion).

He also talks about the amount of freaking out that Christians are doing because of the church’s loss of influence:

much like a parasite trying to reconnect to its host for fear of dying, many Christians are thrashing about trying to create waves and convince people they are relevant within our culture

But there are two major places where I think this article misses the mark.  The first is that he drastically underestimates the amount of power and influence traditional Christianity still has in the United States.  Evangelical Christians elected Donald Trump. They had help from epic levels of misogyny (which that form of Christianity supports and promotes), Russian hackers, and the FBI, but that demographic was crucial in the last election. The majority of public officials at any level are still Christian, and even though the ACLU keeps fighting it, plenty of public schools, courthouses, and government buildings prominently post the Ten Commandments or other Christian messages. In large portions of the country, it’s perfectly legal to be fired from your job for being gay or trans. There are plenty of places where not going to church or not being a Christian puts you in real danger. It may not technically be legal to fire someone over their religion or decide a court case against them because they’re not a Christian, but it happens.  Hell, Alabama took *years* to actually protect kids from violent abuse because the abuse was “Christian” in nature.

I think the author makes too much of a poll stating that only 18% of millennials view Christianity as relevant.  In 20 or 30 years, when most positions of power are held by millennials, that will make more of a difference.  Right now, the average age of members of the House is 57, while the average senator is 61. For incoming S&P 500 CEOs, the average age was 53 in 201. At age 35, I’m either an old Millennial or a young Gen Xer, and I’m just barely old enough to run for President. If you take the later cut-off for the millennial generation and include birthdates in the early 2000s, not all of the millennial generation can even *vote* yet.  So, “relevant to millennials” and “wields significant political and cultural power” are not at all synonymous.

But it’s the second error that I think is worse.  The author longs for Christianity to lose its political power because he hopes that this will get rid of “cultural converts.”

Everyone is a Christian because they grew up in Texas. Or they go to church. Or their mom and dad raised them that way. Hell, according to the U.S. census 70% of Americans identify as “Christian.” But the vast majority of those responses are nothing more than cultural identification, not Christianity. I imagine that’s why so many people despise Christians. Their belief is cultural, and no one intends to follow the man they claim governs their life, so we end up this giant homogenous blob of hypocrites that judge and condemn people, instead of looking like they did in 165 AD. Instead of rushing to the aid of others, or paying for pagan burials like our ancestors did, we have half-hearted followers who run rampant through the streets of social media pointing the finger to everyone except themselves.

The problem with the “homogenous blob of hypocrites” is not that they’re “half-hearted” or “cultural converts.”  Nobody with lukewarm faith opens up a camp to preach and pray gay teenagers straight.  Nobody who’s halfhearted about their beliefs drives a giant bus around the country proclaiming that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. Nobody who only goes to church out of habit showed up at Franklin Graham’s Donald Trump Is Our New Messiah Tour Decision America Tour and prayed fervently for God to put Donald Trump in the White House.

Here’s another example of judgmental Christianity being anything but half-hearted. Last week, there was a board meeting for my local library to discuss a controversial sex ed program. Controversial in that it teaches safer sex and acknowledges that gay and trans people exist. There were speakers from Together We Will, Planned Parenthood, and the LGBTQ community.  And there was a random guy sprinkling holy water on those speakers without their permission.  Yes, someone actually thought that wanting kids to get accurate sex ed indicated a need for divine guidance, or maybe an exorcism.  Fortunately, the guy was asked to leave. Unfortunately, the religious zealots won, and there will be no sex ed at the library. Holy Water Guy was the most blatant zealot, but nobody who took time out of their busy lives to make sure kids didn’t get sex ed because it’s against *their* religion did so out of lukewarm religion.

If anything, toxic and destructive Christianity suffers from an excess of conviction rather than a lack of it. The focus on faith as the only important virtue pushes people toward dogma and makes it hard for them to question what they’ve been taught.

I sympathize with the desire to paint theological opponents as half-hearted or insincere, because it’s hard to make sense of the alternative.  When you can’t fathom how someone could read the same Bible you have, adhere to the same core beliefs as you do, and have such differing outlooks on absolutely everything, it’s tempting to assume that they didn’t actually do the reading. Or they haven’t really thought about it.  But that’s the same  tired argument that gets lobbed at progressive Christians all the time: “If you read your Bible, you’d be a Republican” or “If you really pray about it, God will show you that being gay is a sin.”  The assumption of thoughtless superficiality isn’t any more correct when we lob it at conservative Christians then when it gets thrown at us.

Labeling the ugly side of Christianity as lukewarm, half-hearted Christians is also a textbook example of the No True Scotsman fallacy.  If we can separate “them” from “us” then we don’t have to wrestle with tough questions about our own beliefs, and we don’t have to take responsibility, as a part of the whole church, for the damage caused by Christianity. It also makes it easy to ignore or dismiss abuses in our own churches. If “we” are sincere and “they” are half-hearted, then “we” couldn’t possibly enable abusive pastors or ignore racism or contribute to injustice.

As difficult as it is, we have to acknowledge that Christianity–specifically Republican evangelical Christianity–still holds a huge amount of power in the United States, and that isn’t changing any time soon. We also have to acknowledge that this kind of Christianity is adhered to by believers no less sincere or committed than we are–probably moreso if you look at church attendance numbers. We can’t hide behind the idea that they’re not real Christians.

 

When someone says, “I can’t eat that,” believe them.

This thread on the ridiculous harmfulness of moralizing about food is a good read. It starts with the ludicrousness of mocking Trump for ordering his steak well-done and branches out into how harmful it is to be that rigid about the “right” way to prepare a certain food, other people’s allergies or intolerances be damned.

This needs to be shouted from the rooftops, because way too many people apparently think it’s okay to ignore allergies or intolerances, or give people grief about having them.

Just today, I heard yet another story that proves the same point.  Kid is lactose intolerant, and has gotten soy formula all through infancy.  Grandmother, who occasionally watches Kid, does not believe this, and gives Kid cheese, milk, and pudding.  As a result, Kid has lots of diarrhea.  Because Kid is a toddler who wears diapers, said diarrhea causes two urinary tract infections.

Not only are urinary tract infections miserable in and of themselves, but having two urinary tract infections so close together made doctors suspect kidney issues, so the kid had to have testing done to rule that out.

Hearing this made me pretty angry, because the idea of a little kid suffering because someone could not be bothered to take their food issues seriously just bothers me on a fundamental level.

So, let me amplify this yet again, because it apparently cannot be said enough. If someone tells you they cannot eat a food, do not serve them that food.  If they tell you their kid cannot eat a food, do not serve the kid that food. Period. Whether you believe them or not, whether you like their reasons or not.

The Sacrament of Feeding People

I’m currently reading Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday. In the introduction, she talks about the book’s organization, based on seven sacraments, and she notes that the church has many more sacraments that she could’ve chosen, like the sacrament of bringing someone a casserole. I smiled a little at that, but there’s something deeply holy about feeding someone who’s in a rough spot. It’s practical assistance and pleasure and warmth and love and effort all wrapped up in a package.  Like Captain Awkward says, “The sandwich means ‘I love you.'”.

The Quaker meeting I attend with my husband has been participating in Safe Sundays, where a group of homeless people come hang out at the church on Sunday, to have someplace inside out of the cold. It’s an extension of the Safe Nights program, which gives people a place to stay at night, as well as dinner, breakfast, and a bag lunch. Most of the places homeless people can go inside during the day, like libraries and community centers, are closed on Sundays, so this helps fill the gap.

When we do a shift, we bring food. We don’t have to, because the church that hosted the previous night provided bag lunches, but the goodies are always appreciated. On cold days, like today, we bring hot cider. Usually we bake something.  Today it was brownies and a “tropical pound cake” from a Tastefully Simple mix.

One of the guys was complaining about the lunch he was provided. He really can’t stand apple butter, and that’s what was in his sandwich. A lot of people might say he should be grateful that they gave him food at all (and he probably is), but imagine how discouraging it is when the only thing you have to eat between 7 AM and 7 PM is a sandwich and chips, and the sandwich is something you really don’t want to eat. So, I hope he had a brownie or three, because everybody deserves food they like.

There is this cultural thread, a combination of Puritan self-abnegation and diet culture, that teaches that pleasure from food is suspect, probably sinful. It can be earned, through exercise or through cooking everything yourself with the “right” ingredients, or through having the money to buy what you want, but it isn’t a given. Yeah, screw that.

This is not to rag on the folks who made the sandwich. The sandwich still means “I love you,” even if the message got garbled through food the recipient didn’t like. And for everybody who thinks, “Why, *why* do they keep giving me apple butter?” I’m sure there’s someone else thinking, “Woo-hoo, apple butter! Best day ever.”  Feeding people can be a guessing game, and volunteers do the best they can.

For me, participation in the sacrament of feeding people means trying to make tasty food that they’ll enjoy, being sensitive to allergies and intolerances, and refusing to participate in any shaming or moralizing about the food itself. If you don’t want the brownie, don’t eat the brownie. But don’t guilt anybody else about the brownie, because the brownie means “I love you.”

Trans Kids Deserve to Play Sports as Their Real Gender

I’m a little bit late on this, but a few weeks back, a trans boy won the Texas state wrestling championship.  In the girls’ division, because that’s where the state required him to compete. They’ll only accept a birth certificate, and that requires a court order. Cue the predictable outcry about unfairness to the poor girls, with one parent going so far as to sue to prevent him from competing.

First off, it may come as a shock to some of these parents, but do you know what girls do when there isn’t a girls’ wrestling team?  They wrestle against boys. Every single meet. A friend of mine has a teenage daughter who wrestles on the boys’ team and does co-ed judo. She’s a petite girl, and she does just fine.

The girls who wrestled Mack at the state meet are high-level athletes in a contact sport.  When I did track in high school, it was a big deal for someone to make it to States, and Texas has more than twice the population of PA.  And he’s in their weight class.  So let’s not act like these are fragile, delicate flowers who he’s going to horribly injure. Yes, it’s a contact sport, and there’s always the risk of injury, and that risk is increased if you’re fighting an opponent who’s faster, stronger, or bigger. But age ranges and weight classes do a pretty good job of evening that out.

Secondly, if you don’t like that he’s wrestling against your daughter, how about petitioning the state to let him wrestle with the boys, where he belongs, because he’s a *boy.* Maybe don’t blame the kid for rules he didn’t create?

But the biggest piece of this that I think people willfully ignore is that participating in athletics is a part of kids’ education. As such, if a public school spends a single penny of taxpayer money on athletics (and I’m pretty sure they aren’t paying the coach with ticket sales or building a gym off bake sale proceeds), it needs to be available to all students, as per Title IX and the 14th Amendment. Odds are that a lot of those girls wouldn’t *have* a wrestling team if not for Title IX, so it seems pretty uncharitable to want to exclude another kid from the sport. If you want to exclude trans kids, your church or social club is welcome to form their own team with their own rules and exclude whoever you want, but you don’t get to do it as part of a public education that Mack is entitled to as much as your daughters are.

Last but not least, the whining about “cheating” by virtue of being on hormone replacement therapy is very thinly veiled transphobia. “My kid can’t take steroids, why can yours?” Um, because the trans kid has a medical reason for them and yours doesn’t. If we’re going to ban any legit medical treatments that also have performance enhancing effects, then I guess we need to ban ibuprofen too. And let’s not let kids with asthma compete, because oral albuterol has been used as a performance enhancer too. For that matter, while I don’t know of Ritalin being used to gain an advantage in sports, some teens in high-pressure academic environments abuse it to study longer and concentrate better on less sleep. Certainly that enhanced focus could be useful in an athletic environment, particularly in positions where focus and concentration are as important or more important than sheer physical prowess.  But just because you would bench a quarterback who faked ADD to get stimulants doesn’t mean you’d throw the kid who actually has ADD off the team.

Nobody would suggest barring a kid with asthma from competition because they had albuterol in their system. Nor would they make them choose between necessary medical treatment and playing a sport, provided that a doctor stated that they were healthy enough to compete. But trans kids taking legitimately prescribed hormones to line their bodies up with their real gender are viewed as “cheating.” Probably because people don’t recognize being trans as a real thing, and have this crazy mental picture of a girl jumping through all the hoops of social and medical transition so she can bulk up and win wrestling meets. Which is pretty ridiculous. I mean, some athletes put themselves through all sorts of ridiculousness to win, so I won’t say it *couldn’t* happen, but I will say it’s pretty damn unlikely.

I do want to point out that, since all my other examples are illnesses, I don’t want to conflate being trans with being sick. But it is a state that has necessary medical treatments associated with it. ADD might be a better parallel than asthma, because a lot of people who have it don’t think of it as an illness, but as neurodiversity. It’s not conducive to sitting in school or in an office all day, but it has its upsides too. There’s definitely a social component, because the cultural expectations for how long you can sit quietly and do boring things define whether someone is diagnosed with ADD. Likewise, gender variance is a normal part of human diversity, but one that often requires medical treatment.

But from a fairness perspective, this is actually really simple. If his testosterone levels are way off the charts, more in line with a boy who’s on steroids, sure, don’t let him compete. (Assuming his doctor hasn’t already said, “No, don’t wrestle until we get your T levels straightened out.”) But if he’s in the male range, he’s not at any advantage over the other boys.  Likewise, a trans girl might have to sit out her sport for a bit while her hormones take effect, but once her testosterone levels are down in the female range (which varies a lot and should be broadly defined), there should be no reason she can’t compete with the other girls.

For the Not Yet Allies

Yesterday, there was a bit of a dust-up on progressive Christian Twitter. A white feminist criticized a black man for his association with complementarians. The pushback she got included both criticism of the racial aspects of her comments and her own non-affirming beliefs toward LGBTQ Christians.  It looked, at first, like it was going to be a productive conversation.  She asked questions about what it meant to be affirming, and said she wanted to celebrate gay marriage but struggled with “Biblical sexual ethics.” But when a bunch of people asked what she meant by that, while others noted that “Biblical sexual ethics” isn’t a single,consistent thing, she accused people of bullying her and left the conversation. There were a lot of comments, so I can certainly understand how it felt like a pile-on, but none of the criticism I saw was rude or unkind.

This got me thinking about how I engage with Christians who might be sympathetic and appear to be sincerely well-meaning, but aren’t exactly affirming. It’s hard. I usually try the route of patient, thoughtful explanation, and it very rarely seems to get me anywhere. So far, I’ve resisted the temptation to grab people by the shoulders, shake vigorously, and scream “Don’t you know your bullshit theology kills people?” Somehow, I think that would be even less helpful. But it’s hard to always be nice and always stuff down anger at harmful stereotypes or toxic theology. Also, I’m not sure catering to people’s desire to be treated with kid gloves *when their theology is killing people* is actually helpful, because it allows the harm to persist. If you’re standing on my foot, I can believe that you didn’t mean it and refrain from calling you an asshole while still insisting that you get off my foot.

So, this post is for those Christians who want to learn more about LGBTQ+ affirming Christianity, or to understand why we get so cranky the thirty-seventh time we hear the phrase “Biblical sexual ethics.” I’m hoping it will explain some of the anger and frustration that seems to go along with these conversations and give you some ideas for engaging more productively.

Don’t expect LGBTQ+ people to justify their lives, their relationships, or their existence to you.

Please, just don’t. When you engage with LGBTQ+ people, you need to understand that they’ve spent their whole lives hearing pastors and politicians denounce them, lie about them, and blame them for everything wrong in the world, up to and including natural disasters. If they’re Christians, or used to be Christians, they’ve probably had the Biblical “clobber verses,” the ones taken out of context to support the idea that being gay is a sin, thrown at them more times than they can count. They’ve also had their legitimate criticisms of that Biblical interpretation, like “Doesn’t Ezekiel say the sin of Sodom was selfishness and inhospitality?” or “How are we so sure we know the exact meaning of a word Paul made up?” completely ignored.

If you want to understand the Christian arguments for affirming LGBTQ+ orientations and relationships, putting your one gay friend on the spot is not the way to do it.  Read Matthew Vines or Justin Lee or Kathy Baldock or any of a number of authors or bloggers first. If you’ve got specific questions, some of those authors might be willing to email you more info, or discuss the subject on Twitter or their blog.  Or not. Educating people is hard work and everybody’s got a limit. But if you do the work of developing a basic understanding of the core arguments, you’re much more likely to find people who are willing to explain the tricky bits.

Also, remember that if you’re not their parent or their pastor, people aren’t accountable to you. (And even if you’re their pastor, they really do have the right to leave your church.) You might totally disagree with someone’s beliefs or their interpretation of scripture, but they don’t owe you a justification for why they think that way or live that way. I guarantee you that you’re doing things that don’t match up with someone else’s interpretation of the Bible, and not just the gotchas like mixed fibers. But if they were to come up to you and demand to know why you celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday, or pray with your hair uncovered, or have a Christmas tree, you’d probably be a bit put out.  So, don’t do that to LGBTQ+ people. Especially because being LGBTQ+ is usually a much more central part of people’s identity than what they wear to church or when they go.

With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

If you’re going to make an argument about same-sex relationships, or about trans people existing as their real gender rather than their assigned at birth gender, expect that argument to be turned back on you. This is kind of the inverse of the previous point. Not only do people not owe you a justification, but if you critique them and aren’t living up to your own standards, they *will* point it out.

This can be a good opportunity to examine your own beliefs, even if it’s also difficult and frustrating.  If, for example, you don’t think Paul’s “I do not permit a woman to teach” was a hard, fast rule, binding for all Christians everywhere, then why is that different from what he said about same-sex sex?

Really think about what you mean by “The Bible clearly states…” or any phrase that starts with the word “Biblical.”

People use “Biblical” to mean pretty much whatever they want it to mean, often without a whole lot of critical thought. Do you mean that you can find a scripture to justify the thing you want to justify if you pull it out of context? Do you mean something is discussed positively in the Bible?  Do you mean it meshes with the life and teachings of Jesus? Or do you really just mean that it’s something your church teaches is biblical?

Whatever you think about the Bible, it doesn’t speak with a unified voice on pretty much *anything.*  There are multiple creation narratives, multiple gospels. Different authors, different genres, different audiences.

There’s also the problem that people emphasize, and preach on, the parts of the Bible that support their existing beliefs, and discard or explain away the parts that don’t. Every Christian does this. Whether you interpret everything through sacrificial atonement, or focus on what Jesus said above everything else, or pore through Daniel and Revelation for specific prophecy about the end times, everybody’s got an interpretive framework. There’s no such thing as a plain reading. Even things as innocuous as verse numbers or the translation you use are a choice that can subtly shift meaning.

So, acknowledge that you have an interpretive framework, figure out what it is, and bring that to the conversation, rather than an overly simplistic “The Bible says X.”

My framework is that you can look at the Gospels as multiple stories of Jesus choosing people over rules. Not ignoring the rules or throwing them out completely, but never, ever, elevating them above people. So, if an interpretation of some other part of the Bible harms people, then I’m not on board with that interpretation. Yours is probably different. But if we know where the other person is coming from, we have a much better chance of a productive conversation.

Remember that this really is life and death.

A lot of the time, people like to argue religion or politics without really having a stake in it. It’s fun to toss around ideas and see what sticks, or to try to convince other people of things. But that can become less fun in a hurry when the argument affects you directly. It gets even more grating when the person you’re talking to *doesn’t want to acknowledge* those effects.  One of the most frustrating conversations I’ve ever had with someone non-affirming involved him arguing that there was no way anti-gay theology could drive people to suicide because the church preaches against sex outside marriage and straight people aren’t killing themselves as a result.  Setting aside the many things wrong with that comparison, if your response to “People are dying because of your church’s teachings,” is “Nuh-uh, not our fault,” instead of “Shit, how can I help?” then you really need some empathy.

Again, doing the research is your friend here. The Trevor Project has a lot of statistics. You could also read a conversion therapy memoir, like Boy Erased or Saving Alex. Or read up on the problem of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness due to family rejection.

Remember at the beginning when I talked about the temptation to shake people and yell at them? I have that strong reaction because this really is life and death. Teaching that LGBTQ+ relationships and lives are sinful does real, tangible harm. It twists people’s self-image and convinces them to hide or distort who they are. It results in parents rejecting gay or trans kids, and the scores of problems that go along with that. It matters.

People who have been harmed by this theology are probably not the people to answer your questions. The hurt is too fresh and the damage too severe. But you can still learn a lot from them if you’re willing to listen.  If they’re angry, try not to take it personally, because if people had prevented you from getting married, tried to keep it legal to fire you for who you are, shouted slurs at you, and held you responsible for the downfall of civilization, you’d probably be angry too.