Still Haunted

NOTE: Despite the title, this is not a Halloween fantasy but a recognition of a real-life haunting that continues to this very day and shows few, if any, signs of ending. 

I have removed images that were shown earlier, to avoid triggering readers. 

A dear friend told me about her high blood pressure during the past weeks and months—a response to nightmares she is experiencing. The nightmares include her being beaten, even shot, “because of the color of my skin.” She said a recurring one involves Walking While Black, being shot for walking down the street. 

It is for me a powerful reminder of the power of White Supremacy to keep BIPOC people on edge, off-center, always having to be aware of everything going on around them, to take extra precautions to be safe wherever they are, whatever they are doing. 

Even more, it is a powerful statement about what all that watching and being prepared for the next bad thing, every moment of every day, can do to people’s psyche, their sense of well-being, their mental health, and indeed their physical health. BIPOC people are so very aware of being expected to not precipitate what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility”—the form of bullying used by White people to maintain dominance, to keep people of color in line and “in their place.”

My friend is a Black woman in her 60s, now retired, with a long record of distinguished accomplishment in her profession as well as continuing engagement in working for social change. She is a well-known, greatly admired leader in our local community. She would seem to have everything going for her, and yet she is experiencing dangerously high blood pressure due to a lifetime spent coping with the insidious nature of White supremacy. 

Another friend speaks of “adaptive behavior” that she and other Black people (and other racially marginalized people) have learned to do to survive, expressed through self-denial and self-silencing (swallowing feelings, looking past hurts and insults, avoiding disagreements, etc.) piling up over years of stifling oneself. Small wonder people have nightmares.

None of what has happened in recent years to Black people surprises either of them, nor does it surprise any other Black people………or Indigenous or other People of Color. But all of it takes a toll on their well-being. This is the seemingly “non-violent,” quiet, side of White supremacy—it is not available for video recording and replay, it is not a dramatic moment like a shooting or a lynching or White supremacist demonstration. 

But it is violence. Social violence. State-sponsored or at least state-allowed violence—just think of the differentials for health outcomes not only in the Pandemic but all the time between White people and BIPOC people. And it is only quiet in the sense that our White supremacist social structure ignores it, pretends it does not exist. 

And it is violence enacted by individuals. Most White people don’t know our own complicity in everyday attitudes, interactions, and practices that perpetuate and even encourage the violence. 

This is why Ta NaHesi-Coates, in his powerful 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” speaks about the time after the passage of the 13th Amendment and Reconstruction, and indeed all that has followed, down to and including our own time. 

Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us. 

[If you have not read his piece, here is a link so you can read it now,

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/  …..vital reading for us all.]

“But still we are haunted.” 

That is my friend, but it is not limited to her. Nor is this haunting solely attributable to overtly racist, White supremacist people, or even to a President who denies the realities of American history and belittles those who keep bringing it up. 

The long and short of it, my fellow White Americans, is that we have so much to do because we have so much to answer for. We must engage in ongoing, probing self-examination, looking intently in the mirror of our souls, our minds, to be willing to root out our unconscious obedience to racist social rules of which we have remained blissfully unaware. We must become conscious about what is unconscious and challenge it, we must to dare to see what we were trained not to see and begin to share it with others, and we must confess and repent and figure out what we can do to repair at least some of the harm we have caused. 

For example, without asking a BIPOC friend to educate you (an old trick designed to keep the focus off us and on them, to help us feel good about ourselves for asking) you might ask them to tell you of something that happened to them with a White person recently that caused them to feel devalued, hurt, anxious, or angry, perhaps all of the above. Then watch your own reaction honestly and analyze all your feelings, certainly expressing your concern for them but really being open to the full range of your feelings. Let their testimony simmer in you and see where you go. And if you don’t have such a friend to ask, that is a wake-up call. 

Until we as White people realize, really realize, with the spoken word artist Guante that “white supremacy is not the shark in the water, it is the water (see below),” until we acknowledge how much harm has been caused, and how we continue to maintain it ourselves, until we can hear people like my friend and not become defensive, until someone we know tells us of their pain and we seek to learn more and to check in with other BIPOC friends, until we confess our complicity in this sin and start changing our attitudes, our behaviors, our words, our hearts and minds, the haunting will continue.

Let’s work, with each other and within ourselves, to end our participation in the haunting.

And if you aren’t familiar with the impact of racism on mental and physical health, here are links to two articles that provide some good information. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/racism-in-care-leads-to-health-disparities-doctors-and-other-experts-say-as-they-push-for-change/2020/07/10/a1a1e40a-bb9e-11ea-80b9-40ece9a701dc_story.html 

https://mhanational.org/racism-and-mental-health 

 You can hear Guante speak the truth in this 3.5 minute video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDSEHfxXLhI&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2-of-33eg8MhXN96m7VqsYzzfOJ1WQEqWyenS9tL8f_HBNi-gh89u6T8E

god Speaks to the Donald

My Son, i am counting on you.

All heaven is counting on you to save me

to save the truth of my Word

the foundation of the world 

to snuff out all those who claim 

to speak in my name

as they speak blasphemy

as they encourage roving bands

of anarchists and so-called 

liberation theologians and their ilk

who claim that justice is what they say it is

when of course there is no justice 

without the peace i decree,

the peace of people being led 

and ruled by you and others 

of enormous strength 

ruthless resilience in the face of danger

who know they and they alone 

define freedom and liberty

in the correct, dare i say godly, way. 

You know, i thought Abraham 

would get it right, then Moses, Jesus and Paul

—my greatest disappointments.

i thought Luther might be the one

for a brief moment or Calvin

but no they were weak each of them, 

allowing forces of deceit 

to make claims i cannot accept. 

Then came the resisters from 

those s—t hole parts of the world 

who pronounced their version of truth,

what they called the word of liberation. 

All it did, as you have so clearly said,

is to encourage lawless bands 

of rapists, drug and people smugglers

to invade the sacred precincts 

of the one true holy land

north of the Rio Grande.

And now this Joe

and his faithless sidekick Kamala

(i ask you, what sort of name is that?)

the ones who will kill me off

the ones who will destroy 

what is left of my kingdom

they will burn all the Bibles—

bless you, my Son, for standing tall

with the holy book—

the King James Version 

the true original language 

i dictated to all the scribes of long ago—

in front of that so-called house of worship

near the holy of holies, the White House,

where lawless rowdy bands 

pretended to care about the blacks 

when all they wanted was to slash and burn

what does not belong to them. 

You are so right, my dear one, 

if those two are elected 

there will be no more me. 

Save me, save us, my Son! 

 

Note: I wrote this poem in response to the claim by the President that “there will be no God” if Biden is elected. Some may see the poem as sacrilegious but I see it as Holy Sacrilege, standing up to someone who uses God as a prop, as a toy to advance his own interests.

Thriving for All, Part 1

Recently, I published a post about the Four Necessities—water, food, shelter and community, and health care (both physical and mental). These four are the basic necessities for all human beings/bodies to survive (see https://thenakedtheologian.org/2020/07/28/the-four-necessities/ )

Of course, each of us needs more—freedom to think and act for ourselves, to believe what we believe, to feel empowered to be our best selves rather than confined by the straitjackets of social expectation, oppression, invisibility and silence. 

But without the full functioning of our bodies it is extraordinarily difficult, even impossible to go beyond survival to thriving. 

What do I mean by thrive? This is far more than survival, important as that is. And shamefully, not every one in the world has enough water and food to even survive at the most minimal level. And the root of this reality lies not with those with too little but with the rest of us who refuse to create change that serves all. 

Thus, I am writing about these four necessities in order to propose an new ethic for our world—namely that rather than creating and relying on systems which provide some with more than enough to thrive while others struggle and too many barely survive, and too many of those don’t—to one in which our universal goal and practice is for all to thrive.

At this point, I am working on a definition of thrive. But there are a variety of synonyms: flourish, prosper, grow vigorously, develop well, burgeon, bloom, blossom, do well, advance, make strides, succeed, shoot up, boom, profit, expand, go well, grow rich. 

I don’t know if everyone can grow rich, at least in terms of money. But I do believe everyone can grow rich in experience, in achievement, in meaning, in love, in joy, in caring. I do believe that everyone can become their best selves, to be and to do what they are called to be and do, to be their true selves. 

I am proposing a clear systemic shift in the world, a profound reordering, restructuring, how each of us and all of us approach our own well-being—namely to accept, and live by, a new ethic which says that my well-being is very much dependent on the well-being of others, indeed of all others. What I believe, in an echo of Dr. King about freedom, is that none of us can truly thrive unless all are thriving.

This is a clear repudiation of capitalist views of “getting ahead” and the American idea of rugged individualism. It contradicts the social Darwinism doctrine of survival of the fittest (which in our world so often defines the fittest as those who are rich, white, male, already privileged). 

It is not that each of us is not an individual but rather that our ability to actuate our own bodies, character, potential is directly linked to, dependent on, the ability of all others to be able to do the same. 

I can hear someone say that surely Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg do not need any of the rest of to do all they want to do whenever and wherever they want to do it. There is truth in that. 

And yet, even they depend on the ability of people to buy what they sell, to access their products, to entertain their ideas and their schemes to further build and burnish their empires. 

But more than that, do they not depend on the constant uprising and inflow of talented people to maintain and grow their economic and social engines? 

How many Einsteins. how many Edisons, how many Kings and Mandelas and Wells and Obamas, how many Domingos and Sills and Picassos and Kahlos, how many Morrisons and Baldwins and Lordes and Faulkners, how many Curies and Salks and Barnards, how many Platos and Arendts, Rawls, de Beauvoirs and Foucaults—how many of the very people we always need are we losing when people not only die of thirst and hunger and absence of protection of their bodies and their minds but also when more of them lose hope that they will ever be able to rise above the misery and limitations of their life situations even if they survive?

Which one of the malnourished children we see in pictures not only from so-called Third World countries but even our own might be the genius, the leader, the inventor, the artisan, the performer that will transform the world. How many of the parents we see in such pictures with eyes pleading for someone, anyone, to help them and their families could create whole new understandings of how we can all live better lives?

I raise these questions as a way for us to think that no matter our own level of privilege, our own ability to thrive, we are diminished by what others are unable to do because what they need is kept from them. I encourage you to think about your own interests, your profession and work, your community, and ponder who/what is missing. 

In my next installment I will discuss how I came to this view via the workings of what we call nature, or the natural world. 

Dark(?) Times

Friends and others lament these “dark times,” meaning for them one or all of these: the ugliness of Trumpism and our politics in general; and the scourges of four Pandemics— Covid-19, racism and White supremacy,  economic despair and devastation for too many even before the virus struck, and a burgeoning climate crisis. 

I share this lament, but not the negative value associated with the this usage of “dark.”

Why is the devil so often portrayed as black/dark?

As one who feels at home in the dark, the phrase “dark times” troubles me. There is so much that is good about darkness—whether it be darker-pigmented people or the underland where fungi and other creatures deepen and extend life in the soil or even the overland beauty of leafless trees in winter against the night sky. Or what about the things we learn as the result of “being in the dark” and the feeling of revelation, sometimes even elation, when we see what we had missed before? 

I experience darkness as almost always a gift, a break from the light pollution to which we are exposed every day. For example, there is more than enough light created by our neighbors and us in our small court of co-op homes as we leave our porch lights on at night to discourage criminals from breaking in. We also  live across the street from city hall, the community center, and the library, which are overlaid with light each night. 

When I go outside at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. to meditate and pray, all this light, not to mention the noise of twin-interstate highways and a local parkway that meet just outside our town, reduce the number and brightness of stars visible in the sky and compete with the chorus of cicadas.

Why is Jesus so often portrayed as white, non-Semitic?

Often it feels to me life is an unending contest where light keeps trying to overcome, even erase, dark. And light wins all the time—a system of light supremacy to which our society is addicted. Why can’t we accept, and celebrate, the reality that there is life, good life, in darkness, and that we can learn from its multitude of gifts?

White racism, White Supremacy, is a good place to start. Despite the beauty, strength and resilience of darker-skinned people even in the most ugly times, Western Civilization insists on the primacy of Euro-American positive valuation of light and the negative valuation of dark. 

In the United States, we connect White Supremacy with the subjugation and domination of African peoples. And yet, coupled with an Enlightenment mindset—namely the value of the rational over the mystical, the scientific over the intuitive and artistic, and the valorization of the individual (often to pursue their own interests over the well-being of community), White Supremacy supports and sustains the subjugation and domination of other groups as well. 

For example, Arab learning—at one time the zenith of mathematical and scientific reasoning and knowledge in the world—was discounted to justify Christian crusades against Muslim people. That same strain of Christian imperialism and the belief that Western (northern European) ideas, culture and systems are the apex of human achievement unite in capitalism and colonialism to undergird and justify the conquest of indigenous people in the Americas as well as the importation and breeding of slaves for the profit of their owners. 

A central method of the capitalist/settler colonialism drive to subdue and own land and all it contains is to label the wisdom and practices of indigenous people as primitive, without value in the modern world. Thus, today we can see not only how African Americans and Spanish-speaking peoples from Latin America continue to be oppressed, but also how the Middle East, other than Israel, is viewed as backward, and even nations and peoples further east are the victims of negativity.  

Further, this intersecting series of belief systems produce the subjugation of nature, degradation and elimination of species, and denial of what is happening in the Climate Crisis. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, non-indigenous people are trained to devalue the teaching of nature.

In short, “we” have created a worldview that highlights only some parts of reality and casts the rest into the dark—not listening to BIPOC people (Black Indigenous People of Color); not paying attention to that which makes life possible for all, namely the earth and all its parts; and refusing to build a world in which all have what they need to thrive (rather than some having far more than they need and too many not having even enough to survive).

Thus, I believe we must begin the practice of Endarkenment, to value not only things that appear dark but also the wisdom we have cast into the dark. In future posts, I will discuss this concept but suffice it to say at this point that I believe if we continue to refuse to acknowledge and accept and even celebrate the equal partnership of dark and light, we, and certainly our children and grandchildren and their children, are doomed. 

These are not “dark times.” They are times of pain, fear, anxiety, injustice, and crisis—and thus times of challenge and opportunity to radically change our ways to save us all. 

Time to Begin

 

Many of my friends know of my love affair with James Baldwin (no we did not have sex and sadly I never met him), that began in my ministry studies and continued with my doctoral dissertation, “Bearing Witness to the Dark: Resources for Anti-White-Supremacist, Pro-Same-Sexes, Pro-Feminist Theologizing in Queer Modes” (1999). 

Baldwin and the womanist warrior poet and essayist Audre Lorde were my inspiration and interrogators in that project. At that time, in the 90s, I had read and re-read everything Baldwin ever published or was written about him. And since, I have stayed abreast of texts and interviews and the like that were not available then as well as books and articles and films focused on him. 

So none of them will be surprised that I am extolling the wisdom and power of a new book that focuses on Baldwin and his relevance for our own time. The book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.  It is a valuable resource in our time, and especially for those who are considered or consider themselves White. The title is taken from a passage in Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head (perhaps my favorite Baldwin novel despite many negative reviews): 

Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.

Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and also the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. But his treatment of Baldwin and Baldwin’s importance for us today is no dry academic treatise. 

Glaude not only discusses Baldwin expertly but also channels Baldwin in our own moment. The liveliness of his writing and the personal experiences and observations he shares bring the already powerful witness of Baldwin’s observations and writing to a new level, a new depth, from which we can draw sustenance and challenge and courage today. Indeed, Glaude draws upon Baldwin’s view, espressed in an interview conducted by Julius Lester, of what it means to be a writer, namely “to bear witness. . . . to what life is—does—and to speak for people who cannot speak. That you are simply a kind of conduit.”

For me, one of the most important lessons from the book is Glaude’s rendering of what he calls “after times.” He takes the phrase from Whitman who wrote about the time after the Civil War when the echoes of slavery and civil war remained in view in contrast to Reconstruction coming into view even as it was highly contested and ultimately undone.

Drawing on Baldwin’s powerful 1972 book, No Name in the Street, Glaude takes us through what he calls Baldwin’s personal after times.  In that works, Baldwin recounts the despair and anger he and so many others felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially when White America turned away from the struggle for justice (ultimately making King into an icon who was no longer challenging us).  Baldwin called it “the lie,” the denial of White people about white supremacy and our central role in sustaining its dominating power in our society. 

Glaude relates that to our own day, with the after time that is the age of Trump—the turning away, indeed undoing, the hope engendered by the Obama election, just as it was evident to Baldwin after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and King, into the 70s and 80s, as it is clear from what happened after Reconstruction with the rise of Jim Crow, lynching, etc. 

Thus, he says that Trump is not a new phenomenon but rather the latest manifestation of backlash against forces of change, hanging on to the idea of America as “an identity that white people will protect at any cost.”

Telling the the truth of the history and current reality of White supremacy

In the final chapter of the book, Glaude discusses his visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama built by the Equal Justice Institute. He is deeply moved by the exhibits witnessing to the ugly history of American White Supremacy and by the memorials to hundreds of lynchings of Black people all over this country in the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries. He notices a quote on the side of the Legacy Museum from Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 

Glaude concludes that “what we need is a third American founding,” to try again to achieve what the Founders thought they were doing in the Revolution and the Constitution, and then what others thought they were doing in Reconstruction after the Civil War, to undo what horrors had been done until then—and then the after times of that took us back so we still rely on and glorify the first incomplete founding, despite the horrors that permeate everything to this day. 

Glaude writes, “We need an America where ‘becoming white’ is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins.” Or as Baldwin would say, it is time to do our first works over. 

To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.

It’s time, America, that we, and especially White America, stopped looking into the distorted mirrors of our alleged greatness, uniqueness, our special call, and spent serious time and effort to look at the true mirror of ourselves as it is revealed by so much that is fundamentally wrong. We must overcome the repeating practice of ignoring the foundation and finally choose  to allow ourselves to see what we have become, a country that pretends to be a democracy, and nation of equals, while acting on the deeply ingrained belief in the superiority of White people.

Glaude does not offer a plan to do this, but it is clear the timetable he sees is to get started now (it is one minute to midnight). A good place to begin is reading this book. But then what? What will you do? What will I do? What can we do together, and what must we do individually?

I know I will keep reading and writing (a book I have started to read is White Too Long:The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones). And I will keep writing about my exploration of White Supremacy and my own complicity in it, knowing that for me writing is how I become more honest. 

But I need others. I need you because none of us can do this alone. And as we journey we need to welcome BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) calling us out when they feel the need to do so (but not asking them to teach us yet again what they have been telling us for centuries). 

Please offer your own thoughts and let’s begin and continue a dialogue. 

The Four Necessities

by Robin Hawley Gorsline

[Note: I began writing this well before the outbreak of Covid-19, but in some ways that crisis simply adds to the imperative that we attend to the needs of all humanity. And of course, the crisis highlights the social divisions already present—the lack of one or more of these necessities in various marginalized communities.]

For a year or more, I have included in my morning prayer a desire that everyone in the world has four things every day of their lives: 

  • water
  • food 
  • shelter and safe communities
  • and health care (both physical and mental). 

And in sufficient quantities every day to more than survive, to actually thrive. 

I call them the Four Necessities (following President Franklin Roosevelt’s proclamation of Four Freedoms for all people). Those freedoms he enunciated are still vital today (and all too lacking in too many places), as are these necessities, which are essential components for every human body on earth to not only survive but also thrive. 

As with Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, each of us, all of us, have the inherent right to all four of the necessities. No one has the right to deny any of them to anyone. 

Indeed, I believe we have a obligation to be proactive, to do all we can to make sure they are available for all bodies, wherever they may live, whatever age, nationality, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, sexuality, income, religion, political views, education, racial group—every single body without exception. 

For me it is a call, and I believe it is a call laid on all of us. It has changed how I understand what is important, because I know that our world suffers when any one or any group of us cannot be our authentic selves. I agree with Robin Wall Kimmerer who writes, “all thriving is mutual,” meaning that if each of us, all of us, are not thriving then none of us is able to be all we can be. As Dr. King said, “no one is free until we are all free ….”, so too if any of us cannot thrive—due to lack of water, nutrition, safe and secure shelter, and lack of mental and physical health services—then none of us can live into our maximum potential. It can sound like a cliché but it is the truth: we are each and all part of an interdependent web of life. 

Just think of the waste in human capital when individuals and whole populations are without necessary hydration to be able to breathe, healthy food to strengthen their bodies, safe and sanitary and protective living conditions, and health care for their bodies and minds. 

Hands of the poor

Those of us who have these necessary conditions for life in sufficient quantity and quality can feel sorry for them, pray for them, and even donate to some group that tries to help, but in reality we are already paying—not only in funds our government may use to help (always far short of the need), but also in lost human potential and productivity in our world as well as the maintenance of law enforcement and military mechanisms to keep them from agitating against their conditions or even striking back in frustration and anger against the gruesome realities of their lives. 

Should not our first obligation as members of the human race be to do everything we can to make sure that everyone else has enough to thrive? If every body thrives, we all thrive. 

I have a special concern for Gaza, given the alarming deficiencies in their lives, but this is not limited to Gaza. Puerto Rico, part of the United States, is still struggling after Hurricane Maria and the more recent earthquake. And Somalia and so many parts of Africa, Central America, Asia, and of course the 50 states of our own nation. These four necessities are missing in lives everywhere.  Should we not be exercising empathy for the entire human race, not just our own group? 

So what to do? 

There is no one or easy solution. What is needed is a fundamental attitudinal change, radically changing the definition of success and good living, currently built on getting what only we need and want, to seeing success as being when everyone has what we need and want. As Ibram X. Kendi has said, “we need policies that are need-based.” 

I am safe in my privilege, but I do not feel successful when I know how many people are not, indeed how many are barely surviving and how many needlessly die, or whose lives become living hells, due to the lack of one or more of these necessities. 

One more thought: as I continue to learn from indigenous people and scientists about the workings of the non-human parts of the world I am struck by how often they speak of creatures (I admit my special interest is in trees) galvanizing to help others in trouble, both those in their own “tribes” and others around them. So why can’t we do that, too?

And I continue to learn how seeing that natural world as “other,” as object to be used for our own well-being, rather than as neighbor and ally and teacher and fellow citizens of the planet can make a huge difference. That is a key to creating a different world. I have much to learn about this, but already I am growing more conscious of how my own socialization and practices make things more difficult for so many, not only other humans but nature as well (think Climate Crisis/Emergency).

In posts in the future, I will look at each of these necessities in turn, highlighting the essential nature of each and how many of us—yes, us—do not have access to them. 

And I will return to how we might begin to shift our priorities. In the meantime, I invite you to read print and online articles (and share in your networks and share here) that highlight the enormous necessity gaps in our world. Don’t turn away from the troubling stories about starvation and thirst, substandard and even non-existent housing, and the lack of care for people who are sick and dying. Take them in, and think, what can I do? Feel the pain and loss that so many experience. How can I help create change, deep, systemic change so that all may thrive? 

And let us not avoid opportunities where we can provide practical help, contributing to organizations that are already at work as well as insisting our leaders shift our priorities, leading us to a new world. We can lead, too.  

Stay tuned. 

Wholeness in My Soul and Body

[Note: This post was prepared 6-8 months ago, but due to technology issues I have been unable to publish it. Please know that this blog is about far more than my, or your, being naked, but through it I am claiming and celebrating my naked soul and body.]

by Robin Hawley Gorsline

On two successive days —a Sunday and Monday—I spent time being naked with other naked people. 

The first event was the inaugural meeting of a group in the D.C. area (what is locally called the DMV: District, Maryland, Virginia) called Christian Gay Nudists (CGN). We met in a private home in Langley Park for more than two hours, sharing stories of personal experiences and ideas about nudism and our religion. I had been invited by my friend Darryl Walker, founder of the group, to share some perspectives on the topic as a way to generate discussion. We had no shortage of conversation! 

The second was a visit to a clothing optional club operated by the Maryland Health Society. The club is named MAHESO (as in MaHeSo) and is located in Davidsonville, MD, not far from Annapolis. It is a rustic facility with an outdoor pool, trails, picnic area, and spaces for camping, RVs and a few cabins—and on Monday, so peaceful. 

Robin-in-the-woods
Adventure in the woods–the t-shirt says, “Queerly and Fabulously Made”

The combination of the two visits enriched my soul. Some years ago, I wrote in this space about my decision to publicly proclaim my love of, and commitment to, nudism (or as it sometimes called, naturism). See these posts if you are interested: Naked in PhiladelphiaNaked in Philadelphia Part 2Inaugural Address How Mature Is It?  My engagement since then has been less than consistent. I am changing that.

It was a pleasure to be with the five other men at CGN and I felt especially happy the remainder of the day.  I felt happy the next day too and I experienced serenity at a level far deeper than I have in a long, long time.  

Sitting quietly at Maheso, chatting with my friend Michael Hartman (who is a member and drove us there) and floating in the pool, eating lunch outdoors and walking on some trails after lunch—all while completely, gloriously nude (okay, I had shoes and socks on for the trail walking)—I just grew more and more peaceful. I think I have a new understanding of the Hebrew word shalom, which means not only peace but also wholeness. 

Skyclad at MaHeSo

This wholeness is what nudism manifests in me, in my soul and body, united and unashamed. I have come to believe that when God sees me, as God does all the time, I am seen not with my clothes on, not with my defenses and masks in place, but instead as the naked, vulnerable child of God (and Robert and Jessie Gorsline) that I am. 

God loves me just as I am, an out-of-shape, wrinkled, arthritic elder who is less than steady on my feet and more bent down than I would like. That’s who God sees and loves and is always trying to get me to pay attention not only to God but also to my own self, my inner self where God resides. 

As I write this some weeks later, I still feel this shalom, and I realize it is why I so want to go out today to work nude in my garden. Working in the soil, with the plants (both weeds—the plants that are out of place in my realm but are still living beings—and the ones I do want to thrive), is a place, a cathedral if you will, of divinity for me, a place where I experience God very directly. 

The same is true when I go walking in the woods—again, I want to be naked, like the trees are naked, vulnerable, yet standing and proclaiming their natural beauty.  And it is true when I leave my home to walk or drive to the grocery store and go to meetings and certainly to church—engaging the communities I cherish, places I also find and share God. 

Sadly, I must satisfy myself to be nude as I write this and generally in my home, except when it gets too cold. We try to keep our thermostat down in winter to save energy and money, something I want to change, at least in my study where I spend much of my day.  However, even if I am not nude “out there,” I know God knows who I am and how I really look. 

Sharing my nude joy outdoors

Still, I have decided to be a nude-vangelist wherever and whenever I can, believing that I have been given good news to share with the world. I wish I had the courage to truly be a street nude-vangelist by standing on the corner or at the Metro station unclothed with flyers about the joys of nudism, but I do not. For one thing, I am not ready to spend my days in jail, nor to create trouble for my husband and my larger family. 

But please know this: when you meet me, I am nude in my soul, and I really want to be bodily nude with you and you with me—because I want to be whole, I want you to be whole, and I want us to be whole together.  Of course, I will do nothing that violates your bodily and spiritual integrity. 

Note: I have many interests–anti-racism, Palestinian liberation, queer theology, sex and gender justice, fate of the planet among them–and I am returning to this space to write about many of them, but, fair warning, you can be sure that I will be nude-vangelizing at times here and elsewhere. I hope you will subscribe to this blog or at least check in from time to time. We can create a new world, we might call it Eden, together with the God (or Higher Power, or Universe, whatever your term or concept is) of your and my understandings. 

Let Us Have Gender Freedom . . . and God Sees that It Is Good

The announcement that the Trump Administration is considering fundamental changes in federal regulations to enforce strict binary gender norms for all Americans is distressing, demeaning, ugly, to say the least. However, it occurs to me that this may be a good time to reflect theologically about gender; can those of us who oppose the various attempts to control others’ bodies find guidance from biblical texts and spiritual reflection? 

I have been engaged in various small ways supporting transgender people for many years, including during my time as Pastor of MCC Richmond VA where I worked closely with an active trans community on several projects. 

Additionally, over the past several years, I have begun to identify as gender queer—still am comfortable being a man in my birth body, but clear that my understanding of that gender differs from the norm. This process began many years ago when I started wearing long, dangly earrings that many say are feminine. (see my earlier posts, “Choosing to Be Me Again” and “Why Do Watches Have Gender?”). 

More recently, as the controversies swelled about bathroom and locker room usage, I began to reflect theologically about gender and specifically about the movement by many, particularly in church and government, to enforce rigid gender norms. 

The Apartheid of SexI begin from a truth I learned long ago from Martine Rothblatt in her book, The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (1995). She writes

“There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities. Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.”  (xiii)

Of course, we know that skin tone and gender play powerful roles in how society is organized but her point is apt: neither makes any real difference, except as society creates and enforces, and we often reinforce, structures to keep these two aspects of ourselves in line. 

She also wrote that it is time to end the classification of people by sex, “because in truth our sex is as individualized as our fingerprints and as special as our souls (my emphasis).” (157). I hope to return to this proposal on another occasion. 

As special as our souls…………indeed. There’s where God comes in. 

The Hebrew text in Genesis 1:27 reads, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Jewish Study Bible). Those who seek to get everybody in one or the other box, male or female, rely on this text and others to say that what God has ordered must be followed. 

Of course, there are a number of objections to be raised about these arguments. First, for me, is the reality that the Bible, in Hebrew and Christian texts, makes many claims about what God orders and commands. Some faithful people believe that every word is dictated by God, but even if you do, and I don’t, we still have to engage in interpretation to understand what the commands mean for us now. My point: We don’t actually have any assurance that the statement in Genesis 1:27 means that there are only two genders. 

Second, could it not mean that God’s creation of each human involves our being some sort of combination of both? A footnote in The Jewish Study Bible, for example, says, “Whereas the next account of human origins (Gen. 2:4b-24) speaks of God’s creation of one male from whom one female subsequently emerges, Gen. Chapter 1 seems to speak of groups of men and women created simultaneously.”

Elohim in HebrewA note in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, points out that the Hebrew for God in this passage, Elohim, is actually a plural (literally “gods” or “powers”), but is ordinarily treated as a singular noun. “This verse and two others (Genesis 3:22 and 11:7) are notable exceptions. The ‘us’ has been explained as the majestic or imperial plural; others see it as God including the angelic host; still others, as a reflection of the more ancient polytheistic roots of the story.“ (There are times when the word is used of lesser, foreign gods, but to the best of my understanding and searching these three instances are the only times in the ancient text has God referring to God’s self as “us.”)

Might another way to read that is to see is that these groups, and God, are not as rigidly defined as we have been taught to believe? We now know, thanks to genetic studies, that many of us are not purely one or the other, that our genes are combinations of X and & Y chromosomes in varying proportions. I think of “effeminate men” and “mannish women” in this regard, Among some Native American tribal traditions, Two Spirit persons exhibit behaviors and attributes of both genders and are considered to have special spiritual powers. Is not God all of these, and more? 

However, theologically speaking, there is a larger issue at play here. When we interpret biblical texts—and that is what we always must do, interpret them because we cannot ever be absolutely certain of the intention by those who repeated these texts and eventually wrote them down—what is our standard of interpretation?

Do we interpret in opposition to what we see around us, that is, do we insist that any new realities discovered since the texts were recorded and canonized be disregarded and/or declared the work of evil forces? Or do we seek to bring the reality in front our eyes and the texts into harmony? Do we see in the texts the promise of more wisdom or do we simply repeat the wisdom from before? Do we let creation unfold or do we insist that God created everything eons ago and nothing has changed? 

Indeed, do we let God continue to create or do we give God thanks for what God has done and then, in effect say,” Stop God, we don’t want anything new, don’t give us any new ideas, any new information?” In my view, this is idolatry, creating a false idol, calling it God, and insisting that there is nothing new in God’s universe. 

Queering ChristianityWhen human beings play God by not letting God be God we suffer. In this case, transgender, gender variant, gender queer, folks suffer. What is being considered by the Trump Administration is codifying that which was never meant to be codified, at least not by God, who is the author of change and growth every moment of every day. 

As I have written elsewhere, “We serve a God who is always messing with our all-too-human arrangements, our desire for things to be neat and tidy and easy” (See “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God, Who Is Always Up to Something New” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, Shore-Goss, Bohache, Cheng, and West, eds. Praeger 2013). 

In that same essay, I quote Lisa Isherwood and the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, 

God dwells in flesh and when this happens all our myopic earth-bound ideas are subject to change; the dynamic life-force which is the divine erupts in diversity and the energy of it will not be inhibited by laws and statutes. Far from creating the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, this dynamism is always propelling us forward into new curiosities and challenges. It does not shut us off from the world; it is the world drawing us into more of ourselves as we spiral in the human/divine dance (“Queering Theology,” in The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God, and Politics, T& T Clark, 2004). 

This proposal by the administration—and supported by many in various religious groups—is anti-God. They claim they are serving God, but it is a hollow God they serve, as indeed are all our efforts to contain God in our self-justifying insistence on things remaining exactly as they were (or at least as we think they were). 

Biblical literalismWe must of course oppose it, and all like-minded efforts to limit and even eliminate human and natural diversity from the globe. It is always a tall order to stand against forces of repression and injustice, against those who refuse to see God really at work in changing us and the world. 

But we can do so knowing that God’s creation has many more than two genders. Indeed, the creation of genders is an on-going act of God because God is still creating humans.  Further,  even as we labor as faithfully and courageously as we can and as we know our own limits, God is not going away, God adapts and prods and beckons us in directions new to us (though not to God).  I say this not so much to offer comfort to those under threat from this proposal and many other efforts to limit humanity, but rather to affirm the reality that all things are, despite opposition, becoming new. 

Thanks be to God for all we have received, are receiving, will receive!

When Racism and Sexism Meet

Monica Hesse, a columnist for the Washington Post, published an insightful piece about racism and sexism today, “The Point We’re Missing about BBQ Becky and Her Sisters.” Click on the link to read.

She makes two fundamental points:

  • using hashtags to jeer at, and make fun of, white women who call 911 to report alleged suspicious behavior by black men is a denial of the serious racism involved,
  • and it also signals sexist behavior in that the practice of creating “cute” nicknames when referring to the women–because white men who do similar things are rarely, if ever, labeled this way.

Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse

I urge you to read her post about these points–especially her iteration of the role of white women, especially in the South, in creating the “black sexual predator” who destroys white female purity (this system was of course created by white men to keep black men in line while many of the white men sexually abused black women).

But I also encourage you to reflect on her interaction with the young black teen on the D.C. Metro. His instinctive, self-protective action in the face of transit police boarding the train is very revealing, and all too common and necessary for the survival of young, and old, black men.

The “isms” are often, probably always, tangled up together. Part of our task is to untangle and name them, and change our attitudes and behaviors. Hesse helps us here.

 

 

 

Keep It Moving

“Hope is not magic; hope is work.”

Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?

A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.

The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times of  September 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander. 

Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change. 

On the Other Side of FreedomFor me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.

Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated. 

A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course).  That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes, 

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.

We are not the resistance photoWhen I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).

We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist. 

And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” 

In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson,  his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change. 

Deray McKesson
Deray McKesson

I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout. 

I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough. 

“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle. 

He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice.  I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well. 

“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington). 

McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me. 

But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:

I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life. 

Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives. 

Michelle Wallace

So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled. 

I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward.