Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Selma vs. American Sniper is Peeta vs. Gale

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blue reaping dress (check); braided updo (check); mockingjay pin (check);

Buttercup (wrong color and disinterested)

Currently, I’m piloting a two-semester freshman English course at a state university that examines Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games as a cultural phenomenon. Most recently, we talked in class about how to engage with issues in American Sniper without being polarizing or alienating the opposing side of the debate – because there has been a lot of that in recent weeks. Some argue that the film glorifies war and creates an unrealistic portrait of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal upon whom the film is based, while others (including Director Clint Eastwood and actor Bradley Cooper) call the film antiwar and an attempt to raise awareness about PTSD among veterans. I am less concerned with the faithfulness of the film adaptation to Kyle’s autobiography, or Eastwood’s authorial intent, and most concerned with audience response. Regardless of the argument Eastwood meant to make with the film, audience response has been both polarized and vitriolic, with fans of the film calling for the death of critics, and with critics of the film suggesting that snipers are “cowards” or “hate-filled killers.”

I presented this debate to my students and asked how The Hunger Games could help us make sense of it. Our consensus: “Two of the contenders for Best Picture are Selma and American Sniper. One is about nonviolent resistance, and the other is about violent resistance. It’s Peeta vs. Gale.” Although often annoyed by the fact that love triangles seem to have become part of the required formula for successful YA series, I think this particular Team Peeta vs. Team Gale situation is worth fleshing out.

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the husband as Gale, before I turned him into Peeta (below)

Team Gale: Gale Hawthorne, like Chris Kyle, feels injustice acutely and sees the world in an “us vs. them” way. When their “district” (whether 12 or New York City) is bombed, they become integral parts of the war effort, seek retribution, and are impatient with anyone who asks hard questions about their plan of action. Maybe we shouldn’t bomb a District 2 stronghold when our fight is with the Capitol, not District 2 citizens (even if they’re more sympathetic to the Capitol and less so to the rebellion). Maybe we shouldn’t invade Iraq when our fight is with a terrorist organization separate from that nation. Gale’s response – “We watched children burn to death, and there was nothing we could do!” – bespeaks the pain, helplessness, and subsequent rage echoed by those who witnessed similar losses during the 9/11 terrorist attack. David Wong, in his funny, irreverent piece for Cracked.com, would say that prototype-Gale’s response is the “most automatic, unthinking reflex,” the “hit back” reflex, and that “growing up means resisting it”; Wong writes, “It’s the thinking part – the human part – that says to stop, resist the initial urge, and actually think about what action will make the world better.” Enter:

Team Peeta: Peeta Mellark, like MLK Jr., understands that “returning violence for violence multiples violence.” While he acknowledges that he will likely kill to defend himself in the games (an overt metaphor for war), because he “can’t go down without a fight,” he also shows that he is engaging in the type of thinking Wong promotes: “I keep wishing I could think of a way to … show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I’m more than a piece in their games.” At the end of the first novel, Peeta, rather than Katniss, inspires the berry scheme (i.e. they will both eat poisonous berries rather than kill each other). Peeta’s commitment to nonviolent resistance is so subtle that most readers, along with President Snow, miss his revolutionary role completely. Yet, when the dual winner rule is revoked, Katniss turns her bow on Peeta. He throws his knife into the lake. Only then, with Katniss’s “face burning in what can only be shame,” does she think of the berries. Remarkably Peeta is only directly credited with a body count of three in the entire games and subsequent revolution: the first is a mercy kill (ending a fatally wounded girl’s misery in Book 1); the second is in defense of another person (Haymitch’s friend, Chaff, in Book 2); and the third is when he’s mentally deranged after being tortured in Book 3. And, no, we’re not even counting Foxface, since that was indirect and completely accidental.

What becomes most interesting is the fact that the other tribute-soldiers notice Peeta’s difference and dedicate themselves to saving him, and rightly so: he, in the end, symbolizes hope for a better way. In Catching Fire, Katniss only decides to trust Finnick when she realizes that he “knows what Haymitch and I know. About Peeta. Being truly, deep-down better than the rest of us.” She explains further: “Finnick took out that tribute from 5 without blinking an eye. And how long did I take to turn deadly? I shot to kill when I targeted Enobaria and Gloss and Brutus. Peeta would have at least attempted negotiations first. Seen if some wider alliance was possible.” Peeta is the baker, the artist, and – like MLK Jr. – the rhetorician. He is the person whose words have the power of an exploding bomb during his second Capitol interview, because he is able (1) to expose “at least for a moment, how horrific the whole thing is” and (2) to convince “even the most Capitol-loving, Games-hungry, bloodthirsty person out there.”

So where does this leave Gale Hawthorne and Chris Kyle? We can identify with their rage, certainly. When Katniss imagines what Gale saw, she “wants everyone in that mountain dead.” But then she replaces the images of burning children with the images of burning citizens and knows that this is horrible too; she says, “You don’t know how those District 2 people ended up in the Nut … They may have been coerced. They may be held against their will. Some are our own spies. Would you kill them too?” When Gale says he would, that he would similarly die for the cause (something that Chris Kyle also articulates in his autobiography), Katniss “know[s] he’s telling the truth.” But she also knows that this choice, admirably made by those willing to self-sacrifice, is “a coldhearted decision to make for other people and those who love them.” And, by the end of the novel, she realizes that despite Gale’s good intentions, his way brings about her sister’s death, the very thing she’s been so desperate to prevent. The series teaches us that we can understand Gale’s motivations; we can recognize his dedication to his family and all that is brave and heroic about him; we can even love him deeply. But we cannot love his way.

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This is why Katniss chooses Peeta. This is why we must choose Peeta as well. We have only to scan the titles of news articles (e.g. “It is now common knowledge that US drones bomb civilian rescuers”) to know that we’re currently Team Gale and running up against the same conclusion. Less than two months ago, the Taliban attacked an army-run school in Pakistan, killing over one hundred children, as retribution for US-led bombings that have killed their children. The cycle continues. In light of recent events, Katniss’s words in Mockingjay  (Book 3) are haunting: “I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despite being one myself … Because there is something significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. You can spin in any way you like. Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war. But in the end, who does it benefit? No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.”

Only Peeta’s words in The Hunger Games (Book 1) are encouraging – “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not” – because he is able to articulate, from the very beginning, what will be the primary concern of the novels. The hope, the dandelion in the spring, is that there are people like Peeta and MLK Jr. (and Gene Sharp, if you’re looking for a contemporary) who see the world with moral clarity and push us to be better, stronger and braver. I don’t know which film will win Best Picture at the end of the month. Both Selma and American Sniper are contenders, and both are about creating a more safe, just society. The difference is that one of those two victories was achieved through nonviolent resistance, and (Oscar win or no) that will always be the better story.

The Night My Toddler Could Have Become a Gun Death Statistic

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I grew up in rural South Carolina on a hundred acres of farmland in a “neighborhood” of two houses: my own and my grandparent’s house next door. And, yes, we had guns. As I child, I would stumble across my father’s rifles and shotguns in his closet upstairs, although I never touched them nor tried to find the bullets, which were stored separately. The idea of them always made me uncomfortable, a deadly presence in the house, even though they were only used to scare off stray dogs from our chickens or to kill a venomous snake. We were not a family of hunters, and, when, as a teenager, I was peer-pressured into handling a firearm (because everyone who was anyone knew how to shoot), I spent an afternoon, after careful instruction from my father, shooting pears from our pear tree and was generally unimpressed.

Fast forward sixteen years later, and my family (husband, seven-year old daughter, and 2-year old son, Jack) dropped by my grandmother’s house unannounced. We were chatting, Jack was toddling around. Then he was reaching for a handgun on the end table next to my grandmother’s chair. Three adults lunged for it immediately, and I still have nightmares about what could happen any time you fumble with a loaded gun in front of a child.

Yes, it was loaded — because “what use is an unloaded gun?” my grandmother said. This was uncharacteristic of her, and we soon learned that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, with all the anxiety and paranoia that the disease so often brings with it. Needless to say, we removed the gun from her house (with more than a little prodding) and exchanged it with police grade pepper spray as a nonlethal means of self-defense. “It’s better than a gun,” I told her, “because you don’t need perfect aim to incapacitate an attacker; just spray in his general direction.” Years later, I would read about Seattle Pacific University student, Jon Mais, who used pepper spray to disarm a gunman, and remember this conversation.

I was reminded of that night more recently after reading about Veronica Rutledge’s trip to an Idaho Wal-Mart with her 2-year-old-son. A loaded gun in a purse. A shopping cart with purse, gun, and toddler. A distracted moment. And I realized there was another way that night at my grandmother’s could have played out: not with Jack shooting himself but with Jack shooting one of us and living for the rest of his life with consequences so unfairly thrust upon him — because it’s not fair for a 2-year-old child to die by gun negligence and it’s not fair for a 2-year-old child to live with the knowledge that he shot his mother because of gun negligence.

Veronica’s father-in-law, Terry Rutledge, has expressed anger at those “painting” Veronica, who had taken classes and was licensed to carry, “as irresponsible.” In doing so, he misses a key point: it’s not just “irresponsible” gun owners who are ruining and losing lives to gun violence; the “responsible” gun owners are right there with them. Because here’s the thing: when you walk through life with such a lethal weapon on or near you (Terry Rutledge says his son and daughter-in-law “carried one every day of their lives”) you run the inordinate risk of doing harm not only to yourself but also to others. Human beings are not designed to be on alert the way Rutledge-styled-gun-enthusiasts need to be on alert (i.e. never a distracted moment).

Veronica was not a bad or irresponsible mother (because she had a bad or irresponsible moment) any more so than the countless parents who have lost children to heatstroke, after inadvertently leaving them asleep in a car. Think of all the articles and public awareness campaigns about infant car death featured in 2014. A moment of distraction. A death. But cars are a necessity in a way that guns aren’t. As Veronica’s friend Sheri Sandow explains “She wasn’t carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns.” Veronica was carrying a gun because it was her hobby. And that’s what makes this so much more disconcerting, along with the knowledge that one person’s hobby can threaten the lives of so many others. Her 2-year-old-son could have killed any number of Walmart shoppers just as easily as he killed his mother.

I get that Veronica loved guns in a way I never have, that she had long-standing happy memories associated with them. But I’m sure she loved her son more. Because any memory that has worth — hunting on a beautifully brisk day with people you love, for example — has worth not because of the gun part but because of the being-with-people-you-love part. No one knows how her son’s accidental killing of a person would have affected Veronica. But I can tell you how my toddler’s close call affected me: it made me question a system in which an elderly woman with dementia can so easily buy and keep a gun, a culture that’s okay with that, and — most of all — the percentage of the population who believes that any introspection on the matter and push for change is an attempt to instate a no-gun-for-anyone policy. (Note: Farmers and ranchers in Australia have guns. Collectors and target shooters and hunters in England have guns. But these countries have many more restrictions and much less gun violence than we do).

As a mother, I want sensible gun reform that, if it does nothing else, will make being a gun owner feel more like a privilege than a right, if only because we are more mindful of things that are earned rather than given. After Veronica’s death, her father-in-law said “Odd as it may sound, we’re gun people.” Yes, Mr. Rutledge, that does sound odd. Maybe we should all redefine what we mean by gun people.

The Worst Memes on Facebook (at the moment, and possibly in the history of the world)

I haven’t written, at least publicly, in months. Work. Kids. And I may have started fostering dogs again — because with all the racism/torture/terrorism in the world right now, sometimes you just have to rescue a dog from a kill shelter.

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With newest foster dog Annie Cresta by my side, I’m tackling the five worst memes I’ve seen on my Facebook Newsfeed lately (which means, yes: they’re being shared by. people. I. know). They’re being shared by women who bring casseroles to new mothers and to widows and to anyone, really, who hints they’d like a casserole. They’re being shared by men who wave in a neighborly way and hum Christmas carols. They’re being shared by women and by men who have children, or at least seem to like children. So, clearly, they must not understand; and, since I can’t see such things and not respond (b/c “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”), here’s my two cents:

5) The “no mother should have to fear for her son’s life” meme. Actually, one of my students came across this on her Facebook Newsfeed and mentioned it during class discussion, but I’m sure that one of my 600+ Facebook friends is featuring it on their page too, because it’s the type of meme they’d love and the type that — yes, I’ll admit it — took me awhile to process before I even got it.

In the photo, a young black man stands with a couple of protestors while holding a sign that reads: “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

Me: “Of course not — because we don’t shoot people for stealing. If someone steals, they’re arrested for theft — not shot on the street.”

My student had to explain that the young black man was holding a different sign (one that read “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he leaves home”), which was photoshopped to read the other version.

Oh.

So we talked about the ABC bike theft experiment (what happens when a white guy, a black guy, and a “hot” blonde girl steals a bike?) and whether the response to theft is consistent. Hint: it’s not.

And I talked about one of my friends in high school, who was around Michael Brown’s age when he stole gas from a local station (back when you didn’t use debit/credit cards for everything). He was busted, but he was white, and I watched and listened while people laughed about it, called him a rascal, and chalked it up to what seventeen-year-old boys do.

I’m not saying his mother should have worried about him getting shot. What I’m saying is that Michael Brown’s mother shouldn’t have had to worry about her son getting shot either.

*qualification: i’m less interested, here, in engaging with the finer points of this case (like the fact that wilson stopped brown for walking on the road rather than the sidewalk, not stealing cigarillos; or the fact that wilson said he was threatened) than I am in exposing some people’s disturbing tendency not only to appoint themselves judge-jury-and-executioner when a young black man is involved but also to flaunt, through photoshop and Facebook, that mindset.*

4) The “don’t like cops? the next time you’re in trouble, call a crackhead” meme. Two things:

First: As Jon Stewart points out, “You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”

Being critical — of the fact that neither the Brown nor the Garner case was deemed trial-worthy, when over 90% of cases that go before a grand jury end in indictment — is not the same thing as not liking cops. Pointing out that it’s a potential conflict of interest to ask local prosecutors (who work with police) to present evidence against the person who may be their Secret Santa is not the same thing as not liking cops.

Second: It’s annoying when people stereotype isn’t it? — whether they assume that you’re a bad guy b/c you have dark skin, or you’re a bad guy b/c you’re a cop. Okay. So, don’t assume “crackheads” (dehumanizing much?) — or, people who may be struggling with a drug addiction — aren’t capable of helping and doing good. Geez.

3) The “quick! which one is bb? Too late. You’re already dead 15x over” meme. This meme features a cop holding a real gun and a not-real gun, and they’re virtually indistinguishable.

YES. Cops have a dangerous job, are afraid, and are right to be afraid — not of people of color but of being shot. In 2012, 30 cops were killed in the line of duty.

We have a gun problem and need sensible gun control reform; as Matthew Yglesias writes, “This is true if you think Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson should have been found guilty of a crime. But in many ways it’s even more true if you think he’s innocent of any wrongdoing. A system in which legal police shootings of unarmed civilians are a common occurrence is a system that has some serious flaws.”

The rub? The person who posted ^this^ meme is against gun control. She was posting it, no doubt, to defend the cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Ricenot to point out the fact that maybe (just *maybe*) the NRA shouldn’t be blocking legislation like California’s Senate Bill 798 — legislation that would require not-real guns (air gun, airsoft and BB) to be distinguishable (as in brightly colored) from real guns.

409 people were killed by cops in 2012, some of them children. And that’s a problem for everyone: the dead people; the families of the dead people; and the cops, some of whom have to live with mistakingly killing unarmed kids.

Think that’s just what happens? Number of shots fired by police in Britain last year? 3. Number of fatalities? 0.

2) The “breathe easy. don’t break the law” meme. This little slogan is actually a t-shirt, designed by police officer Jason Barthel.

So . . . people can breathe easy, as long as they don’t break any laws . . . but, if they DO break a law (like selling untaxed cigarettes), they may be choked to death by police, and we should be okay with that.

If you do not understand why ^this^ is problematic, please reread #5 and/or go looking for your absentee conscience.

1) The 9-11 torture meme. Whether the meme quotes Rush Limbaugh or Dick Cheney, the argument is the same: torture isn’t defined by what we do to other people (e.g. beating, rectally infusing food, shackling, water boarding, etc.) but what other people did to us on 9-11. Never mind that at least twenty-six of the people we tortured in retribution were totally innocent. Never mind that every.single.person who is giving.the.thumbs.up TO TORTURE on Facebook (at least in my circle of friends) claims to follow the teachings of a man who consistently challenged the myth of redemptive violence; as activist Shane Claiborne explains:

“[Jesus] abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight. He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed.”

Another person who shows us a way that oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed? FBI Special Agent Ali H. Soufan, or the guy who “elicited some of the most important confessions from terrorists in the war against al-Qaeda—without laying so much as a hand on them.”

To anyone giving a thumbs up to torture? You should read Soufan’s Black Banners — oh! and Jesus’s teachings too.

So ^those^ are the top (or bottom?) worst memes on Facebook at the moment. And I’ve had a couple of reactions to seeing them. My first knee-jerk reaction is to emulate my friend Mike, who wrote this oh-so-fabulous Facebook status update:

“Rather than respond to all of the disgusting comments I’m reading about the people in Ferguson, I’m just gonna do some spring cleaning on my friends list. If you’ve used the words ‘savages’ or ‘animals’ to describe the protestors/rioters/looters (whatever you want to call them), you’ve been removed. I’ll just continue to THINK racism still exists, rather than have you morons prove it to me on a daily basis. Good luck out there…..you’ll need it.”

But I’m going with the hope that those who have posted any (or all / shudder) of the five memes are confused, probably because they haven’t realized that the “thoughtful” commentary they’re hearing about these current, heartbreaking issues isn’t thoughtful commentary at all but propaganda. One way to tell the difference between a thoughtful commentator and a propagandist = their ability (or lack thereof) to empathize and identify with the “other” side.

Think Jon Stewart only goes after Christians for their silly war on Christmas? Watch him call down Freedom from Religion this past week for being just as petty.

Think Daily Beast, as a liberal news Web site, only glorifies protesters and vilifies cops? Read Michael Daly slam certain NYC protestors on Saturday for insulting Detective Larry DePrimo and Officer Conor McDonald, two men who he calls “civic treasures.”

Watch John freaking McCain address the CIA torture report with Jon Stewart applauding him.

And then, for Christ’s sake (which is not blasphemous — b/c I mean, literally, for the sake of Jesus and his Golden Rule), look at all.the.people who share this planet with you, give them the benefit of the doubt (i.e. actually listen to what they have to say), and then reevaluate your position (which, I promise, will not kill you).

Or, at the very least, stop being such a shitty person on Facebook.

Talking Racism and Reconciling History

My fingers have been been itching to write one of my vent-posts since Mike Brown’s tragic shooting on August 9th in Ferguson, MO. August is a difficult month for writing, between an annual summer trip (to, of all places, MO), two family birthdays, and the always hectic start of the school term.

So, I’ve shared things, rather than write them; I’ve had conversations; and I’ve been especially grateful for friends who have picked up the figurative pen (kudus, especially, to friend Elizabeth Broadbent, whose amazing blog post went viral).

As is often the case in such tragedies, those of us who feel sick to our stomach at the thought of losing yet another young black man are sickened further by the response of those who say:

“Look at that photo — Mike Brown, looking all innocent and young. I want to see a more recent photo, of the huge, scary man he was.” < yep, that’s an actual quote

or

“They’re not talking about the fact that he’s a thief!” < and another actual quote

or

“Poor Officer Wilson. They’re really wanting to crucify him.” < and another actual quote

or

“Have you seen Mike Ojo’s ice bucket challenge? He’s black and he tells other black people that they should pull up their pants and stop looking like criminals, if they don’t want to get shot on the street. If you ask me, Mike Ojo is a smart young man.” < apparently, this ice bucket challenge has 30,000 Facebook shares.

The retorts to such statements roll easily enough off the tongue. You’re not allowed to shoot a person, because you think he looks “huge” and “scary.” You’re not allowed to shoot a person, even if he stole something. (I remember watching Disney’s Aladdin as a kid and shrinking back in horror at Princess Jasmine’s near loss of her hand as punishment for theft. I was grateful that we don’t have punishments like that here, not realizing at the time that young black men sometimes get much, much worse).

We should be able to trust our officers, trained professionals, to keep their temper and fear in check and to neither instigate nor escalate fights with the civilians they’ve sworn to protect (e.g. an officer may get angry at the teenager who punches him in the face, but that officer should not retaliate by putting a bullet through the teenager’s head). And, rather than dubbing a young black man “smart” for urging other young black men to dress differently in order to be perceived differently, we should rail against the fact that people of color have to live by a set of rules [that includes the bagginess (or lack thereof) of one’s pants] in order to freaking survive. This, of course, is reminiscent of the equally wrong “don’t wear a miniskirt if you don’t want to get raped” argument — another classic example of blaming the victim.

As sickening as these racist comments are, I expected them, especially since so many of them are parroted back and forth between Fox News pundits. What I didn’t expect were the comments I received both publicly and privately on Facebook, after posting an article about a brilliant video, entitled “See The Stripes [Clemson University]: A Poem by A.D. Carson,” recently nominated for the University of South Carolina Museum of Education’s Charles and Margaret Witten Award for Distinguished Documentary Film in Education.

A.D. Carson’s poem, and the accompanying video, convey both his (overall positive) experience as a young black student at Clemson University and also his fervent wish that Clemson University will one day own its complete history (i.e. the ‘university grounds as plantation, peopled by slaves’ part of its history). Carson argues that we’re better and stronger by acknowledging “the stripes” — the good and the bad. Most, if not all, institutions only highlight the good moments, and it would be nice if that wasn’t the commonplace or the expectation. Imagine if, instead, institutions of higher learning were encouraged to educate current and prospective students more responsibly, to model thoughtful discussion of difficult topics, to discuss how to create better futures by learning from past mistakes.

Facebook friends, both conservative and liberal, denigrated Carson’s argument, insisting that he should be celebrating his university rather than airing particularly old and dirty laundry. At first, I thought they misunderstood. I always forget that Clemson (of which they’re alums) and USC (of which I’m an alum) are “rivals.” I’ve been at USC for over a decade and have never been to a football game. I drive an orange car (Clemson color) with a paw print (that’s meant to be a dog’s but could just as easily be the Clemson tiger’s). I half-heartedly stuck a USC sticker on the car when my students complained, but — really — I affiliate myself with institutions of higher learning, because I value education, regardless of the color (orange or garnet) through which it’s filtered.

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^ that’s my “solid orange” car in the background ^

My friend and colleague, Graham Stowe, thought they misunderstood too, and hastened to explain: “This isn’t a case of ‘USC people’ bashing Clemson . . . Both schools have a tendency to whitewash (pun intended) the more despicable parts of our history. Why can’t both schools become leaders on this? There are smallish projects on this happening, but why not make these things center pieces of our stories? Can’t reconciliation with our own history be part of healing and good for these important public institutions?”

Yes.

Because here’s the thing:

Racism.

It’s a problem, and it’s at least partly a problem, because we ignore talking about things that embarrass us. Example: I was watching the John Adams series, and I was shocked by the image (in Episode 6) of the White House being built by underfed slaves. And then I felt like an idiot. OF COURSE it was built by underfed slaves. But that’s not anything I ever heard on the tour when I visited DC as a child, and that did a disservice not only to me (by limiting my understanding) but also to all those earlier lives — lives that *mattered* and that should be remembered and honored.

The White House is beautiful, as is the Horseshoe at USC, as are the buildings that make up Clemson university. But we neither talk about the African-American artisans who contributed to their beauty nor the fact that they were able to do so under unimaginably trying circumstances.

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^ a happy, recent DC duck tour, in which I did not hear about slaves building the White House ^

I can’t help but think that this omission, this erasure of others’ humanity, has a chilling effect. You see it in “blackface” parties, like the one Clemson alum, Coby DuBose describes; or in the fact that within walking distance of USC’s campus, the confederate flag still flies in front of the South Carolina State House.

Making slave narratives a centerpiece of our university stories may not put an immediate end to “blackface” parties, and the confederate flag may still fly for awhile, but as more and more incoming students hear the voices of previously silenced people of color, and understand how devoted we are to hearing and appreciating those voices, I suspect that they’ll be less likely to ignore and/or ridicule. Enough of Gilderoy Lockhart, university edition. Let’s be honest, transparent, and thoughtful about our histories, please.

This and this = a good start.

Why the Hobby Lobby Case is NOT a “Pro-life” Victory — despite what Conservative Christians Might Claim

Since the Supreme Court struck a decisive blow against women’s reproductive rights last Monday — by granting Hobby Lobby exemption from providing emergency contraception (Plan B and Ella) and IUDs (both the hormonal and copper variety) as part of employee healthcare coverage, my Facebook Newsfeed has been awash with conservative Christians celebrating a “pro-life” victory.

When a friend and I bemoaned the ruling, one of these conservative Christians responded: “So you’re in favor of abortion?” — to which I replied, “The National Center for Health Statistics published a study that showed contraceptive use (including emergency contraception and IUDs) decreased by a third the number of abortions in two decades; so, actually, those on the side of Hobby Lobby seem to be the ones ‘in favor of abortion.'”

Not to say that I don’t believe that women should have access to legal and safe abortion. I do.

Even most conservatives admit that in some cases — incest, rape, and when the mother’s life is in danger — they do too. In those instances, most want access to a safe, legal abortion, and one without judgment, for their sisters, wives, and daughters.

What they don’t realize: the rhetoric they use when discussing abortion, rife with judgment, makes even those instances for which they’d make exceptions less likely to end well for the mother involved.

Mikki Kendall writes eloquently about her harrowing ordeal, when she experienced a placental abruption at 20 weeks and was denied a life-saving abortion by the attending doctor; thankfully a concerned nurse called in another doctor willing to perform the surgery:

“I don’t know if [the attending doctor’s] objections were religious or not; all I know is that when a bleeding woman was brought to him for treatment he refused to do the only thing that could stop the bleeding. Because he didn’t do abortions. Ever.

My two kids at home almost lost their mother because someone decided that my life was worth less than that of a fetus that was going to die anyway. My husband had told them exactly what my regular doctor said, and the ER doctor had already warned us what would have to happen. Yet none of this mattered when confronted by the idea that no one needs an abortion. You shouldn’t need to know the details of why a woman aborts to trust her to make the best decision for herself. I don’t regret my abortion, but I would also never use my situation to suggest that the only time another woman should have the procedure is when her life is at stake. After my family found out I’d had an abortion, I got a phone call from a cousin who felt the need to tell me I was wrong to have interfered with God’s plan. And in that moment I understood exactly what kind of people judge a woman’s reproductive choices.”

What kind of people judge a woman’s reproductive choices? The kind that value potential life over living women.

If the goal is — as it should be — to make abortions safe, legal, and rare (b/c let’s just be honest and admit that no one gets excited about having a surgical procedure, please), contraception is key. Again: contraceptive use decreased by a third the number of abortions in two decades.

So, let’s talk contraception. Every major medical institution disagrees with the claim that contraception — even emergency contraception — causes an abortion. Jill Filipovic, a feminist writer recently hired by Cosmopolitan to tackle more serious issues in the women’s magazine, explains:

“The medical definition of pregnancy is when a fertilized egg implants into the uterus (more than half of all fertilized eggs naturally flush out the body, never resulting in pregnancy). Once an egg implants, Plan B and Ella cannot dislodge it or end a pregnancy.

This gets into some sticky territory, because the position taken by Hobby Lobby and many people who oppose emergency contraception is that life begins at fertilization, not implantation, and Plan B and Ella may interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg. Even if we accept that definition of pregnancy and abortion . . . there is no evidence that emergency contraception prevents implantation of a fertilized egg. Instead, it primarily works the way standard birth control does: By inhibiting ovulation and thickening cervical mucus so sperm can’t pass through. Fifth-grade sex ed was a long time ago, so a quick refresher: Pregnancy doesn’t happen immediately after ejaculation. It takes some time for the sperm to swim up into the fallopian tubes, and an egg has to be released to meet the sperm. Sperm can live in the female body for up to five days, and an unfertilized egg can sit in the tube for several days as well. That’s why emergency contraception works even a day or two after sex. Even after the sperm have been released, it can make it harder for them to get past the cervix, and then it can prevent an egg from being available for fertilization . . .

As for IUDs, the copper ones work essentially by killing off sperm before they reach the egg, and according to the latest, most reliable research, neither copper nor other IUDs affect implantation of a fertilized egg. Now, copper IUDs can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting if they’re inserted up to five days after unprotected sex, but the number of women who actually use IUD insertion as a form of emergency contraception is slim to none, given that the cost of the device and insertion can reach $1,000 and requires a doctor’s visit (which is exactly why it’s so important that IUDs be covered by insurance).”

There are those (I’m looking at you, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar) who refuse to use any contraceptive pill for fear that an egg will be fertilized and then unable to implant — although there is no way of knowing if and when that happens. Still, it’s their right to refuse birth control. The problem is when they, or other conservative Christians who believe as they do, try to limit the rights of other women to make their own reproductive choices.

The other problem? Hypocrisy. 

afternoon-visitSo often the people who fight so hard to limit women’s reproductive choices do not, themselves, offer to raise any of the unwanted or uncared for children in the world (there were 140+ children in my daughter’s Kazakhstan orphanage alone, and there’s an estimated 150,000,000+ orphans worldwide).

Most in my hometown community (proudly conservative and Christian!) reacted to our decision to adopt in one of the following three ways:

(1) my mother tells a family member, “Scott and Nicole are adopting!” and the family member replies with a gasp and “What? They can’t have their own!” (2) my grandmother tells her friend, “Scott and Nicole are adopting!” and the friend replies with a gasp and “What does her mother think?” (3) my mother tells her friend, “Scott and Nicole are adopting from overseas!” and the friend replies, “What if the baby has AIDS?”

I got a response similar to the AIDS one (but with FAS as the disease/syndrome of choice). Mom and I responded to both comments by reminding our respective naysayers that I would, in fact, become a parent with more info than most (e.g. a full medical workup and report) – to which my mother’s friend replied, “Well be careful – because they will lie to you over there.”

My mother’s friend, so critical of those people “over there,” probably couldn’t have picked out Kazakhstan on a map. At this point, though, Mom was more seasoned to such responses and said, sarcastically: “Well, then . . . if the baby has AIDS, I guess we’ll just put him on a boat and send him back.”

What do you do if  . . .? Why wasn’t the answer obvious? — especially to so-called “pro-lifers.”

And more hypocrisy. So often the people who fight so hard to limit women’s reproductive choices — especially LOW INCOME women’s reproductive choices — get royally pissed off when these same low income women have children who need to be supported through the welfare system. If they believe, as Michelle Duggar does, that “saying there are too many children is like saying there are too many flowers,” they should jump at the chance to help any woman willing and able to bring a child/flower into the world with the caring of it afterwards.

To believe otherwise is pro-birth but not pro-life.

The final problem? A misunderstanding of both science and Christianity. 

What’s most alarming about the Hobby Lobby ruling is that it privileges religious belief over science in a way that affects the medical well-being of others. And it’s dishonest, because — even playing by their own rules (i.e. “The Bible says!”) — conservative Christians lose, because for every Psalms 139 and Jeremiah 1 (the “knitting in the womb” type passages) there is a Genesis 2 (in which man becomes “a living being” with first breath), an Exodus 21 (in which the fetus is not equal to the life of a woman), and Leviticus 27 (in which God tells Moses only to count as people those one month old and older).

Again, and again, and again — in issues of marriage equality as well as in issues of women’s reproductive rights, and more — we’re reminded of the fact that the Bible is contradictory, and rightly so: it’s a reflection of humanity’s search for and understanding of God, and reading it requires that we make interpretive choices about both God and morality. And those choices are our own, not to be imposed on others.

It’s time for a more grown up, sophisticated understanding of faith. Those who are still trying to hold on to Biblical literalism are no doubt thinking, “Mark 10! Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

So, we shall practice making interpretive choices. Maybe Jesus isn’t talking about heaven/the afterlife — because, you know, he was interested in establishing a kingdom of God not in heaven but on earth (a la the Lord’s Prayer). Maybe he’s suggesting that the way to make earth a more just, heavenly place is to accept those around you as they are, without judgment or prejudice — to have faith that most people are genuinely good and trying to do the best they can.

Or I suppose you can take “the faith like a child” thing more literally (i.e. that you should be like a child and think about complex issues simply). But, if you decide to keep a theological outlook that’s so stunted, at least do the rest of us a favor and remember that children are neither interested in nor capable of deciding political issues.

 

Things Responsible Gun Owners Understand: A Top 5 List

Since my last blog post, I’ve engaged in a number of conversations, both public and private, about America’s epidemic of gun violence. And those conversations were so encouraging that I’ve decided to write a top-five list of things responsible gun owners seem to understand.

(5) If every gun owner in America is in a theoretical gun club, responsible gun owners realize it’s a club that should be more, not less, exclusive. They always take an extra few sentences in conversation to say how they store their guns (e.g. separately from the bullets, in a safe, etc.), and they don’t balk at the idea of having to take safety classes — because they’ve likely already elected to do so if they weren’t required.

They’re deeply offended by the idea that so many people abuse the right or privilege to bear arms and believe (correctly, no doubt) that if the club were more exclusive, gun owners would be more respected if only for the fact that being a gun owner would be earned — a badge, if you will, of accomplishment.

(4) Responsible gun owners don’t fear: background checks or reference checks or waiting periods or registration or physical/mental exams or smart gun technology or the government.

They say, “bring it.”

They can pass a background check, because they don’t have a criminal record; they invite a reference check, because they have more family members and friends to vouch for them than they could ever possibly need; they don’t mind a waiting period, because they don’t need a gun to settle last night’s dispute; they’ll register their gun, because they *want* to be on record as the owner who uses it responsibly (alternately, they want the authorities to be able to find it if it’s stolen); they can pass a physical and mental exam, because they’re physically and mentally capable of handling a dangerous weapon; they don’t fear smart gun technology, because they support advances designed to prevent children pulling triggers; they don’t fear the government, because they understand that they are the government.

They welcome the opportunity to make buying guns at least as difficult as having a pet (many cities require you to register dogs) or driving a car (think: testing, licensing, registering, servicing, renewing).

They know that other countries (England, Australia, etc.) have many more restrictions and much less gun violence than we do, and yet: responsible gun owners still have guns. Farmers and ranchers in Australia have guns. Collectors and target shooters and hunters in England have guns.

Responsible gun owners in America know that this will be the situation here too, that — if it’s not — the very gun control advocates they’ve stood beside will stand beside them, vouch for them, and fight for their rights.

(3) Responsible gun owners don’t need to own weapons of war: military style assault rifles and high capacity magazines. They are willing to sacrifice personal ownership of these types of guns for public safety. They know that they can enjoy these particular weapons in a more secure environment, like gun/shooting clubs.

They know that seconds matter, because they remember that Christina Taylor Green (the one child fatality in Tucson) was killed by the 13th bullet; that Jared Lee Loughner’s spree ended when he paused to reload another 33 round magazine; that if Loughner had paused after a 10 (rather than 33) round magazine, Christina would probably still be here.

(2) Responsible gun owners know that the NRA is no longer an organization that they should support, that it’s rotten to the core. They’ve withdrawn their membership, if they were ever members in the first place. They may have been members at one time, when this Wayne La Pierre was spokesperson:

But they cannot, in good conscience, be a member when this Wayne La Pierre is spokesperson:

They recognize the lie: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” — because they know that 61-year-old Patricia Maisch stopped Jared Lee Loughner by wrestling away his ammunition magazine and that Jon Meis stopped the Seattle shooter with pepper spray.

Responsible gun owners don’t have guns to stop bad guys. They have guns for hunting, for recreation, and yes — for self-defense and home protection, but not for gun battles.

If someone sends them a link to the NRA online membership page, they have only to see: “[any and all regulation] ends with an outright ban on your guns!!!!” to know that the organization as a whole is as credible as the forward that claims Obama wasn’t born in the United States or  _____ (fill in the blank: the Holocaust, 9/11, Sandy Hook) didn’t really happen!!!! Yes — those forwards probably have four exclamation marks too.

(1) Responsible gun owners know an America that markets bulletproof backpacks is not one  in which we want to live.

We don’t want our children just to survive a gun battle. That’s not good enough. We don’t want them to be in a gun battle in the first place.

Many (maybe even most?) responsible gun owners have children. And they’re profoundly effected and troubled by this fact: when Bianca de Kock was shot five times by Elliot Rodgers — when she was on the ground, bleeding, by her two dead sorority sisters — she was so sure she was going to die that she didn’t call 911. She called her mother.

Responsible gun owners imagine that they’re the parent on the other end of the line, wanting but unable to call 911 (because: how can you interrupt your possibly-dying child? You can’t. You hang on to every word of goodbye, every word of love).

And when the nightmare ends, responsible gun owners say: not one more.

Conversations about Guns on a Cross Country Train

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My 4-year old son is obsessed with trains and always has been. We keep waiting for the next phase. After talking to other parents, we expected his obsession to move from Thomas the Train to Lighting McQueen. He watched the Cars movies, but his obsession moved from Thomas the Train to real trains on Youtube. So, when our South Carolina family received an invitation to a wedding in Vancouver, Washington, and when I realized that only Jack and I would be able to go, I knew that we had to take a cross country train.

He was on board, to say the least.

We booked a room in a sleeping car, which is the way to go, especially for such a long trip: we had two fold-out beds and all of our dining car meals were included in the price.

If you’ve ever been on such a long train trip, you’ll know that you always make friends in the dining car, if you’re a party of one or two. Since it’s a challenge for the wait staff to serve on a moving train, they group passengers into sets of four for full-table seating.

I especially enjoyed this, since it was my main opportunity on the train to have conversations with adults while Jack happily colored in his antique trains coloring book. Because of a recent string of mass shootings (Isla Vista, Seattle, and Oregon), the conversation inevitably turned to America’s epidemic of gun violence. A summary of those conversations is as follows:

Conversation #1, over breakfast, with Marissa (a gun-owning Math professor from North Dakota):

Marissa: “There is no way to stop people intent on mass murder from murdering. If they can’t get a gun, they’ll get something else.”

Me: “Of course.”

Marissa: “But, there are ways to make gun deaths less likely, and I’m all for that. We like guns, so it would be annoying. I mean: I have to take Sudafed, and it’s annoying to get it, because of the regulation. But the number of meth labs in our area decreased dramatically when pharmacies started regulating Sudafed. So it’d be worth it.”

Me: “For the sake of public safety?”

Marissa: “Yeah.”

Me: “You know there are some countries [England, Japan, Canada, and Australia] that require third party references from family and friends before allowing a person to purchase a gun.”

Marissa: “That’s a great idea.”

Me: “There is no way Elliot Rodger’s family would have ‘okay-ed’ him buying a gun. And he didn’t have any friends. Nancy Lanza probably would have been cool with Adam Lanza buying one though.”

Marissa: “Well if it had stopped even one of those, it’s worth it.”

Conversation #2, over dinner, with Gordy and Cathy (retirees from Wisconsin):

Gordy: “I can’t talk about this much, because it’s too upsetting, but: why do people get to buy hollow-point bullets — like those that were used on those poor kids in Newtown — and such high caliber guns?”

Me: “I think the NRA would argue: for self-defense. That said, the Seattle shooter was stopped with pepper spray, so there are other ways — including guns that aren’t weapons of war and such a huge public safety hazard.”

Gordy: “Right.”

Me: “You know, some people were using California’s strict gun laws as an example of how mass murders still happen. But one writer I read pointed out how much worse it would have been had Elliot Rodger easily been able to buy an assault weapon or even a high capacity magazine.”

Gordy: “Yeah — and it should be even harder, because people in states with strict gun laws can just travel to states with lax gun laws.”

Conversation #3, over breakfast, with PJ (a gun club member from Australia):

Me: “You’re from Australia! I don’t know if you watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but he sent John Oliver, one of his correspondents, to Australia to interview your former Prime Minister, John Howard, about his gun control legislation.”

PJ: “Yeah — we had a horrible mass shooting in Port Arthur, so we passed massive gun control reform, including a ban on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and haven’t had any massacres since.”

Me: “Did you support the reform?”

PJ: “Absolutely. I’m a gun owner and a member of a gun club, and I’m happy with the changes. We have depressed teenagers, and we have mentally ill people, just like America does. The difference is that they don’t have guns. I don’t understand why America can’t do something similar. I suppose you’ll need to rewrite the Second Amendment?”

Me: “I don’t think we’d have to rewrite it necessarily — just acknowledge its historical context. The founders were writing about muskets, for example, not assault rifles and high capacity magazines.”

PJ: “One of the things we did that worked really well was gun buyback programs. People were getting more money for their guns than they paid for them in the first place.”

Conversation #4, over dinner, with Armando and Nancy (an engineer and an accounting professor from the Philippines):

This conversation is impossible to transcribe, because Armando and Nancy stared in blank horror when I explained one of my reasons for withdrawing Arina from the rural SC private school she was attending — b/c, only a few months after the Sandy Hook school shooting — Arina’s school thought this was a good idea:

RAFFLE

to benefit HOLLY HILL ACADEMY sponsored by: Carson’s Gun Repair

12 GUAGE CZ USA WINGSHOOTER DELUX O/U SHOTGUN with Handmade Walnut Carrying Case ($1500 Value)

Drawing to be held: April 23, 2013

at HHA Baseball Game – 7th Inning

Cost: $5.00 per ticket Presence not required to win

Armando and Nancy live in a country with restrictive firearm policies, where only 64 people died from gun violence in 2006 (the last recorded statistic on gunpolicy.org). They invited me then and there to visit them in the Philippines.

These conversations are simultaneously encouraging and frustrating: encouraging, because both gun owners and non-gun owners alike recognized the need to do something (these weren’t people of the Gun Owners of America variety, a group that boasts it is a “no-compromise national guns right organization”). Indeed, Marissa and PJ seemed to hold gun ownership as a high honor and were offended that guns so often fall into the hands of people who abuse what they see as more of a privilege than a right.

Frustrating, because after such hopeful, uplifting conversations, I log onto the Internet and find too many examples of the “no-compromise” variety, people extolling gun rights while demonizing abortion in truly stunning displays of hypocrisy — in which one is pro-life before life, in love with the potentiality, but not pro-life enough to do something about the shooting deaths of 20 school children, when that potentiality has very much become reality. These people aren’t pro-life; they’re only pro-birth.

The loudest voices against real reform are still ironically Christian ones — those who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, a pacifist, the man who disarmed his disciple and who undermined the myth of redemptive violence.

A Bible verse that pops up frequently in my Facebook newsfeed is Matthew 25:21, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” along with the expressed hope that whoever-posted-it will hear those words “on the day of judgement.”

Whenever I see that verse, I see the faces of all those children from the Sandy Hook shooting, and I think that rather than doing well, too many of us have done and continue to do very, very poorly.

Demand reform: not one more.

Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please watch Dallas Buyers Club, since you liked McConaughey’s speech so much.

When I logged onto my Facebook newsfeed after the Academy Awards this past Sunday, I was surprised/not surprised to see the Christian evangelicals with whom I grew up in my small, conservative town delighting over Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar acceptance speech, specifically this part:

“Now, first off, I want to thank God, because that’s who I look up to. He’s graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.”

I’m not surprised, obviously, that Christian evangelicals like this part, because . . . well . . . McConaughey says flattering things about God, of whom they’re big fans.

A sampling of the headlines/status updates being shared (and obsessively “liked” or “amen-ed”) include: “A Real Man thanks God 1st — Oscar recipients take note! Thank you Matthew McConaughey for reminding everyone how it’s done” from http://www.godfruits.com

and

“INCREDIBLE . . . COURAGEOUS . . . TRULY INSPIRATIONAL . . . About the best Oscar Acceptance Speech ever” from a status update.

I’m surprised, because among those lauding Matthew McConaughey are the most antigay “Christians” around — and I’m including Rush Limbaugh and Rick Perry in that count. Obviously, they haven’t seen the film and know nothing about the role with which God “graced [McConaughey’s] life.”

Because here’s the thing (spoiler alerts to follow): McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a homophobic cowboy who — after discovering he has AIDS — is rejected by his homophobic community. This is 1985 Texas, after all, and both Woodruff and his “friends” at the time had thought of AIDS as a gay-only condition; the latter become “suspicious” of Woodruff after his diagnosis and consequently drive him away: from his favorite bars, from his home, from his work — from life, as he knows it.

What begins as a struggle for Woodruff’s own self-preservation ends as a struggle on behalf of the AIDS-afflicted community that embraces him and that he learns to embrace (literally) in return.

The film traces his progression from point A (a beer-guzzling, womanizing member of the straight community, because — apparently — being a spectator of girl-on-girl action is “hot”/cough/hypocrisy); to point B (someone who is willing, though reluctant, to share space with a transsexual, depicted visually as he and Jared Leto’s character sit at opposite ends of a park bench); to point C (someone who, in becoming marginalized himself, discovers a more authentic community — one defined by acceptance and love and sacrifice, depicted visually as one of the most touching embraces in film history).

Once he learns the value of this community, he becomes not only willing but also passionate about fighting for it, on both a local level (if you see one clip from Dallas Buyers Club, do yourself a favor and watch the following — here, with director’s commentary)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxB1IlEr-fk

and a national one. The truth is: he defies a federal government actively ignoring/demonizing AIDS in order to save the lives of people who are declared expendable (just watch the trailer; you’ll get the idea):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4NKMAyZ8GU

Since Sunday, some Christian evangelicals have learned the plot of Dallas Buyers Club on their own. The result? Blog posts like “Matthew McConaughey is Not My Hero,” in which a Christian blogger claims the movie “poisons the hearts and minds of our men, women, and young people.” Some seem embarrassed to have praised him; others defend his acceptance speech, still, as praiseworthy, while shaking their heads about the role. Marty Duran, a blogger for The Christian Post, decides that McConaughey is probably a “young believer,” and as such, will surely “grow” and then stop making movies like Dallas Buyers Club. sigh.

Another possibility: McConaughey’s spirituality inspired him to make Dallas Buyers Club in the first place, since defending, loving, and protecting the marginalized was the modus operandi of the historical Jesus (see the “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees” for his epic takedown of the religious elite; see his life for his affirmation of “the least of these”). Whatever the case, McConaughey has made perfectly clear where he stands on gay rights: “You know, I have some good friends of my own who happen to be gay, and when it comes to gay, straight, or whatever, I’m for anything life-affirmative. I’m for gay power, straight power, male power, female power; everybody should feel empowered without oppressing anyone who’s different. You know those World Cup banners about tolerance? I always thought that was one short. No, don’t just tolerate me. Understand and accept me.”

Matthew: amen.

And dear Christian evangelicals (you too Rush Limbaugh and Rick Perry): may the man you so admire for his Oscar acceptance speech introduce you to the most wonderful people with whom you may be unfamiliar — those in the LGBT community. Perhaps you’ll be open-hearted and open-minded enough to repeat what an octogenarian said to Jared Leto, after seeing the film:

“I don’t really know these people but I’m glad that I do now.”

Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please Get Over Yourselves. Thanks.

Based on my Facebook Newsfeed the latest thing driving many Christian evangelicals to distraction is . . . the Grammys. Apparently, Natalie Grant, who was nominated for two gospel Grammy awards, walked out, because — surprise! — not all of the songs/performances were of the gospel/conservative variety. This isn’t what she said, of course. What she said was that she had “many thoughts” about the awards show, “most of which are probably better left inside [her] head,” and that she’s “never been more honored to sing about and for Jesus” — the implication, of course, is that singing about and for Jesus is becoming rare despite the fact that (1) there are hundreds of thousands of choirs in churches that sing about and for Jesus every Sunday and (2) doing so (i.e. “singing about and for Jesus”) has made Grant a very wealthy woman (i.e. not destitute b/c an unpopular career choice).

Natalie Grant walking out of the Grammys = Christian evangelicals claiming her as their bff. And so begins the speculation about which “shockingly unChristian” performances deserve the loudest protest. Some go straight for the opening number: the “shockingly unChristian” Beyoncé/Jay-Z performance, in which the two performers — a married couple — are very . . . ahem . . . into each other.

In response, Alyssa Rosenberg took to thinkprogress to argue: “if conservatives want to sell Americans on marriage, maybe they have to talk more about the bliss half of wedded bliss, to think about the desire part of making marriage desirable . . . the smartest thing they could do right now is to hire Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a product spokescouple.”

As the always-brilliant Natalie Leppard points out, the argument is null and void, in a way, since Beyoncé and Jay-Z are first and foremost performers. The song doesn’t purport to be about Christian marriage nor does the fact that they’re singing it mean that it’s about their marriage, any more than Robert Browning penning “My Last Duchess” means that he wanted to murder Elizabeth Barrett Browning (I had to explain this to a student once).

Still, I’m simultaneously horrified and thankful that such debates are happening, since they expose slut-shaming and victim-blaming rhetoric (the horrified-part), thereby giving us the opportunity to challenge it (the thankful-part).

Complaint #1: “I’m angry, because my children wanted to watch the Grammys, and I had to turn the channel.”

Response #1: The Grammys aren’t marketed to children. If children are old enough to be up at 8:00pm and beyond to watch the Grammys, they should be old enough to handle the conversations the songs and performances provoke.

Complaint #2: “I’m angry, because Beyoncé and Jay-Z are making people lust and therefore hurting them.”

Response #2: Don’t watch the Grammys if it makes you lust, and you think lust is bad — but don’t argue that because the Grammys makes you lust, it shouldn’t exist in the world.

Complaint #3: “I’m angry, because it’s Beyoncé’s responsibility, as a woman, to be modest and therefore prevent men from lusting.” (Dear Reader: I. kid. you. not.)

Response #3: Note the move to dangerous “blame the victim” territory here, just a step away from: “if a woman dresses ‘provocatively,’ she’s making a man ‘lust after’ her and is partly to blame for her rape.”

Also note: the Taliban makes ^this^ argument for burqas.

Fact: Women in burqas get raped too. You *never* blame the victim.

Even playing by their own rules (e.g. quoting Matthew 5:28), Christian evangelicals are wrong, and their argument (perhaps more than any other I’ve come across) evinces a misunderstanding of both Jesus the man and Jesus’s teachings.

As Matthew Skinner, Associate Professor of the New Testament at Luther Seminary, argues in “The Parables: Understanding Jesus’s Strange Good News,”

“Most of Jesus’ parables include a preposterous element or two. Someone apparently unaware of cost-benefit analysis leaves 99 sheep alone and vulnerable in the wilderness to look for one that got away. The reign of God grows from a tiny seed not into a magnificent cedar but into a mustard shrub, an invasive plant — certain to stick around but a serious nuisance to our carefully planned landscaping priorities. A father whose son has utterly disgraced him not only welcomes the loser home but spots him from a distance and runs to embrace him. (Dignified men did not run in antiquity. At least, not unless they were in athletic contests. Or something was chasing them.)

That is, there’s always something a little off in these parables. The parables are not mere moralisms, exhorting people to tidy up their lives. They are ways for Jesus to announce realities about life with God that are at once familiar (his listeners knew well how it goes with losing sheep) and radically different (absurd, from the perspective offered by conventional wisdom). Those are the places for our imaginations to linger and consider what kinds of comparisons the parables encourage us to draw between our status quo and the desires of God.

A shepherd who walks away from 99 sheep in the wilderness to locate one is irresponsible, a fool. Could it be that God’s commitment to humanity is so all-encompassing that it appears recklessly obsessive, utterly frustrating to our typical methods of moral and religious calculation?

A parent eager to forgive a wayward child is a welcome sight if you’re the one who’s returning home, but the neighbors will grumble about the dangerous consequences stemming from authority figures who behave so indulgently. Could it be that God’s willingness to forgive and restore is so overwhelming that God will risk the chance of being made to look like a chump?

Jesus’ parables are supposed to be weird. Their atypical elements are supposed to rattle us — not simply because strangeness possesses motivational shock-value, but because what Jesus announces is genuinely unsettling.

The parables, like a poem wielding a poignant metaphor, rouse our creativity from the patterns imposed by normal expectations, especially religious ones. Jesus’ parables make us consider life and our place in it differently. They make us dream of outcasts getting seats at lavish banquets, and the trouble this can cause.

Their point isn’t to summon us to the heights of a single, otherworldly meaning. In lively and even uncontrollable ways, Jesus’ parables prompt us to imagine how God, in the here and now, surprises and even subverts our regular perspectives and convictions about what’s possible.

And all this usually strikes people as rather absurd.”

In this particular Facebook debate, Christian evangelicals use Matthew 5:28 to argue that “anyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So . . . we as women shouldn’t make it so easy for men to lust after us.”

No.

Here, Jesus is doing what he does best. According to the context, the religious leaders of the day were wanting to stone women for adultery and allow men to divorce their wives on a whim (thereby leaving them destitute). Jesus turns their judgment on its head by saying that if you so much as *think* lustfully, you’ve committed adultery.

This would have struck his audience then and should strike us now as absurd. To be condemned not for action but thought? It’s Minority Report:

Sexual desire is essentially human, and Jesus knew that. He was making everyone “guilty,” thereby exonerating accused women. In creating a situation where no one could throw stones, he was defending women, protecting them, saving their lives — NOT condemning them.

Fast forward to 2014 and his acts of compassion and mercy are being used for condemnation and judgment of women and their sexual choices — the very thing that he, in a brilliant rhetorical move, defended publicly.

In the sermon “Getting in Line Behind the Prostitutes and the Traitors,” Dr. Roger Ray admits: “I realized many years ago that the Jesus of the gospels was tolerant of everything except intolerance. He was a friend to tax collectors and sinners. He hung out with prostitutes and the rejects of society but the only people he ever insulted, yelled at or condemned were religious leaders who passed judgment on others and that is a consistent element of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

So, dear Christian evangelicals: if you want to be offended, fine. Be offended that people go to bed hungry, that children in countries devoid of child labor laws make your clothes, that an obsession with cheap meat has made animal cruelty the norm.

Otherwise, get over yourselves. After all, as my Natalie (Leppard, not Grant) says: “unlike [you], the Grammys are being gracious and not coming into [your] churches and saying, hey, you look sexually repressed, so here’s some overtly sexy stuff for you to wear now or you’re going to burn in hell. It’s all Puritanical bs.”

Amen.

Dear Christian Evangelicals: Jesus and Santa are not white; holiday is not a curse word; and Phil Robertson’s right to free speech was not violated.

It’s been an especially angry Christmas season this year.

Example #1: Every year Fox has its “War on Christmas” segments, and every year Jon Stewart has his always hilariously funny “War on Christmas” response — and, in our family at least, we look as forward to that as we do to putting up the Christmas tree. It’s cherished tradition. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Jon Stewart telling Gretchen Carlson to chill.

But, this year, the debate went further than whether or not we should be mad at Tulsa for calling its parade the holiday rather than Christmas parade. This year’s defining moment was not Gretchen Carlson, but Megyn Kelly insisting to her 10:00pm Fox News kid viewers (all zero of them) that both Santa and Jesus are white men.

To be fair, even the most conservative Christian evangelicals seem to recognize that neither the historical Jesus (from Palestine) nor the historical Saint Nicholas (from what is modern day Turkey) would be “white” according to either Carlson’s or Kelly’s definition and would probably instead, as Jon Stewart jokes, “be on the no fly list.”

Still, as my friend, Alec McLeod points out, “Facebook never disappoints,” and at least two people insisted to me that Jesus and Santa are white, and each pulled quotes from articles that *seemed* to support their points . . . until you, um, read them and discovered something else entirely.

From The Washington Post, “Reza Aslan on Jesus’s skin color: ‘Megyn Kelly is right. Her Christ is white.” In this recap of an interview between Max Fisher and religious scholar Reza Aslan, the latter differentiates between the historical Jesus (Palestinian man) and the figurative Christ (“The Christ of faith can be anything, anything that you want him to be, and has been whatever you want him to be throughout the last 2,000 years of Christian history”).

He continues: “The foundational metaphor for God in Christianity is man. What is God? Christianity tells you God is man, and so man is the metaphor for what God is in Christianity, because God became a man in the form of Jesus. How do you know, how do you define God? Think of the perfect man. God is infinitely good, infinitely caring, infinitely compassionate. God is all the greatest human attributes that you can imagine. That’s what God is. It’s a sort of a central metaphor . . . This is precisely why Christianity is the largest religion in the world. Because that central metaphor allows you to then thoroughly absorb this conception of Jesus as God into whatever your own particular understanding of humanity is.”

From The World Mysteries blog, “How many major races are there in the world?” The person who quoted this article only quoted the part that, as you discover by its conclusion, “is rooted in the European imagination of the Middle Ages, which encompassed only Europe, Africa, and the Near East.” The article, as a whole, seeks not only to undermine racial categories but also to suggest that those, like Megyn Kelly, who insist on the “whiteness” of Jesus and St. Nicholas, are evil:

“By 1871, some leading intellectuals had recognized that even using the word ‘race’ ‘was virtually a confession of ignorance or evil intent.'”

Moral: I won’t go so far as to call Megyn Kelly evil, but I do think that this particular “War on Christmas” edition is more insidious than past ones, which (1) makes talking about it important; and (2) offers an opportunity to develop/practice empathy for “the other” — b/c what both articles imply is this:

*if* the race of either Jesus or Saint Nicholas *matters* to you at all, then you should actively start imagining him as different from yourself — until it doesn’t.

Example #2: A following status popped up on my Facebook Newsfeed: “If you are tired of hearing ‘happy holidays,’ go visit Chick-fil-A! The employees are encouraged to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Praise God, finally someone who knows why we celebrate Christmas — Christ!”

Why would anyone get “tired” of receiving well wishes for happiness, despite its form? I said as much, while pointing out that even holiday has religious connotations (happy holiday = happy holy day) as does Happy/Merry Xmas, incidentally (see Greek letters/Roman alphabet/X as a symbol for the cross/etc.)

Response? Either people shouted “Merry CHRISTmas” in a nah-nah-nuh-boo-boo way, or said this: “Happy holidays? Well what holiday is it? Hanukkah is over, chances are not too many people have ever even heard of Kwanzaa, and New Year’s is not a holiday (holy day), so that only leaves Christmas.”

Moral: ^Therein^ lies the problematic philosophy of the conservative religious right — if you’re one of the few, the “not too many people” so casually dismissed above — you and your holiday and your wishes for peace on earth and goodwill towards men may as well not exist. period.

The irony is that this went down while I was at a Catholic church, enjoying a performance of Handel’s Messiah, with a Jewish friend, who got tickets for me and my husband. And I came home to a “Merry Christmas” card from my atheist friend.

Because: there is something magical about the golden rule. When you treat those who think differently from you with love and respect — when you think about what’s most appropriate for your audience and say “Happy Hanukkah!” or “Happy Kwanzaa!” or “Happy Winter Solstice!” or “Happy Holidays!” [which is the best if you don’t know, since it includes Thanksgiving to Epiphany] or “Merry Christmas!” accordingly, you’ll be treated with respect and sincere well-wishes too.

Your holiday greeting shouldn’t be about *you,* the person making the wish, but about the one who receives it. Honestly, though . . . the most common response to any of the above is: thanks! . . . because most people understand that how well wishes are “wrapped” is of as little import as the choice of paper below.

Seriously, evangelical Christians: Get a grip.

Example #3: I think everyone’s Facebook Newsfeed has been blowing up over Phil Robertson’s suspension from Duck Dynasty, after he asserted that homosexuality is the sin from whence all evil comes, after he compared gay sex to sex with animals, and after he waxed nostalgic over the good ole’ days of segregation.

His most ardent and spirited defenders are sharing a more palatable Robertson quote, in which he claims to “love all of humanity,” one that directly contradicts the way Phil just treated the GLBT and African-American communities.

Next, follows a discussion of how his free speech has been violated, because his employers decided that they want to dissociate from his comments.

Dear Phil Robertson defenders: if you’re so proud of him, why not post his image with the comments for which he was actually suspended? Why not make a t-shirt with them and wear it to church, to work, etc. — or might it be problematic to wear the following?

Robertson

You may, of course, say or wear the above to your workplace. It’s within your right. But: freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence (i.e. there are repercussions to being an ass). Also, even those who take the Bible literally, who wear WWJD bracelets, recognize that Jesus had *this* to say about homosexuality, and, for the most part, only quoted Scripture to challenge it (e.g. “You have heard it said, BUT [no]”).

Moral: I think my friend, Dr. Roger Ray, says it best in his most recent Sunday sermon:

“Most of what the Sarah Palins, Rush Limbaughs, and Bill O’Reillys are really bemoaning is the loss of an almost entirely unchallenged very white and very Christian dominant culture. They are grieving the loss of a past in which they indulge themselves in that same fantasy recently articulated by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, when black people were happy about being sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and gay people either didn’t exist or we didn’t have to pretend to be nice to them . . .

The dominant class in any country or any century can make themselves blissfully ignorant of those who are oppressed . . .

Christmas stories introduce Jesus as being someone who is going to turn the established order of the world upside down . . . in very different ways, both Matthew and Luke interpret the birth of Jesus in images that are defiant of the dominant culture . . . The angels sang to us, and even the stars line up to affirm that the weak and the powerless, the homeless, the ones who can’t afford to go to a university or a hospital: Jesus was born for us.”

In that beautiful, inclusive spirit: a very merry Christmas, happy holidays, and season’s greetings to all.

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