Kwanzaa Learnings for People of White Privilege

As a man with White privilege I feel anxiety about offering any comments about a celebration of African/African American history, culture, and wisdom. I do not intend to appropriate the spiritual traditions of other people. However, as I told a friend, “It is not my heritage, but oh my, the wisdom is so powerful, so needed.” 

A bit of personal history is in order. One of the things that happened when I was the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond VA that really makes me proud, is our decision to observe Kwanzaa on the Sunday immediately following Christmas. I do not know for sure which year we began, but I know that by 2007 (I had been pastor since 2003) the local paper ran a story with pictures about our observance.  We had purchased a kinara, a beautiful carved wood holder for the seven candles, as well as the required green, red and black candles (I don’t think I had ever seen, let alone purchased, a black candle before this). 

I was moved to promote this because I was acutely aware that this congregation of 80 people was overwhelmingly white-identified—in a city in which African Americans constituted a majority of the population (of course, the suburban counties were very different!). I admit that my reasoning included appealing to African Americans, especially LGBTQ people, to check out our congregation. This was not the first time White-dominated institutions used Kwanzaa as a marketing ploy (Hallmark cards come to mind). At any rate, I have come to appreciate Kwanzaa over the years, although I admit I have not always actively observed it. With this post, I am committing to active year-round engagement. 

Dr. Maulana Karenga

One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is Kujichagulia, self-determination. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, said that he wanted to give Black people an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, not as a subset of or exception to other holidays, but their own self-designed, self-actuating celebration and foundation for personal and communal life, to define and name themselves, as well as to create and speak for themselves. 

That is why I think Kwanzaa is so vital. It can help people with White privilege come to grips with the reality that Black people, as is true of Indigenous, Brown and other people, have not only a vibrant self-defined culture but are agents in their own well-being. It is essential that we with White privilege massively change the ways we have set up, and continue to set up, the world to deny that. 

All of us, and each of us, who benefit from unearned White privilege need to get our collective knee off the backs of BIPoC people, but we also need to realize that even though we continue to victimize them they already have their own dignity, their own values, their own history. That dignity, those values, and that history are a powerful testament to the vibrancy of the human spirit from which we can learn much.  

We, all of us, need the wisdom that is collected and celebrated in Kwanzaa.  People with White privilege could learn so much from the peoples we have devalued, abused, slaughtered—and continue doing that today. At the same time, we who benefit from unearned privilege need to be careful in our own observance of Kwanzaa to avoid bleaching it (an example of bleaching is what is done each January to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., removing all the edges of his words and work that might upset us, so he becomes a faint caricature of the giant he was and still is). 

I have already mentioned Kujichagulia, self-determination. Let’s look at the other six. 

Umoja (Unity)—To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. 

Unity is so missing in our nation today, and really around the globe. Let the coming year be one that helps all people come together. A vital way people with White privilege can contribute to this is to give up some of that privilege, and work to eliminate it entirely. We can’t keep clinging to ideas and practices of superiority over others if we really want unity.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.  

Collective work and responsibility is in short supply these days, especially with the number of people who continue to deny the reality of COVID-19, not to mention the Climate Emergency and the continuing scourge of White supremacy, and engage in behavior which endangers not only them but the rest of us, too. You know who you are and you can change if you care enough about the well-being of all. And the rest of us can promote this change.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. 

Cooperative Economics seems foreign to our capitalistic, monopolistic society. Imagine, encouraging everyone to use their gifts to build their own dreams in ways to benefit all. One small way I am trying to encourage this is to buy as little as possible from the online giants and give my patronage to local and smaller companies and especially to those owned and operated by BIPoC people. 

Nia (Purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. 

Purpose as an expression of collective focus seems foreign to the deep strain, the dominance, of individualism in the United States. This principle raises up the truth of the beauty, wisdom, and power of African cultures so often belittled and degraded by Western supremacist views. That needs to change, of course, and frankly people of White privilege also must think and work to draw upon parts of our heritage that call us to more universal values and behaviors. 

Kuumba (Creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. 

Creativity is an aspiration to contribute our fullest potential to the well-being of all. This is not motivated by profit and power for a few but by an awareness of our own innate and developed gifts, and a desire to use those gifts to bless, serve the world. There are people of privilege engaging in philanthropy but this is more than that; this is giving our whole selves, and continually stretching ourselves, to create a better world for all. 

Imani (Faith)—To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. 

Faith speaks to the fundamental human need to believe in each other. In the context of African and African American history, this is a reclaiming of the beauty and power of the various cultures and movements of the people. For White privileged people, this needs to be understood as a challenge to us to affirm the dignity and value of all people, AND to ongoing critical conversation and action that challenges and changes the people, attitudes, and practices that create and maintain hierarchies of value denying the dignity and value of others. Frankly, I, we, have much work to do in this! 

In case you hadn’t noticed, at the heart of Kwanzaa is community, communal living. May this new year be a time where more and more of us live in ways that acknowledge the truth that we all—of every nation, color, racial identity, religion, language, sexuality, gender, age, tribe, education, economic status, as well as all the non-human creatures of this world—are in this together. 

Indeed, the lessons of Kwanzaa tell us we people of White privilege must change. We can share in celebrations of this special time created and led by others, but if we do not show up to work on our own transformation we are only engaging in making ourselves look and feel good.  

We’ve got a year to show some progress. Let us get to it. 

If you want to learn more, you can visit https://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa

Note: As always, I invite you replies as an opportunity for us to continue the conversation. The best way to share in the conversation not with me but with others is to use the comment option on this page. You also can sign up to become a subscriber to this blog. I would be so glad of your continuing participation in the dialogue. 

Chanukah: A Reminder to Resist

Chanukah began last evening at our house with the lighting of the first candle and the singing of

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Tonight is Shabbat, and Jonathan and I will sing the above as well as 

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

Every other evening we pray before dinner in the kitchen–first with our beloved Standard Poodle, Cocoa—prayers for the world and our loved ones, giving thanks, whatever we feel called to share—and then on non-Shabbat nights we conclude that by singing 

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

You will notice that the root of each prayer is identical. I really appreciate that, because each time I am reminded of the centrality of God in my life, indeed all life (at least as I believe). 

I am a lifelong Christian, a queer theologian guided by my ever-evolving sense of what being a follower of Jesus calls me to be and to do, AND I am also blessed to be connected to the ancient and contemporary Jewish roots of that faith. Let me be clear, I can’t help but come to Judaism with my Christian heritage and life, but I also come to this beautiful faith for its own truth and wisdom. To put it simply, I am doubly blessed. 

Actually, the blessing is rooted in my 23-year marriage to the love of my life, Jonathan, a Jewish man who helped and helps me engage with Judaism more than simply coming to love what was called in my childhood, and even in seminary, the Old Testament, the text truly known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. He has helped me appreciate Jewish ritual and music and worship and values so now I want to participate more and more in it. I also am educated about the many Jewish spiritual texts by our rabbi and Jewish writers and scholars, which enriches my understanding and appreciation and grows and deepens my faith. 

Another way to appreciate this shift is that I am repeatedly reminded that God, the God of my understanding, is larger than any one faith, any one religious or spiritual system. So blessings abound. 

Tonight, at 6 p.m., Jonathan and I will join our community and Rabbi Joseph Berman online at the New Synagogue Project (newsynagogueproject.org) for lighting the Shabbat candles and the candles for the second night of Chanukah. I am honored to be a member along with Jonathan. 

Then, on Sunday, I will join my community at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. (mccdc.com) for worship at 11 a.m. The pastor, Rev. Dwayne Johnson will be preaching on “The Gift of Wilderness.” That congregation and our pastors are a huge blessing in my life, too. 

Then, at 3 p.m. that same day, I will join online the local community of Jewish Voice for Peace (https://jvpdc.org/jvp-dc)for a Chanukah party/celebration. Our special guest will be a young, gifted writer, Massoud Hayoun, author of When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History. It is a splendid book of story and cultural/religious insight. 

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national organization working for justice and liberation for the people of Palestine. Both Jonathan and I are members. Most members are Jewish, but I am far from the only Christian involved. It is a wonderful movement. We began our involvement with the cause while still living in Richmond, VA (where I pastored the local MCC church) through Richmonders for Peace in Israel-Palestine. When we moved to the D.C. area in 2015, we joined JVP Metro DC. 

I connect all this to Chanukah because, although it is not a High Holy time like Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur—and is often thought of as more for kids than adults (many view the contemporary focus on Chanukah as primarily a response to the dominance of Christmas in our culture)—I also understand Chanukah as a symbol and encouragement of resistance, resistance to oppression, injustice, and the failure to care for each other and the world.

I want to quote extensively from Rabbi Brent Rosen’s recent piece about Chanukah [the name of his blog, Shalom Rav, refers to an evening blessing of Abundant Peace]. He writes, 

Chanukah, of course, is based upon the story of the Maccabees, the small group of Jews who successfully liberated themselves from the oppressive reign of the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. The legacy of this story, however, is a complex one because the Jewish struggle against religious persecution took place within the context of a bloody and destructive Jewish civil war. In contemporary times, the meaning of Chanukah has become even more complicated given its proximity to Christmas, subjecting it to the uniquely American religion of unmitigated commercialism.

Beyond all these complications, I’d argue that the essence of Chanukah is the theme of resistance. At its core, the Chanukah story commemorates the victorious resistance of the people over the power and might of empire. On a deeper level, we might say that the festival celebrates the spiritual strength of our resistance to an often harsh and unyielding world.

You can read his entire article, which focuses on how we can resist Covid-19 through mutual aid, at https://rabbibrant.com/2020/12/10/Chanukah-is-about-resistance-lets-resist-this-covid-spike-through-mutual-aid/. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I encourage you to read it and ponder your own ways of resistance, not only to Covid-19 but also to the other viruses infecting our world (including White supremacy/racism, militarism, the climate crisis, inequality and inequities of all sorts, and rampant capitalist exploitation). 

It may be the season to be jolly and joyous, as we are told—and it is also the season to resist, to work together to create the world God (however you understand God or the Universe or what/whomever) really means for us to have and be, not just you and me but every single body, human and non-human. 

So I say, “Chag Sameach” (pronounced “hahg sah-mae’-ahk) and/or “Chanukah Sameach”, or simply Happy Holidays or Happy Chanukah! 

And may the resistance be strong, resilient, and joyous.  

 

This Gift Keeps on Giving

[Note: My short essay appeared as part of the Advent Devotional series at my church, Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. Theme for the season is “You Are a Gift.”]

I have been blessed over the past year or two with a growing awareness of nature, especially trees but actually all other plants, animals, and elements, as well.  

Part of this is due to the influence of several authors I am following, including Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist, professor, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Robert MacFarlane, a fellow of Cambridge University. Kimmerer’s book is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, and MacFarlane’s is Underland: A Deep Time Journey. 

I mention these works, because they are gifts to me, gifts that keep on giving. I do not remember how I learned of either of these books, and given how powerful each is and has been in my life, I believe books and authors are a gift from God to me, and of course to many others. 

What they have helped me begin to realize is that there is so much more  that is central to this world than humans. I understand more and more that we humans are latecomers to the earth, that other living things, actually living beings, and even beings we don’t think of as living (mountains, rocks, bodies of water, e.g.) have been here far longer. And they have so much to teach us, if we can let go of our sense of human exceptionalism, as if we are the only ones with knowledge. 

And I go further. I am beginning to experience all these beings as fellow citizens of the globe, each one by itself and all of them together. Now I see the world as populated by more than the estimated 7.8 billion humans. Now the population count is so many times that I cannot even calculate. Just think, scientific studies say there are 3.041 trillion trees,  400 billion birds, at least 10 billion squirrels. 

Talk about gifts! 

This year, in Advent as we focus on the reality that each of us is a gift, that I am a gift, that you are a gift, I now see how many other trillions of gifts there are. They certainly will not fit under our Christmas tree! 

But they do fit in my life, my heart, and I hope yours, too. 

The gift God has given us—all creation—and keeps giving us, is the gift that keeps on giving. How blessed we are! 

Thank you, God!

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. 

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!

Stripping Down

We are called to be a priestly people.

In many venues, I identify as a Queer Theologian (and poet), but I have made a deliberate choice here to leaven that with the idea of nakedness–because I believe (I want to say I know if it does not sound too dogmatic), that when we are most vulnerable we are most true to our inheritance as offspring of God.

Queer Virtue book coverIn her graceful and very wise book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, Elizabeth M. Edman shares a definition of priesthood that was given to her by a friend:

A priest is someone who stands in a place of remarkable vulnerability, and by doing so, invites other people to enter the sacred. 

This expansive understanding of priesthood fits well, as Edman says, within the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers. In that way, it undercuts the clerical hierarchy that is so often an impediment to spiritual growth and health among “lay” people. Indeed, it may help end what is often seen as a binary of lay/clerical difference–a chasm which leads too many non-clerics to think they have nothing useful to contribute to spiritual life and too many clerics to think, or at least act as if, they have everything that is needed.

Robin clergy collar less smile Sept 2015 smaller3_edited-4There is institutional authority vested in the office of priest or pastor, or rabbi or imam–depending on the tradition and the community, it can be a lot. However, it is the authority of personal and interpersonal vulnerability that is far more powerful in ways that transcend the usual humanly created boundaries. And that authority is available to all the faithful. We are called to be, as Edman says, a priestly people.

I am a nudist at heart, but I did not change this blog name simply to take my clothes off (or feature others who do so) online–although that may happen from time to time. At the same time, I recognize being physically naked as part of a continuum of spiritual and emotional nakedness and vulnerability.

I still wear a clerical collar when I go to church, but I am not sure entirely why. I have no formal or pastoral role in worship, and even if I did it is not my clothes that make it possible. It may be a sign of comfort for some, but increasingly I chafe and wish to dress as more myself.

Robin with longer hair and beard (cropped)_edited-1I started this most recent journey in my life by taking off all my clothes and discovering much joy in nakedness by myself and with others. Now I see that I may want to consider each item of my costume–not as a form of striptease but as a way of really exposing, at some deep levels, all of me.

Taking off the collar may be a greater signification of my priesthood–a priest forever, as my friend and mentor, Carter Heyward, has written–than wearing it. Then I am more likely to stand in that place of remarkable vulnerability and thus invite people to enter the sacred.

That is my desire, and I believe it is God’s desire for me, and you, and all creation.

 

 

A Life Worth Living

This was the beginning of an even greater adventure for all of us . . . .

[This is the first installment in a series focusing, as I prepare to turn 70 in October, on what is so far the second half of my life, the 35 years that began in 1981, with looks back at earlier days as they affect the later ones.I am hopeful that this serialization of my life may provide some of the components of a memoir of a life rich in faith, hope, joy and love.]

Thirty-five years ago today–August 23, 1981–four people sat around a makeshift table to eat pizza and birthday cake. The occasion was the first birthday of Marjorie Elizabeth Gorsline, known then, as now, as Meg.

The setting was the second floor apartment of the Gorsline family–mother Judy, three-year-old sister Emily, Meg, and me, known as Daddy to the girls and Bob to Judy–in married student housing at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. We had arrived two days earlier, driving from Milford, MI, so that I could take up seminary studies.

Our furniture had yet to arrive, so we borrowed two chairs from kind neighbors for the adults and a milk crate on which to put the pizza box and then the birthday cake. Emily sat on the floor and Meg in our laps (and often on the floor), a great dining adventure for us all.

Meg & Kevin Party 015
Just about my favorite picture of Meg, from a wedding shower in 2009.

This was the beginning of an even greater adventure for all four of us (and a third daughter, Robin, who would arrive 16 months later)–a huge life-change for me to come about one year later that would over the course of that following year throw all of us into new and often painful, and, for me at least, often joyful and sometime frightening, and ultimately fulfilling territory.

But for now, all we knew was that we had left our Midwestern roots for the storied East. Judy was seeking a job to provide financial stability, Emily and Meg needed to be enrolled in daycare, and I had to get ready for classes.

What had caused all this change in our lives? I had felt a call to ordained ministry, having grown dissatisfied with the limits of political life. It was near the end of my first term as a Republican member of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, as I was seeking re-election in 1978 (a few months after the birth of Emily), that I had begun to discern disquiet in my soul about the vocational direction of my life. After an easy electoral victory, I told Judy that I was feeling pulled toward ministry.

As ever a wonderful helpmate, she encouraged me to talk with our priest, Rev. Jacob L. “Jake” Andrews, at St. George’s Episcopal Church, where I served as a lay leader and she an active communicant. It took me a couple of months before I gathered my courage and went to sit with Jake in his study at the church, a sanctum I had visited many times over the almost 20 years he had been our spiritual leader.

Jake said, “I wondered when, or if, you would recognize this. I am relieved and glad.” I shed a few tears–but not too many, because he was a Bostonian by birth with a quiet demeanor who seemed often to be embarrassed by displays of emotion. And then he began to help me chart a course that could lead me to seminary in the fall of 1981.

As it happened, Judy had grown tired of teaching fourth graders and was happy to contemplate possible new career paths. So both of us looked ahead with eagerness to a new journey together.

Before we would leave, she became pregnant again. I did not receive this news, initially, with gladness, having been convinced that she and I, both raised as only children (I had two older half-sisters but had not been raised with them, and Judy was truly an only child), would do best with one child.

But Judy, raised by unhappy, perpetually quarreling, mutually distrustful parents, felt she could not risk Emily being consigned to the sort of lonely, emotionally bereft childhood she had ensured. We had talked about all this, and I thought we were still debating the issue. But she, by then 39 and worried about her ability to bear another child, had decided on her own to stop using birth control.

When she told me she was pregnant just after Christmas in 1980, I was stunned and angry. I felt deceived. It was in some ways the forerunner of another, even more jarring time, when one of us would feel that way about the other.

But as I watched Emily grow excited at the prospect of a sibling (especially when we were able to tell her she would have a little sister) and saw the bloom of pregnancy and joy in Judy, I too was overtaken by happy anticipation.

And of course, this baby, named after Judy’s beloved Auntie Marge and my favorite older cousin, Elizabeth, turned out to be a delight, the greatest sort of joy any parent can have. At her birth, I loved my three women.

So on this day, I especially celebrate Meg, whose intelligence, wisdom, beauty, grace, and courage remind me so very fondly of her mother even as all of it is, of course, the mark of the particular embodied gift of God she was on her very first earthly day and all the rest since and into her bright future. There is none like her. She is her own person, beautifully, wondrously so.

[There is more to tell about our journey to, and our life in, Cambridge, and beyond; stay tuned for the next installment of “A Life Worth Living.”]

 

 

It’s National Redemption Time

en.wikipedia.com
en.wikipedia.com

Would the United States be better off if mothers were guaranteed paid maternity leave of five months? Or better if workers had at least a month of paid vacation every year? Or if workers had more say in the policies and operations of the companies for which they work? Or maybe if school lunches were actually not only nutritious but also sophisticated and tasty?  How about no death penalty? How about prisons that are not designed to punish so much as to simply deny freedom of movement and association to convicted criminals for a fixed amount of time and to help them during that time to build new lives when they are released?

These and other provocative questions are raised in Michael Moore’s new film, “Where to Invade Next.” The film is a sort of political travelogue around Europe, with a side trip to Tunisia, exposing policies and practices in those places that Moore posits would be good ideas for the United States of America. He even claims most of the good ideas originated in the United States, raising the question of why we are not using them now.

This is a spiritual question for me (although probably Michael Moore would not use that language). Or as others might say, it is a matter of values.

Part of the answer, as I see it, is revealed in a segment of the film where Moore contrasts the dogged insistence of Germans to learn from the horrors of their past–to expose the national involvement in the Holocaust, to remind each other in very public ways of how they rejected humanistic ideals and accepted, even celebrated, ugliness and monstrosity. Germany does not stop telling the stories of victims and its complicity in the evil.

face2faceafrica com
face2faceafrica com

Moore draws a sharp contrast between that behavior and the denial that pervades U.S. culture and politics around our racist, white supremacist past and our national white-privileged present. Moore shares graphic pictures and videos of police beating black suspects and inmates today and their counterparts in harsh pictures of lynching in the past. Have we made any progress?

Well, yes, of course, laws are more fair, and the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence and the constitution and fought over during the Civil War is closer to realization than it was one hundred years ago. But legislatures still pass laws whose effect, and I think intent, is to reduce voting by proportionally disadvantaged portions of the citizenry, and we are locking up Black men at an alarming rate (and we can’t blame this on higher rates of drug use in the Black community than among those who call ourselves white, because the reverse is true). As Michelle Alexander has written, this “incarceration while black” is the new Jim Crow.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander amazon.com
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
amazon.com

To be sure, the countries Moore visited (‘invaded,” he says, in an attempt to connect our militarism with our lack of social progress, a subject for another blog) are not perfect. They have problems, too. But they are doing things to improve the life of their citizens, and they are doing this through the social contract, through the governments they institute, as our framers instituted our nation “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

As I read these soaring words, these noble objectives, I hear the stark, deeply disturbing, contrast with the political rhetoric awash among us today.  The framers approached the national question, “Who are we called to be?” with hope, with generous spirits, with an awareness of divine providence and abundance. Too many of our leaders, and would-be leaders, today approach the same question with stinginess, with an underlying mentality of scarcity, with deep fear expressed in angry words of division and derision toward those who disagree.

Our national soul is at stake in this election season. We need to find it and claim it, really claim it for the first time since the early days of the new nation and perhaps the Civil War.

The fundamental question remains, will we, as Dr. King said in 1963 and as Lincoln said 100 years earlier in different words with similar import, will “this nation . . . rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . . ?”  

boston.com
boston.com

Or will we continue to stumble over the ugliness of our past, denying the roots of our present-day tragedies, pretending that murder and mayhem, poverty and power-less-ness among whole segments of our people are simply the fault of a few bad actors and some weak, lazy individuals and even groups of people out to take advantage of kindness, care, and just treatment under law?

It’s confession time, my fellow Americans, my fellow “we are white” Americans. Black activists, artists, and others keep giving us yet another chance to clean up our act, keep marching and protesting and educating, and still too many of us look away. And the politicians who never even mention “race,” let alone racism, white privilege or white supremacy, are lying to us. They may be lies of omission not commission, but at some point not speaking a hard truth means you are complicit in the ongoing power of that truth.

Denial of a real problem is dangerous to your mental health. That is just as true for our nation as for individuals.

ejvictorsofa.tk
ejvictorsofa.tk

We need to go into analysis, as a nation, to name, face, hold up, and root out our demons. Michael Moore has given us a mirror to look into, a way to ask some questions of ourselves and our leaders. As a first step, I urge you to see the film.

And if you have not yet begun a conversation about our national disease in your family, at your workplace, your spiritual home, your neighborhood, or not yet participated in such a conversation, I urge you to start (or continue) that conversation now.

It’s redemption time, folks, and each of us has a role to play.

Happy Lent!

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent. As such, it is usually seen as a very solemn day, a day of judgment, a day of accepting ashes as a metaphor for life. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from dust you come and to dust you shall return. . . .”

ash Wednesday dust filled hands stmarkscatholicchurch com
stmarkscatholicchurch.com

This is very dry, one could start coughing for the dryness in the throat.

But what if we thought of this time as rich and deep, a time for exploring real stuff, soul stuff, heart stuff. What if we gave up something really real for Lent, not just television or chocolate or drinking wine or going to the movies, but something really important? What if doing so created some real happiness in our lives?

Fear is a choice patriciapattypat blogspot com
patriciapattypat.blogspot.com

What if we gave up fear for Lent? Every time I feel fear, I will take it out and look at it and say, “Okay, I have to careful but I don’t have to avoid doing important things, things I want to do, out of fear of how someone else will react or judge me.”

Or gossip? Every time I am tempted to talk about someone else’s foibles or stupidity, I will remember to look in the mirror and see my own. Then, I have a better chance of being whole and humble and pleasant to be around.

stingy-fist  pastorburden com
pastorburden.com

What if we gave up stinginess for Lent? Whenever a homeless or street person asks me for help, I will give them something. I can carry change or dollar bills deliberately, maybe protein bars, too (not a substitute for financial help but a statement about being fed) in preparation for the opportunity to give away some  of what God has given me. Giving creates happiness for the recipient and the giver.

What if we gave up shallow political talk for Lent? This one may be for me. I say I am really tired of “horse race journalism,” the tendency of most our media to report not on substance and issues and positions on important public questions but on who is ahead and who has the most money and who has the momentum or who just committed the latest gaffe. But I can’t seem to stop reading it–it is like gossip in that it becomes addictive. Life would be better if I ignored it entirely–I could really have some fun every day if I gave up shallowness.

I think you get the idea. Go deep for Lent, and seek out a new way of being that can bring contentment and even joy.

And it might be good to remember these words from Isaiah, who knew a thing or two about living a soulful life.

Do you think God
    wants you to give up eating
and to act as humble
    as a bent-over bush?
Or to dress in sackcloth
    and sit in ashes?
Is this really what God wants
    on a day of worship?

I’ll tell you
what it really means
    to worship God.
Remove the chains of prisoners
    who are chained unjustly.
Free those who are abused!
Share your food with everyone
    who is hungry;
share your home
    with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need;
don’t turn away your relatives.

Then your light will shine
like the dawning sun,
and you
    will quickly be healed.
Your honesty[b] will protect you
    as you advance,
and the glory of God
    will defend you from behind.
When you beg God for help,
    God will answer, “Here I am!”

Isaiah 58:5-9 Contemporary English Version adapted

And if Isaiah’s words seem heavy to you, if you think they are just one more thing to do, one more obligation, remember this: liberating others helps to liberate us, too. And that can feel really good–not to mention that you don’t have to wear ugly clothes and sour expressions.

This is a time for self-change, a time to clear the decks for new life that is coming. Yes, I mean Easter and Pentecost and Passover and Spring and the movement of God in the world.

new life 2But do you not know that new life is always coming? God is always on the move in the world, in you, in me, through you, through me, in and through everyone.

So, have a holy Lent, but don’t let it be hard and ugly and an uphill battle. Go joyously into it, know that God already has gifts for you and that as you give up something that lightens your load you will be able to receive what new gift God has for you.

Drop that thing you are carrying that is not feeding you and open your hands and arms to receive the bounty of God.

And have a Happy Lent!