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A Sexual Ethic
If you’re wondering what happened to my regular weekly blogposts, they have been moved to my site http://www.DontDoesntWork.com/blog
Please join me there for a look at social justice and spirituality through a slightly different lens.
More than 12,000 condoms will be making their way to Venezuela thanks to Barbara Lee, an advocate of healthy sexual education and author of Sacred Sex, in conjunction with The Center for Biological Diversity and its Endangered Species Condoms project. Due to a crash in oil prices and resulting import restrictions, condoms in the country are nearly impossible to come by – and are being sold online for as much as $755 U.S. Dollars.
Lee was alarmed at reports that she read about this crisis and decided that she would try to do something about it. For Lee, this was not a matter of economics or politics but an issue of human rights. “Is it a problem,” Lee asked “that should be viewed through the lens of profit and loss and our usual stance of pointing fingers of blame at what we cannot control? Or is it the kind of problem we would engage in if we chose to believe that every person has the right to protect themselves from sexually transmitted disease and unplanned pregnancy?”
Lee decided this was one time that one person was going to try to make a difference. In her research, she discovered the Center for Biological Diversity and their Endangered Species Condom program. Immediately, she reached out to the Center asking if there was any way they could help support efforts to get condoms to Venezuela. The response was everything Lee could have hoped for. The Center was willing to donate 12,000 condoms and asked Lee to coordinate the effort with clinics in Venezuela. “This may have started as an economic policy issue, but when contraception is unavailable, it becomes a threat to public health, reproductive rights, families and biodiversity,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center. “While 12,000 condoms won’t be able to meet the country’s need, we hope it will help draw attention to the urgency of the situation in Venezuela.”
Coordinating this donation with an agency that could help in the distribution was key. “Our foundation wants to express its word of recognition and appreciation for the donation of such a large amount of condoms for free distribution in our sex clinics and family planning facilities here in Venezuela, “Dr. Fernando Bianco of the Psiquiatria Clinica Asociacion Civil (Civil Association of Clinical Psychiatry) said. “We are in a desperate predicament now due to the deficit of birth control in our country, and we deeply appreciate this initiative and intervention.”
In sharing this message with C3 Exchange, an inclusive spiritual community in Grand Haven, Michigan, Lee was able to quickly get the financial support needed to ship the condoms to Venezuela and complete the final piece of the puzzle. “This whole process has provided proof, says Lee, “that one person can make a significant difference. All you have to do is decide you want to. Then it’s just about connecting the dots. Together we can change the world.”
Thank you for writing this!
Rape culture is when I was six, and my brother punched my two front teeth out. Instead of reprimanding him, my mother said “Stefanie, what did you do to provoke him?” When my only defense was my mother whispering in my ear, “Honey, ignore him. Don’t rile him up. He just wants a reaction.” As if it was my sole purpose, the reason six-year-old me existed, was to not rile up my brother. It’s starts when we’re six, and ends when we grow up assuming the natural state of a man is a predator, and I must walk on eggshells, as to not “rile him up.” Right, mom?
Rape culture is when through casual dinner conversation, my father says that women who get raped are asking for it. He says, “I see them on the streets of New York City, with their short skirts and heavy makeup. Asking for it.”…
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A 36-pack of Trojan condoms now costs $755 in Venezuela. That same box costs about $21 at the Walgreens two blocks from my house. This huge markup is due to the collapse in oil prices and is exacerbated by the fact that there is also a condom shortage in Venezuela because the government is trying to save money by slashing the importation of consumer goods – like contraceptives.
There is no silver lining in this story. Venezuela has one of South American’s highest rates of HIV infection and teenage pregnancy. And abortion is illegal. That means female deaths will increase and females in school and in the work force will decrease. Johnathan Rodriguez, general director at StopHIV says, “Without condoms we can’t do anything.”
So what does any of this have to do with affluenza?
Affluenza is a hybrid word combining affluence and influenza. In short it means our pursuit of wealth is making us sick. And it’s making everyone around us sick. And it’s making the earth on which we live sick.
It is a term coined by David Wann and Thomas Naylor in 2001. Despite efforts to bring affluenza to the world’s attention, it continues to spread. It is encouraged by an advertising industry that successfully creates the desire to satisfy artificial needs. Increasing affluenza increases material inequality. And the more unequal a society, the greater the unhappiness and general well-being of its citizens.
The World Health Organization has described poverty as the greatest cause of suffering on earth. But where there is a widening disparity between the rich and the poor (such as here in the United States) health indicators are getting worse for everyone. Those indicators include life expectancy, crime, addiction, obesity, infant mortality, stroke, academic achievement, happiness and overall prosperity. And this is what most people don’t understand. These life indicators are not only worse among the poor. They are worse at every step of the economic ladder.
Mental disorders are also twice as high in industrialized nations with unequal distribution of wealth. Since May is mental illness awareness month, we should take time to understand why this is so. Affluenza leads to over-consumption, debt, and overwork and these symptoms ultimately take their toll in alienation, stress, anxiety, depression and addiction.
Inequality itself also creates stress. Inequality leads us to define ourselves and each other by referring to what we own. In the process, we end up reclassifying human beings as consumers. The measure of humanity becomes our ability to produce, consume and acquire wealth. As a result, we regularly dehumanize the poor and aggrandize the rich.
And in doing so we not only diminish who we are as people, but we also devalue our relationships with one another. Inequality breads competition. And competitive relationships are not nurturing or supportive. Instead they erode trust and create insecurity.
In addition to making us sick and making our society sick, affluenza is also making our planet sick. Our patterns of consumption are depleting our resources and destabilizing our environmental base. Usually we blame overpopulation for environmental degradation, but the environment is not being damaged in the course of meeting everyone’s needs. The damage is being caused by unequal consumption of resources.
As a nation, we spend over $14 billion a year on cosmetic surgery and it would only cost an additional $13 billion to provide basic health and nutrition to everyone in the world. We spend over $8 billion on cosmetics when another $6 billion would provide universal access to basic education around the world. We spend $11 billion on bottled water ($101B on beer) and would only need an additional $6 Billion to provide clean water and sanitation to everyone on planet earth.
And what about those condoms? We spend almost $14 billion on ice cream when for only $13 billion we could provide reproductive health for all women everywhere. Now I love my ice cream, but I don’t need it. Shouldn’t everyone have the right to protect themselves from STDs and pregnancy? Is this a matter of economics and politics or is it a human rights issue? Is it a problem we should view through the lens of profit and loss columns and our usual stance of pointing fingers of blame at what we cannot control? Or is it the kind of problem we would engage in if we chose to live a Good Life?
What if we choose to live in the GOOD world? Think about that for a minute. What if our investments weren’t in the highest yield stocks but in the highest return on human capacity? What if we invested our time, our wisdom, our abilities and our possessions in human potential and in decisions to care for and preserve the environment? What if we conducted our transactions not as much in goods as in love and compassion, while using the worldly markets of exchange to feed the hungry and uplift those in need.
Every society has a creation myth. The Judeo-Christian tradition tells the story of Adam and Even. It’s a story that can actually give us some good guidance as to our role in this world. It begins with Adam, whose name is a wonderfully playful pun. He is formed from adama, the Hebrew word for dirt. This “dirt being” comes to life when God breathes into him.
So first let’s think about what this human being represents. He is firmly connected on one side to the fertile soil of the ground and on the other side to the life force itself, the supreme energy, the divine. I love that image of humanity being firmly connected to both the ground and the divine.
And in the story we humans are right away given work to do. We are to till and to keep the garden. The Hebrew words here are “avad” and “shamar.” To “avad” means not just to work but to work “for” someone or something. The land is something we are expected to serve. Think of that for a moment – what would it mean to see ourselves as serving the land, as subordinate to the land? To put the land’s needs ahead of our own desires?
“Shamar” means to watch over, to keep, to preserve. We are to observe the land, to learn from it and about it, and to keep it from harm and violation. The ancient people who wrote this story and other creation myths of the time were primarily agrarian. They knew what it was to live in a land that was fragile and upon which they depended. They understood that all was connected in this web of life and living.
And today despite our technology, our science, our knowledge and our many advances, that hasn’t changed. Try as we might, we just can’t escape it. All of us who eat are dependent on this land and responsible for it.
Our long forgotten task has always been to meet the expectations of the land. The environmentalists have become the prophetic voice of our age as they demand we address the needs of a vulnerable earth as it struggles in the midst of our manipulation and control. A voice that urges us to remember that our survival is woven into the very survival of this earth.
I want to invite you to close your eyes and imagine for a moment. If we hadn’t forgotten our task, what might this land look like? What would it mean if we had taken seriously this instruction about our relationship to the earth? What if we had put the land first? If we had squelched our craving to control and manipulate every aspect of the world around us what would that mean?
Certainly we would not have built artificial barriers and levees to keep the earth’s life from impinging on us. Certainly we would think twice before building homes where landslides are common and forest fires regularly rage. Certainly we would have reconsidered tearing down our dunes and covering the marshlands for the sake of development. Open your eyes and look around and think about how different your surroundings might be.
There are a few examples of this kind of respect for the land left in our world although they are not easy to come by. One occurred during the tsunami of 2004. On islands full of native people where the water should have wiped out existence, no one died. These people still knew how to listen to the land and the sea. So that when they felt the tremor, they climbed to the highest parts of the trees where they safely remained as the water rose and then subsided.
It seems almost incomprehensible to us in our culture. There was nothing those people built or owned that they considered permanent. Like the Native Americans that used to roam this continent, they had a relationship with the earth, not as something to take and own, but as something to respect and care for.
I don’t think we can escape the fact that we have come to value property more than people. In the media today I hear report after report about what it will take to rebuild structures and the cost of restoring property. Estimates for rebuilding the damage in Nepal are over 10 Billion dollars. But there is very little mention of the incalculable cost of rebuilding a life or restoring a sense of security and peace to those who survive.
Can we even begin to reclaim a relationship with an earth that we believe unleashes natural disasters and catastrophes upon us? An earth that we think homeland security should be able to protect us from? An earth that we seem to view more and more as our enemy?
We seem to have forgotten that the earth is a work in progress, with earthquakes and volcanoes and cyclones and hurricanes — all churning and bringing minerals and vital resources up to the surface. We are the ones who build a habitation on shifting sands. Why do we label natural creative events as “disasters”? Because we have not yet learned to respect the on-going creative processes of the earth.
If we would move from an egocentric relationship with the world to an ecocentric relationship, our behavior would necessarily change. It would become consistent with what science tells us is necessary for the well-being of life on Earth and what psychologists are now telling us is necessary for our own well-being and peace of mind.
Affluenza is an epidemic, but it is not a life sentence. If you are suffering from: workaholism; an addiction to chaos; low self-esteem; depression; an inability to delay gratification and/or a false sense of entitlement, there is help. If you are observing the effects of climate change, loss of biodiversity, the polarization of economic classes and the loss of economic balance, there is still hope.
Affluenza can be successfully treated. The most important step is the first one — to become aware of the problem and to own our piece of it. With awareness, we can create more balanced expectations and use our money and our resources in more appropriate ways. We can consciously define ourselves as having value regardless of our income, possessions or wealth. And we can place family, friends and contentment over money when setting our goals.
Then we can take on the even bigger task of changing our own patterns of behavior and consumption. Our challenge is to no longer overconsume. To ask ourselves before every purchase: Do I need it? Do I want to dust (dry-clean or otherwise maintain) it? Could I borrow it from a friend, neighbor or family member? Is there anything I already own that I could substitute for it? When we no longer over consume, we leave more resources for others, and we have more resources of our own to share.
While researching for this week’s message, I discovered the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Condoms project. The Center uses condoms to highlight the connection between sex, population, over consumption and damage to the environment. Their condoms come in boxes that highlight threatened wildlife with slogans like, “Wrap with care, save the polar bear” and “Cover your tweedle, save the burying beetle.”
So the next thing I did was simply connect the dots. I contacted the Center about the condom shortage in Venezuela and I tracked down a doctor who lives there and is the past president of the World Sexology Association. And I’m thrilled to tell you that the Center is donating 12,000 condoms with imprints like In the sack? Save the Leatherback! And now I would like to invite you to be part of this cause or to contribute to whatever cause is on your heart these days. I want to appeal to each one of you to skip the Dairy Treat this week and donate the money you would have spent on ice cream to helping someone else. And when the sun is shining and you feel the temptation you can remember the condom that says Before it gets hotter, think of the sea otter.
One person can make a difference. Together we can change the world.
Every year we set aside one day to celebrate our mothers or miss our mothers or lament that we didn’t have more loving mothers. Some of us celebrate that we are mothers, grieve the loss of children or the inability to have ever given birth.
But Mother’s Day has not always been a sentimental Hallmark holiday. The very first Mother’s Days were attempts to organize mother’s for political reasons and social causes.
One of the first organized Mother’s Days was led by Julia Ward Howe. It was 1870 when Julia appealed to mothers to rally for peace.
This was her proclamation:
Julia’s words should hang heavy on us in this day when we continue to be steeped in violence, discrimination and war. Isn’t it time we hear her cry to protect children wherever they might live?
Mother’s Day wasn’t started as a way to celebrate moms. It was started as an attempt to rally mothers together for a cause greater than themselves – the cause of peace.
It doesn’t seem to have done the job.
This was published in the Tulsa World today. A fitting conversation to have on Mother’s Day!
Last night I had the opportunity to be participate as a panelist after screening the movie It Happened Here. This moving documentary explores sexual assault on college campuses through the personal testimonials of five survivors who transform their experiences into a springboard for change. Find a screening near you! For those of you in West Michigan, Loutit Library has a copy you can check out.
Our young people are simply inundated with adult sexual content – without being given the tools to deal with their own sexuality and the repercussions of their choices. We have traditionally framed our approach to sexuality in the context of shame based teachings. Shame is not an effective tool for experiencing healthy sexuality. If we are going to reduce sexual assault, we need to talk realistically about sex in a way the builds a foundation of self respect. People who respect themselves, do not disrespect other people.
Society is polarized between the idea that sex is a sin and sex is a sport. We need to find that healthy place where we celebrate our sexuality and treat it with moral integrity – a place I call Sextegrity.
The website Listserv.com has a compilation of terrorist fails put together by Morris M. This is one of my favorites. This is about the Colombian group FARC, a group that has nothing to do with religion. The FARC are a self-described army of peasant Marxist–Leninists with a political platform of agrarianism and anti-imperialism. They fund their operations by kidnapping and demanding ransoms, illegal mining, extortion and the production of cocaine. They’ve killed thousands during their 50-year battle with Colombia’s government. Their operatives are ruthless, brutal—and, just occasionally, hilariously incompetent.
In 2008, FARC leaders struck a deal with the Colombian government in which they were to turn over three hostages including former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and her son. The child was born while Rojas was a hostage and was now 3 years old and the government’s chief concern. The whole exchange was choreographed by the FARC leadership to be a PR triumph for the terrorists—and it probably would have been, had they not accidentally freed their key hostage two years earlier.
As zero-hour approached, it became humiliatingly clear that FARC no longer held Rojas’s son captive. One of the fighters had given the child up for adoption shortly after it had been born and somehow the leadership had failed to notice the total lack of screaming baby in their camp. Suddenly, the massive PR coup was nothing of the sort, as FARC were forced to release their other two hostages to mocking laughter instead of cheers of solidarity.
Think terrorist cells are run by a network of criminal masterminds? Think again.
Ever since September 11, 2001, we Americans have become a nation increasingly obsessed with terrorism. We wonder why we were attacked and what we can do to prevent being attacked again. We explore the causes of terrorism and debate how should respond to the next threat.
We also tend to have taken a pretty singular stance as we do so. We are the victims of terror. We are the potential casualties. And they – that group – those people – they are the threat. How shall we protect ourselves from them? That’s a convenient stance to be sure because it nicely isolates us from the problem – the role we play in this tangled web of power and corruption and desperation.
So if we are to take a more integral view of this whole messy business, perhaps we should start by asking the more fundamental question. Beyond the rhetoric and the scare tactics, just what is terrorism?
Caleb Carr, in his book “The Lessons of Terror” defines terrorism as “any form of warfare that deliberately targets a civilian population.” Terrorism is “any form of warfare that deliberately targets a civilian population.”
It’s not a particularly comfortable definition to some ears because it implies that terrorism is not only a means of individual extremists, but also something the regular military might use. And so it has. Think of Nazi Germany. Think of Cambodia. Think of Rwanda. Think of Hiroshima. Think of Iraq. Think of drone missile strikes.
Drone missile strikes from the United States to be exact. The human rights group Reprieve analyzed the available public data concerning US drone strikes. Targeted strikes aimed at 41 men have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of November 24. The Council on Foreign Relations also reports that 500 signature strikes outside the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a conservative estimate of 3674 civilians killed in these terrorist attacks. Oh sorry, I think the correct term is “collateral damage” when we’re inflicting it on others.
That’s the regular military. What about those bands of extremists? Here it is helpful to distinguish guerilla warfare from terrorism. Both guerrillas and terrorists consisted of small bands that would rise up against a more powerful enemy with quick action and fast retreat so that they could soon strike again. Both tend to work by hiding among civilians and recruiting their support. Both groups consist of the disenfranchised. Both attempt to use violence to change the status quo. But the target of their violence is very different.
While terrorists attack civilians, guerillas know the importance of strictly avoiding (or at least appearing to avoid) any such attack. By following this mandate guerrillas are able to maintain the support of their fellow citizens – even their admiration for the brave work they do. As a result there are many examples of successful guerrilla campaigns.
Terrorists, on the other hand, use civilians intentionally as targets. The goal is to instill fear. Because they fail to show concern for the people, the citizens blame the terrorists both for their actions and for the retaliation that often comes at their expense. This is why eventually, Carr maintains, terrorism always fails.
Here’s an example: US citizens are killed when planes become terrorist missiles that slam into the World Trade Towers – the world immediately responds with prayers, support and sympathy – but then the US attacks Iraqi citizens and support for the USA plummets globally while fear of the US increases.
Killing civilians is not a good long term strategy. It always makes it more difficult for those who use it to achieve their ends. Here’s another example: The Palestinians and Israel. Whenever one acts against civilians, sympathy shifts to those who are being attacked or harassed. Terrorism is ultimately a self-defeating tactic.
Nevertheless, it remains a tactic used by a whole host of people all around this world. Why?
Because they see no other option. In his book The Many Faces of Terrorism, Ken Wilber looked at 50 major terrorist acts around the world from Protestant bombings of abortion clinics in the South to Buddhist subway attacks in Tokyo to Sikh separatists in India to Muslim terrorist acts including 911. He discovered that all have the same profile. They were groups of people who did not believe there was a place for their most firmly held beliefs within the modern world – and because the world would not make room for their beliefs, they were ready to blow up the world.
Wilber contends that 70% of the world is operating at no higher than an ethnocentric world view. Preserve and protect me, my family, my kin, my lineage, and those like me. Me, my family and those like me are united by our belief structure and a rigid code of right and wrong. We are united by obedience to our God or another moral order that glues together our particular ethnic group. We know what our God values and what our God wants.
But this nation or this world does not recognize those values and those wants. The world is a threat, a jungle full of predators. A place in which heroism is necessary and power belongs to the conquerors. Such is the seed of a holy war.
We all can fall pray to this mentality. All of us have within us the seeds of this kind of extremism. We all have tightly held beliefs and values and when they are threatened, we have the capacity to act to protect ourselves, our families, our Gods – whatever they might be.
Understanding the human capacity for both good and evil is critical if we are to have any impact on terrorism at all. For the first mistake we make is to justify the killing of civilians on our side and to dehumanize and call terrorists those who kill civilians for some other cause. In reality terrorists are soldiers and activists. Our failure to deal with terrorism adequately over the past few decades rests in the fact that we have refused to acknowledge that in their own minds they are not criminals, but soldiers engaging in acts of warfare.
Terrorism will continue to haunt us all as long as there is hunger and poverty, corrupt and brutal political systems, harsh discrimination and social inequalities, civil wars, environmental degradation and epidemic disease. All of these problems are sources of insecurity and hopelessness for millions. To be indifferent to these realities is to ignore the role we play in the perpetuation of terrorism.
In Buddhism there is a state of consciousness called compassionate detachment – the ability to step outside of one’s own self, above the human level, to see the wider view of humanity. From this elevated view, we see that there is suffering on all sides that has led people to act out in ways that hurt others and themselves. From this vantage point, there are no sides to pick, there is just the tragedy of human victims trying to make their way in a difficult world while carrying their own wounds and scars. From this perspective we understand the need for compassionate action.
But what about here on the ground? But what about ISIS? What about Boko Haram? What about Al-Shabaab? We almost can’t stomach the slaughter of college students in Kenya, the execution of Egyptian Coptic Christians and the beheading of journalists. As we recall those images, you can feel the energy in the room shift. We are filled with revulsion, outrage, and frustration. What does the value of compassionate action call us to when such evil is assaulting our world?
If you’re like me, the idea of practicing compassion in light of such horrific behavior stops us short. It’s hard enough for me to feel compassion toward the guy who cut me off in traffic last week or and my old high school classmate who posted their conservative rant on Facebook last night. It takes tremendous courage to practice compassion toward people who we love and who have caused hurt. Isn’t this taking things to an unrealistic extreme? And why would we do it? Why would we even bother cultivating compassion for men who barbarically mass execute civilians?
We bother because we genuinely want to be more fully human and that means we understand that violence only begets violence; that there is never an excuse for one human being to commit violence against another human being. And here’s the kicker – not only is nonviolence a more fully human response, it actually works!
The Buddhists and other spiritual teachers tell us that deep down inside those we call terrorists are just the same as us. They want to be happy and free of suffering, and so do we. If we had been born to their parents, in their country, and brought up in their environment, who’s to say we wouldn’t behave in exactly the same way.
But let’s bring it closer to home. What about people born here in the United States becoming terrorists? Pete Simi is an investigator for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism. He has found that there is a lot of diversity among those who join extremist groups, including the fact that they come from a wide cross section of socioeconomic situations. While it is not always the case, the most common background characteristic is some kind of family disruption, either divorce, parental abandonment, a parent becoming incarcerated, or substance abuse by one or both of the parents.
In terms of personality, there does seem to be certain characteristics of thinking that make a person more prone or susceptible to recruitment. One is a low tolerance for ambiguity and a strong need to categorize things as “black and white” rather than deal with so-called “gray areas.” In fact, at the most fundamental level that’s what most of these movements are really all about — the oversimplification of a highly complicated world. Simi concludes black and white simplicity is a powerful incentive to offer people, especially those who feel lost and looking for easy answers.
Compassionate action allows us to see others as brothers and sisters. It witnesses to the fact that love extends to all. And it invites us to pay attention to the interests and welfare of those we might consider to be enemies. It recognizes that we all play a role in creating extremism, so we all need to find ways of diminishing extremism.
Simi points out that “a common misconception is the idea that “once a hater always a hater,” once a terrorist always a terrorist, once a deviant always beyond redemption. This,” says Simi, “is folklore; it’s simply not true.”
People do leave extremist groups. Some leave as they become more familiar with the ideas and realize it really is a pretty warped world view. Moral uneasiness can emerge that creates distance between them and the group. Others realize that their future is likely prison or the grave and decide this isn’t the life they want for themselves or their family.
But Simi believes the most common factor for those who want to leave extremist groups is the growing realization that, “as much as the movement professes loyalty and kinship and all of these affirmative qualities, there’s really a tremendous amount of backstabbing and infighting that occurs. As people experience and observe this, they become disillusioned and begin to see the movement for what it is.
But leaving can be very difficult. The organization LAH Life After Hate was started by former hate group members. The focus of their message is the importance of using compassion to inform prevention and intervention efforts and aftercare for individuals who want to change their lives but may need various types of support.
Compassion may indeed be the most powerful tool of all. Compassion does not mean condoning reprehensible behavior. So what does compassion look like in this situation? CompassionIt is a nonprofit and global social movement. They suggest that in this very moment, we can send terrorists (both home and abroad) a wish for peace by saying or thinking, “May you find peace. May you be free from suffering.” It’s pretty simple, really.
People who are at peace with themselves and with others do not harm others. By wishing that others find peace, we open our own heart and cultivate peace within ourselves. When I am at peace, it changes my own world view and my interactions with everyone else. It is a truly a transformative and subversive action.
It might sound naïve, but we should never underestimate the power of non-violence. Preston Sprinkle points out that, “History doesn’t like to glorify non-violence; our nation and identity were born out of bombs bursting in the sky. But wipe away our militaristic lenses through which we view the past, and you’ll see that many seemingly invincible powers were resisted and overcome through non-violence.”
Compassion takes courage and practice. We won’t leave today and suddenly feel compassionate toward everyone just because we want to. It just doesn’t work that way. But we can set an intention to look at the world through the lens of compassion. If we do that, we can achieve peace…within ourselves.
So are you ready to exercise profound courage and subversion? Then close your eyes and begin by settling your mind with a few moments of breathing…
Now visualize a terrorist or a person who represents terrorist to you.
Send out these thoughts, “May you find peace. May you be free of suffering.”
As you open your eyes, may you find peace. May you be free of suffering.
In my book Sacred Sex I retell Will Willimon’s experience preaching in a croweded auditorum. He was given an introduction that far exceeded what he thought he would deliver and he remembered a teacher saying something like if you aren’t sure you have enough to say, say it louder. So he got up before the congregation and said, “And what is the most significant event our faith has to offer?” Then he bellowed out the answer, “The Erection!” Now that’s one Easter message I would have enjoyed hearing!
My message won’t be quite that provocative. I believe the Easter story and the Easter myth itself transcends the barrier of religion and that even if we don’t follow the Christian calendar, we can still find value in its premise. So I want to approach this story through the eyes of Mary of Magdala and dedicate this message to the women who have struggled throughout history into our modern times to find a place of genuine acceptance and inclusion as equals in society.
What a poignant Easter text we find in John 20:10-18, so sad and so beautiful. Mary has come to the tomb of her beloved Jesus. You can imagine how she must have felt. Numbness fighting to still the shock still reverberating in her. Going through the motions of preparing the body, the one last way in which she can feel close to the teacher she followed and the man she most certainly loved. Feeling lost and alone and yet finding some comfort in these rites and rituals.
And then even that solace is taken from her. There is no body to touch or to cry over. There is no last time to speak her sorrow while gazing at the face she held so dear. Instead there is the certain knowledge that the joy has gone out of her life, that feeling of hollow emptiness and despair. The sense of being small and insignificant and utterly alone.
Indeed, 2000 years ago, women as a whole were considered small and insignificant. Women were nobodies. Women were property. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Public meals were for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a prostitute. Women lived on the margins of society.
And for a brief period of time, Jesus elevated Mary and the other women he interacted with to a glorious height of equality. His actions toward women were nothing short of scandalous. He defended them, spoke with them, healed them, ate with them, and even learned from them. Mary was part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. She knew personally the warmth of his unconditional love.
And now so profound is her despair that when Jesus speaks to her she doesn’t even recognize him… until he speaks her name. When she is named, when she is recognized for who she is at a time when she feels again as if she is nothing. When she is recognized for who she is at a time when she has lost everything. When she is recognized for who she is, she recognizes her Teacher. She is filled with new life. In a very real sense it is Mary who is now resurrected.
So why in this moment of mystical reunion would Jesus torment her further by telling her not to hold onto him? Shouldn’t he have swept her into his arms and held her as she wept? Shouldn’t he have offered her words of comfort and peace, assuring her of his presence, promising her this was real and that he was there, right there with her?
John wrote the most mystical of the four Gospels that were included in the official Canon. In it Jesus is always using common language to say something beyond the obvious. So when Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me.” Was his statement as obviously cruel as it sounds or could it be that this man who so often used common language to point to the spiritual is at it again? “No Mary, you don’t have to hold onto me. You don’t have to cling to me, because everything you saw in me is now in you. That same divine presence that you sensed in me, I now challenge you to see in yourself. This is what I came to teach and show you. See in yourself the Spirit you saw in me.”
In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a Gospel that did not make it into the Canon, Jesus tells his followers that the son of Man dwells inside them. And Mary responds by saying that Jesus is calling them and us to be fully “human.”
Perhaps to be fully human is to recognize that what Jesus says is true. To understand that it is within our humanity that we are all resurrected. Perhaps it is only in fullness that we learn not to belittle ourselves and dismiss our gifts and abilities. Perhaps it is only in human fullness that we come to realize that we are also fully divine.
I’d like to tell you now about another women. I was returning with a group from Extended Grace from a Renaissance Festival when we stopped at a gas station. One of the teenagers with us went into the restroom where she was approached by a young lady asking her for help. Her name was Tanika and she looked barely 16 years old. Tanika explained that her boyfriend had beaten her for the last time and that she had finally left him for good. But he had followed her and when she stopped at this station for gas he took over her car with her child in it. I called the police. I left Tanika with the police officers and my card and told her to call if she needed any help connecting with legal assistance or a shelter.
None of us expected to meet Tanika that day or to find ourselves face-to-face with the terror of living in abuse. More often we can ignore the problem. More often it stays behind closed doors. But as unusual as our encounter with Tanika proved to be, there is nothing unusual about domestic violence. In the United States, someone is beaten by their intimate partner every 9 seconds. For 12.4 million people, home is not a safe place. Today even many teenagers view violence as an unavoidable aspect of their relationships, and 1 in 3 will experience physical or sexual abuse or threats during the year.
The face of abuse is shared by all races, all ages and all socioeconomic classes. Domestic violence has severe physical and emotional consequences for its victims. And while 1 in 3 women will be victims of abuse sometime during their lifetime, studies also show that as many as 1 in 4 domestic abuse victims are men. The FBI reports that 2/3 of all marriages will include violence at some point. Domestic violence is just as real and just as prevalent in heterosexual and same sex relationships.
I never heard from Tanika again. According to the frustrated police officer, her boyfriend was in a lot of trouble for a lot of things, but in the end Tanika never pressed charges. The officer was angry with her – and obviously ill-educated about abuse. I was dismayed when he said to me, “People like her just like to get hit.” I tried to explain. I tried to help him see. I hope I made some impact.
Why would anyone stay in a violent relationship? This is probably the most commonly asked question – and for good reason. It seems so logical and obvious that these victims should just get out of the house. But the reality is that there are a lot of barriers to freedom. The reality is that the most dangerous time for a person who is being battered is when they leave. A full 75 percent of women who are killed by their partners are murdered after the relationship is over or as it ends. But that’s only one of the barriers to freedom.
Another is that many women and men don’t think of themselves as being abused. Abuse is generational and those who have grown up in abusive homes are far more likely to become the victims of the perpetrators of violence when they have grown. Abuse at its core is about control. It’s one person scaring another person into doing something. And it’s not just physical abuse but sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse. Domestic violence may include insulting and name-calling, isolation, intimidation, and threats, which may be directed at children or other family members.
Another important concept to understand is the Cycle of Violence. The relationship doesn’t start out being violent. In fact, the abuser most likely begins as a seducer, buying presents and showering praise and attention on their partner. Eventually, though, this calm gives way to a tension-building period. In this phase, minor incidents begin and communication breaks down. The victim feels the need to placate the abuser and “walk on eggshells.” Eventually, the tension is released in an incident, which may take the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
The next stage is a return to seduction as the abuser apologizes and may cry. A honeymoon stage ensues complete with gifts. And promises are made that it will never happen again. But at the same time, the victim is blamed for provoking the abuse, subtly planting the idea that it was their fault and that they can keep it from happening again. As time goes by, the abuser denies that the abuse ever took place — or at least that it was as bad as the victim claims.
In the calm that follows, the incident is forgotten. Some of the promises are kept and the victim is left with hope that the abuse is over. As the tension building stage begins again, the victim remembers that it is their responsibility to behave in a manner that will not bring about the abuse — which eventually recurs no matter what they do. The entire cycle may take more than a year to complete – or as little as a few hours.
Another barrier is religion. We all know that you cannot possibly use scripture from any religion to justify abuse. Nevertheless, we also know that scripture can be misused. Citing passages to “submit to your husbands” or to “turn the other cheek,” Christian men and women often feel compelled to stay in abusive relationships because of their marriage vow. For this reason, victims of abuse often feel doubly abandoned by God.
When all is said and done, I find the best explanation for why people stay in abusive relationships was captured by Don Miguel Ruiz. He said that if you are with someone who is beating you up more than you beat yourself up, you will leave. But if you are with someone who is beating you up just a little bit less than you beat yourself up, you will stay forever. I also believe that people who beat up other people, never beat them up more than they beat themselves up emotionally.
I know Ruiz named my experience. I used to believe in my own unworthiness. My life was so flawed. I was so flawed. There was all this crisis and trauma in my life. I had failed at so many times in my life. I wanted somehow to make a difference, but realized that I probably never would. Then I met Dr. Rudy Featherstone, a truly incredible man. He as a retired professor of theology. A proud black man with snow white hair who spoke glowingly of his wife, his children and his grandchildren. And most joyful person I think I have ever met.
Rudy really shook me up that day. I couldn’t argue with him. Whatever energy permeates our universe, I am part of that universe and that energy is necessarily part of me. When I am fully human, when I am fully me, then I have to admit that the package of body, thought and emotion that is Barbara Lee is not all I am. When I am fully human, I realize that I am also divine.
This is the Good News of the Easter story. It is the refreshingly good news that has been proclaimed throughout the history of all faith traditions. It is the life giving good news that we can never be separated from God because however we define God, we live in THAT and THAT lives in us.
Odds are you know someone who is being abused – even if you don’t know it yet. There’s a good chance that someone hasn’t glimpsed the divinity within themselves. As helpless as we often feel, there are things you can do to help. Let them know you understand domestic abuse. Tell them clearly that it is not their fault and that there is NOTHING they can do to prevent the violence. If they choose to open up, listen nonjudgmentally. Offer to help with childcare, transportation and storage of valuables. Encourage them to contact Every Women’s Place or the Center for Women in Transition or to call the domestic abuse hotline.
Try not to get discouraged. And above all, try not to blame. Victims of domestic abuse are suffering already from a great deal of shame and a sense of hopelessness. Don’t blame yourself if they don’t make the decision you would choose for them. Your role is to offer friendship, hope and a space for the possibility of change. It isn’t your responsibility to fix someone else’s world. More than anything victims need you to model what a loving relationship really looks like. They need a reason to hope.
I am pretty public now about my own history of abuse because I have met too many people who only trusted me with their story after I shared my own – after they knew that I would not judge them for the circumstances they were in. As a result of my experience, I ended up founding and chairing the Muskegon County Domestic Violence Healthcare Initiative. In that role, I gave a presentation on Domestic Violence at the Lion’s Club. After presenting all of my information, I opened it up for questions. A man sitting in the middle of the room who didn’t even bother to stand up said, “I know someone whose wife won’t let up on him until he hits her. Sometimes there’s just nothing else you can do.” And a number of others seemed to nod their heads and murmur their agreement.
There is NO excuse for violence. Not against women, not against men, not against children. There is NEVER an excuse for one person to use violence in any form against another.
Domestic violence alters the landscape of our lives and the lives of those we love. Violence by an intimate partner, rips deep valleys through the sense of self; builds mountains of shame and guilt and isolation; twists, bends, and distorts notions of love and relationship, and shatters into rough and jagged pieces the spirit of hope.
We need to be the prophetic voice. We need to be the voice of Jesus and Dr. Rudy Featherstone for Mary of Magdala and Tanika. We need to call all of those who suffer at the hands of abuse by name so that they may also be resurrected to new life.
Individually we can make a dramatic difference in the life of a friend or loved one. Together we can create a society in which we will no longer ignore or excuse acts of domestic violence. It begins with us, it begins here and it begins now.
Spiritual Inquiry Discussion Question:
Is domestic violence caused by the patriarchal values of our culture, or is domestic violence caused by individual socioeconomic and/or psychological factors (e.g. substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment)?