Wednesday, November 26, 2014

White Christianity, Black Anger

I request a lot of random stuff from NetGalley, because I have a book-hoarding problem. Most recently, I read a book called Unoffendable by a conservative evangelical type called Brant Hansen. The title intrigued me, because when I requested the book I didn't know where Hansen was coming from, and I was kind of hoping for a radical argument for a new social justice coalition that transcends the worst excesses of petty holier-than-thou progressive infighting. Obviously that is not what I got, but I still tried to read with an open mind, because there are certain overlaps between the things that offend a conservative evangelical Christian like Hansen and the things that offend a radleftist SJW Christian like me, even if it's almost always for very different reasons.

This is a hard week in America, a sad and scary week for my Black friends. White supremacy is flaunting its ugly face even more brazenly than usual, and Black grief and anger is rippling throughout the country. Inevitably, white people who believe they speak from a lofty position of reason and objectivity are telling Black Americans what to do with their anger: suppress it, let it go, rise above it. Most perniciously, these white people are co-opting the words of a Black martyr and saint in service of their craven complicity with the white supremacist status quo.

To my fellow white people I say: How dare we? How dare we commit this twisted sin of white supremacist apologetics? When we steal Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to demand that Black emotion and Black action be directed toward the maintenance of this racist society, we murder him – and Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, and Jesus Christ – all over again.

Brant Hansen does it too. He not only quotes MLK in support of his anger-quashing agenda, but he also makes an example of his Black friend's story of convincing an actively racist white guy that Black people are human. This is the kind of narrative white people love: focus on the overtly racist individual, and elide the existence of the profound systemic racism on which this country is founded and through which it continues to operate.

The thing is, Hansen's book actually has a pretty good message for a specific audience. It's shot through with theological assumptions I do not share – Christian exclusivism, penal substitutionary atonement as the entirety of soteriology, a patriarchal He-God, an emphasis on heterosexual nuclear families and fetal personhood, that baffling evangelical tendency to assert that conservative Christian values are somehow countercultural – which make it clear that the book is written within and for a white conservative evangelical context. Hansen would have done much better to be upfront and explicit about this. With such a disclaimer, this could be a helpful text for conservative white cishet Christians: one of their own telling them they need to quit getting so angry and offended about stuff is definitely something they need to hear.

Without the disclaimer, though, and with the MLK-quoting white-supremacist sanctimony, it comes off as yet another instance of white evangelicals trying to universalize their contextually-circumscribed circumstances: yet another instance of white people telling Black people what to do and how to feel. Black men are constantly subjected to the dehumanizing narrative of the angry Black monster-man whom a white cop or a neighborhood vigilante can murder with impunity because any “reasonable” person would see him as a threat. They have absolutely zero need for condescending whites to tell them what to do with their anger.

Hansen calls for Christians to stop perpetuating the idea that humans can have righteous or justified anger. He says that anger is never a force for good. But the thing about marginalized people is – and I have felt this as a trans person, as a queer person, as a person with depression, and I can only imagine how it feels as a Black person – sometimes our anger is the only thing keeping us alive. Sometimes (too often), my white-hot rage at a society that doesn't want me to exist, that doesn't see my life as having worth, is all that empowers me to say, I won't let them win.

I don't have answers, I don't have solutions, I don't have a call to action. All I have is this little flame, a grief and anger too deep for words, and the assurance that God, too, lost a child to state-sanctioned violence, and she knows how it feels.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

"Blessed are you who are poor ... woe to you who are rich."
"Blessed are you who are hungry now ... woe to you who are full now."
"Blessed are you who weep now ... woe to you who are laughing now."
"Blessed are you when people hate you ... woe to you when all speak well of you."
(Luke 6:20-26)

The Gospel of Luke is easy to love. In social justice-oriented contexts, Luke's is the go-to gospel because it so clearly portrays a Jesus who is deeply concerned about the social and material circumstances of the poor and the marginalized. It's the natural source for a Christian theological call for justice (assuming we're ignoring all the Hebrew Bible prophets, which as Christians we probably are. Thanks, supersessionism!). In Luke's rendition, the Beatitudes are a pretty uncompromising set of eschatological reversals, "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," as we bleeding-hearts like to say.

Matthew, on the other hand, is a little more difficult. I've never heard anyone say that Matthew was their favorite gospel. Matthew is fussy and literalist to the point of being nonsensical, as when he tries to fulfil a Hebrew Bible prophecy by having Jesus enter Jerusalem riding two donkeys simultaneously because he's never heard of hendiadys. And look at what Matthew does with the first Beatitude:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
(Matthew 5:3)

For starters, note that Luke's Jesus is addressing the poor directly (as well as the rich, whom Matthew doesn't mention), whereas Matthew talks about them as though they are absent or even abstract. The most glaring difference, though, is that Luke's "poor" have become for Matthew "poor in spirit." It seems like a pretty clear-cut instance of Matthew softening the call for justice in order to avoid upsetting the wealthy and to accommodate the status quo.

I think there is potential for a more generous and more interesting reading of Matthew 5:3, though, and it arises from the question: what the hell does "poor in spirit" mean anyway?

Historical-critically, or with respect to the author's intentions, your guess is as good as mine. The reading I'm proposing has nothing to do with source criticism, the historical context in which Matthew's Gospel was written, or the nuances of the Greek terminology. It's just a reading I think is interesting, challenging, and kind of cool.

Luke's Jesus says: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." It's a promise of straightforward reversal: those who currently lack resources and comfort will receive abundance

Matthew's Jesus: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." If this is also a reversal, Matthew is clearly not using "kingdom of heaven" in quite the same way Luke is using "kingdom of God." Neither the reward nor the affliction are material in nature.

What does "poor in spirit" mean? I suggest that we can read it quite simply, as the reverse of "the kingdom of heaven": the poor in spirit are those who lack a certain sensibility, which for want of a better term I call "religious." Not those who do not believe in God, who have no use for that hypothesis -- it's perfectly possible to be religious without believing in God -- but those who have no sense for, well, whatever you want to call it: the transcendent, the liturgical, the impossible, wonder, the perhaps. Something precarious, something humbling, something greater than oneself. The people with the shallowest, most mean-spirited view of what humanity can be (I'm sure we can all think of examples, including some who call themselves religious and believe in God) are blessed. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This is no way replaces Luke's vision of material abundance for the materially poor, but it's a thought-provoking supplement. For someone like me, steeped in leftist academia and liberation theology, "blessed are the poor" is normative, but "blessed are the small-minded" is a real challenge.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Disability, Limits, and the Church

A couple weeks ago, the World Council of Churches called for more inclusivity of people with disabilities in churches. The coordinator of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network apparently said this:

“The communion of the churches in unity and diversity is impaired without the gifts and presence of all people, including persons with disability.”

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this statement since I first read it. There's so much to unpack here with respect to my theological interests.

Ever since I started trying to do embodied theology, theology that is in and of and about the flesh, I have been compelled by the image of the Church as Christ's body. This is already a powerfully rich and evocative image in New Testament literature. The image is present in Paul's letters to the Romans, the Ephesians, and the Colossians, but I suppose it gets its most extensive treatment in 1 Corinthians 12.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.
I often think about taking this image quite seriously. Given what we know about bodies – from queer theory, from crip theory, from critical race theory – what does it mean that we the Church are, collectively, Christ's body? And what does it mean to call this body, for whatever reason, impaired?

On the social model of disability, “impairment” usually refers to a physical fact about a specific body, while “disability” as such is caused by social and environmental factors. Any disability theory worth its salt from the last five years or more will, of course, note that this distinction is as necessary a step and as unsustainable a dualism as the sex/gender distinction: one can no more conflate these things absolutely than one can separate them entirely. Impairment (/sex) the physical fact and disability (/gender) the social construct are hopelessly entangled, to the point that even what we call “the physical fact” (of impairment or of sex) is itself a social construction.

Deborah Beth Creamer proposes a model of “limits” to displace or supplement the social model's inadequacies. Limits are not identical with either “disability” or “impairment,” and are inherently value-neutral. As a society we naturalize some limits (a person who cannot fly is normal) and pathologize others (a person who cannot walk is defective). As in Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's concept of “misfit,” our understanding of limits tends to be circumscribed by the relations between human bodies and their environment, but attention to the limit or misfit can enable us to interrogate the “default” bodies we construct. Disability becomes “an intrinsic, unsurprising, and valuable element of human limit-ness” (Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, 96).

So far, so human; but what of God? What about the limits of God? The classical theological notion of kenosis, self-emptying, proposes that God took on limits in the incarnation; but, traditionally, this was in order to overcome said limits through glorification and resurrection. But if the Church is Christ's body – a body of bodies, human bodies, defined by the having of limits – is God, then, not still flesh? Still material? Still limited?

The Church is Christ's body, but it is also a (or many) human institution(s), and as such it is deeply flawed – perhaps even impaired, in the most negative sense – and never more so than when it practices the exclusion of those whose bodies are too disabled, too queer, the wrong color. The Church is the communion of saints, but it is also a temporal coalition of temporal bodies, and as such it has limits – limits that are not necessarily intrinsically good or bad, but limits that are constitutive of it as a body.

I wonder what that means.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Habakkuk 1:2

This morning, we had an active shooter drill on campus. We had our emergency response plans in place from a preparatory meeting a few weeks ago, and today we tested them out. When the alert was sent out – by text, email, phone call – everyone in the building where I work piled into a little office, locked all the doors behind us, and spent the next ten minutes sharing stories of other workplace drills and laughing too loudly in the buzz of adrenaline.

This week, the town of Ferguson, MO, is under siege. Last night, all the activists I know were glued to Twitter and its eyewitness accounts of staggering police brutality.

My school, the place where I study and work, is located in one of the 10 wealthiest counties in the nation. Ensconced in our office, my coworkers and I talked about friends in other places who had been mugged. All of us are white.


Campus Safety is working hard to protect my school against the remote possibility of a gunman on campus. Statistically, he would be white, male, lone, probably a disgruntled student.

Police in Ferguson shot and murdered an unarmed Black man. The community has refused to accept this. The police have responded by going nuclear.

When we had the first meeting about the active shooter drill, I panicked. I'm still not accustomed to gun culture and the idea that I might have to face it firsthand freaked me out.

I'm ashamed of myself. I'm ashamed of my race.

There's a lesson in this juxtaposition. I'm learning something visceral about the nexus of violence, poverty, race, and security in the US. I struggle to unpack the enormity of the injustice. Long may it haunt me.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Trouble With Trans Discourse

My God, I am sick of trans discourse.

I am sick of the toxicity of each subculture of trans ideology toward those who do not share its particular rigid orthodoxy (none of which are adequate anyway). I am sick of the bitter infighting, and I am sick of the calls for unity. I am sick of the holier-than-thou posturing of the language police, and I am sick of the pretensions to bold truth-telling in the face of censorship. I am sick of hearing what's a slur and who needs to lighten up. I am sick of hearing who's a true transsexual, who's a newly-minted queer, who's a gendertrender, who's a quisling shill for the cissupremacy/patriarchy, who deserves necessary medical treatment or basic fucking human respect based on whether or not they agree with your definitions. I am sick of everybody wanting to eradicate everybody else.

I'm sick of radfem ideology. I'm sick of the oversimplification of claiming that, because the social construction of the gender binary as we know it is harmful, gender as such needs to be eradicated. I'm sick of the reduction of sexism to the nakedly biological, as if sexual dimorphism were the entirety of biological sex/gender diversity, as if patriarchy could be exhaustively described by “people who can't get pregnant oppressing people who can get pregnant,” as if its complex matrix of the material and the discursive could be adequately described in terms of uteri alone, as if the Foucauldian soul had never been posited.

I'm sick of truscum ideology. I'm sick of the oversimplification of asserting that being trans is always and necessarily reducible to a medical condition. I'm sick of the implied reification of medical conditions, as if they were eternal, subsistent, and external to the culture that diagnoses them. I'm sick of the binarism, the refusal to treat nonbinary genders as legitimate. I'm sick of the biological reductionism that dovetails exactly with the TERF understanding of sex and gender, differing only in the degree to which they believe trans people should have access to medical care.

I'm sick of genderspecial ideology. I'm sick of the reduction of gender to a feeling, to something that has no overlap with the flesh in which it is manifest, to a garment that can be donned or sloughed with the day's outfit. I'm sick of the holding sacrosanct of potato genders and nounself pronouns, placing them above critique just because someone nebulously “identifies as” them. I'm sick of the disembodiment of gender just as much as I'm sick of the biological reductionism thereof.

I'm sick of appeals to chromosomes or gonads, of claims of “deception” or the knowability of “true sex,” of the kind of biological reductionism that binds me to my birth assignment. I'm sick of born-this-way-ism, of brain sex and prenatal hormone exposure, of the kind of biological reductionism that is nothing but trans apologetics. I'm sick of airy-fairy gendering that erases the body so utterly as to make people believe that medical care is not a necessity for those who require it.

For most of my master's degree, I avoided writing about gender. I was undertaking the coming-out process, and I felt that, in a life where gender (what it is, how you know, what mine is) consumed my every waking thought, my academic work constituted a single blessed corner of relief. I would talk about Derrida and Johannine Christology and new media theory, and I could immerse myself in deep topics where for once, for once in my life, I didn't have to think about gender.

Now, in my doctoral work, engaging with gender seems unavoidable. It's still not my primary interest – I'm more interested in disability and crip theory, Eucharistic theology, and phenomenology – but I can't seem to talk about anything else without also talking about gender.

I fantasize about quitting Tumblr, about shutting down this zombie blog, about leaving trans discourse altogether. I believe in listening more than I talk, and most of the time I suspect that what I have to say is neither interesting nor valuable.

But, my God, anyone should talk who can add a little nuance to the trans wars 2k14 and their relentless, horrifying oversimplifications.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Boyhood/Girlhood

Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood sounds fantastic, and yet I've been consciously avoiding going to see it. Two years into social transition, one and a half into medical transition, I still feel that little fishhook of pain in my chest when I contemplate boyhood and my lack thereof.

To comply with the popular trans discourse, I suppose I would have to claim that I “always was” a boy, even when I didn't know it. To be sure, there can be both rhetorical and emotional value in the “always was” narrative, but for me that is a conscious rewriting of my history, which doesn't sit quite right with me.

Not that it's not to some degree true. There is a truth in the suggestion that I always was a boy; there is a truth in the admission that I never had a boyhood. These truths are not contradictory so much as complementary. Each alone only tells a fragment of the story.

For me, the value of the “always was” narrative is very limited. I see its use for trans people who were conscious of their gender from an early age; but what does it really mean for me? For a female-assigned child with two cis brothers, who deeply internalized the “(birth) genitals=gender” message of a cissexist society, who could plainly see that I was not a boy in the precise way that my brothers were boys, who did not know that there was any other way to be a boy and who therefore assumed that my desire to be a boy belonged to the same imaginary realm as my desire to go to wizard school? (And later, on discovering feminism, decided my desire to be a boy must be rooted in internalized misogyny?)

I find more use in a negative framing and a paradox: it's not that I “always was” a boy, but that I never was a girl, and that I was not a girl even as I was a girl.

The logic of Jewish philosopher and theologian Peter Ochs is helpful here. For Ochs, the dyadic logic of binarism – the notion that not-X is the opposite of X – is properly applicable only to situations of suffering. To the sufferer, actions either help alleviate the suffering (X) or they do not help (not-X), and as such the world can be divided into the binary categories of X and not-X. In all other situations, however, binarism is misapplied, and it is an oversimplification and a logical misstep to assume that not-X is necessarily the opposite or absence of X.

This, I think, is the logic of transition, and it helps to explain why trans people, particularly in the earlier stages of transition, can be so sensitive to seemingly small aspects of the gendered world, such as being called “sir” or “ma'am” at the grocery store. A transitioning person experiences gender from a place of suffering, and as such divides the world into two categories: my-gender and not-my-gender. Anything that reinforces my-gender helps to alleviate the suffering; anything that reinforces not-my-gender does not help.

(Clearly, I am referring to a binary-identified trans person. I have not yet thought through the implications of this logic – or even, if I'm to be perfectly honest, the limited temporality inherent to the concept of “transition” – with respect to non-binary genders.)

However, the binary logic of my-gender and not-my-gender only applies once I am consciously aware of my gender. Accordingly, it would be inaccurate to retroject this binarism onto my childhood. My childhood as I lived it at the time was, as far as I knew, a girlhood. My childhood as I view it from my current perspective as a male adult is not-a-girlhood. Both perspectives are true.

Much as I long for boyhood, driven by losstalgia for a past that was never mine, and much as I could psychoanalyze my childhood gender identity, seeking evidence for the sublimation of my own felt maleness into an abundance of carefully nurtured fictional personae – even so, I have had experiences that turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Anglo-American culture categorizes under the heading of “girlhood.” I was given dolls and dresses alongside legos and pants. I was permitted, even encouraged, to embrace masculinity as male-assigned children still tend not, even in liberal households, to be encouraged to embrace femininity. I first embraced feminism as an insider, and I know firsthand fears such as that of walking alone among men as a (perceived) woman at night (though I think I am a better feminist now that I am no longer at war with the feminine in me).

My girlhood, as I understand it now, is not a matter of having “been” a girl, but of having experienced much of what is culturally considered to be part of girlhood. It is not an ontological but an epistemological girlhood. Even as I ache for the boyhood I should have had, I recognize that I have learned a great deal from girlhood and that it has been a major contributor to the man I am becoming.

I don't know if I will ever learn to love my girlhood. But I hope to someday be at peace with it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Things I Read: Justin Holcomb's 'Know the Creeds & Councils' and 'Know the Heretics'

This review is based on digital review copies provided by NetGalley.

Justin Holcomb's new books from Zondervan, Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils, make good companion pieces for the lay reader who wants greater familiarity with the history of the Christian faith. Creeds and Councils is the stronger work, but Heretics has a more important goal.

I assumed, from certain tell-tale tics of vocabulary and theological emphasis, that the two volumes were aimed primarily at an evangelical-leaning audience. It surprised me to learn that Holcomb is an Episcopal priest; I rather suspect he went out of his way to be accessible to the popular evangelical subculture of the US. (Of course, he might just be more conservative than me. He did get his PhD from Emory, and I was specifically warned off applying there because I would be too radical for them.) In my experience, evangelical Christianity tries to put the Bible above all else. The trouble is, an awful lot of Christian tradition cannot possibly be derived by the individual from scripture alone – for example, the Trinity. Creeds and Councils would be a valuable book for readers in a position like my own of about five years ago: unclear about the relationship between certain church doctrines and scripture, unsatisfied with the answers provided in an evangelical context, uncertain where to look for a history of doctrine that is not geared too specifically toward a single denomination.

It's a nicely laid out book, first explicating the differences between a creed, a confession, a catechism, and a council, and then going on to examine a number of important examples of all four. Holcomb hits all the biggies, from Nicaea and Chalcedon through the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession down to Vatican II (and, somewhat surprisingly to me, the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy). Each chapter provides historical background for the creed (or council, etc.) in question, a summary of its contents, an exploration of its theological relevance, discussion questions, and a list of further reading. It's a solid structure that should have particular appeal for evangelicals, with their love of expository preaching. Throughout, Holcomb tries to stress the importance of knowing this history, critiquing those who “decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct 'real Christianity' with nothing more than a Bible” (10). Holcomb's critique has a particularly evangelical flavor to it, focusing on “being faithful to God” (10) and how “Jesus continues to build his church” (22) – not arguments I would personally have used, but appropriate ones for his audience.

Know the Heretics is a more exciting and potentially more challenging idea for a lay evangelical readership. I can't be the only ex-evangelical who has been told not to even read certain books because of their poisonous theological content, and I think it's still a pervasive attitude in certain strands of Christianity that faith is a fragile thing that must be protected from too strong a challenge lest it crumble. The distinction between heterodoxy and heresy is one of the reasons I left an evangelicalism that seemed narrowly prescriptivist for the broad theological tent of Anglicanism, and Holcomb's solid Episcopalian emphasis on that distinction is a crucial contribution to evangelicalism as I experienced it.

Structurally, Heretics is similar to Creeds and Councils, providing background, content, relevance, discussion questions, and further reading for each heretic – Gnostics, Marcion, Docetists, Arius, Pelagius, and so on. However, I have three major reservations about this volume.

First, at an epistemic level, I find Holcomb's truth-claims unsatisfying. Again, this reflects my viewpoint as both an ex-evangelical and a graduate student in theology and philosophy, but frankly any definitive statement of theological truth or falsehood makes me uncomfortable. I am willing to accept value judgments of a given theological statement as good or bad (referring to its intellectual honesty, its coherence, its fruitfulness or harmfulness, among others), but in general I think that to call theology true or false is to make a category mistake. For example, modalism and partialism are models of understanding the Trinity; a model is not true or false, but is misused when it is taken literally or ontologically, rather than being seen as a way of understanding at least one aspect of something bigger than itself. To me heresy is not a matter of giving the wrong answer to a legitimate question, as Holcomb defines it (12), but of elevating the finite to the level of the infinite. (You could also call this the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Or idolatry.)

Second, I find Holcomb's soteriology inadequate, and borderline disingenuous. Substitutionary atonement is throughout presented as the only orthodox soteriology, and is used to bolster Holcomb's Christology: “Only a divine Savior can bear the weight of God's wrath in atonement. Only Jesus as the God-man can satisfy the enormous debt and penalty caused by human sin against God. … Only a divine Savior can pay the costly price for redeeming us from our bondage to sin and death” (97). A major reason for my drift from evangelicalism is my no longer finding substitutionary atonement sufficient. Frankly, I think it's an example of the very fallacy I described in the above paragraph: one specific model of atonement has been concretized above all other models. The anthropocentrism of this soteriology is distasteful to me, especially given than John 1:14 states not that the Word became human (anthropos), but that the Word became flesh (sarx). To me, a good soteriology must stress the redemption of all creation, and thus a good Christology must understand Christ not narrowly as a “God-man” but expansively as Creator-creation. Holcomb hedges the possibility of alternate soteriological models, discussing only Socinus' view (“Jesus' death is only an example,” chapter 12) which is set up as an unacceptably extreme alternative to substitution, instead of a different model that demonstrates a different (but still important) aspect of salvation.

Third, the heretics of the first chapter, whose heresy is summarized as “The old rules still apply,” are referred to unreflectively as “Judaizers.” Christianity's history of antisemitism is such that, if you're going to use a term like “Judaizers” and be unrepentantly supersessionist, you had damn well better acknowledge the embedded anti-Jewishness here and actively combat it. That Holcomb doesn't is not a minor point of theological disagreement but a major and unfortunate misstep.

With these reservations taken under advisement, I do think these two books provide a generally sound and accessible introduction to the history of church doctrine, especially for Christians whose denominational background under-emphasizes the role of tradition and history.