Grief – Stay With It

 

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Scrolling through Facebook the other day, this post of a friend caught my eye:

We can’t leap over our grief work,
Nor can we skip over our despair work.
We have to feel it…. Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid”
– Richard Rohr –

It was a poignant reminder for a very wobbly time of year for me. I have blogged about grief and loss numerous times. In “An Uninvited Guest: Reflections on Grief”, I outlined why the Christmas season holds a lot of triggers for me. Since that post, life has continued with crazy highs and lows – the loss of a house that I loved and a faith community that I thought would always be ‘home’. I have said goodbye to a city I treasure and the precious individuals it holds, some of those goodbyes have been gut-wrenching as they held a finality that we didn’t see coming.

I am not outlining these circumstances to evoke your sympathy. Far from it. Rather, I am writing them down because as living creatures we all identify with grief and sorrow. Someone explained grief as the feeling you have when you have been winded – everything stops and you wonder whether you will ever breathe again. No wonder that we do all we can to try and usher this uninvited guest out of our house. And maybe that why we create hyperreal spaces and experiences?

After my mum passed away a lot of well-meaning people (especially those who held tightly to a more ‘triumphant’ form of Christianity) made a lot of comments and queries about ‘moving on’. “Time heals,” they would say, “and you will move on.” I heard what they were saying. I appreciated their concern. They wanted me to join the dance again – that dance of oblivious happiness. And I do dance again – but it is not the smooth Cha Cha from the first half of life.

Nowadays, grief pays a regular visit. I no longer feel shocked. I no longer try to usher this guest out of my house. Rather, and probably to the horror of some, I welcome this visitor. I sit with it and share in the memories. Grief has dramatically changed the way I look at the world. I feel so much more connected and grounded because of it. I know I have a level of compassion that I never had in my “black-and-white” paradigm. I also wonder whether I ever really understood what love meant in the first half of life? That is a rather ironic reflection considering I spoke on so many platforms about love.

Grief changes us. It transforms us from the inside out. When we refuse to ‘leap over our grief work or skip over our despair work’ we grow. Things that were once so important and that are still heralded as desirables, like success and influence, no longer hold much appeal. Grief teaches us that we have life, that life is precious, and the response to life is gratitude …

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –

I also reflect on my faith. Grief challenges the platitudes, the certainties, the absolutes. Many years ago Grief came calling with a friend … Doubt. I was horrified back then. There was no room for grief, never mind doubt, in my early ideological framework. Now I smile to myself as I write this. How wrong I was. If anything, grief and doubt have deepened, enriched and strengthened my faith – through these guests I discovered an all-gracious, incarnate God who undergirds our universe.

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But grief is not pleasant. Grief is painful. It still brings with it times of panic and anxiety and a deep desire to escape. No one goes looking for it – grief find us and there is no place to run. So we have to take courage, we have to stop, turn and stay with it. No one can outrun or remain immune from grief.

Dear Reader, if you, like me find the Christmas season a little more difficult than those around you, please know you are not alone. The heartache you feel, for whatever reason, is real and there are some things in life that sit with us and us with them for a long time. I would recommend that you do not go this alone or isolate yourself – this link provides some keys in coping with grief in the holiday season. A season that for many holds a marred joy … where we can feel pain AND we can sing carols … where we can smile at the delight of the young AND mourn the loss of those who have gone before us … it’s all part of sitting with an uninvited guest while still dancing our life dance … with a limp …

As I finished this blog another friend put up a post – needless to say, it is the perfect way to end:

“We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled. It is hard, painful, unbidden work. No one goes in search of loss; rather, it finds us and reminds us of the temporary gift we have been given, these few sweet breaths we call life…. It was through the dark waters of grief that I came to touch my unlived life, by at last unleashing tears I had never shed for the losses in my world. Grief led me back into a world that was vivid and radiant. There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive. Through this, I have come to have a lasting faith in grief.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –

Much love to you all this Christmas.

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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

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

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I was excited to meet Kathy Baldock in person last year when she visited Australia. Over the years I have admired her staunch support as an ally and advocate for the LGBTIQ community. Her writing is well-researched, articulate and informative (you can find more information about Kathy on this link). I am so pleased that Kathy has given of her precious time to introduce herself and answer some questions for this BLOG.

1. Kathy, first of all, thank you for your time. I know many of my BLOG readers will have read some of your research or heard about you. But, as a way of introduction, what caused you to start this journey of advocacy for LGBTIQ people, especially for people of faith?

A very important part of my story is that I came into an advocacy role by way of a crisis in my own life. Frequently, crises stop us in our tracks and we find ourselves re-evaluating things we are sure about and question what once seemed too risky to consider. 
This is also true with much of the Evangelical community. I thought my ways of following God and the understanding I had of Him and His ways were right. I followed the “rules” and they worked for me. Until they did not! 

My marriage of 20 years began to fall apart. My husband had had an affair with an employee in our business who was over 30 years younger. That’ll stop you in your tracks. We had a family business. I was homeschooling our kids. Our social lives were based on church relationships. We were seen as fixtures and leaders in the laity.

 When it was all working for me, I had had a great ease of telling somebody else what they needed to do with their lives to get right with God. I had the gift of evangelism and I used it. Suddenly, there I was, my life in utter chaos, despite doing all the “right things.” I didn’t suffer a crisis of faith, but I no longer felt comfortable telling another person what they needed to do to bring their life to order. It would have felt utterly hypocritical.

One of the prime ways I dealt with processing the pain of impending divorce was daily hiking; I live within five miles of at least a dozen trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Hiking was a way for me to escape the tension in my home and even process out loud what was going on in my head. My husband “demanded,” and I obeyed, that we do not tell the kids, ages 12 and 13, or the staff employees what was happening. It would be bad for the upcoming holiday season and business, so I agonised in isolation as he began to feel a sense of freedom.

I noticed that there was a hiker on the trails who was hiking the same speeds and intensity as I was. After many months of noticing her, one day, at the end of my hike and not wanting to return to the tension of home, I asked if she minded if I joined her on her hike. That’s how I met Netto Montoya. Netto was everything that I was not. She is a woman of colour, an agnostic, has a Hispanic last name, and is a lesbian. Rather than then doing what had been so natural to me in the past, which was “telling,” I opted to listen and establish a relationship. It seems quite funny to admit, but she became a safe spot for me. My Christian girlfriends of many decades were not a safe place. I had agreed with my husband to an unhealthy level of secrecy about the upcoming divorce and knew that private crisis shared, with even close Christian friends, would likely become a prayer request or a “concern” that they would discuss with others. Over the next year, Netto and I became good friends as we hiked together almost weekly. It was obvious to me that she was gay, yet I avoided the subject, as did she. My Christian friends constantly urged me to witness to her so that she would stop being a lesbian and become a believer. Still, I did none of that. I got to know her.

After about a year, Netto finally came out to me. By then, it no longer mattered to me that she was a lesbian. I knew she was a wonderful person and my judgments of gay people had significantly waned.

The friendship with Netto caused me to question so much of what I had heard about LGBTQ people. It’s embarrassing to say and admit, but I had bought into so much of the Evangelical rhetoric that was simply not true. I had believed that gay people experienced lust, not love; and that they made a choice to be gay, that their orientation was not intrinsic to their nature.

Before meeting Netto, no one had ever come out directly to me and told me they were gay. Even in college in the 1970s, though I participated in sports with numerous lesbians, “gay” was not a term we would have used nor understood. We viewed same-sex relationships as a “preference.” 

In friendship with Netto, she brought me into her social circles. Relationships with gay people caused me to question my sureness about my theology concerning same-sex relationships. Yet, it would still be another five years before I would dig into the Scriptures to try to figure out what the Bible actually said, if anything, about gay people.

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Kathy and Netto

2. Your book is such a great source of information for those seeking to understand or educate themselves. As a lover of history, I was particularly impressed by the way you dealt with historical context, as this is most important in understanding the politicising and scape-goating of LGBTIQ people today. What, do you think, are some of the key historical events that people should be aware of in helping them understand the political/religious dynamics at work today?

I’m really glad that you asked this question. The typical way in which traditional Christians have dealt with the subject of same-sex behaviour in the Bible is to view the Scriptures referring to same-sex behaviour in isolation of anything else going on in either the time in which they were penned, as well as ignoring what is presently known about human sexuality.

This question requires a multi-layer answer. 

Many other influences have impacted our beliefs about those who participate in same-sex behaviour. (Incidentally, I am quite intentional about the nuance of words that I use whether this is same-sex behaviour or homosexuality. Clearly, same-sex behaviour is referred to in Scripture, but is it homosexuality — a natural romantic, emotional and sexual attraction to people of the same sex?)

If one looks at same-sex interaction anytime before about the end of the 19th century, it would have been based on power and/or age differentials. It’s also important to note that, typically, few would even be discussing or noticing sex between women until about the 1960s. The entire topic of same-sex interaction focused primarily on sex between two males. Not only was the Bible written through a very distinct lens of patriarchy and gender hierarchy, both have been the social organisational structure of every predominant culture throughout time. For a man to maintain the social and sexual role of being “manly,” he would have had to have been the penetrator in a sexual act. 

Social patriarchal organisation began to gradually shift at the end of the 19th century. Several factors led to this. Many cultures shifted from agrarian-based to industrial-based. With the movement of people to cities and subsequent large concentrations of same-sex populations, people were able to act on curiosities they may have felt but could not have acted on. Equal status men found that they were attracted to other equal status men. Before this time, it would have only been appropriate for a man to have had sex with a lower status man, perhaps an immigrant (or in ancient cultures, a slave), or more commonly, a boy between about the ages of 12 and 20.

The obvious presence of these kinds of relationships caught the eye of people who were beginning to think about human sexuality at the turn of the 19th century. There was a period from about the 1870s until the late 1920s when sex experts (for their day) and thinkers were trying to figure out “what is this thing we’re seeing happening between equal status men?” It was a pivotal point in considering human sexuality.

Another great influence on how we’ve thought about same-sex relationships came from the merger of conservative religion and politics which emerged in the United States in the late 1970s and in Australia at the turn of the 21st Century. Though the beginnings of the understanding of human sexuality may have had quite a slow and scattered process, by the time the 1970s came around, the psychological community certainly understood that attraction to people of the same sex was not a ‘mental illness’, as it once had been thought of, but it was to be expected along the natural spectrum of human sexuality.

Following this time, there was a very small span of less than a decade once homosexuality was “de-pathologised” before it became a convenient wedge issue used to motivate conservative voters to get to the polls and vote for conservative issues. Jerry Falwell, the infamous leader of the religious right’s Moral Majority, had as his mantra “Get ‘em saved, get ‘em baptised, get ‘em registered.”

For an overview of the History of Cultural and Religious Discrimination against LGBTIQ Community in America please see this link.

3. How much do you think the Australian political/religious world has been affected by the politicising of LGBTIQ people in American history?

American conservative family groups have long been guilty of exporting extremism and dominionism to other countries even as they recognise their influence is becoming less effective in the United States.

For several decades, as the gay rights movement has grown in the United States, some of our political lobbying groups have been meddling in the affairs of other countries and in international organisations. There is a group of religious conservatives called United Families International, primarily based in the Mormon (LDS) church, that have been working within the United Nations trying to influence women’s reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTQ population in the global south. They have been accomplishing their propaganda work while going fairly unnoticed.

What is more well-known is that some conservative family groups, including Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom, and numerous other “traditional family” organisations, have had an impact in African nations, Russia, and eastern bloc nations. This meddling continues.

The Heritage Foundation, a very conservative think tank and policy group in the United States, is known to have sent representatives to Australia in about 2004 to advise Australia about how to deal with the impending question of same-sex marriage that would at some point come to Australia.

Knowing that Australians would not react quite the same way to the American message used to motivate conservative Christians against same-sex marriage laws, they helped Australians repackage and fashion their message from one of a biblical message to one centred on traditional family values. It is really just a nuance of the same discriminatory and exclusionary message. It also brilliantly played into the deeply entrenched Australian “manly” psyche. Australians have a level of homophobia that does not have a strong American equivalent.

There is a historical tie between criminality and same-sex behaviour in Australia that Americans do not have, at least not to the depth that it resides in the Aussie psyche. When Australia was “founded” (that is even a funny term as if the continent did not exist before the English got there), in the late 1700s as an English penal colony, very few white women were shipped over as prisoners. Same-sex behaviour was obviously happening in prisons and it became associated with criminals. (They even put women in the prisons with men to “correct” the perversion.)

So where the Aussies lack the American religious fervour to be anti-gay as we are, the Aussies are more prone to attach same-sex behaviour to anti-masculinity, perversion, and criminality. This is part of the reason the ‘Vote NO’ groups so heavily focused on the safety of children rather than one man-one women language as did Americans.

When I first started to write a decade ago, the three biggest groups sending the bulk of my hate mail were, in order: men who had been in the military or law enforcement, black women, and Aussie men. Really!

As long as there are leaders in any country who will listen to the message of these traditional family groups, America will likely continue to send and export this merger of religion and politics that has been going on for the last 50 years here. 

The toxic entanglement is certainly being dismantled in the US, but sadly, there is a market throughout the rest of the world for one of our worst exports.

Kathy Baldock

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

Part TWO of this blog will be posted tomorrow.

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God on My Side?

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I spent the first seven years of my life in a small village in Northern Germany. It was the sort of place where everyone knew each other and the children roamed the streets like herds of sheep. You had to be tough in those herds! Children aren’t always as nice as we like to imagine. My last resort when things got hairy was to remind everyone that my dad lives just a few houses away and he will sort out anyone threatening his daughter’s well-being. That normally did the trick. Dad was respected and no one liked the idea of having an angry German-Russian breathing down their neck. Of course, to my utter disappointment, the times dad did show up and I tried to dob on someone I perceived a threat to the welfare of the community, dad would be as kind and pleasant to the wee human as he could. I remember being furious. Dad was supposed to be on my side!

Several decades later, it occurs to me how hard it is to grow out of this. We simply change the ‘dad’ figure to reason, physical strength, positions of power, or ‘God’. If you conduct a brief search throughout the corridors of human history of wars fought with strong religious ideals, you will discover a common thread: each blood-lusting party had the novel idea that God was on their side. There seems to be a ferocious zeal that overcomes those who believe that the Divine is blessing their violence. As Blaise Pascal dryly commented, Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

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Those of us who would consider ourselves people of faith may recoil at the idea of thrusting a spear through an opponent’s heart in the name of God, or of terrorising villages and families in order to execute a ‘just’ war on terror, but perhaps we have other ways to vilify those we deem as an ‘enemy’, a ‘threat’, or simply people who have differing views from us. If we can insinuate that we have ‘God on our side’ then there is a high chance that the masses will ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, and that they will follow our cause without engaging in critical thinking. If we really want to drive a point home, we can ensure that people understand that our idea has God’s backing.

Positions of political and religious influence can be precarious places. These platforms provide all the necessary ingredients for deception, greed and power, which can corrupt hearts. When we adopt a ‘Joan of Arc’ persona and use sentences like “God told me”, we are using our influence, in whatever capacity, with the danger of engaging in control and manipulation – possibly with the best intentions, but still potentially dangerous. No amount of ‘scriptural backing’ gives us the right to put people in such a position that if they question us, they question God.

History should serve as a teacher. Take a moment to consider just a few of the many examples like the Apartheid ideology undergirded by the Dutch Reformed Church, the long history of Anti-Semitism in the Catholic church, the Spanish Inquisition, the Religious Wars of Ireland, the exuberant preachers of the pro-slavery era, the modern day ‘Kill the Gay’ bill enthusiastically propagated and supported by Religious Leaders from the USA, or the horrendous consequence of banning contraceptives in Africa and other parts of the world. We need to consider the wake of destruction that often accompanied ideologies and people of power who claimed God on their side – be it Presidents, dictators, Popes, priests or ministers.

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The moment our idea of God paints us as the ‘Messiah’ to liberate the misguided, evil ‘Other’, we come dangerously close to creating a ‘God’ in our own image, who looks and thinks like us. I would urge us to exercise caution before we marginalise and label those who differ. Many of the dogmas that were held with such certainty in a previous era, are now considered fallacies. Perhaps most confronting is the notion that what often irritates us in others is mirrored in our own shadow side. Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves, said C.G. Jung. The French writer, Vauvenargues, responds: We discover in ourselves what others hide from us and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.”

It is a terrifying thought that God stares back at us from the eyes of our ‘opponent’
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The Sinking Island

And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
The sea came.
Without warning.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.

The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.

Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.

Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …

I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!

I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.

The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!

So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”

 

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Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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Have Your Cake And Eat It Too: Protecting Our Religious Rights!

“When we hide discrimination under the guise of ‘religious freedom,’ we make a mockery of human rights.” – DaShanne Stokes –

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There’s been a lot of talk around our fair isle about preserving ‘religious rights’ and ‘religious freedom’ in the last few months. The fear is palpable and has been used to keep campaigns alive and well-resourced, while conspiracy theories thrive with enough slander fertiliser to sprout new angst and anguish amongst many. There is a fear that religious organisations could be silenced or forced to stop their activity in spreading hope and good news (wouldn’t it be great to be able to write this hope in the sky??? But I transgress!). There are villains out there, you know. Villains who are clearly persecuting those who want to bake cakes and only sell them to those whose ideology lines up with theirs. Very unreasonable. You cannot actually bake your cake and eat it too. It’s doomsday, people! Doomsday!

So. I have a plan. I think it’s time we ensure that religious rights are protected. We need a blue print. For Christianity, you cannot get better than the words of Jesus, right? A Religious Rights & Freedom Manifesto according to the words of Jesus, will no doubt, settle the matter once and for all. So here are some ideas to get us started:

1. Every church and religious organisation should have absolute freedom to feed the hungry! No messing with this religious right. This is clearly a religious freedom that is protected by Jesus in his address to a group called “The Sheep and the Goats”. Christians should be vocal and active in addressing world famine. We should be holding our politicians accountable in the treatment of our global neighbour. We all know we have participated in inequality and hunger – so lets be part of the solution. Feed the hungry. Tick. Don’t mess with this right!

2. “I was thirsty,” said Jesus – so let us who follow him ensure that all over the world people have access to safe drinking water. Did you know that water scarcity affects more than 40% of the global population and is projected to rise? It is estimated that 783 million people do not have access to clean water and over 1.7 billion people are currently living in river basins where water use exceeds recharge (source). It would be disastrous to curb the religious rights and freedom of churches to assist people who are ‘thirsty”. Let’s protect the right to get actively involved in solving this global crisis.

3. Talk about global crisis. Let’s also make sure we protect the right to “welcome the stranger”. We are now witnessing the highest level of displaced people on record. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their home. Australia has signed the refugee convention, but we like to ignore that, preferring to build concentration camps to house strangers coming to our shores looking for help. I suggest that we safeguard the religious rights and freedom of churches and institutions to care for the ‘stranger’. Welcome would be what the Gospel is all about … let’s write that in the sky …

4. We need to ensure that the religious right and freedom of those visiting people in prison is preserved. Obviously not just in prisons in Australia (although the need for more involvement here is dire). Also, let’s be working towards those caught in a ‘global prison’ of modern day slavery. Slavery continues today in every country in the world. Women are forced into prostitution. People are forced to work in agriculture, domestic work and factories. Children working in sweatshops producing goods sold globally. Entire families in ‘prison’ forced to work for nothing in order to pay off generational debts. This ‘prison’ work will require our focus and finance. Let’s make sure we have the right to be active in bringing liberation under the “Religious Rights & Freedom Manifesto” according to Jesus.

5. Please protect our Religious Right and Freedom to deeply reflect on how we wish to be treated and ensure we treat others in like manner. Otherwise people might call us hypocrites and judgemental – that would not help in getting this Manifesto up and running.

This is just to get us started. We need to be allowed to meet weekly and in small groups so we can take a good, critical look at our progress and utter prayers of hope and thankfulness. We need this time to examine our hearts and repent if we become plagued with the infamous “Messiah Complex”.  We need to ensure that our ‘theology’ lines up with this Jesus’ mandate and that we are not being jerks to other humans.

It’s a mammoth task, people, this kingdom work of hope. We may need to consider how we use our finances. In order to have the right to ‘clothe the naked’ we perhaps need to shed some of our magnificent and delicately embroidered cassocks. After all, it would be a bad look and may even impinge on our rights to be seen with so much pomp and splendour while Lazarus lies dying at the gate of our religiosity.

So, let’s get busy. Jesus has come. Let’s be active in bringing hope to the world we live in – after all, this is our Religious Right and Freedom.

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“If there is some corner of the world which has remained peaceful, but with a peace based on injustices the peace of a swamp with rotten matter fermenting in its depths – we may be sure that that peace is false. Violence attracts violence. Let us repeat fearlessly and ceaselessly: injustices bring revolt, either from the oppressed or from the young, determined to fight for a more just and more human world.” – Dom Helder Camara –

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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

 

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Let’s Talk about Shame

 

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It’s only taken me several decades to work out what a powerful motivator shame has been in my life. As an idealist and dreamer, the need to make things right has so often been driven by an exhausting sense of shame.

Psychologist Michael Lewis calls shame the ‘quintessential human emotion’. In many ways, shame is somewhat of a normal feeling about ourselves and our behaviour. The problems occur when shame or humiliation become an integral part of our self-image and worth. Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D., differentiates guilt and shame as guilt being the feeling of ‘doing’ something wrong, whilst shame is the feeling of ‘being’ something wrong. Gershin puts it this way: “Shame is an inner sense of being completely diminished or insufficient as a person. It is the self-judging the self. A moment of shame may be humiliation so painful or an indignity so profound that one feels one has been robbed of her or his dignity or exposed as basically inadequate, bad, or worthy of rejection. A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not valid as a human being.

Brene Brown would say shame is the unspoken epidemic, the secret behind broken behaviour because shame shuts down vulnerability: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” That’s why the fastest way to stifle creativity and pioneering adventures in your organisation is to foster a culture of shame. Shame is a most powerful form of control. When we take a moment to consider our place of belonging, or our social ‘tribes’, that provide not just protection, belonging and nourishment, but also meaning, we realise these tribes tell us not just who we are, but what to believe and how to behave. Shame can become a tribe’s most powerful and degrading tool. Tribal shaming is a dark magic and a form of social control that ensures people do not dare question the status quo because questioning presents a threat to the tribe. If you are anything like me you have been both victim of tribal shaming and perpetrator. Change starts with recognition.

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Shame undergirds fundamentalist-type religions, and it is a match made in hell. In these sort of groups, judgement is based on a “goodness vs. badness scale”. A person’s inclusion or exclusion in these groups depends on where they are perceived on this scale. Therefore, to remain in the ‘in’ group of belonging one’s perceived ‘goodness’ is foundational. Acceptance and belonging are extended to those who fit the groups’ philosophical ideals of ‘good’.

Boschen sums up the rules of shame-bound persons, marriage, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples:

1. Always give the impression of being in control of one’s life at all times. This is the cardinal rule of shame-bound religion and relationships – all other rules flow from here.
2. The second rule of shame-bound fundamentalism is that one must always be right and do the right thing according to the laws of the group, especially the leadership.
3. Blaming is vital in ensuring that a person remains above reproach. Blame the other. Blame helps maintain an illusion of control and keeps the system pure.
4. Denial is very important in a shame culture. The person controlled by shame must deny certain feelings, especially the negative and vulnerable ones like anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, rejection, neediness, and caring. In the shame-controlled family, group, or church, remaining task-focused can keep dangerous inner realities hidden.
5. Unreliability and inconsistency: a shame driven culture can create a person who shines with ‘holiness’ on Sundays and abuses their partner the following day.
6. Incompleteness – resolving hurt and conflict in families or church is not important. Issues can remain unresolved for months and years.
7. And Golden Rule number seven weighs in at ‘Do Not Talk’. Never discuss the disrespect, abuse and shame you feel. To talk about it would be to bring up the past and with that a sense of shame. For religious fundamentalism, this is vital as to talk means to transfer information, and with that power. Ideas about ‘honour’ keep this ‘no talk’ policy in place, along with excusing the shaming behaviour as ‘preserving the integrity of Scripture’ or ‘defending orthodoxy from liberalism’.
8. Last lucky number eight is the rule of disguising shame. Shame-bound behaviour is minimised and outworked in other addictive behaviours.

Boschen concludes with: Religious fundamentalists are shame-bound persons in shame-based systems. They are guided by a set of rules generally designed by those in positions of power, who require conformity in order to be acceptable.

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The effect of shaming on children is extremely detrimental. In shame-bound settings, a child’s behaviour reflects directly on a parent’s ideal image or their sense of shame. Therefore, shame is used in turn to modify a child’s behaviour. This is often seen as an acceptable form of ‘discipline‘ in homes or schools, where a child can be reduced to nothing more than their behaviour. Self-concept, the way we see ourselves, is formed in our earliest years by our parents, caregivers and figures of authority. Therefore, if a child is consistently shamed, told they are ‘bad’, ‘naughty’, or ‘sinful’ because of their childish behaviour, this is the perceived reality of themselves that they will take into adulthood.

This blog post is only a tiny tip of the iceberg on this enormous subject of shame that so drastically affects human thought and behaviour. I am still unravelling the role of shame in my own life, especially the years of tightly held fundamentalist philosophies that disguised themselves as ‘pleasing God’. Shame’s need to have it all together only produces hypocrisy and judgement. I am learning to trust grace in a whole new way and rediscovered the words of Jesus, “I have come to give you life, life to the full”.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare. – Brene Brown

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A very brief Introduction to Christian Fundamentalism

“There are few things more dangerous than inbred religious certainty.” – Bart D. Ehrman

This is a REPOST of a blog I wrote a couple of years ago … most fitting at this time of Australian religious and political discussions!

There is a danger in assuming that every Christian belief and practice that we adhere to today has always been part of the Christian faith throughout the centuries. “Well, Christians have believed this for two thousand years,” is a common phrase we fling around. We can line ourselves up with the ‘saints’ who have gone before, convinced that our Christian enlightenment happens to be the ‘orthodox’ portion, whilst everyone else has, unfortunately, landed with a distorted version. If this is our subconscious paradigm, then the way we engage with the wider world outside our theological framework tends to be from a benevolent, Messiah-like stance, patiently patting a delinquent society on the head. But over time we find this irksome. People who are not as pious and pure as we would like them to be can lead us to ‘righteous’ anger. We find lawmakers and politicians with similar views and hinge our wagon of outrage to their public persona, their dogma, and their power … Welcome to Christian Fundamentalism.

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This blog post will provide a very brief glimpse into the Fundamentalist movement within the North American and British context. Why is this of interest? It is most relevant to the Australian setting as fundamentalism still undergirds the ethos of so many faith communities, often without them being truly aware of the origin. Understanding this history provides a frame of reference of the motivation behind some of their beliefs and behaviour.

Some of the earliest scholars to write on fundamentalism were Stewart G. Cole, History of Fundamentalism (1931), and Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (1954). Both academics were rather negative as they saw the rise of fundamentalism not driven by religious convictions, but rather by the desire for political denomination power. Fundamentalism was primarily a reaction. It was a reaction to liberal theology, secularism, science, and especially the theory of evolution. According to Timothy Gloege, North American Christian fundamentalism was invented in an advertising campaign. The all-UnknownAmerican brand of ‘old-time religion’ was developed by an early adopter of consumer capitalism, who wanted to sell pure Christianity like he sold breakfast cereal. Enter Henry Parsons Crowell, whose Quaker Oats was one of the pioneers of the branding revolution.

So how do you create a brand of conservative orthodoxy that goes beyond the traditional Presbyterian Orthodoxy, Methodist orthodoxy, etc? You work with the fear of those who felt that the ‘true’ Christian message was being watered down through some of the factors mentioned (liberalism, secularism, etc). Crowell’s idea of orthodoxy was a prescription that came with a set of ‘fundamentals’ that anyone who was conservative within any denomination could ascribe to and set themselves apart from the liberals.

Crowell used a publication called The Fundamentals to further his ideas. This is a twelve volume set of theological treatises written by various scholars writing on the fundamentals of faith, or as the subheading says, a testimony to the truth. Those who actually bother reading the volumes quickly discover that they carry no precise creed and that articles contradict each other, but they did create an impression of orthodoxy.  The volumes brought together conservatives from all different denominations who felt embattled by liberalism. They united under some very specific ideas, particularly biblical literalism and creationism. (A timeline of the rise of fundamentalism and the Scopes Trscopessignial).

This was not the only stream of fundamentalism. There were several in the 19th century of British and American theology. One of these was Dispensationalism. A new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830’s in England. In this theory, time was divided into seven stages called ‘dispensations’. Each dispensation was a stage of revelation from God. Today, many who hold to this idea believe that the world is on the verge of the last stage, where a final battle will take place at Armageddon. Then Christ will return and a 1000 year reign will begin. An important sign was the rebirth of national Israel, which is central to this ideology.

Princeton Theology of the mid 19th century provided another stream of fundamentalism. It upheld the doctrine of inerrancy, in response to higher criticism of the Bible. Charles Hodge was influential in insisting that the Bible was inerrant because it had been dictated by God, and that faithfulness to the Bible provided the best defence against liberalism. This is important as in his understanding, liberalism and modernism, just like non-Christian religions, would lead people to hell.

Fundamentalism found oxygen in many “Bible Colleges,” especially those modelled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dwight Moody was influential in preaching the imminence of the Kingdom of God thaUnknown-1t was so important to dispensationalism. As Moody’s crusading career came to an end we discover a new strand of fundamentalism through William B. Riley.  In revival meetings around the Midwest and Northwest from 1897 to the 1910s, Riley told crowds to follow the Bible. “God is the one and only author,” he declared, adding that human writers “played the part of becoming mediums of divine communication.”  Riley’s distinctive brand of fundamentalism combined social activism, puritanical moralism, and a literalist premillennialist theology.  In his 1906 book urging Christians to serve the urban poor, Riley defined the mission of the Church as he saw it: “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.”

Fundamentalism is still with us today and it is still a powerful force. In his book, Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American FundamentalismJonathan J. Edwards argues that fundamentalism is not going away and will remain strongest at the level of local politics: “Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical — meaning that it’s constructed in and through language.”

Today we see a second-stage fundamentalism emerging in the United States and around the world. While established churches are embracing contemplation, silent prayer and non-directed worship, fundamentalist churches are actively pursuing consumption, mobility, image and influence. We see this pursuit played out in Australian politics.  Unlike the USA with its firm separation of church and state, Australian governments had supported and been supported by religious groups since the foundation of the European settlement. However, it was not until the election of the conservative national government in 1996, that government preference for the religious provision of services was enshrined as a policy priority.  The extraordinary rise of fundamentalist churches and right-wing lobby groups through the 1980s and 1990s has had direct effects on government and policies … but that is the topic for another day.

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The Avoidance Crisis

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life …”
– Mark Manson –

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Last week I blogged about death and how we live in a society that avoids this subject to the point of delusional insanity. The response was overwhelming. What became clear amongst the many messages I received was that our collective existential angst has created a social and cultural avoidance crisis. It is difficult for us to acknowledge that life can be very painful and challenging and that we have very little control over it.

Avoidance has helped us cope and survive in life. We naturally choose the path of least resistance to escape danger or suffering. Our early childhood lessons were often about learning what, or who, to avoid in order to make it to adulthood. We have an inbred protective reflex when exposed to adverse stimuli and that is beneficial – unless it becomes driven by anxiety.

Anxiety can cause us to protect ourselves from things we perceive as threats, but often these very threats are important life experiences. We may think avoidance is a cure, not realising it can actually heighten our distress. We begin to be consumed with the very thing that we are trying to avoid. There are many examples of this. People suffering from eating disorders trying to avoid certain foods, so food and calories become their obsession. People suffering from social disorders trying to avoid encounters with others and feeling continually panicked. My previous blog on death discussed our society’s avoidance of talking about death, underscoring a primal fear that drives us to all sorts of unrealistic beliefs or behaviours, both in religious and social settings.

Mark Manson’s quote above is so accurate: “The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.” The more dogmatic and hostile we become in areas of our lives, the more we are struggling to avoid something unpleasant, perhaps a shadow side to ourselves. It’s an internal struggle and a form of suffering. That is why vulnerability is such an important transformational tool. When we learn to be vulnerable we begin to recognise that avoidance is not the answer. In fact, avoidance comes at a very high price as we barricade ourselves from life’s inevitabilities and our own flaws.

Facing our fears takes courage. In a society that is caught in an avoidance crisis as it pursues experience after experience to feel ‘better’ or ‘happy’, it takes guts to stop, reflect and become counter-cultural. We need to learn to build our tolerance to things that are challenging, painful and uncomfortable. It is in the full embrace of life, with all its ups and downs, laughter and tears, that we experience what it means to be truly human and to build relationships that are genuine, healthy and have longevity.

Dear reader, take a moment to think about your life. Are there areas that you are avoiding that desperately need your attention? Are you sidestepping conversations because even though they are important and should not wait any longer, you know they will be difficult and awkward? Are there shadows you need to face that you have denied?

Avoiding avoidance is risky. Will it all go well when you stop running and turn around? I don’t know. “It all going well” is not what life is about. Life is raw, risky and at times filled with peril. We become vulnerable and our Jenga blocks, sometimes built on lofty ideals and a protective guise, can all topple over … and then we have to rebuild … one honest, humble, vulnerable block at a time …

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
– R.D. Laing –

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