Writing on Issues in a Divided World

I want to write something for my students about this, or at least prepare something to say to my students about this, so I’ve decided I need to first write about it for myself to start sorting out my thoughts and ideas.

How do we write about issues in a world that is so terribly divided on every single point?

On Saturday, I heard that Justice Scalia was dead, and about five minutes later I heard that key Republicans had already announced that they would attempt to block any attempt President Obama might make to nominate a new Supreme Court justice. There was no waiting period before politics took over. There was no social contract that said we defer debate for a certain amount of time out of respect for the deceased and for his family. We went straight from the news of the loss to posturing about how we are going to use this to thwart each other politically.

This is not what I call normal. It is not what I call functional. Yet this is now our reality. This is what politics in 2016 looks like.

Back in my own day as a student writer, I was taught Rogerian argument in which the goal is not to shut down the other person but to open up dialogue so as to work toward consensus or compromise or workable solutions or at least a multi-sided understanding of the issues at stake. In this method, you don’t have to agree with the opposing side, but you do have to show that you respect and understand the other side.

Respect and attempts to understand seem to have left the building of American politics. What passes for political debate these days is so polarized that it seems risky to me to even attempt to discuss anything that really matters in the classroom. But if we don’t discuss things that matter, why are we even there?

The risk stems from the constant demonizing of the other. Label yourself as liberal, and half the country thinks you are evil. Label yourself as conservative, and the other half thinks you are evil.

It seems to me that a thinking person should make judgments issue by issue after careful analysis of the facts, not based on liberal vs. conservative catch phrases or a desperate attempt to avoid being associated with “the other side.”

So how do we get past this? How do we discuss issues in a meaningful way?

One thing that comes to mind is Jonathan Haidt’s work on liberal vs. conservative thinking.

I read his book The Righteous Mind, and I found it very thought-provoking. If we are going to have meaningful discussion, we have to first get beyond the idea that people who disagree with us are bad or stupid or uncaring or dishonorable. They are none of those things. They simply think differently. Some people think differently because they bring a different set of life experiences to the table, and others think differently because their brains are just wired to prioritize information in a different order.

We were all so divided over the Syrian refugee crisis, for example. In this case, we had two main motivating factors that determined where we stood on the issue of whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the United States in the wake of the attack in Paris: (1) concern for harm being done to others; (2) concern for threats to ourselves and to those we love.

Both ways of seeing the problem are real. Both ways of seeing the problem are legitimate and based on real facts. Both are based on values.

Yet we were incapable of coming to consensus because some people’s brains are wired to prioritize around a core motivation of compassion, and some people’s brains are wired to prioritize around a core motivation of protection.

The end result of this in our current political climate is that a bunch of otherwise rational, kind, informed, and well-meaning people completely demonized one another over a very honest disagreement.

This realization doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it gives us a place to start having better discussions. If we want to talk about or write about issues, then, we have to start with a few guiding principles:

  • Don’t assume people on the other side are bad people.
  • Don’t assume people on the other side are lacking in intelligence.
  • Don’t assume people on the other side have an inferior understanding of the facts.
  • Don’t assume people on the other side are lacking in morality.
  • Don’t assume people on the other side want to see harm come to you.
  • Don’t assume that differences in opinions are dangerous to you.

It is okay for people to be different. It is okay for people to look at the same information and come to different conclusions.

Once we agree that disagreement is okay, we can understand the most universal truth of polarized arguments, which is that you aren’t ever going to win over people who don’t think the same way you think by telling them what you think.

Thus, we can add one more don’t.

  • Don’t assume you can beat a person on the other side of an issue into submission with the steady hammer blows of your facts. If everyone saw the facts the same way you see them, there wouldn’t be an argument.

Slide1I suppose then my own conclusions are that we don’t need lessons in argument so much as we need lessons in listening, lessons in respect, lessons in not jumping to conclusions about other people, lessons in considering other perspectives as valid.

Good luck on that, right?

Maybe we can’t all make friends and make nice. Maybe even basic respect for one another is just a pipe dream. If that’s the case, though, I’m reminded of something I learned from Ender’s Game–The only way to defeat the enemy is to know the enemy. The only way to know the enemy is to love the enemy.

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

Yeah, that’s creepy. I think I might be giving up now.

Can’t we all just get along?

 

Occupy Purchasing Power

The pepper spraying incident at UC Davis brought me into the ring on the Occupy Wall Street (and everywhere else) controversy. I’ve only been half paying attention so far, to be honest. I’ve heard a lot of bad things about the protestors. I took all the negativity with a grain of salt because the people saying the most insulting things about the protestors are the people who would. They are the people who always say as many negative things as they can about anything they even suspect might be a tad bit liberal in nature.

No particularly reasoned responses were being thrown into my line of vision, just the standard political vitriol — They’re a bunch of thugs and losers and druggies. They’re selfish and lazy and disrespectful and too spoiled to just go out and get a job.

Forget that the lack of jobs is precisely what’s being protested, these guys should still just go get a job. That line has been used and overused and abused. It’s the “let them eat cake” of our day. Still, this is mainly what I knew about OWS until a few days ago. I knew that at least half my acquaintances thought the protestors were nothing more than a bunch of spoiled, attention-seeking miscreants.

Then I watched the pepper spraying video.

I watched this, and I thought, “Those aren’t thugs. They’re English majors.”

Now everything in me that wants to protect my own students is up in arms. I feel incapable of watching this without screaming at someone to stop.

I’ve already said that, though. Stop, stop, stop. This is not the way a university ought to have handled this situation.

I have said that, and I am sure I will have much more to say about it before this is over, but I also want to talk about the larger picture of what is happening in our country right now, and I want to talk it out piece-by-piece, one angle at a time.

So today I want to say to the students out there participating in protests that I am proud to see you fighting for your rights, that someone needs to do exactly what you are doing in calling attention to the problems at hand, and that no matter what anyone says or does, you have a right to be heard. At the same time, however, if you aren’t putting just as much energy into finding solutions as you are into bringing attention to problems, you are not making full use of your talents and intelligence.

This is something I want to see students and schools working on. The jobs that we lament today are gone forever. They are not coming back. In part we are looking at corporate opportunism, at greedy companies that rake in extra profits while getting rid of workers, but that’s just one way to look at this. The truth is this has been coming on for some time. The rapid leaps in technology in the past 15 years or so have enabled companies to streamline so that they don’t need as many people to accomplish the same tasks. Call it greed. Call it opportunism. Call it exploitation. It is all of those things and more, but it is also reality. The big companies that are now boasting record profits and smaller work forces are not going to recreate the jobs they cut during the first wave of the economic crash. They aren’t going to because they don’t have to. We can tax them, and we can shame them, and we can call them all manner of dirty names, but none of that will change the reality of the situation. Big businesses have cut a lot of workers, and they aren’t hiring them back. Welcome to the digital revolution.

Human history has entered a new phase. We once had an economy based on agriculture. Later, we had an economy based on industry. Now, we no longer have an economy based on industry, and we no longer have the option to return to farming as the mainstay of our existence. We also don’t yet have a solid foundation built for what survival of the middle classes might mean in a post-industrial world.

This is what OWS is really about. We are not just experiencing another economic slump. We are experiencing a fundamental reconfiguration of our whole economy, and in the process the middle class is diminishing.

Okay, so that’s that. That’s not just the whining of a bunch of spoiled wannabe hippie children. That’s the reality everyone is facing. Now what do we do? This is the question that seems to be missing in so many of the conversations I’ve seen surrounding OWS. We know we have an enormous problem, but what do we do?

I don’t know what we do. I just know we’d better be figuring it out.

For myself, for a start, I’m going to advocate supporting more local businesses and more small business. Buy locally produced food and goods where possible. Think twice before handing money over to large corporations.

We all have political power in these three ways if in no other way — through our voices, through our votes, and through our business. Be heard, yes. Be heard through what you say and do, and be heard through where you spend.

Right now, I believe small businesses are the great hope of the middle class. Spending money with small, locally owned businesses keeps money in the community, and puts more people to work. Big companies can charge less because they don’t need as many employees to do the same jobs. I, for one, would like to cut down on the number of things I purchase in order to spend a little more on local businesses. Alone, I may not make much difference in this effort, but as a movement, channeling more money into small businesses would have a great deal of power. It would also create more jobs.

This is not THE answer to the economic crisis, but it is one thing I can do. It is one place where I can have my say.

Does this mean that I will not stand in line at some point in the near future for a new iPhone because I am boycotting big businesses on principle? Probably not. Does it mean that I will make an effort to order online less often and visit local shops more often? Yes.

You gotta start somewhere.

Occupy Public Discourse

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

To be honest, I haven’t known what to think of the Occupy movements. I understood why they were protesting. I thought people who claimed not to know why they were protesting were being disingenuous.

The middle class is collapsing. We are deeply entrenched in an economic crisis that has seen the top tier corporations post record profits while jobs were drying up and everyone else was getting poorer and poorer. We’ve experience, in the past few years, the loss of what we had always taken for granted — our sense that opportunity in this country is for anyone who works hard enough. You can work plenty hard in this economy and still end up with less in the end than you had when you started out. Meanwhile, the system seems broken. Congress, Obama, and everyone who ought to be leading us out of this have all proven worse than ineffectual.

We are all feeling this. No one really disagrees that things have gone wildly wrong and that the powers that be have hurt more than they’ve helped in the process.

And so we all understand, whether we admit it or not, that the Occupy protests are about this loss of opportunity coupled with this loss of faith in the system.

What I wasn’t sure about was whether I agreed with the methods. I’ve had lots of questions.

*****

What’s the big deal about camping out in parks? Why not follow the normal posted rules of the park? Why not show up when it opens and leave when it closes?

Why am I only hearing about occupations and never hearing about speeches? Where are the voices of this movement? Where is the substance of the movement? Where are the points of great debate?

Why are you targeting Wall Street and not targeting Washington?

Are you sure you really understand the civil part of civil disobedience? Even Thoreau who called for people to refuse to serve governments they found to be corrupt said, “I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.”

*****

Thus, while I’ve been vaguely supportive, I’ve also been skeptical. I may have been even more skeptical, but I kept remembering Emmeline Pankhurst, a very militant suffragette seen as downright crazy and foolish by many of her day. Perhaps she was crazy and foolish, but without people like her, women would not have gained the vote. It took the extremists to move the conversation into the mainstream discourse.

For that I do support the Occupy movements. I might sometimes think they ought to have gone to more effort to procure permits to camp out in their parks of choice, but I do appreciate that they are doing the job of bringing the subject of income inequality into the mainstream conversation. We are rapidly moving into a feudal system without room for middle class opportunity, and we need to be talking. We need to be scared.

I look at the college students just starting out, and for the first time in my life, I am not sure they are better off going to college. They will be more likely to make a living driving a truck or cutting sheet metal than as a lawyer or as a mid-level business manager.

Meanwhile, college fees continue to skyrocket, making it unlikely that today’s college graduates will even be able to repay their student loans.

Am I exaggerating when I say this? I hope I am, but I fear I am not.

That’s why I believe college campuses are precisely the right places for protest movements to take hold. The purpose of the college is to promote the free exchange of ideas. Colleges ought not to be sitting back waiting for the Occupy movements to come to them, only to behave reactively without first thinking through their actions. They ought to be proactive. They ought to be getting out ahead of the movements and organizing their own ways of addressing the economic and political crisis of our day.

In other words, the California universities that have been the sights of conflict between students and police officers this week are in the wrong. I may not be sure how I feel about the methods of the Occupy movements, but I am sure that a university campus is not a city park. The university holds a different set of responsibilities to its citizenry. The university holds a greater-than-average responsibility to protect free expression. The university holds a greater-than-average responsibility to treat even uncooperative citizens humanely, compassionately, and respectfully. Police measures at peaceful protests should last resorts.

I am not going to go radical and say the police should never be there. If a student brought a gun into the crowd, people would be quick enough to want the police involved. I am only saying that there are plenty of other options available to university administrations before they reach the point of pepper spraying their students and beating their faculty members with police batons.

I am also saying that it is time for all of us to these movements seriously. You don’t have to occupy a park bench. You can occupy public debate instead.

It’s time to research, think, and speak up. It’s time to look for solutions. It’s time to make known the kind of government and the kind of society we can respect.

All Over But the Shouting

It’s been something of a turbulent week in Mississippi with yesterday’s vote on the so-called personhood amendment that sought to give the legal rights of personhood to human eggs from “the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” Only a few weeks ago, this initiative was expected to easily pass in conservative Mississippi. The last poll number that I saw the day before the election said that it would be neck and neck. Instead, it was pretty handily defeated with somewhere around 58% voting against.

This kind of defeat on this highly controversial and highly sensitive issue was a shocker for everyone. Even the people who were actively campaigning against it didn’t expect that. What’s more it was defeated in rural areas where people tend to be even more conservative and even more religious.

Emotions have run high today. They’ve run high for the past week to tell you the truth. People fought tooth and nail all over Facebook on both sides of this. Families divided over it. Friends deleted each other as friends. It couldn’t have been more divisive.

I have played my own part in the drama. I was relentless in arguing against this with friends. I reacted to all of the reactions today.

In the beginning, I got angry when I saw more than one person say that it was okay if women died because of this initiative as long as it got rid of abortion. That set me off on a long string of Facebook posts in opposition to something I really hadn’t planned to say that much about.

Today, I got angry when I saw several people in a row say that you couldn’t be a Christian if you voted against it. Really, I shouldn’t have been reading Facebook this morning. It was over. I should have turned away and let it play out without me. But like any good train wreck I couldn’t seem to stop gawking, and I did see people who said there was only one way a Christian could have voted.

I was angry for a little while about that. Now I just thank God that we were all given brains to think for ourselves and people are not all required to think the same way.

Thus, I’ve decided to keep talking about this, but to move my discussions mostly to the blog. The vote is over. It’s not the time for campaign slogans. It might be a good time for thoughtful consideration, though. This could come up again, or it could come up in another state, and no one should really come to a final conclusion about how they feel while under the kind of emotional pressure put to people leading up to a highly contentious vote.

Essentially, I opposed Initiative 26 because I thought it left too much open to interpretation and that there was too much danger of it being used to make laws that hurt women’s access to proper health care. I did not think it was about abortion. I thought it was about a whole range of women’s health issues.

This proposition was meant to challenge Roe v. Wade by trying to define embryos as people whose right to life should be protected under the law. If it had actually been worded that way — to say that the embryo in the womb even during the first trimester of pregnancy deserves to be protected under the law — it probably would have passed with very little resistance in Mississippi. We would have still had an enormous and costly legal battle on our hands, and it would have still ultimately been an exercise in futility because the courts would have ruled it unconstitutional. But it would have passed. Mississippians would have overwhelmingly supported something they saw as anti-abortion legislation even if they knew it was in violation of federal law.

The fight here was not about whether Mississippi was in favor of abortion. It was about whether this proposition went too far.

We heard a lot of people who were in favor of 26 say, “I believe life begins at conception.” That’s all well and good, but that’s not what 26 said. It said “personhood begins at fertilization.” That does not mean the same thing as “life begins at conception.” There is a fundamental difference here that everyone needs to deeply and seriously think about during times of calm when we are not all emotionally invested in the outcome of a vote.

What 26 did was not to ask us if we are for or against abortion; it was to ask us if we are willing to change our entire understanding of what constitutes abortion.

“Life begins at conception” and “personhood begins at fertilization” do not mean the same thing. Women are not considered to be pregnant or to have conceived until a fertilized egg has implanted in the womb. The term fertilization changed the whole debate from one that was about abortion to one that was about birth control and IVF as well as other issues. It asked us to consider common means of birth control used today as well as standard medical practices used in IVF to fall under the umbrella of the term abortion. People who were in favor of it said that it did not do these things, but that is exactly the difference in the terms “life begins at conception” and “personhood begins at fertilization.” To say “life begins at conception” is to say it is immoral to end a pregnancy that is already established in the womb. To say “personhood begins at fertilization” is to say that any human intervention in the process that the egg goes through to establish a potential pregnancy constitutes abortion.

Consider this. The proponents of 26 said that it would end the use of the morning after pill but would not affect normal hormonal birth control pills. Yet the morning after pill is nothing more than normal hormonal birth control pills in a high dosage. It is made up of the same thing, and it does the same job. The primary function of the birth control pill is to prevent ovulation. A secondary function is to prevent implantation should an egg be produced and fertilized anyway. The morning after pill is just a high enough dosage of birth control to prevent implantation even if the woman has not previously been taking birth control. They are the same thing, and they do the same job. If one is made illegal, the other is certainly under question.

Thus, what we’ve been asked to do is to suddenly believe that something we’ve never seen as abortion before now constitutes abortion.

If you truly believe that human personhood begins at fertilization, you should be against the use of the birth control pill because it does prevent implantation of fertilized eggs. If you think that egg is already a person before it has implanted in the womb, then you should also see birth control as inducing abortions.

The thing is we have never actually seen it that way before. We haven’t spent the past 40 years debating whether to ban the abortion-inducing birth control pill because people have not defined the egg as a person. We have spent the past 40 years debating whether to ban the termination of established pregnancies because people have seen the embryo in the womb as a person.

I don’t think the egg is a person. I think the developed fetus is a person. I think the embryo is the sprout of a person. I don’t think the egg is a person. I think the egg is a seed.

Seeds in nature can only sprout and grow if they are planted. If they are never planted, they never grow. Nature generally produces many more seeds than it needs for reproduction because most seeds never become anything more than seeds. This is the case with human eggs. With no intervention from human behavior, most fertilized eggs are never implanted. Nature treats them as seeds, and the system nature uses is the one we should pay attention to when we attempt to write our own definitions. You are not pregnant if no egg has implanted. This is something that women who have tried and failed IVF can attest to. You are not pregnant if nothing has implanted. Most eggs on their own do not implant.

This is why I see a law that defines personhood at the point of fertilization, prior to implantation in the womb, as absurd. That definition turns the birth control pill into an abortion-inducing substance when it works to prevent implantation.

I do not believe that birth control is abortion. Furthermore, I believe that defining it as abortion would be disastrous for the state that already has the highest rate of unwanted pregnancies in the country.

Think what you will. Vote how you like. Practice what you believe. Just don’t dismiss out of hand the point that there were deep problems with Initiative 26 that went well beyond our normal understanding of abortion.

We may not ever all agree, but we do all have the God-given right to think for ourselves, and I believe that we ought to put a lot more thought and discussion into what this proposition really meant. I think we ought to discuss it and think about it and deeply consider it during a time when we aren’t under pressure to vote on it. That way maybe we’ll all be a little more prepared if the issue ever comes up again.

On Theme Blogging and Theme Parks

I’ve been working on a series of articles on gay rights and the religious conflicts and implications thereof. I’m not done yet with that, but I have to take a break while I go to Orlando where I will be so busy attending meetings that I probably won’t have time to post anything more than Disney pictures on the blog.

Meanwhile, here’s an anti-bullying PSA from the NOH8 campaign.

And yes, I did hear about this video from The Daily Show.

Theme blogging seems to get me in all kinds of trouble. Probably, that’s why I plan to do a lot more of it. I think sustained writing on a particular topic is an invaluable experience. It pushes you to think and to clarify your values as well as your opinions.

I’ve been using class themes in English Composition II for a few years now. I’m considering using them in English Composition I as well now that I’ve seen what it does for me to write again and again on the same topic. Basically, I believe if you have something important to say, you can’t get there in one sitting. You probably don’t even know what it is you have to say yet in the first attempt. You need to read, reflect, talk it out with others, write, think about what you’ve written, read, reflect, talk, and write a little more before it starts coming together.

It doesn’t matter how much you already know or how firm your opinions already are; you don’t know as much now as you will after spending some sustained time writing about a given topic.

I’ll finish up (or at least finish for now) my blogging on gay rights in a couple of weeks, and then I’ll pick some new topics. I’d like to adopt a monthly theme where I write at least several times a week on a particular topic for a month or so at a time. This is an idea I’m tossing around for 2011 blogging. We all need our little challenges to keep ourselves going.

I might just go with the easy problems at first like alleviating world poverty and saving the environment. Maybe I’ll do some literary themes. Flannery O-Connor sits on my shelf looking like she needs some attention from me. It’s anybody’s guess.

“Is the blog dead now,” somebody asked me recently. Well, I don’t know about yours, but mine isn’t dead. I’m five-years-old as a blogger. I should be just about ready for blog kindergarten by now.

Can you be smart and religious?

Before I’m called a tool of the Devil, let me just say first of all that I think this question is absurd. Intelligence and belief have nothing to do with one another despite the fact that there have been a number of studies indicating some correlation.

An article from CNN says smarter people tend to be less religious and more liberal. A blogger at Psychology Today reminds us, however, that “correlation does not establish causation.”

You can be religious and intelligent at the same time. You just can’t be anti-intellectual and intellectual at the same time–not without some serious psychological issues.

By intellectual, in this case, what I mean is someone who engages in a process of free inquiry or someone who applies a critical thinking process to ideas, information, beliefs, and values. Plenty of people are religious intellectuals. Plenty of other people are religious anti-intellectuals. And plenty of other people yet are anti-religious intellectuals.

What the heck? Let’s take it one step further and include anti-religious anti-intellectuals in the mix.

More intellectual people do tend to be less religious, but this is a correlation, not a causation. I bring this up mainly to say that debating any issue within a religious context–as I have been doing this week with the issue of gay rights–leads to a crisis of audience. If you ask a question–as I did with “Can you be Christian and gay?“–that involves religious inquiry into a social issue, you can expect that your audience might include people at varying extremes of the religious/anti-religious/intellectual/anti-intellectual spectrum.

Some will just think, “Why care what the Bible says?” Others will think, “How could you question what the Bible says?” You’ll be stigmatized on the one hand and demonized on the other. In other words, there’s really kind of an ick factor to writing about religious/social topics to mixed audiences. I should probably quit now in self-defense, but I’m not going to.

Someone on Twitter reminded me this morning that Gustave Flaubert said, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” Thus, if I write for no one else, I write for myself. I write not to preach my beliefs to others but to learn what they are for myself.

In that spirit, I don’t care about the question, “Can you be smart and religious?” It’s just my lead-in to what I want to say.

When I graduated from high school, a preacher in the church I grew up in told me to be careful not to pick up ideas at the university. I thought the warning was absurdly anti-intellectual. Yet I find its equal and opposite anti-religious stance of being careful not to pick up beliefs to be no less absurd. Neither are attitudes that help me live my life or help me make more moral choices along the way.

So I don’t care about that question, but what I do care about is the next question this brings me to: “Can you be anti-intellectual and ethical in a constantly changing world?”

Anti-intellectualism is lack of inquiry, resistance to and resentment of a critical questioning of your own beliefs. Ethics are systems of determining right and wrong. The combination of technological innovation, globalization, and scientific discovery means the world is in a constant state of flux. Thus, we make choices each day that require ethics that did not exist the day before. Religions might give us moral codes handed down from thousands of years ago, but our ethics have to live in the same world we live in.

We can and do apply religious belief to ethical choices, but we still have to develop an ethics apart from those beliefs. For example, if I say “It’s unethical to post pictures of strangers online only to make fun of them,” my religion did not teach me that. There’s nothing in the Bible about photographs, unflattering or otherwise, and the question of social sharing of photographs didn’t really become a concern until the past five to ten years. I had to apply a combination of social codes of fair play and a personal sense of empathy to determine that I shouldn’t put anything and everything my camera happens to capture online. My religion can teach me empathy and compassion, but it can’t teach me the details of every ethical choice I make. I have to think each one through as it comes up.

That’s an easy one. What about the tougher ones? What about the ethical issues that come up in 21st century life that appear contradictory to religious beliefs? What about the issue of gay marriage? What about the issue of the bullying of gay children?

We really didn’t have any concept of gay marriage until the 20th century, and we didn’t have biological or genetic sciences to define homosexuality as an orientation people are born with until the 20th century either. This shift from discussing the issue as a matter of committed relationships as opposed to illicit sexual encounters–along with the shift of discussing homosexuality as an orientation as opposed to a behavior–does change everything.

We might still disagree. We might still come to different conclusions. We might still apply religious beliefs to the question from different perspectives, but the fact remains that our knowledge of genetics in this century has changed the nature of the debate for us.

This is why I say you can be anti-intellectual and religious, and you can be intellectual and religious, but I’m not sure you can be anti-intellectual and ethical. Religions can hold us to traditions and traditional values, but ethics have to develop with the times or break apart. That doesn’t mean you have to be smart to be good. It just means you can’t hold new information and ideas in abject contempt and still maintain a functioning ethics.

Just a random thought…

Besides, how strong is faith anyway if it can’t hold up to critical inquiry? That’s what I thought when I was told to be careful about picking up ideas. If ideas are all it takes to destroy faith, there isn’t much to the faith in the first place, is there? If you are teaching your kids something that can’t sustain them when they go out into the world, it’s probably way past time to critically examine your beliefs.

What was it the man said about the unexamined life?

Jesus said an awful lot of nothing about gay love

After spending a few days reading up on issues related to gay Christians, I’m feeling pretty guilty that I never did this before. I just took it as obvious that God wouldn’t create gay people and then set about to make mandates against them. From there, I retreated into my little non-confrontational corner without really studying the debate.

I don’t mean by that I discounted the Bible as central to a Christian understanding of what it takes to be a Christian. I mean I discounted the opinions of fallible human beings that I believed were more influenced by homophobic traditions than by spiritual mandates. In this I think I did a disservice to everyone concerned. There are reasonable arguments that reasonable people on both sides of the issue can discuss without resorting to hate speak or to insults to one another’s faith.

The simple answer of “God can’t seriously be homophobic” was good enough for me, but it isn’t good enough for everyone, and I have learned a great deal in trying to figure out what the reasoning process might be in trying to reconcile faith with the reality of basic human rights in the 21st century. I’m glad I provoked myself into thinking about this by getting so worked up over condemnations of gay children.

Here’s what I’ve learned in a nutshell. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. Nothing. Not a word. We have no recorded words of Jesus on the subject whatsoever. If Christianity means following Jesus, Jesus did not tell Christians what to do on the subject of gay rights.

There are four places in the New Testament that can be taken as condemnations of homosexuality, and none of them are in the words of Jesus.

Those places are as follows:

Romans 1: 21-28
Corinthians 6: 9-10
Timothy 1: 10
Jude 7

Feel free to look them up for yourself at your own leisure.

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting article on the issue: http://sandalstraps.blogspot.com/2006/12/new-testament-and-homosexuality-my.html

You may or may not agree with what the article says, but I read it as a thoughtful, sincere, and scholarly look at the issue. It’s worth reading and considering.

What I learned, and what I am devoting some consideration to after reading this and other articles on the issue are these main ideas:

(1) The primary New Testament argument against homosexuality comes from a letter written by Paul. We don’t know the context in which the letter was written. We don’t know what he was responding to when he wrote it.
(2) The writers of the New Testament had no social concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation.
(3) Scholars disagree over the meaning of the Greek words that our understanding of these particular passages in the New Testament is based on. We actually don’t know what they meant to the people who wrote them. We do know how they were interpreted by the King James translators, but they are not all that clear in the Greek.
(4) The Bible is clear on condemning certain practices that were often associated with homosexuality during the time the New Testament was written. Among those practices are adultery, promiscuity, pedophilia, idolatry, and rape.
(5) Paul could have been writing in response to Christians engaging in pagan rituals involving homosexual acts, which were common in the day, but we do not know because we do not have the letter he was responding to.
(6) Because there was no concept of homosexuality as a primary sexual orientation in an individual during New Testament times, we cannot know whether the Bible is meant to be read as condemning the modern day concept of gay marriage or of a committed, monogamous relationship. Certainly, we cannot read what it says as condemning the concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation.
(7) What we can know is that the Bible is against the practice of men who are married to women having adulterous homosexual encounters. We can also know that it is against sexual acts as part of religious ceremony.

That’s a lot to digest for someone like me who has never heard the story told any other way than “the Bible condemns this.” I’m sure I will have to do a lot more reading and thinking before I even reach any final conclusions for myself.

By presenting this point of view, I’m not asking anyone to change or in any way compromise religious beliefs. What I am asking is this. Consider the possibility that two equally rational and equally devout Christians can read, study, and pray on the same issue and come to two completely opposite conclusions. Consider the possibility that this doesn’t make either a heretic. Consider the possibility that any of us on any particular point could be wrong.

Furthermore, consider this. The church today is being split absolutely in two over this issue just as it was split over civil rights, women’s rights, and other social issues in the not-so-distant past. Meanwhile, the fastest growing religious population in this country is “non-believer.” The church is dividing and sub-dividing in such contentious ways that it is unsustainable in contemporary society where people do have the choice to simply walk away from conflict. It is dividing now over gay rights, yet homosexuality is only marginally and vaguely mentioned in the Bible. You may or may not agree that the Bible condones homosexuality in any way, but no translation of the Bible treats homosexuality as the major sticking point of what it means to be a Christian. We turned this into such a divisive issue, not the Bible itself.

Just a little light thinking to start your day…

Soul Freedom and Jesus the Hippie

If only we’d had YouTube in the 60s, surely someone would have done much better than this…

Still, Jesus was kind of a hippie. To find out how that turns out, we have only to turn to one our own old hippies, Kris Kristofferson.

Happens every time people start hearing words of love that make them uncomfortable in their traditions, in their perceived truths.

I have no truth to tell. I hardly know what truth is. I’m not even much of a hippie, but I do have long hair, and today I wore socks with sandals. That was pretty radical. It was something of a fashion statement on behalf of sensitive feet everywhere.

What I do have are questions. One question that crossed my mind today is the concept of “soul freedom.” I actually don’t know what it means. It’s a term I heard among the Baptists, but I suspect it was something the Brothers Wesley didn’t much cotton to, or I would have known it instinctively right down to the soles of my sore feet. Sole freedom, I don’t think is an option for me under the current dress guidelines of my workplace, but I doubt anyone can keep me from practicing soul freedom.

Here’s a sermon I found about soul freedom: www.fbc-worc.org/sermons/sermon_pdfs/SOUL%20SURVIVE.pdf

I like the joke. Absolutism as applied to belief tends to make people call each other heretics over the slightest differences. This is why we don’t just have one Christianity but hundreds and hundreds of little Christian sects. We tend to practice radical splits over small differences of opinion. We tend to cast a lot of stones over our own varying nuances of interpretation when we all sit down and read the same words.

Put ten people in a room with a passage of text from any document, and you will have ten different interpretations of what it says, what it means, and what’s important about what it means. This is the nature of human consumption of information. We understand what we read based our own background, experiences, and prior knowledge. And no, I’m not going to get wound up on that and start quoting Foucault or anything. I just sayin’.

This is why I can say I’ve read these articles about soul freedom, but I don’t know what it means. I’m not trying to say I don’t understand the articles. I’m only saying that my religious training makes it difficult for me to process this concept as something that I can know intuitively to be true. When we read something of a religious nature, and we do not experience that feeling of an intuitive connection to the meaning, our first impulse is to dismiss it as false.

Intuition in this case, however, is really just what we’ve been told so many times that we don’t have to think about it to understand it. If someone says to me, “We had an altar call last night, and five people were saved,” I won’t devote any time at all, not even a millisecond to wondering what they mean by the concept of “saved.” In reality, people can mean different things by “saved,” and different churches do teach different doctrines, and you could spend a great deal of time pondering on a philosophical level what anybody means by saved, but I wouldn’t think to think about it because I’ve heard the term so many times.

When I was around people who used the term “soul freedom” in this way, as if it were something they would never think to think about, despite the fact that it was a term I had never even heard before, I didn’t want to ask. Maybe I should have.

Here’s what I think it means–salvation is a matter between one person and one God. If you gather ten people together or ten thousand people together or ten million people together, salvation still happens one by one. One person and one God. How it happens, what the terms are, what the expectations are might be discussed and pondered and prayed over and taught in groups, but in the end it still happens one by one. It is still a private matter between one person and one God. Thus, it is not something any set of rules, regulations, or previously determined procedures can dictate. It is individual. It is an individual freedom. It is for each to work out on his or her own.

This sounds good, but it is difficult to reconcile with those little tracts they used to give us in Sunday School about the Plan of Salvation. There was definitely a previously determined procedure that we were all supposed to march along and take care of post haste.

But here’s the problem with procedures that are laid out for you. They are mechanical in nature. They are matters of obedience and adherence. They sort of prohibit rather than enhance personal relationships with the process at hand, which is to say they prohibit personal relationships between one soul and one God. When you’re looking at a person or a print out to see if you did that whole Plan of Salvation thing correctly, you aren’t looking at God, are you?

This is why I don’t understand what “soul freedom” means. I do understand what people mean when they say “saved,” and if I have that one understanding of saved that I don’t ever even stop and think about, it’s nearly impossible to understand at the same time what soul freedom means.

Somebody who thought he knew a thing or two about Aristotle told me a time or two that a thing cannot be both A and B at the same time. A truth can’t contradict itself. It either is one thing, or it is another thing, but it isn’t both at once.

Those Greeks really made life complicated for us. They made it almost too complicated for us to understand how it is possible that we can say “salvation is supposed to mean this for everyone” and “salvation is supposed to be an individual experience with room for an individual relationship to that experience for all.”

Well, we can say both things easily enough. I just did. But can we believe both things to be equally and synchronously true?

I’m actually not the preacher in the family, so I will leave that for you to decide. Meanwhile, here’s what I’m pondering…can we believe in soul freedom and believe at the same time that we can know or say who is getting it right? Can we believe salvation is an individual matter and believe at the same time that we can know who is left out, that we can say without doubt one particular sin excludes a person from that relationship of one person and one God?

I don’t know about you, but I see contradiction here. What would Jesus the Hippie do?

Gays and Christians and Bullies, Oh My

You may or may not have been born gay, but regardless, you weren’t born an abomination. No matter who you are, God doesn’t hate you. He probably doesn’t even hate shrimp.

I want to explore this question of “Can you be gay and Christian?” Or “How can you be gay and Christian?” It will probably take several posts to work my way through what I think. I imagine it will take a ridiculously large number of posts. My ideas on the matter might be called complex by some and convoluted by others. You see, I come from a religious background that takes the strictest, most traditional stance on biblical interpretations regarding homosexuality. At the same time, “some of my best friends are gay,” and honestly, I don’t see how they could possibly be bound for Hell any faster than anyone else I know.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. In fact, I will say up front that I don’t know how to explain the idea that “you can be Christian and gay.” I am looking for the answers now, however, because the cultural war being fought over this issue is taking children as its victims, and if I know nothing else, I know that is wrong. It’s time for everyone to join forces to stop the bullying.

Among my gay friends, some are not religious people at all, some are spiritually-minded but not Christian, and some are Christian. In that way, my gay friends are exactly the same as all of my other friends. They represent a cross-section of beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and interests.

Maybe more would be Christian if churches were more welcoming. Maybe more people of any sexual orientation would be Christian if churches were more welcoming. I don’t know. That’s another topic, and I am attempting to stay somewhere within the realm of my initial purpose here.

My question is “How can you be gay and Christian?”

My answer is you can be gay and Christian because if you are Christian you believe that God is love, that God is unconditional love. A God of love is unlikely to stack the deck against you by creating you as something to be condemned.

Somehow I doubt that answer will suffice for people wondering if Leviticus really says all homosexuality is an abomination, or if indeed it says you defile the Lord by eating shellfish, as people do like to point out in discussions of things the Bible is against.

So…as a starting point at least for thinking about this, here are some videos from a group that does believe you can be Christian and gay and that does have its own explanations for how.

I don’t have the answers. I probably don’t even have arguments that anyone other than those who already agree with me would accept. People almost never do.

What I have is what feels right to me according to my own conscience and my own spiritual path. This is what I believe is at the heart of how you can be gay and Christian. You may or may not have been born gay, but regardless, you weren’t born an abomination. No matter who you are, God doesn’t hate you. He probably doesn’t even hate shrimp.

Jesus Loves Gay Children

A couple of weeks ago I posted a response to To Kill a Mockingbird in which I said that as an adult I am more like Maudie than Scout. Here’s one way I am like Maudie. I’m not out there actively fighting over the social issues of my day. I’m just quietly watching them, supportive in my own way of the people who are leading the charge. I’m grateful for baby steps toward progress. I don’t have any grand expectations that progress will happen any faster than that, but I am still hoping and praying for the best. That’s Maudie.

If Maudie had a blog, she would probably mostly talk about her gardening. She might post some pictures of funny things Jem and Scout were up to. She might talk about serving cake to neighbors now and then (but she wouldn’t share the recipe). She wouldn’t stir things up most of the time, but she might a little when pressed.

I feel a little like Maudie this morning, not sure how to proceed. I wrote yesterday about gay rights, which is perhaps the most controversial social issue of our day. Certainly, it is the most controversial civil rights issue. I have strong feelings about this, and I have plenty of my own ideas, but like Maudie, I’m not one to lead with my fists.

I live in Mississippi. Any talk of religion and gay rights could be taken as fighting words. Any talk could quickly dissolve into an us vs them fight to the death. But you see I am not a them. I am an us. I am part of the world I live in. I am a rural person from rural Mississippi. I am not an outsider to the religious beliefs or the social customs of my community. I am a product of those beliefs and customs.

I am us. I am here. I do not think my own community is mean or evil or backward or crazy or any of the other labels it is often stamped with. I think it is wonderful and loving and giving. I also think we, as a community of people, and we, as a community of faith, have a few realities we need to reconcile if we want to become something that is sustainable in the world we live in.

One of those realities is gay rights.

Gay rights are coming to a community near you. What’s more, they are coming because it is only right that they do. Gays in America, as much as anyone and everyone else, are citizens of a free democracy. As such, they have unalienable rights, among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If we look back 50 years, we might have said the same thing about black children going to the same schools as white children. Mississippi was slow to concur with the rest of the country on that issue, and it is slow to concur on social issues today. Even in Mississippi, though, no one argues for going back in time 50 years on civil rights issues. We know now that the changes, while difficult at the time, took us in the right direction. They took us in the more spiritually right direction as well as the more socially right direction.

I really did not intend to bring this up on my blog. I did so yesterday because I have felt burdened by the gay teen suicides for weeks now–not only by the fact that they happened, but by the reactions to them and the continued declarations from people I know and love to the effect that “you can’t be Christian and gay.”

I realize I can’t say everything I want to say in one post. This is too complex. I’ll pick up that thread again of “you can’t be Christian and gay” in another entry. For now, I want to say this primarily–we were talking about kids.

If I were to write a “This I Believe” essay, here’s what I would say: “God doesn’t send children to Hell, but people often do.”

This is where I draw my own line. The musician Paul Thorn said in his “This I Believe” essay: “I had to break away from the God I was supposed to believe in to find the God I could believe in.”

I can’t believe in a God who sends children to Hell. I can’t believe God could be both a God of love and a God of retribution against children. And yes, teenagers are children. If we really believed they were fully accountable, fully culpable for their own actions, we would also believe they were ready to be responsible for themselves. We would believe we could safely send them out into the world on their own.

We know that we cannot because they are still children. They do not have the emotional or intellectual tools to make adult decisions. They are learning those tools, but they don’t have them yet, and we do not disown our children for making mistakes as they learn and grow.

Neither does God, not the God I believe in.

Thus, we have this difficult complex of realities to sort out if we are a people of the Christian faith.

1. God doesn’t send children to Hell.
2. Religious tradition teaches us that homosexuality is an abomination.
3. Sometimes children are gay.
4. Children can’t be abominations.

I can’t tell you how to reconcile these issues in your own heart and mind. I can only tell you what I think.

Children are gay in the same way children are straight. They are feeling their hormones kick in. That doesn’t mean they are sexually active. It means they are starting to develop sexual awareness at the time and in the way that biology dictates. Gay puberty is as innocent as any other puberty. It is simply a biological fact.

Human biology also dictates that most kids when they reach the age of puberty will primarily become aware of and attracted to the opposite sex. Some minority of every generation, every race, and every culture will become aware of and attracted to the same sex during puberty. This is biology taking care of the future. It happens in every species. Most, but not all, of any given species will develop strong urges to reproduce at the age that physical maturation begins.

This is why homosexuality is not a threat to society at large. Homosexuality is always going to be present in the human race, but human biology in general is never going to shift toward something that does not propagate the species. It’s why gay marriages are not a threat to straight marriages. There are always going to be some people who prefer same sex partners, but there are never going to be more than just some. Biology has a job to do, and it does it. Human laws and cultural shifts will not ever stand in its way.

This is also why gay children are just children. It’s why they are just as innocent as any other children. They aren’t defiant or deviant. They are just biological realities.

I believe this, that biology determines sexuality, to be incontrovertible. Not everyone agrees. Some definitely controvert over this. If we could all agree on this point, we wouldn’t have nearly the debate over the morality of homosexuality that we have now. But reconciling scientific evidence with religious traditions is also another issue for another post. My focus here is children, and I am compelled to assert and reassert the point that regardless of how you view homosexuality, children are innocents.

God doesn’t send children to Hell. People do when they torment them.

If there is any common ground at all in the debate for gay rights it ought to be that children deserve our protection. They deserve our protection emotionally as well as physically. They deserve our protection from bullies. They deserve our protection even from our own preachings of what we think is wrong with them.

My biggest disagreement with the way religion was taught to me is that it was taught by the church in a manner that functioned as psychological abuse. Large groups of children were herded into a big room and told to sit still in their Sunday shoes while they listened to grown men tell them over and over and over that they were all going to Hell, that everyone they knew was going to Hell.

This was viewed as compassion on the part of the adults involved because it was viewed as saving the souls of the children. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way. It didn’t work because it didn’t provide a sense of emotional security. It only dished out emotional torment. The message of the consequences of sin was not balanced out with a message of love. We just heard the shouting and the fearmongering and the thousand different ways it was possible for one little kid to end up in a pit of fire for all of eternity.

As a result, everyone lost out. The church lost whole generations of children who did not stick around as adults, and those children carried with them into their lives emotional insecurities rather than spiritual reassurances. There’s got to be a better way. This I believe.

This I believe. God doesn’t send children to Hell, but people often do.

That’s not our job, my people. It’s just not our job.