Being Fully Human, college, education, rape, sexual assault, Title IX

5 Steps Toward Ending Sexual Assault on College Campuses

campusLast 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.

  • Sexual assault and abuse need to be criminalized. Young people need to know that their actions will be taken seriously. They need to know that there are stiff criminal penalties and real life consequences awaiting anyone that violates another human being.
  • Our culture needs to stop glorifying male sexual conquests – that only creates an unhealthy need to prove one’s manhood through sexual encounters.
  • We need to recognize that college students are watching and using internet pornography and that this affects their world view.  We need to talk candidly about the differences between pornography and reality. We need to understand that pornography provides a lens for objectifying human beings so that we can present forums that re-humanize people and offer tools for healthy relationships.
  • We need to talk realistically about sex in a way the builds a foundation of self respect because people who respect themselves, do not disrespect other people. When we use shame-based teachings, we tell people that they are not safe sharing their true thoughts and feelings. We take away opportunities for insight and growth and drive unhealthy thoughts and behaviors deeper underground.
  • We need to make it clear to young people that there is never an excuse for abuse and it should never be tolerated. We need to give them tools to identify abuse in their own lives so that they choose to make healthier relationship choices.

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.

Namaste!

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Being Fully Human, Compassion, nonviolence, terrorism

Nobody Likes a Terrorist

Nobody Likes a TerroristThe 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.

Who Is the Terrorist?

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.

Guerilla Warfare and Terrorism

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.

Nobody likes a terrorist.

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?

No Other Option

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.

Terrorists are Soldiers

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.

A Compassion Response

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.

The Making of a Terrorist

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.

After Hate

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 at Peace Do Not Harm

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.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, cycle of violence, divine within, domestic violence, Easter, emotional abuse, Jesus, mary of magdala, partriarchy, resurrection, sexual abuse, shame, social isolation, women

A Call to Resurrection

Surviving Domestic ViolenceIn 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.

Mary at the Empty Tomb

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.

Jesus’ Treatment of Women was Scandalous

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.”

Mary’s Call to be Fully Human

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.

The Terror of s

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.

“People Like Her Just Like to Get Hit.”

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.

Cycle of Violence

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.

Beating Ourselves Up

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.

Recognizing the Divine Within

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.

A Reason to Hope

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.

A Prophetic Voice

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.

Namaste

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)?

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Easter, faith journey, Jesus, Lent, Progressive Christianity, social injustice, Spiritual

The Lenten Journey to Easter

the fate of impoverished people is the litmus test of our faithfulnessToday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week on the Christian calendar. One story that can transcend the barrier of religion is that of the Lenten journey to Easter. It is a journey in which we encounter the catfish of the Christ – one who bore witness to the need to stand up against social injustice, tyranny and violence – even at the risk of one’s own life.

This Jesus doesn’t call us into a life of ease and prosperity. He challenges us to bring the saving word of grace to the spiritually homeless, to care for our brothers and sisters in need, to have a faith that shows itself in action. His message is clear – the fate of impoverished people is the litmus test of faithfulness. This is what it means to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.

The call to do Spirit’s work is one that leads down narrow alleys and tumultuous terrain. It is not easy and it is not fast. But it is never too great a burden to bear. And it is infinitely rewarding. Just as our mandate to serve is clear, so is the promise of joy. Cast your bread on the water, Jesus tells us, and it will come back to you 100 fold. What your going to do with 100 loaves of wet bread is up to you!

So it is that seek the  strength to refrain from silence in our ministry, in our assessment of society, and in our witness. So do we seek the courage to bear the burden of the  proclamation that we are one family so that all experience the blessing of reunion.

W.E.B. Dubois once prayed, “Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease or the words of mouths or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us, the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty – all these and more – but they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death.”

With those words still echoing in our ears, let us speak boldly, pray unceasingly and act with purpose and direction as our faith calls us to respond to heal the hurts and fill the needs of this worldly life.

Namaste

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acceptance, Being Fully Human, Bible, diversity, domestic violence, glbt, inclusion, Interfaith, Progressive Christianity, st. lucia, stories, tension in the tank

Tension in the Tank

Barbara Lee AuthorI write today a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to read a blog or two because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual life.

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

Living a good life offers us another option: a life of accountability; a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure; a spirituality that challenges us to do our best, to not take what we have for granted, to take risks, to set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your journey fresh and vital?

Tension Within

Tension comes first of all from within. It is the feeling that stirs us to act when we hear about disaster relief efforts, world hunger appeals or abuse prevention programs. It is the feeling that moves us to volunteer for Family Promise, attend the Summit on Diversity, pack our bags and go on a pilgrimage. It is the feeling that makes us restless when we fail to take time to reflect, to meditate, to pursue our own chosen path.

Tension also comes from living a life that’s not always easy, not always comfortable. Not of us is spared from tribulations and trials. We have known and will know difficulty, hardship and pain. We can choose to let those experiences weaken and defeat us, or we can use them to discover strength, resolve and resiliency we never knew we had.

Does God Love “Those People”?

Tension also comes from other outside forces. Let’s be honest. One of those external sources of tension for many of us is living in a conservative part of the country. In my first year of seminary I had a disturbing experience. No. I had many disturbing experiences. This was among the worst.

The professor asked what we would want someone to know who walked into our church. “We are friendly,” came one answer, “this is a place of worship” came another. “God is here” was followed by “the location of the bathroom”—that might have been tongue in cheek. Then someone said, “God loves you.” Ooh. Hey. Wow. “How does that sound?” asked the professor. “Do we want people to know God loves them?” “Yes, yes,” we all affirmed. Whew, one question I could get right.

Then that young guy with dark hair who always sat on the far right side of the room stood up and said—this actually happened—“Wait a minute. Can we really say that God loves everyone who comes to our churches? I mean I’ve read my Bible and it seems pretty clear to me that God loves some people and he’s really upset with others. I’ve heard you talking about welcoming drug addicts and prostitutes and homosexuals in church and I think God must hate that. I just don’t think we can say God loves ‘those’ people.”

I was dumbstruck. After all, at that time I was the minister at Extended Grace where our whole reason for being was to go out of our way to embrace “those” people. People who had been told or shown that they were not welcome. People who had come to church seeking grace and instead found gatekeepers that would not let them in. Gatekeepers who thought they had the right and the responsibility to impose their truth on other people.

The Real Consequence of Shutting Doors

Of course, when we shut doors, we are merely locking ourselves in, and stopping our own journey forward. Most of us have been disillusioned by institutions that claim to have God all wrapped up in a tight little box they call “truth.” We long for a deep relationship with the ultimate reality that is beyond human description. We seek truth in a way that is not bound to human dogma, or to the boundaries of gender, race, background, ability, or orientation.

And to do that, we pursue Open Inquiry, radically opening ourselves up to possibility and wonder. Seeking to connect the body, the mind, and the spirit with science, nature and art. What truth can be found comes not just from knowledge, but also from feelings and intuition. The truth is not “out there” but right here: in me, in you, in community, in our relationships to each other and to the world. This is a quest that finds us swimming with catfish: the catfish of ambiguity, the catfish of uncertainty, and the catfish of doubt – important companions on any journey worth taking.

Stories Add Tension to the Tank

Another source of tension are the stories we hear and the stories we tell. Stories are formative, whether they come from Aesop or Grimm or Greek mythology or scripture. They tell us something about the world, something about who we are, and something about what we can or should be. They add tension to our life and challenge us to be more fully human.

Many of the stories I heard growing up were in the Bible. Now we can criticize the indoctrination we received and the lack of choices we were presented with when we were children, but the truth is there is no culture in the world that does not teach children through story. Those Biblical stories, like Esther that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, still add tension to my life. These stories don’t teach me about science, nor do they teach me about God. They teach me about being human. Story after story illustrates human beings trying to figure out the world and their place in it. Human beings who sometimes succeed in being good and gracious and just. And human beings who fail miserably at those tasks.

There is something to be gained in stories from all cultures, all traditions and all religions. Because when we explore the stories, in context, and with an eye and an ear geared toward new awareness, stories challenge us to be more than we are, to be more fully human. To live a good life. In the story is the excitement about what we have been and what we could be. Stories add tension to the tank.

Your Visiting Catfish

In that way, I hope that this blog also adds tension to your life and, even though the image isn’t particularly flattering, I hope that you think of me as your visiting catfish. Yes, you find here words of comfort and support in a world that is so often hostile and full of fear. But I hope my words also discomfort you. That they challenge you to face your own shadows, to squirm in the reality that we are not being all that we can be, not doing all that we can do.

We are all human beings with different backgrounds and different lenses through which we see the world. And no matter what our vehicle of Open Inquiry it should add the tension to our life that we need in order to make a difference, to motivate us toward the good, toward being part of healing each other and healing our world.

Out of Our Comfort Zone

When was the last time you intentionally did something outside of your comfort zone? That was difficult or frightening? It is in daring ourselves to do what we haven’t done before that we discover new talents, new abilities and begin to develop new muscles.

I stepped firmly outside of my comfort zone when I traveled to St. Lucia last week. I was there to be interviewed on a local radio station. The interview itself went very well and afterward one of the people who heard the show called me as soon as it was over and invited me to come to the International Women’s Day event to be held later that day. I was glad to be there and met some wonderful, inspiring individuals.

But in the midst of all of the motivational speaking and calls to action regarding domestic violence and other abuse so often suffered by women – particularly women in developing countries – there was the continuation of the myth of a male God. These good hearted women where finding encouragement in the midst of adversity by relying on a Father God who would love them, never desert them and who had created them perfect and beautiful.

And I so wanted to interrupt everything to say, “Don’t you see what you’re doing? Stop looking for some Almighty Male God to love you and give you permission to be the amazing beautiful people you are! See that beauty in yourself! See that there is nothing out there that isn’t in here! Claim your own perfection and know that you have the credentials to do so!” Of course doing so was out of the question. It would have come across as arrogant, ignorant and rude. Any opportunity to have a positive impact, to plant a seed would have been lost.

Radio St. Lucia

There was even more tension when I answered the invitation to be a guest on Radio St. Lucia – the national broadcasting network. Having been lulled into a false sense of security in my first radio interview, I wasn’t exactly prepared for the onslaught of conservative rhetoric that was going to be thrown my way. The host was far more confrontational. He didn’t like Interfaith to begin, he didn’t like masturbation, and he really didn’t like (or more importantly understand) homosexuality. He said things that were both antiquated and offensive.

Then people started calling in. Offering many of the same challenges to my faith and my perspective. There was even one guy who called in to say, “Why do some people like to have sex with animals?” Seriously! And in the midst of that kind of tension, I was propelled to find new ways of containing my emotions in order to find a way to connect and communicate.

After the fact, I learned that Radio St. Lucia sees itself as an outreach of the church, seeking to reach those who are homebound, as well as the unchurched and the unsaved. The feel the threat of Islam and Rastafarianism. Can you believe it? At the end of the interview, I was longing for the rampant liberalism of my very conservative hometown in Grand Haven, Michigan!

So I have decided that this is my challenge in the coming days. To finding a way to craft that message in such a way that it can reach out and touch people where they are now, affirm them, and challenge them to grow in a way that respects and honors their starting point so that my words do not become adversarial roadblocks, but tools that anyone can use to propel their journey forward.

A Spiritual Life is a Life of Tension

Whatever our path, we should not be content to sit on the EZ Boy recliner of life in inactivity and passiveness. A good life, a spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths and philosophies as equal and valid and challenges societies that favor only one path, where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

For all of our advances, our world is still a place of violence. We do not live in harmony and tranquility but in a place where wives are battered and parents abuse their children. Where the earth is plundered. Where competition is glorified and losers are humiliated. Where our international relationships are full of conflict and fear and the construction of war systems that virtually assure mutual destruction. Violence is a core structural element of our lives.

Today as people who seek peace we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because the good life does not call us into a place of relief. It calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension.

This work isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do. The challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives. Prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other.

Hmmm… sounds a little fishy to me!

Namaste

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esther, jewish, old testament, Progressive Christianity, purim, social justice

Purim: Celebrating Esther

Purim CelebrationPurim is a Jewish Holiday. This year it begins on March 4 and ends on March 5. It’s a holiday of fun and silliness – and having a drink or two – so I’m going to start with a Jewish joke. What do you get when you eat undercooked chicken? Shabbat-ulism.

The origins of Purim lie in the story of Esther. It is a novella – a fictional story set in a historical timeframe. It is a story of conspiracy, intrigue, and secret identities; of genocidal commanders and beautiful young women; of coincidence, fate and unexpected reversals of fortune. Esther is creative literature that interlaces comedy and tragedy in a way that is meant to entertain its listeners while proving that what goes around comes around and leaving us with a powerful point to ponder. This is the story of Esther…

Chapter 1

We begin in the household of King Ahasuerus, which refers to King Xerxes I who ruled the Persian Empire from India to Ethiopia from 486 to 465 BCE. The King ends a 180-day banquet with a lavish 7-day party. On the seventh day “when the king was merry with wine,” he commanded that Queen Vashti be brought before him so he could show off her beauty to everyone.  But she refused to come. The king was enraged.

He consulted his sages and lawyers who blow this little domestic dispute into a full-blown national crisis. First they tell him he can forbid Queen Vashti from ever coming into his presence again – in fact, they suggest that anyone who approaches the king without first being invited should be put to death. Then they go on to suggest that this would be an excellent time to issue a decree that all woman give honor to their husbands. So letters were sent to every province “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”

Chapter Two

The King’s anger lessens and he starts missing Vashti so his servants suggest that beautiful young virgins be sought out and brought to the harem so that the King can choose a replacement.

Hadassah is an orphaned Jewish girl being raised by her cousin Mordecai. Where are the Jews at this time in history? This story takes place one hundred years after the first temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were scattered and dispersed. There is no common homeland for them and they seek to survive in small communities amongst the gentiles. It is a dark time in Jewish history in which events seem arbitrary and their God seems to be absent.

When Hadassah is brought to the harem she is given the name Esther and she is warned by Mordecai not to let anyone know she’s a Jew. When the King finally sees her, he likes her more than all the other virgins and makes her queen.

The King has yet another banquet during which Mordecai coincidentally overhears a plot to kill the king. He tells Esther who warns the King. The accusation turns out to be true and the King has the men responsible impaled. Then he asks for the whole incident to be written down in the permanent record.

Chapter Three

The King promotes Haman to be his prime minister. Haman is the Bad Guy in this story so by Jewish tradition each time his name is mentioned, those who are listening to the story are supposed to boo, hiss, stamp your feet and generally try to “blot out the name of Haman.”

Haman had given orders that everyone was to bow before him. But Mordecai refused and won’t even say why. This insult infuriates Haman, but he thinks it below him to strangle Mordecai himself so he begins to plot have all the Jews killed – and another private affair is turned into a full-scale national crisis.

Haman convinces the king to give him authority to do whatever he wishes with the Jews. Wanting to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire, he cast lots to decide the day for this genocide. The Hebrew word for lots is ‘pur’ from which comes the name of the holiday Purim. Letters are then sent from the king to all provinces giving orders to “destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day and to plunder their goods.” Then the king and Haman sit down to drink.

Chapter Four

Mordecai gets word to Esther about this plan and charges her to go to the king and ask him to save her people. She replies that anyone who goes to the king without being invited is to be put to death. So Mordecai replies, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’

Esther is moved beyond her fears by Mordecai’s words and tells him to gather all the Jews and hold a 3-day fast on her behalf. She tells him that she and her maids will fast, too, and then she will approach the king. And if she dies, she dies.

Chapter Five

Fortunately, the king is delighted to see Esther and welcomes her into his presence. He asks what she wants and she starts by inviting him and Haman to come to a banquet – obviously she knows how to appeal to this guy. So they’re at this banquet, drinking wine and he asks her again what she wants. So she invites him to another banquet the next day. Again he asks what she wants and promises her she can have whatever it is. So she invites them to another banquet the next day.

Haman leaves the party that night in good spirits looking forward to another party. But on the way home, he sees Mordecai who still refuses to tremble or bow before him, and who spoils his happiness.  Complaining about this insult at home, his wife and friends suggest he build a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. He happily has the gallows made.

Chapter 6

This chapter is a masterpiece of ironic narrative.

That night the king could not sleep. He gave orders read the book of records to him. When they got to the story about Mordecai telling about the plot to assassinate the king, he asked,

K: ‘What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?’

N: The king’s servants said,

S: ‘Nothing has been done for him.’

N: At that moment Haman entered the outer court wanting to talk to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows he had built. The king’s servants told him,

S:‘Haman is there, standing in the court’

N: and the king said,

K: ‘Let him come in.’

N: So Haman came in, and the king said to him,

K: ‘What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?’

N: Haman said to himself,

H: ‘Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?’

N: So he said to the king,

H: ‘For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.”

N: The King said,

K: ‘Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sites at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.’

N: So Haman took the robes and the horse and led him through the open square of the city, proclaiming,

H: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.’

N: After the parade, Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered. He was telling his wife and all his friends everything that had happened when the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried him off to the banquet that Esther had prepared.

Chapter 7

The king and Haman went to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther,

K: ‘What is it you want, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. Even if it is half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’

N: Then Queen Esther answered,

Q: ‘If I have won your favor, O king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request. For we have been sold, me and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’

N: The King asked:

K: ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’

N: Esther replied:

Q: ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’

N: Then Haman was terrified. The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther. When the king returned to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; leading the king to say,

K:  ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?’

N: Then one of the eunuchs said,

S: ‘Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.’

N: Said the King,

K: ‘Hang him on that.’

N: So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Chapter 8

The king replaced Haman with Mordecai who became the new Prime Minister and Esther approached the king once more to ask him to revoke the order to destroy the Jews. But the king says once an edict is written there is no way to revoke it. So the secretaries are called and another batch of letters are written. This time the king gives orders allowing the Jews to defend themselves, to destroy, kill and annihilate anyone who might attack them. Mordecai and all the Jewish people are very happy.

Chapter 9

In chapter 9 comes the bloodbath. The Jews attack those who would have attacked them. 500 people are killed in the capital alone along with all 10 of Haman’s sons. The King asks Esther what else she wants and she asks for a second day. 300 more are killed in the capital and 75,000 are killed throughout all the provinces. The next day there is feasting and gladness and Mordecai sends letters declaring that this day is to be celebrated with feasting and by sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. This is the day celebrated every year even until today as Purim.

Chapter 10

The book of Esther ends by declaring the greatness of the King and celebrating Mordecai as the ideal portrait of a successful Jew living harmoniously in a Gentile world.

So ends the Book of Esther

But let’s back up a minute because there are clearly some things in this story that warrant our further attention. First, let’s talk about that bloodbath. How can we not be disturbed by the enthusiastic account of the violence of the Jewish community against their enemies, which far exceeded any notion of self-defense? I’ll tell you how. By remembering that this is a fictional story. And it is one that uses symmetries and reversals as a way to weave together the comic and the tragic. The bloodshed was only extreme because the order to shed the blood of the Jews was so extreme.

Another unique aspect of this story is its heroine. Most of the characters in the story are stereotypes and caricatures. But Esther changes over time. Beginning as a passive figure, she is notable only for her beauty and obedience. But once challenged by Mordecai to do something only she can do, she embraces her Jewish identity and decides to risk her life for the sake of her people. Ultimately it is on Esther’s authority that Purim is established, making it the only Jewish religious tradition authorized by a woman.

The final thing that makes Esther unique and even controversial (in fact Martin Luther said he wished it had never been written) is the distinct absence of any mention or reference to the God of Israel. Not even once. The book doesn’t even set forth any important moral or religious ideals. This obvious omission makes sense given the reality of the Jewish people who at that time had been scattered and were trying to survive in small numbers living among the gentiles. With the Temple destroyed and no homeland, they certainly must have felt the absence of the anything Divine in their communities or their individual lives.

Divine Absense

People have drawn two different conclusions about the absence of the Divine in this story. One is that God was behind the scenes the whole time, orchestrating each event. It was God who placed Mordecai in a position to hear the plot to kill the king. It was God who had Esther chosen to replace the queen. There are no coincidences, only the hidden hand of God at work.

Another conclusion that can be drawn is that human beings shape their own future. That it is our responsibility to act when we are called to act. In the face of crisis it is not enough to cry out for someone else to deliver us. Instead, we must exercise courage, wisdom and resolve knowing we have the responsibility to work out our own fates. We need to take ownership of our own role in creating a world that is being shaped day by day and whose future is uncertain to us all.

We don’t believe that we are animated puppets being led around by cosmic strings. But if it is up to us to be actively engaged in shaping this world and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us, there is an important question to answer:

What shall we do?

In the face of climate change, war, genocide, AIDS orphans, hunger and homelessness – what are we supposed to do? And what if we don’t do anything? Will help surely come from another quarter if you and I turn away out of disinterest or despair? If we don’t do it, who will?

Esther demonstrates the importance of responding to and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us rather than throwing them away in the glib hope that somebody else will do what we are unwilling to do ourselves. Living a good life means that we have responsibilities. We are not meant to passively exist, but to actively participate in our own lives and in the lives of others. Ultimately, it is up to us to “work out our own salvation.”

Shabbat Shalom!

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