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Dismantling Our Ivory Towers One Human Story At A Time

“Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings – they must avoid shutting themselves up in their own peculiar character as a philosopher in their ivory tower.” Frederick Rothwell (H.L. Bergson’s Laughter, 1911)

Ivory Tower by Hideyoshi on DeviantArt

For anyone who has ever attempted to learn a new language, you may have found that exercise both frustrating and intriguing – so many ‘rules’ that have ‘exceptions’! As a young German migrant child, I was fascinated by the English language and the many new phrases, metaphors, and expression I learned when we moved to South Africa. To this day, as someone who also loves and studies history, I often find myself asking Dr. Google the genesis of a word or phrase, especially when I am encouraged or accused of something using a metaphor – like “living inside an ivory tower.”

Someone told me that I was living in one of those ‘ivory towers’ many years ago. A disgruntled parishioner who did not appreciate the hours of work I put into trying to resolve their issue. Well, at that time I was still operating from a blind, privileged, fundamentalist, hierarchy power structure – a structure that found it unfathomable to consider that a person – not a priest, pastor, therapist or politician – is the expert of their own story. An ideological domination structure whose embedded splinters I still pick out of my psyche from time to time. Anyway, back to this mysterious ivory tower …

Historians tell us there was never such a thing as an Ivory Tower. It was always a figure of speech. Towers throughout time were considered defensible, fortified structures, “rising above the normal surface of things …practical ways of distancing inhabitants from mundane human affairs.” They were concrete displays of religious aspiration. Ivory was considered something exotic, so costly it could only be turned into a work of art or aids to worship.

One of the first mentions of ivory towers is in the Bible: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon” (Song of Songs 7:4). The Odyssey (Bk 19, 560-569), quotes Penelope, “Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfillment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass.” The figure Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Litany of Loreto) references her as, “Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, house of gold…”

Over time the Ivory Tower became a symbolic space of retreat and solitude. It was a feud between poets that drew the ‘living in an ivory tower’ expression into a negative notion and by the 1930’s it had become a politically charged. It became a pathological place. Today, anyone living in an ivory tower is held with certain contempt and distrust. Ivory Tower Dwellers are thought to have an attitude of superiority, divorced from reality and the rawness that is known as life.

Ivory towers do become strongholds. They become a place of privilege and entitlement. They delude Tower Dwellers into thinking this is the real world, the true world – I guess in a sense Ivory Towers are the set of the Truman show. They keep those who dwell in them from reality – a huge moat of wealth, power, fear, superstition and dogmatism bolstering the separation. So what would cause anyone who has fallen under the spell of the enchanted Ivory Tower to wake up to the delusion? Normally freedom comes with one human story at a time.

You see, that disgruntled parishioner all those years ago woke me up from the slumber of certainty. It wasn’t her hostile words, but her life story that caught my attention. Suddenly some of the ideas that I had fashioned and formed so carefully in that tower, surrounded by people who thought exactly like me, was found wanting in the light of her story. A little splinter entered my heart that day, a splinter of grace and providence. It would take many more of such encounters to free me from the illusion held in Ivory Towers.

The Ivory Tower begins to crumble like a Jenga tower when we recognise our human connectedness. Herman Melville wrote, “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The way we connect is by recognising the fear that keeps us removed from others, by learning to listen: “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention …” (Rachel Naomi Remen). Listening to each other breaks down barriers.

So, friend, perhaps we need to face the hard truth that in some ways we all live in ivory towers of our own making? Perhaps some have taken shelter in Ivory Tower organisations that provided a sense of safety and security – but it is time to step out again? Ivory Tower Dwellers stagnate, and fear and paranoia creeps in, feeding our sense of elitism or ‘specialness’. We adopt cult-like thinking and mannerisms. Stepping out of our towers can be terrifying. And then we look up … to a world that is so much bigger and beautiful than we ever thought possible. The Ivory Tower is recognised for the childish notion it is. Our life and our story becomes connected to the many colourful stories of people around us. And after a while, we look back and realise that we have been forever changed one human story at time.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”
– Madeleine L’Engle –

 

Katecia’s Story: Resilience, Courage and Grace

I met Katecia (Teash) a couple of years ago. Over time we began chatting and I had the privilege of listening to some of her story of courage, resilience and quiet grace. Today I would like to thank Teash for making time to share some of her life experience for this BLOG post. I have no doubt you will be impacted as you read about her journey.

1. Teash, you grew up in a religious setting. Can you tell us a little about your formative years?

Some of my earliest memories are of family and church. As a pastor’s kid, they have always been entwined. I have fond memories of running down aisles, riding a pony as Mary in the nativity play, making clay Bible characters and of trying to sneak an extra cookie at morning tea after the service. Church often felt like a second home. I knew all the hiding spots and I loved all the people. I used to live a block from my church growing up. My brothers and I would often duck past on the way home from school. I distinctly remember running into the church building after school one time when my brother and I were running from kids who wanted to bash us. It was a place of refuge and an enjoyable place for me.

Mum and Dad were quite strict growing up but they were also incredibly loving and encouraging. People often ask what it was like growing up as a pastor’s kid and I never quite know what to say. It was normal for me. I suppose it meant I hung around church more than the average kid. I knew where the cookies were kept and could swing past and utilise the smooth scootering surface in the church hall. At this time, I fitted into the church and its community seamlessly. However, I felt more pressure as I got older to reflect well on my parents as I realised that, unfortunately, people might judge my parents based on how I acted which has, at times, made me uncomfortable.

 

2. Coming out as gay would not have been easy, especially in a conservative setting. Can you talk about this?

It wasn’t easy. However, I am more fortunate than so many. At the time I had intense anxiety regarding it. If I’m honest part of the reason I came out was that I had anxiety that was causing me physical pain, every day, for several months. I’d been slowly convinced by affirming theology but the move meant that I realised I would probably need to come out. I think if it weren’t for my anxiety I might have waited a few more years. However, given the mostly subtle hostility towards queer people in conservative environments, it’s unlikely I could have emerged from the closet with no mental health issues. I was in so much physical pain from hiding this part of myself that I figured coming out couldn’t be that much worse.

Like so many others, Christian spaces that I had once found so welcoming became harder and harder to exist in happily. People that I looked up to and loved treated me as though I were an entirely different, and less trustworthy, person.

My immediate family has been fantastic and I am so thankful for them. I know how rare their incredible support can be in Christian circles. They may not have always understood but they have always listened and supported and loved me.

I may have been judged by Christians for being gay but I have never felt anything but love and peace from God, fully inclusive of my sexuality.

3. You recently spoke at the “Better Together” Conference in Melbourne and shared some of your faith journey. Would you mind elaborating on this, especially reconciling your sexuality and your faith (which for some may be problematic)?

I was raised in a Baptist church. Growing up in the church I knew what to say and how to act. Essentially, I knew how to fit in. I didn’t know a single gay Christian let alone any other amazing letter of the acronym growing up (at least not that I knew of at the time). What I did know was what I was told: “Christians weren’t gay”. Christians might be same-sex attracted but to act on that attraction was a sin, and if they couldn’t change then celibacy was required. I was a Christian so I could never be gay. It was honestly that simple in my mind. Gay people were them over there and not the people in the pews next to me or eating scones after church.

For most of my teen years, I saw it as a sign of purity and even holiness that I wasn’t attracted to men. The attraction was only meant for your husband, so my lack of attraction to men meant that I clearly just hadn’t met my husband yet. 

But slowly that logic fell away as I realised that I wasn’t just not attracted to men, I was attracted to women. I prayed and tried to change it as so many of us do. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t change. I accepted that, until I changed, celibacy was the only option and I realised that I would probably be celibate for life. I told no one because I was ashamed and I knew the grief, shame and even scandal it would cause those I loved.

While this internal conflict was going on, I was an outgoing and enthusiastic evangelical. I was in a senior leadership position at the largest evangelical group at my university. I ran prayer groups and Bible studies and camps.

After realising celibacy was something I would have to do I began googling things such as what does the Bible say about homosexuality? I wasn’t looking for the Bible to say it was okay. I was looking for encouragement in remaining celibate. I had always been told that any theology that said it was “okay to be gay” was very “wishy-washy” and was by people who didn’t take the Bible seriously. In evangelical terms, “not taking the Bible seriously” was code for being a bad Christian. Being “biblical” and taking “the Bible seriously” was code for being a good Christian. But I was surprised by what I found. Being the nerdy art student I was, I figured I’d better research the other side – to refute it as wishy-washy, obviously. Only I couldn’t and slowly and extremely grumpily I found myself shifting over and leaning towards becoming affirming. In affirming theology, I could see myself. I saw myself as a whole and beloved child of God. It was rigorous and thoughtful. It was loving and non-judgemental, and it terrified me.

So I became affirming after a couple of years of study and prayer. I wish I could say it was an easy or quick process. It took time. I didn’t want to be affirming because I was comfortable in my beliefs and my life. I just wanted to fit in and be a “good Christian.” Having affirming theology meant that this was no longer possible for me in many circles. I came out as gay and affirming at the same time. I lost a lot of evangelical friends and I was treated as an outsider in the same evangelical circles that I had once fit in to so well. At the time I thought it was one of the worst things to happen to me. Now I’m grateful that I have sat on the outside because it was the wakeup call I needed to look around and see who else was on the margins with me. I worry that if I’d never been pushed out I might have missed meeting and learning from so many who don’t fit into my old evangelical worldview.

What drew me most to affirming theology was that in it I felt seen, known and loved by God. It also made a lot more contextual and theological sense to me. But most interestingly affirming theology brings me closer to a God who made me, knows me and loves me as I am.

4. When we look back we see a turbulent and painful journey for LGBTIQ people of faith and some of the churches that they were part of. What do you see looking ahead? Is there hope for apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation and a better path?

I think there is hope. I think of myself only a few years ago. I held negative attitudes towards gay people like many other Christians today that contribute to our negative experiences in churches and Christian communities.

The queer Christians and allies I have met all have amazing stories of change: of them being convinced to alter their beliefs and attitudes. I’m given hope every time I see queer Christians love themselves fully. I’m given hope every time I see allies step up and love us as we are. I’m given hope when I remember how I used to think and the hurt I could or may have perpetuated, and how I changed. Looking ahead, I am hopeful, but still aware of the past and the present pain. I am filled with hope but remaining grounded in the reality that we have a long way to go.

There is a path for apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation, however, as Christians, we need to recognise the harm and grief that we have caused and continue to cause. The church is overwhelmingly viewed as a source of pain and hateful rhetoric for most queer people, and this reputation is all too often deserved. Everything from homophobic jokes to the psychological torture of conversion therapy to the more subtle exclusion contributes to the struggle queer people can face.

When we ‘other’ queer people in large or small ways we are failing in our calling to, first and foremost, be loving, and failing to walk the better path – the path of Jesus. It is hard to expect queer people to remain in the pews when we are often made to feel unwelcome and unloved. Specific effort must be made to undo what we have done. While I think there is hope for a better path, I think we need always to hold the hurt we’ve caused in tension with the hope we hold for the future. We cannot erase the past but we can learn from it and therein lies the hope for a better future.

Teash, our lives are all enriched because you were prepared to share a bit of your story. Thank you so much.

 

For those interested in affirming theology, I recommend:

David Gushee – “Changing our Minds

Kathy Baldock – “Walking the Bridgeless Canyon” – you can also read Kathy’s interview on my blog here and here

And for a plethora of information please see the podcasts/library  of Inside Ex-Gay

and the Reformation Project

A Chat with Kathy Baldock: Ally and Advocate – Part TWO

Dear Reader, this BLOG post is the second part of an interview with Kathy Baldock. For Part One please see this link.

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4.  Many religious people have expressed their concern as they see ‘homosexual behaviour’ as a sin against God and against Scripture. In fact, the Bible has been used as one of the main tools of exclusion. Can you give us some thoughts on this?

It is essential to read any text in context. It becomes even more critical to read an ancient text in ancient context. 

It’s foolhardy to take what we understand about human sexuality today in the 21st century and try to impose that knowledge onto the writings and thinking of people from several millennia ago.

As I mentioned in an answer in Part One, as late as the 1870s, we were just beginning to struggle with the concept of human sexuality questioning the “whys” and “hows” surrounding two people of the same sex and how they could experience a mutual and respectful attraction. It would be another century before mental health professionals understood that there was a natural attraction that some people experienced for the same sex. To imagine the writers of Leviticus or the writings of the Apostle Paul in the first century could have understood these things about same-sex attractions is not within the realm of possibility.

Before the critical period of the 1870s, when sex occurred between two people of the same sex, there was always one person taking the power and dominant role and the other person being subjugated. Every example of same-sex interaction in the Bible is an example of subjugation through rape or violence or excessive or lustful behaviour with full disregard of acceptable social and sexual norms. We would not expect to see any favourable or positive examples of sexual relationships between two males of equal status in cultural literature, and certainly not in ancient texts like the Bible, anytime before the late 1800s.

Again, to be clear, all male-male sexual interaction involved age and/or power differential. The most abrupt change in biblical translations concerning same-sex behaviour was seen in the 1946 Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. Here was the first time in any translation, and in any language that two Greek words in the New Testament, “arsenokoitai” and “malakos,” were combined to one word and translated as “homosexual.”

Again, referring back to an answer I gave above, this was a time in medical professions and in the culture where people still did not understand what same-sex attractions even meant. It was seen as a mental illness. 

When the translators of the 1946 RSV were attempting to update previous translations they based their work mainly on the King James (1611), the American Standard (1901), and the English Standard Versions (1885). The translation team relied mainly upon fairly recent translations of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” and catamite and sodomite, respectively, that had appeared in the Moffat Bible (1925). (James Moffatt was a member of the RSV translation team.) Those two words, although somewhat problematic even in the Moffatt translation, were more reflective of the actual meaning of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos.”

 Simply put, the Greek words more reflect a person participating in exploited sex, typically associated with money, and a man taking the social and sexual position of a woman respectively. And once again, they reflect a differential of both power and age between partners. To understand what happened in the RSV, you have to put yourself into the mindset and culture of the translation team in the 1930s and early 1940s when they were working on their specific task. There was so much mystery around who homosexuals were during that period of time.

In attempting to modernise the terms catamite and sodomite, the team thought the “obvious” translation would be a combination of those two words as “homosexual.” 

This was a dreadful, unfortunate, and ill-informed decision.

I had been wondering about the specific translation of these two words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 for several years. Every time I spoke during presentations, I would say that I believed that the translation made by this team was more ideological and cultural than theological. Finally, a friend named Ed Oxford asked me one day, “Kathy, would you like to prove your theory?” My goodness, I thought, of course, I’d like to prove this!

Ed suggested that we dig into the archived materials from the translation team of the 1946 RSV. The head of that translation team was a man named Dr. Luther Weigle. Weigle had been the dean of the Yale Divinity School. Upon his death, all of his papers were housed in the Yale archives. 

Ed and I went back to the archives for five days in September and spent time pouring through dozens of boxes of archived materials and 22 rolls of microfilm materials, each film containing over 2,000 sheets of paper. We found what we were looking for on the third day of searching. 

Amongst all those documents, there was a single exchange of three letters in each direction between a young seminarian and Dr. Weigle.

The seminarian questioned Dr. Weigle and the team’s translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” as “homosexual.” The seminarian went on to construct a most excellent case as to why he believed this was an inaccurate translation. It was as if this young man had the clarity we have today about this translation. It was remarkable!

 The stunning finding was that this exchange was the only interaction on this monumental change found in all of those documents.
In the hundreds of articles written about the RSV, absolutely no one referred to the newly introduced word “homosexual” into the Bible for the first time. It did not register on anyone’s radar. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone except this one young seminarian. 

After spending time “living” with Dr. Weigle through his expansive archived papers, I am convinced that the translation team intended no malice. Their translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” to the word “homosexual”, although a damaging and clearly inaccurate translation, was originally done in ignorance.

The other stunning thing that Ed and I found was that nobody had gone through the archives and the microfilms in total before us. In the many subsequent translations of the Bible in which the various translation teams have chosen to translate “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” as homosexual, it certainly appears that nobody went back to the original source and ask the question that we did: “Why did the 1946 translation team opt, for the first time ever, to use this word ‘homosexual’ in the Bible?”

Sometimes, the simplest questions lead to great discoveries.

When I came home from Yale, I kept thinking about all that we had found. This caused me to wonder about the notes, motives and intents of subsequent translation teams, particularly those of The New American Standard Version, The New International Version, the New King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the New Living Translation. What was going on in the conversations of the theologians and Bible scholars on those teams?

It becomes quite obvious to those of us who are intent on discovering the purity, clarity, and the true meanings of ancient text in ancient context, that the word “homosexual” does not belong in any Bible translation. So now, I plan on digging into the work of the modern translation teams to try to separate out what they believe is theological work from what I believe is once again ideological and cultural. And, I believe there are even some political implications in these translations as well.

5. I am sure, like me, you have heard untold sad stories of rejection, betrayal, and exclusion of LGBTIQ people from their Christian families and churches. Is this changing at all? Do we have hope for a different tomorrow?

Oh my goodness, do we have hope for tomorrow! 

Yes, the damaging power structures are changing. The beginning of the change actually came in the 1960s civil rights movement in America. That directly led to the feminist movement that followed. The feminist movement led to the LGBTQ movement. All of these movements have directly challenged the patriarchal social organisation. 

When you realise the entrenchment of patriarchy over the last twelve thousand years has only been challenged within the last 50 years, this is really a remarkable time to be living in.

All of these dominant structures are beginning to fall. It certainly feels uncomfortable to those who have held the power, and it may even feel uncomfortable and hopeless to those who have been in the minority status. But it is changing, and it is incredibly hopeful. 

When I teach, I try to give people a visible way of understanding how long these power structures have been in place. Patriarchy, gender binaries, and white superiority are intermeshed and have been challenged for the last 50 years in significant ways, and it is collapsing.

6.  What is something you would like to say to people of faith who are really struggling in coming to a place of acceptance of LGBTIQ people – perhaps because they are afraid of the reaction of their church or of ‘displeasing’ God?

I would like people to try to look at this from a different point of view. I think most of us have been told that God doesn’t like LGBTQ people and that LGBTQ people don’t like God. This is what I too believed only 15 years ago. We are told something so often that we are tempted to believe that it’s true and not to question it. 

This is where I found myself many years ago. You may feel like if you question anything that you’ve been told by authority figures that you may be cast out from the tribe, out of the fold. That is a very real risk in many conservative faith environments. As I stated at the onset, it often requires a crisis to prompt us to challenge these so-called truths that have been told to us. People in the pews, LGBTQ Christians, their families, and even pastors are revisiting what we have assumed are “truths.”

7.   Kathy, for your final words I would like you to address the LGBTIQ readers of this BLOG, especially anyone who is feeling particularly fragile and vulnerable right now.

Significant shifts in the culture and the church may indeed seem fraught with chaos. But the chaos can signal something very beautiful in deconstructing systems that man, and not God, has built to maintain power and control.

In the 1960s, it also looked like things were falling apart in the United States. The civil rights movement had kicked in, along with the feminist movement, and the anti-Vietnam war movement. Gay people were beginning to come out of the closet. It was a hopeful time for the non-dominant minorities. 

The momentum of several of these movements was slammed down by the rise of the religious right and their merger with conservative politics in the United States in the 1980s. It continued for the next several decades.

Misogyny, homophobia, and racism are all intertwined. This is the basis of intersectionality. When you begin to dismantle each of them, you inherently dismantle the whole. This certainly does feel uncomfortable to those in the dominant power structures. Heck, the mantra “Make America Great Again” harkens back to the “good old days” when people of colour, women, and gays knew their place. 

What is happening now should be a signal of hopefulness to those on the minority edges. I believe what was started in the 60s and 70s, will come to fruition this time.

The anti-trans pushback from conservative quarters, at its root, is really an attempt to safeguard gender binaries and strict lines between male and female. These binaries are part of a man-made myth. 

The creation account written in Genesis about events no less than 6,000 years ago, even in the most conservative of terms, was seen through the eyes of ancient peoples. It is their account of how they viewed their world, creation, procreation, and the roles of men and women. These ancient writers could have never understood what we now know and are learning about human sexuality and gender identity. Unlike ancient writers, we clearly know that intersex people exist and transgender people exist.

Some staunchly conservative pockets of politics and religion may never willingly change. It is too difficult for some people, after being entrenched in 50 or 60 years of a worldview, to choose to revisit core beliefs. It most often takes a crisis to prompt that questioning. This may be prompted by a child, grandchild, favourite niece or nephew, or co-worker coming out. Some of the greatest transformations happen in the simplicity of relationship. This is what happened to me, thankfully. 

There is great hope that those who are younger and being raised in a reality that not everything is heterosexual, male-dominant, cisgender, and white. Change is coming and it is for the better. 

I have been working in focused LGBTQ activism for over a decade. Conversations for equality and inclusion were tough ten years ago. Now I find that educating willing recipients is highly productive. Of course, of major concern are the lives of those at risk as we progress on the road to justice and inclusion.

My final comment – thank you, Nicole, for the opportunity to share this information. As you prepare yourselves as a nation to welcome and celebrate marriage equality, also be aware that there is still work to do in churches toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people of faith. We’ve had marriage equality in the US for a few years, yet, the progress is virtually unseen inside the walls of the most conservative denominations. We are plodding through the task with education and relationship. I hope our efforts will help those of you who fight a similar fight in Australia. Let this good work be something we Americans can be proud of exporting!

Kathy Baldock

Reno, Nevada
November 25, 2017
kathy@canyonwalkerconnections.com

Kathy’s blog

Kathy’s book

Apartheid and the Ideas about God that Upheld It

This is a blog post from 2 years ago. As I travel Germany and am confronted by the many monuments that remember the holocaust and persecuted minorities, I am again aware of the fundamental role that dominant religions often play in oppressive regimes. May we never forget. 

I still remember the feeling of stifling hot air hitting my face as we disembarked from our long journey at Jan Smuts International Airport (now O.R. Tambo International Airport), in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the early 70’s. State President J.J. Fouché, Prime Minister B.J. Forster, and the National Party were in power. We had started our arduous trek from Frankfurt, Germany, after many months of preparation to migrate to this southernmost African Republic. For a tiny seven year old, the world had just become a whole lot bigger.

IMG_1351Mum and I – Durban, South Africa

Amidst the many new experiences, language gaps, huge learning curves and cultural differences, one phenomenon stood head and shoulders above all others: Apartheid. Apartheid was a political and social system that protected the dominant rule of the 20% white minority through racial segregation. The term literally means ‘apartness’.  Although racial discrimination has deep roots in South Africa, it was D.F. Malan and the National Party who formerly established the racist system when they swept into power in 1948md1. It was toppled in 1994, with the appointment of South Africa’s first democratically elected, black President, Nelson Mandela.

The injustice of a system that discriminated people by the colour of their skin felt like a cultural tsunami to freshly arrived, wide-eyed immigrants. Yet for many people who had lived in and under that system, especially those who benefitted from it, it seemed a ‘normal’ part of everyday life. The memories of what I witnessed under apartheid do not diminish with time: the beating of a man until he was bloodied, bruised and motionless, by a neighbour who thought he should not be in the ‘white’ part of town; the anger directed at my friends of colour when they stepped too close to the drinking fountains that were designated ‘whites only’; and the squalid, overcrowded townships with their tiny ‘match box houses’.

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South Africa came under the rule of the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. Christianity played a major role in the shaping of colonised South Africa. But it was in the twentieth century that many churches started actively promoting racial division. The largest of the various denominations, the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk – NGK), became the ‘official religion’ of the National Party during the apartheid era. Fear ruled the day. A white minority began to increasingly feel that their own existence was threatened. Church doctrine and beliefs were fashioned to uphold a political ideology of segregation.

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The Bible became the central tool for apartheid dogma. Genesis 11 was used to argue that God divided humanity into different races, with the white race being superior. Difficult Bible verses such as Galatians 3:28, where the Apostle Paul presents the Gospel as breaking down barriers of division, were adapted to claim that he was addressing spiritual, not physical, equality. This teaching became so entrenched that many believed that South Africa’s apartheid was God’s will, that races should be kept apart, that whites had better opportunities because they were ‘favoured’ by God, and that above all, God was the ‘Great Divider’. One of the first laws to come into legislation under the apartheid regime was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, banning the marriage of a white person to a person of any other colour. It was believed that these relationships were sinful, an idea that had been fuelled by the passing of the 1927 Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between white people and that of other races. During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, enthusiasm for apartheid theology began to wane amongst followers, yet many church leaders remained fervent adherers to the apartheid doctrine. At this point, it is also important to mention that there were numerous churches and church leaders who stood in fierce opposition to apartheid.

Gradually societal paradigms began to shift. The work and words of many anti-apartheid advocates was beginning to fall on more receptive ears. The effect of having black South Africans form the majority in all church denominations, except the Dutch Reformed Church, cannot be underestimated. Slowly, and facing much criticism, more church leaders began to speak out against apartheid. The South African Council of Churches became one of the most effective anti-apartheid organisation. Pentecostal churches tended to be more conservative than the older, more established, churches. They expressed vague ideas about the racial dilemma, indicating that God was the only hope for the future.

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The Conservative Right, concerned about the growing acceptance of anti-apartheid ideology and the effect of foreign investment boycotts, organised themselves into new groups, like the ‘Christian Forum’, to protest sanctions. The founder of ‘Open Door Ministry’, Brother Andrew, distributed comic tracts in English and Afrikaans to South African defence troops, claiming  that the anti-apartheid struggle was an invasion of ‘communism’ against ‘democracy’, and the final contest between Christ and the Anti-Christ. His ideas, that South Africa had a mission to evangelise all of Africa, and that the international movement for economic sanctions was a ploy of Satan “to isolate South Africa to prevent it from fulfilling its divine commission”, resonated with many. Of course, it is important to remember that pro-apartheid support was also found amongst many high-profiled Christians in the USA, such as President Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson. To this day there are still pro-apartheid advocates who argue that the struggle against apartheid was sinful, and that people who were involved need to ‘repent or face the wrath of God’.

At the heart of it all, apartheid was a radical survival plan. It was the construction of a deeply nationalistic and religious Afrikaner minority group who were terrified of being subjugated by another people and culturally swamped by black Africans. It was this fear that gave apartheid its impetus. The renown Afrikaans poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw, supported apartheid because he, like many others, believed that integration meant Afrikaner National suicide. Fear propaganda reached fever pitch as the walls of segregation began to tumble rather quickly in the late 80’s. Pro-apartheid arguments became shrill and hysterical, a rather common occurrence when dominating powers begin to fall.

The rise and fall of apartheid shows the social and political power of religious movements. God is often claimed and ordained by the various religious voices seeking to present their perspective as right and true. “God is on my side” is perhaps one of the most comforting and often deceptive notions of the religious faithful. Deceptive, especially when it propagates oppression, violence and discrimination against other people in the name of God, claiming their suffering is unavoidable and “for the greater good”.

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Apartheid, at one stage in earlier South African history, was just an idea. An idea to control a large people group. An idea that would have been difficult to embody without the assistance of religion. Religion provided the ‘divine mandate’ that the idea needed to become a force – a force that brought years of injustice. We need to consider that Christianity, or an ideology based on Christianity, played a central role in this oppressive regime. This is rather ironic considering that Christianity itself began not as a religion, but with a persecuted minority group desperately trying to follow the teaching of a lowly carpenter. A man who became such a threat to the dominant social and political order that he was executed. It was not until Constantine that Christianity became acquainted with political power and a dramatic change occurred. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Overnight the Church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas.” Christianity became the religion of the empire and was no longer at the very bottom of society,  which is the best vantage point to “understand the liberating power of the Gospel for both the individual and society.” With power, wealth and nobility, Christianity began to deviate from the simple teaching of Christ, whose concern for the poor, downtrodden and marginalised, was evident in his ministry. Apartheid serves as an example of what happens when our ideas about God are driven by an agenda of control and dominion, conveniently hidden under religious robes of moral piety.

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This is a most chilling lesson indeed, that if we are not careful, our very notions about God can be misplaced, and instead of bringing life and freedom, become a tool in the hand of the oppressor. History is not short of examples.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. – Nelson Mandela

 

Job, His Friends, and Disappointment

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. 
– Martin Luther King, Jr. –
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The book of Job has always fascinated me. One of the oldest books in the Old Testament and most celebrated pieces of biblical literature, it is dominated by two main characters: Yahweh and a wealthy man called Job, who faced utter devastation. The book is loosely divided into five parts: the prologue, the symposium, the speeches of Elihu, the nature poems, and the epilogue. It is a book that raises questions about suffering and directly challenges the idea of karma – that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits.

It is a book of poetic and philosophical depth and beauty. It is a book of suffering and grief. It is also a book that provides an example of how to be a really annoying friend. After Job loses everything, his friends come to ‘comfort’ him. They do well at first because they shut up. However, when Job begins to speak they never really hear him or seek to understand. They simply pontificate their opinions on his suffering and try to fit him into their little boxes of comfortable reasoning. Nothing much has changed … humans just don’t evolve that quickly ?

Eliphaz is convinced that Job has done something sinister to deserve this pain. Bildad suggests that maybe his deceased children were guilty of evil. Zophar really has no idea but is convinced that God has a plan and is on the throne (sound familiar?). Elihu, the zealous youngster, thinks that maybe Job is just a tad arrogant and that his pain is God’s way of humbling him and he will be a better person because of it. In summary, this is a group of Shit Friends or ‘worthless physicians’ as Job refers to them. People who practice triumphant monologue, provide unhelpful answers (accusations) or cliches, and are in on the ride because they cannot cope with the existential angst of not knowing why bad stuff happens to good people. Yes, we have all been in the presence of Job’s friends. We all have been Job’s friends.

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Disappointment is the cousin of grief. Disappointment is tied to our expectations. Our expectation of people, of events, of God, that is if we happen to be someone who holds a faith. When they do not ‘behave’ the way we expect, we become disappointed. Job was disappointed because he had spent his life in faithful devotion to God, expecting God to protect him, and yet disaster and suffering entered his life. He was disappointed in his friends because in the time of his greatest need they were … well they were just shit friends.

There are many lessons we can draw from Job. One would be that the questions we often ask about theodicy seem to have no satisfying answers. Another is that suffering is part of the human existence and disappointment is part of life. We can also learn how not to be a friend!

We will all face disappointment in our life time. If we happen to be one of the people to walk alongside another as they face disappointment, here are a few suggestions:
  1. Let’s stop pretending that we know exactly what they are feeling. We don’t. We  may be able to empathise to a certain degree, but we have not lived their life, walked a single step in their shoes, and we have no idea how exactly they are processing the disappointment that they are facing.
  2. Let’s learn to shut up and listen. If we are genuine about being an ‘alongsider’, then let’s be a sounding board. Don’t let’s use our friend’s pain as a soapbox to practice our philosophical or religious ideals. It’s like rubbing salt on a wound. The greatest gift we can give at that moment is to listen deeply.
  3. We are not the Messiah – and that really is good news. There is an innate urge in each of us to ‘fix’ things and people. The reality of life is that there are some things we can ‘fix’ and many things that we can’t. Mindfulness, kindness, practical expressions of love are most helpful to those facing disappointment. Job’s friends failed at these. Like Christopher Pyne, they were ‘fixers’ – and both Job and Yahweh grew weary of them.
  4. Walking alongside needs us to deal with our ego. People facing disappointment will be angry, grieving, sullen, and maybe rude. If we are in a support role and have not done some serious shadow-work we will find ourselves ‘hurt and offended’. Then the person who is facing crisis now has to deal with our wounded egos … Nicht Gut.
  5. Let’s practice our theology at these times, not preach it. Love in action is the best sermon we will ever preach. The day may come when we will be facing disappointment and will discover how annoying it is when someone, oblivious to our heartache, gets all “God-is-on-the-throne-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life” on us. In moments of deep disappointment we won’t really give a crap about anyone’s ideas about God, rather make “me a cup of coffee and feed me chocolate”.

Job faced bitter disappointment. We will also have to handle our fair share in our short life. And when we are comforting those who are disappointed let’s not add to their burden by being shit friends like those of Job.  Bake that cake, cook that meal, mind those children, and let’s learn to listen …

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In the Name of God: Reflections on Bullying and Religion

Bullying: the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or dominate others. If you are anything like me, you have experienced your fair share of bullying, especially through those ‘delightful’ school years. In the middle of my cyber-bullying-122156_1280first grade in Germany, they discovered I had severe astigmatism, and I became the proud owner of a rather huge pair of round glasses. My latest acquisition made me the perfect target for those seeking to “intimidate or dominate others”. The following year we relocated to South Africa and I was the immigrant kid who spoke no English or Afrikaans. I became well acquainted with the inside of the school library, as it offered the perfect refuge from bullies.

Today everyone is talking about bullying, sadly because we now need to know how to survive, and teach our children to survive, in a culture of bullying. Social media, reality TV shows, talk shows, politics, schools, workplace, the list goes on – every space has its bullies, with devastating results. People bully because there’s a rush that comes with power, they are often encouraged by others which provides positive reinforcement, they have an inability to feel empathy and may even derive pleasure from someone else’s pain, and/or they come from a background that shows no affection and may even model aggression. Bullying is a rampant social problem and I am pleased to see it addressed in many forums. However, what if that bullying is related to God?

There are a few books released on this subject of bullying and spiritual abuse. Bullying is disastrous in all situations. Yet bullying in the name of God is often tolerated for a very long time. Why? Because it is so hard to recognise. When God is attached to the rhetoric of the bully, the victim is being emotionally attacked and manipulated. However, the victim also has a desire to ‘please God’ or be ‘obedient to God’ and may feel that the bully is speaking for, or acting on, God’s behalf. This makes the whole scenario very confusing. More often than not, the person does not even realise they are being bullied. Someone can use the Bible in such a manner that it sounds correct, but rather than bringing life and comfort, the listener is being intimidated or manipulated. In this case, faith has become toxic.
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I have a dear friend who spent many years of her life in a cult. A cult that determined how she lived her life and that was involved in all major decisions she had to make. A cult that treated her with absolute abusive contempt. Yet she remained faithful and submissive to this group for many years. Brainwashing is a cult tactic. My friend believed that being submissive was ‘God’s will’ and that disobeying the ‘Fatherhood’ (elders and spiritual oversight), was the same as disobeying God. Never underestimate the power of a bully coupled with faith and religion. Some of you may be interested in reading her story.

Religion and bullying take many forms. The bullies are often motivated by sincere religious ideals. As parents we can coerce our children to believe or behave in ways that line up with our faith ideologies. However, these tactics can be soul destroying. I have been listening to the sad stories of many LGBTI young people who have been bullied by their families and/or faith communities, all in the name of God. The ex-gay moment, in their attempt to ‘straighten out’ LGBTI folk, has often resorted to all forms of bullying with devastating results (please know that if you have been a victim of this movement that there is help and information available). Religious schools can resort to a form of bullying in their disciplinary measures. I recall one of my children’s faith and character being questioned because she talked in class, insinuating her childish behaviour does not ‘please God’. This sort of manipulation on impressionable young minds can have long-term effects on a person’s confidence and self-image.
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Perhaps one of the most common forms of bullying is in faith communities themselves. Those deemed spiritual leaders can suggest various things from a place of ‘spiritual authority’ that really is a form of bullying. A friend of mine recently blogged on this topic. He wrote about the harm done to people suffering from mental illness who listen, via sermons or books, to others seeking to ‘educate’ on the subject of mental illness, who have no form of education or qualification: “What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.” This is gross negligence at best, and a form of bullying at its worst.

Although bullying in faith communities is often discussed in regards to abuse from spiritual leaders, I have also observed bullying by congregation members against religious leaders. Most often, both sides believe they have God on their side and therefore the despicable behaviour and/or words are justified. Religious bullies often think themselves as ‘prophetic’, bearers of the truth, and apart from feeling persecuted, they are generally angry with this ‘wicked’ world.

Some signs of religious bullying can include:
– criticism and belittling
– intimidating others
– spreading rumours, gossip and lies
– excluding and isolating others
– never admit any wrong
– refusal to show remorse or seek forgiveness for any wrongdoing
– zero empathy or understanding of what the other feels like
– aggression (this can be in words or even print)bible-879085_1280
– domineering
– martyr complex

 

There are many helpful ideas on how to cope with religious bullies. One of the top rules: Give them no oxygen. Trust me, that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I faced some serious bullying from religious lobby groups earlier this year and everything in me just wanted to take them out … but then I would become just like them: a bully. When we are the target of religious poison everything in us wants to dexify. Don’t. Let it go. That is horrible punishment for bullies who, often suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, crave our reaction.

In conclusion, maybe a most uncomfortable truth. Most of us, at some stage, have acted like bullies. We have intimidated others. We have coerced and manipulated others to do our bidding. No genuine conversation about bullying can happen without this recognition. I look back on my life and recognise many moments when I was the bully, when I was the oppressor, when I inflicted pain on others. To truly see social change in this area we need to recognise the human malady of insatiable hunger for power and dominance. This distorted survival mode does not exempt anyone, including, and maybe especially, religious folk who also have a God to bring into bullying tactics. We all need to be aware of the bully within, to move our lives from an ego-centric focus to one of love and grace.pogo-enemy(Please note: Links are underlined)