Sunday, March 30, 2008

Because They Can: Lying Politicians and the Morality of Churches

Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death

I’m thinking these days of morality. A dreary subject, admittedly, but one that has fascinated me from childhood, when (as I have mentioned in a previous blog), my first primers consisted of a peculiar mish-mash of tattered Victorian books culled from the library of the school in which one of my teacher aunts taught.

One of my favorite of these books was Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, with its dire warnings against immoral behavior such as lying:

For every time she shouted "Fire!"
They only answered "Little Liar!"
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

To be specific: I’m thinking these days of the morality of because-I-can, and how it relates to the morality of bending the truth.

Questions about people’s adherence to the truth have run through the U.S. presidential campaign in the past week. I don’t want to turn this blog into a political advertisement for any candidate, though I have probably made it plain which candidate I prefer. I’d like to use the blog, in fact, to probe questions about how we pursue, find, and speak the truth in a world that systematically distorts plain truth, and thwarts the proclamation of truth that makes a difference.

But that’s fodder for a different posting—for many different postings.

Meanwhile, without pointing this posting in any specific political direction (as an endorsement or critique of a particular candidate), I’d like to think further about distortion of the truth, and its relationship to the morality of because-I-can.

The because-I-can morality has been getting under my skin more and more lately. This is a moral position I suspect we all find ourselves in, quite a bit of the time. We do what we can get away with, because nothing makes us aware that we are even doing wrong—that we are trampling on the rights and sensibilities of others, that we are using others as objects to pursue our desired ends, that the Other has a mind, heart, and soul as rich and complex as our own, but we are not even seeing that complexity in our approach to the Other.

Once made aware that we are behaving this way, I would hope that many of us then begin to modify our behavior. This is how, after all, human groups grow in moral awareness, and accord moral status to behaviors that were previously viewed as morally neutral. As many of the social gospel theologians noted, throughout history, the moral awareness of societies shifts—for example, such that slavery, which was once regarded as a morally neutral practice, begins to be seen as immoral—as we gradually accord personal status to what was previously depersonalized. Aldo Leopold argues in his ground-breaking foundational study of the ethics of ecology, Sand County Almanac, that an ecological ethics is founded on precisely this extension of quasi-personal status to the environment itself.

Growth in moral awareness, period, is growth in being able to separate our own individual viewpoint and individual needs from those of others: it is growth in beginning to be aware of the Other as a person. Conscience and consciousness are not merely etymologically related. In many languages, particularly the Romance languages, these are not two separate words: conscience is consciousness. We cannot grow in conscience unless our consciousness grows. If our consciousness of the world around us remains at an infantile level, so will our conscience.

Studies indicate that what provokes the growth of conscience-consciousness is awareness of disjunction between what we have previously thought or taken for granted, and what may actually be the case. Which is to say, anything that makes us imagine the world in terms bigger than those we have previously used to frame reality induces a leap in our conscience. We grow in moral awareness by grappling with moral complexity, by dealing with values conflicts that were not apparent to us previously—in many cases, because we saw our behavior as value-neutral, when nothing in the world in which we lived made us think of our behavior in any other terms.

People could live for centuries with slavery, live comfortably with this social practice, because “the” slave was depersonalized. He/she had no voice, no legal standing except as an object. Since an object cannot speak, cannot argue on his or her behalf any more than a chair can do so, nothing in the world in which slavery was taken for granted forced those who saw slavery as morally neutral to think about this practice from a moral standpoint. Scripture, the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, not only presupposes slavery as an acceptable cultural practice, but actually endorses slavery.

When scripture and tradition underscore our moral blindness, and make it seem consecrated, it becomes even harder to examine our practices in a new light that raises our consciousness and expands our conscience.

I don’t want to turn this into an extended essay about the development of conscience. What I do want to reflect on is the ease with which some of our political leaders who profess strong church ties seem able—still—to bend and distort the truth, even or particularly when doing so allows them to trample on the humanity of others. This is baffling behavior, particularly when those Others have begun to challenge their status as objects, as pieces of furniture, and are developing the ability to speak, in unique voices, to describe the world from the viewpoint of those objectified and reduced to the status of objects.

It was when slaves began to speak that people began to challenge slavery. It was when Sojourner Truth asked ain’t I a woman that people began to think about the fact that slaves were human beings, with complex interior lives, with feelings akin to those of other human beings, with families just like the families of those buying and selling human chattel.

It is when the sons and daughters of somebody’s mother speak back to the Sally Kerns of this world and remind her that they are somebody’s sons and daughters, with complex interior lives, with blood as red as Sally’s, with skin that smarts as much as Sally’s does when the whip lashes it, that we must begin to question the objectification of gay human beings, the reduction of gay human beings to the status of furniture.

This is why, I think, the because-I-can morality, with its attendant ease at lying, is getting under my skin so much these days. It’s not as if, after all, the process of gay people making our humanity apparent to others is just getting underway.

The churches have had ample opportunity to hear our voices for some time now.

How can it be, then, that churches and church institutions continue to permit themselves to act as if what they say about gay people has no real effect on our real lives? How can the churches continue to collude in lies about us that cause real lashings to the real backs of real children of real mothers?

Because they can do so. Because they can do so with impunity. Because they can get away with doing so. Because those who represent the churches pay no price for doing so. Because they would pay a price if they behaved otherwise, if they called on their church communities to begin listening to gay voices and thinking about gay humanity.

In behaving this way, the churches take the path of least resistance, morally. In behaving this way, they behave as pre-moral agents, like children who have not yet become sufficiently mature to distinguish their own self-centered view of the world from the view of others around them.

In behaving this way, the churches really do forfeit their right to address any moral issues effectively.

In behaving this way, the churches operate at the same moral level as do politicians who lie simply because they can do so, with impunity. When churches, and the leaders of churches, and the representatives of church institutions, operate at the same level of morality as do politicians for whom bending the truth is no big deal, I wonder how long it can be before the churches are voted out of office, as it were, just as lying politicians often are repudiated by a disgusted public?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Theology from Gardens and Kitchens

We write from a place. I believe that.

I have sketched the place from which I write on this blog in various ways: I’m a theologian; I’m gay; I live on the margins of church life—in truth, on the other side of a wall that runs between gay people and the church.

I also write from a physical place that, to many people, is almost non-existent: one of those fly-over cities in the middle of the U.S. A small, provincial city that is not very close, even, to some of the power-brokering cities with “brand” in our general vicinity—New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas-Ft. Worth.

I write from an even more specific place, an east-facing room in a house perched on a gently-sloping hill in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains, their first eastward escarpment along the banks of the Arkansas River. The chair from which I write overlooks what would, prior to the building of this neighborhood at the turn of the 19th century, have been a small valley between two slopes running from the river towards the coastal plains of the southern half of the state.

My chair overlooks a garden on which Steve and I have labored, with more or less (emphasis on the latter) success for almost a decade now. The garden was thriving some four years ago, with several plum trees laden with fruit one spring, when the city decided to run a sewer line through the back of the garden, uprooting the plums and two beautiful apple trees we had also planted and tended towards maturity. Though the city promised that it would preserve the garden, its contractors stuck the trees back into the ground just as summer arrived, and of course, they did not grow again. At that point, I gave up on dreaming big dreams for my little garden.

Slowly, though, we have massaged it back into some semblance of a garden, and I write these days overlooking a scene I know I will see only for a few days, since spring is fleeting, and each day brings with it new illuminations. To be specific: I am looking out these days through a trellis Steve has just built on the east side of the house, to support Carolina jasmine and roses. There is a rose we have hauled from New Orleans to North Carolina to Little Rock to Florida, leaving cuttings of it rooted in each place, where thriving specimens of this red climbing rose now bloom.

We first got the rose from an elderly neighbor of ours in New Orleans, on whose shed it grew—Mouton Bickham. We call it the Mouton Bickham rose, though it probably has some other name: we suspect Mme. Isaac Pereire. It is a beautiful, easy climber with quartered bourbon blossoms, light red shading to mauve as they open, with a delicious scent. It grows easily and rewards even the slightest care with a long season of blooms in our hot climate. Here, it is even sometimes remontant, blooming both spring and fall. Since Mr. Bickham, a wonderful, elderly African-American neighbor, died while we lived in New Orleans, the rose means a great deal to us now. Each blossom brings back memories of his cheerful greeting as he sat on his stoop each evening, trying to catch one of the rare sultry breezes New Orleans offers in summertime.

“My” trellis, as I now think of it, is a frame for what grows just beyond the eastern window, just beneath the trellis itself. These days, it’s a wonderful medley: light yellow witch hazel blooms on a bare tree, hanging like miniature Chinese lanterns with the faintest spots of green sprinkled across the yellow; beyond them, spikes of purple flag that have just burst into bloom in the past two days; beneath the witch hazel, tiny narcissus, a deeper yellow than the witch hazel blooms, which the dogs have somehow failed to trample down; and to the north and east, like a haze beyond all of this, the deep red-brown of the smoke tree opening its leaves.

I cherish the scene, because I know it will not last. It will give way soon to something else, all the roses in bloom at once, followed by the intense hot days in which the Louisiana iris, Texas star hibiscus, and pomegranate all bloom on the unshaded eastern side of the garden that gets sun all day long. Hot colors for hot days—scarlet, orange, sun-yellow, with intense greens to frame them.

Why all this garden talk? I don’t know, frankly. In part, because the news often depresses me. I read in one news account today that, as our president cantered and capered this week—this week in which news of 4000 dead soldiers arrived—at a press conference in D.C., the reporters gathered to witness this performance applauded him, gave him a standing ovation.

What kind of world do we live in? What kind of world, now? What kind of world, in which the purveyors of “knowledge” and “information” can applaud cantering and capering atop a mass grave?

Enough. Such “news” sickens me, and I turn to nature for consolation, the starling I see right now, as I type, slowly clacking across the leaves to the bird bath, moving like a ponderous Oxbridge don in academic regalia, intent on a destination only he can see in his own head.

I write about the mundane, the particular, as well, because this kind of writing is an act of defiance—defiance of the norms that tell men (and scholars, and women whose power depends on playing by men's rules) they should write about the serious and not the domestic. Again and again, in my academic career, when I have submitted academic articles in which I reference the homey as an illustration of a ponderous point, I receive the edited article back with notes that, while the “riff” on cornpone may be interesting, it is off-topic.

Not to me. My garden, what I cook in my kitchen, the pollen I washed in dull yellow layers off my front porch yesterday: these are the stuff of my daily existence. My thought arises out of this stuff. Most of the world’s inhabitants live in worlds in which their lives are made of similar stuff. It is only a minority who live and work in academic studies, in high-rise office buildings, who can write while someone else (someone almost certainly female) does the cooking, the scrubbing, the garden-tending, the food-growing, food-selecting, food-preparing.

We need a theology that reflects where people really live and move and have their being. We need a theology—a serious, academic theology—that writes from the kitchen, the garden, the porch that has to be scrubbed daily. We need a theology in which the things that those who live in such places think about are taken seriously, as food for academic discussion.

I write about these matters on my blog because I can do so. For the first time in my life, in my academic career, in my vocation as an educator, I can write about gardens and kitchens as if they matter, and matter ultimately. I can use the homey to talk about God and not have an editor in a high-rise building, for whom someone else cooks and cleans (someone almost certainly female) eviscerate the homey references from what I have written.

In blogging, I believe I am continuing my work as an academic theologian and educator. But I am doing so outside Jerusalem, so to speak, outside the norms and boundaries that dictate what an academic theologian and educator can and must say. In nurturing an alternative discourse field—a new garden—for those of us who want to talk about God, about justice, about peace, about gender, I am, I hope, making it possible for new voices, those that have traditionally not been permitted into the conversation, to sound forth.

I hope. 4000 are now dead. A president capers. Reporters applaud. My voice is tiny. People I know are seriously ill, and my heart is heavy because of this.

But I hope. And so I go on speaking.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Men as Lords of Creation and School Bullying

Good news
: the bullying experienced by Billy Wolfe of Fayetteville, Arkansas, about which I blogged two days ago, is getting national attention. Yesterday’s Towleroad blog picked up a 26 March “Today” show interview of Matt Lauer with Billy Wolfe and his mother:

Bad news: this kind of school bullying continues, with no obvious end in sight. The bullying of Billy Wolfe is only the latest in a series of troubling incidents, all with a similar pattern, in Arkansas schools in the last decade or so. Though studies indicate this is a national phenomenon, and is hardly confined to Arkansas schools, I am concerned about the incidents in schools in the state in which I grew up and live, because they demand my attention. They are in my own back yard.

My blog posting of two days ago mentions the case of William Wagner. As the posting indicates, Willi Wagner experienced a brutal gay bashing over a decade ago while enrolled in a Fayetteville school. On 2 December 1996, as Willi and some friends left school to get lunch at a store near the school, six fellow students pulled up in a truck. They jumped out of the truck, shouting, ''C'mere you faggot.'' The students then surrounded Willi Wagner, knocking him to the ground, breaking his nose and kicking him with cowboy boots, bruising a kidney and leaving welts over his head and body.

A troubling aspect of this and similar stories is the failure or inability of the school system to address bullying of this sort, until it escalates into physical violence. Willi Wagner and his parents had reported incidents of harassment against Willi—who came to identify himself as gay during his adolescent years—for two years prior to the gay-bashing incident. The Wagners report that little was done to address the problem, and on one occasion, they were told by a school official that Willi Wagner was causing the bullying.

Blaming the victim—particularly the boy considered to be gender-inappopriate—is another troubling and recurrent pattern in these stories. In Wagner’s case, though the youths who participated in the gay-bashing incident were placed on probation after criminal charges were filed against them, bullying continued even after this horrific incident. When the school did not address the on-going harassment, Wagner and his parents filed an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) complaint in January 1997. The parents ultimately chose to remove Willi Wagner from his Fayetteville school because they feared his life was in danger.

In June 1998, OCR reached a “Commitment to Resolve” agreement with the Fayetteville Public School system, in which the Fayetteville schools agreed to recognize "sexual harassment directed at gay or lesbian students" and to implement procedures to train faculty, staff, and students in ways to deal with such harassment. As a result of her experiences with her son and the Fayetteville school system, Willi’s mother Carolyn Wagner helped found an organization, Families United Against Hate (FUAH), to address the problem of school bullying. She currently serves as vice-president of FUAH (see the links column for a link to FUAH—

Following the Willi Wagner story, another student in an Arkansas school made national news with a story of harassment he experienced as an openly gay youth. In March 2003, Thomas McLaughlin reported harassment by teachers and school officials at Jacksonville Junior High School north of Little Rock for a period over a year prior to this time. McLaughlin was fourteen when these incidents occurred. According to McLaughlin, when his science teacher overheard him refuse to deny to another boy that he was gay, the teacher notified his guidance counselor, who called his mother to inform her that her son was gay.

Prior to the call to his mother, the school’s assistant principal had threatened Thomas McLaughlin, giving him an ultimatum: either tell his parents he was gay, or the school would do so. McLaughlin’s science teacher then wrote him a lengthy letter informing him that the bible indicated he would go to hell if he was gay.

This story points to another troubling aspect of many cases of school bullying: not only do teachers and school officials sometimes admit acting on their own religiously based prejudices, but they actually defend harassment premised on those prejudices.

After these incidents, Thomas McLaughlin continued to experience harassment from teachers and administrators. Though it was teachers and school officials who had made the stir about Thomas’s sexual orientation, he was told that he might not discuss homosexuality in school, and would be punished if he brought the subject up. A new assistant principal brought Thomas McLaughlin to his office in the spring of 2003 and forced him to read aloud a Bible passage that, in the view of the principal, condemns homosexuality.

McLaughlin was informed by one teacher that homosexuality is “sickening,” and was suspended from school for telling other students that he had been forced to read Bible passages. When he and a female student were overheard talking about a boy both considered cute, he was disciplined. The female student was not.

In March 2003, the ACLU filed suit against the Pulaski County Special School District on behalf of the McLaughlin family, arguing that Thomas McLaughlin had a constitutional right to be openly gay in a public school. U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele upheld this right, noting that under the First Amendment, schools cannot silence or restrict students' speech unless it is disruptive. Following the ruling, the school agreed not to proselytize or punish students on the basis of sexual orientation.

Though Billy Wolfe does not identify as gay, as my posting two days ago indicated, the bullying he is experienced is premised on charges that he is “a bitch” and “a homosexual.”** This is a recurrent pattern in incidents of school bullying across the U.S.: boys identified as gender-inappropriate are bullied solely and precisely on the basis of the gay tag. When such bullying occurs, the following are also all-too-common typical steps in the bullying process:

  1. The victim is punished.
  2. The bullies are protected and rewarded.
  3. The school system turns a blind eye to the bullying, tacitly justifying it.
  4. The school system sometimes actively participates in the bullying, if the boy identifies himself as gay.
  5. Parents and the community at large are not only not outraged at such school violence: they sometimes condone and promote it, due to their prejudice against gay persons.
  6. The violence escalates from verbal bullying to outright physical violence.
  7. Its ultimate outcome in some cases is murder.

I grew up in Arkansas. I was schooled in Arkansas (with one year in a Louisiana school) through high school. As I have reported on this blog, I know the system of bullying of boys deemed gender-inappropriate at a personal level. I myself was bullied in junior high school. I experienced something of what all these boys have experienced, when coaches and school officials not only did not punish those who kicked me in the ribs, knocked me down in gym class, and groped and verbally taunted me, but encouraged them to behave this way.

I understand something of the mentality underlying this kind of school bullying. It occurs in a cultural context that puts a premium on belligerent masculinity. There is a tacit assumption in such cultures that men must prove they are men—by exhibiting traits of violence that demonstrate that they are at the top of the food chain. There is also a tacit assumption that men own everything—macho men, alpha men, that is, do so—and have a right to take what is theirs, even if the taking involves rapacity and brutality.

Those “beneath” the alpha men on the food chain—women and men regarded as feminine/weak—are objects. They are objects of violence that is excused and expected, because men are men. Men must be men. Being violent is what being a man is about. It is how a man proves he is an alpha male. Society hangs together because it adheres to a natural order: men are at top, women and feminized men are at bottom. Question that natural order or undermine it in any way, and you threaten to destabilize everything. Alpha men must be permitted to prove their alpha status in order to keep society stable and functioning.

Arkansas is a place in which schools place more emphasis on sports than academics. I imagine some of my fellow citizens will regard that statement as an overstatement. In response, I would point to the outlay of economic resources that goes, in all of our schools, to supporting athletic programs, as compared to the resources we place into academic pots. I would also ask if the citizens of the state are as avidly glued to their television sets when a science bowl is televised, as they are when the Hogs throw balls on the field.

We value men above all—men who can hunt, shoot, fish, play rough contact sports, demonstrate their machismo by lording it over “weaker” men. We will not succeed in preventing bullying in American schools, which reports indicate is much more often a pattern of male-on-male violence than female-on-female violence, until we address the culture of machismo underlying school bullying.

Machismo and hatred/fear of the feminine are deeply interwoven with homophobia. And school bullying, of the violent, sickening sort that took the life of Lawrence King early this year, arises out of homophobia. To address school bullying, we have to address homophobia.

No child needs to lose his life again in an American school. The churches must do something to address this problem and the homophobia that underlies it. If they do not do so soon, they will lose all credibility.

**I recall another incident in the past decade in an Arkansas school very similar to the incident involving Billy Wolfe. I have, however, been unable to retrieve information about it to include in this posting. This incident occurred in a junior high school in Sheridan, Arkansas, south of Little Rock. My recollection is that it involved a boy who did not identify as gay, but was tagged as gay by classmates, due to his interest in art and gardening. On that basis, he was mercilessly harassed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

4,000 Dead and the Office of Motherhood in All Things

Our high God, the sovereign wisdom of all, arrayed himself in this low place and made himself entirely ready in our poor flesh to do the service and the office of motherhood himself in all things.
As verily as God is our Father, so verily God is our Mother.
A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself.
The mother may suffer the child to fall sometimes, and to be hurt in diverse manners for its own profit, but she may never suffer that any manner of peril come to the child, for love. And though our earthly mother may suffer her child to perish, our heavenly Mother, Jesus, may not suffer us that are His children to perish: for He is All-mighty, All-wisdom, and All-love; and so is none but He,—blessed may He be!

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
I have been thinking of Julian of Norwich and of her profoundly moving insights into the maternal nature of God, as the news arrives that we have reached a new watermark with the war in Iraq: 4000 American soldiers dead.
And that is not even to count—or recognize—the many Iraqi men, women, and children who have also died in this war.
4000 mothers’ children now dead.

War demands reflection about what it means to be a mother. The loss of any life demands reflection about all that goes into the making of a human life. A mother, some mother somewhere, spends a good part of a year gestating, carrying a new life, bringing that life into the world with pain. Creation is work. Creation demands care. It takes far more energy to make than to destroy. A building constructed by years of painstaking labor can be hauled down in a single day.
Every human life ever created presupposes painstaking labor—on the part of a mother, on the part of Mother God, who grieves along with human mothers when the irreplaceable son or daughter created through such labor is suddenly gone. War is a horrendous, wasteful, absurd challenge to everything that motherhood—or creation, in the Judaeo-Christian theological framework—means.
Mothers are implicated. Mothers suffer perhaps more than anyone else, in war.
This is something German artist Käthe Kollwitz recognized, which she made the central theme of her art in the period between the two world wars. Like Cassandra, Kollwitz could see clearly what was coming, but could not avert it. She saw the horrendous waste of human life in the first war, and she knew that this war would repeat itself down the road in another act of ultimate absurdity, another world war.
Her drawings repeat, over and over, with the obsessive concern of someone who must be heard but will not be heard, the theme of mothers clutching their children to themselves, trying futilely to keep the seed that must be sown for future harvests safe from destruction. Kollwitz’s work is replete with mothers, with mothers’ arms, with the circling of mothers’ arms around children. Again and again, her work echoes the theme of mothers clutching their children to themselves, seeking desperately to guard their children, mourning over lost children. Mothers clinging to each other to create circles of protection in the world; mothers clinging to children whose birth has cost a mother so much, and whose tragic destruction is so simple to accomplish . . . .

Kollwitz’s art is a perfect counterpoint to Julian’s meditation on the nature of God. War is an act of ultimate atheism. No Jewish or Christian believer who believes what the creation narratives say about God—that God wombs the world into existence as a mother bird broods over its nest—can believe in, endorse, want, accept war.
What is brought into being at such tremendous cost should not be destroyed in a single act of insane, meaningless destruction. There are other ways, better ways, to resolve human conflict.
The news about the toll the war in Iraq has taken on our own nation, in the number of soldiers now lost, arrived on the eve of the liturgical feast day of the Annunciation, a day commemorated in many Christian traditions as the day on which Mary accepted the divine request to bear a child. The infancy narratives in the Christian gospels link the story of Jesus’s birth to that of his death: in accepting the divine offer of maternity, Mary also committed herself to give up her son, in the end of his life.
The pain of motherhood, the sorrow of mothers who bear children with such care and hope, but who give their children up to horrendous acts of violence, runs through the foundational stories of Christianity. These narratives are narratives about the Motherhood of God, about God’s totally involved love for human beings, about the pain God bears in bearing the world into being, and the pain God undergoes in seeing the world created at such cost senselessly destroyed.

Anyone who listens to these stories is called to create inside himself the capacity for motherhood: the capacity to listen, ponder, create, nurture, and enter into the suffering of those to whom one is linked. These are themes explored again and again by great artists, whose voices we need to hear, if we wish to become more humane.
I have just finished, and highly recommend, Pat Barker’s latest novel, Life Class. Critics who have noted that Barker shines when she returns to the theme of her novels about the first world war—the Regeneration trilogy—are right. The war to end all wars, and its cultural effects on England, are Barker’s métier.
Barker is acutely observant, in noting how war de-centers gender presuppositions. Men sent as mere boys into battle often discover the capacity to love each other fiercely. If they survive and return home, the questions this capacity to love provokes in them must be addressed in the cultural context of back home.
Women also confront gender shifts in wartime. War can open unexpected new avenues for women’s work to count, for the first time, to be seen for what it is—ceaseless labor to keep the machinery of society alive. Women can shake off constricting old social expectations in wartime, traveling unchaperoned to the front to nurse the wounded, living alone in apartments in large cities where their labor is now needed to keep things going.
Women also pick up the pieces in war, and Barker excels in describing this dynamic. It is women who flock to the front to pick up the pieces—quite literally—of wounded men who have to be patched back together in order to be sent again into battle. It is women who cope with the loss when their men cannot be healed. It is women who often bear the brunt when the man returned home is a mere shell of a human being, physically there, mentally gone.
Kollwitz has it right, as does Pat Barker: the seed for sowing must not be milled. We must war against war (krieg dem Kriege). Only in this way can those of us who seek to believe continue the office of God’s motherhood in all things, in the societies in which we live.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Breaking Silence, Rolling the Stone Away

I’m thinking about silence today. My email this morning contains an announcement from Ashon Crawley of Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) regarding the National Day of Silence that will be observed in American schools this year on 25 April in memory of Lawrence King.

This annual GLSEN-sponsored observance is an effort to address school bullying, particularly violence in schools fueled by prejudice against those tagged as LGBT or gender-inappropriate. As I’ve noted before on this blog, in conjunction with the LOGO network, GLSEN has produced an important video announcement about this year’s National Day of Silence and Lawrence King’s murder. For those who haven’t yet viewed this resource, it’s at

Ashon Crawley’s email announcement notes that silence takes many forms. It can be the kind of silence that is golden, the moment when we let out a deep breath and relax to take in the beauty of a landscape.

Alternatively, silence can be the deformative silence that is imposed on persons and groups of people by those who do not wish to hear the words a person or a group needs to speak in order to assert humanity, or to combat social norms that deform the person or group. As Crawley notes,

But there are times when silence is not sweet, times when silence isn’t chosen but when it is forced upon us. There are instances when silence bespeaks unhappiness. When a person or group is silenced, the choice to speak is stolen. Silencing of others is an act of coercion, making tangible inequitable distributions of power. So though there may be times when silence is golden, there are many other instances when silence is traumatic and terrifying. LGBTQ people are quite familiar with being silenced: having our lives questioned to the point that we fatigue from speaking; sometimes, literally lacking the words that convey our sense of being to the world; instances where our voices are effectively cut out of conversations.

LGBTQ people are quite familiar with being silenced. We are indeed. I’ve reported on this thread that at my last position as a professional educator in a church-based university, I was charged with the task of leading the faculty in developing a curriculum centered around civic engagement and social transformation.

In that capacity, I mentioned—on a single occasion—that GLSEN’s educational initiatives (among many other initiatives of other organizations addressing social problems) might be a resource for faculty to consider. I did so because the locale in which I was working was one in which violence against both homeless people and youth identified as gender-inappropriate was reaching epidemic proportions, both in schools and outside the school grounds.

Merely for mentioning GLSEN as a possible resource in the project I was charged to lead, I was severely punished. I was told to be silent. I was told I had “put my lifestyle into the face of colleagues.” LGBTQ people are quite familiar with being silenced, indeed.

This is silence that is intended to dehumanize those on whom it is imposed, to suggest that our humanity is less than that of those who are allowed to speak and to define social reality for themselves and the rest of us. It is the silence that is intended to keep our stories from being heard, because in coming to know us as human beings, others may come to see that our humanity is not inferior to theirs—that we offer another way to be human in a world that desperately needs many different models of humanity to match the diversity of the world’s population.

Silence never truly silences those who are oppressed—not when we continue to think, cherish our humanity against the blows of those trying to diminish it, love and dream. As Labi Siffre’s powerful anthem of liberation to which I linked in yesterday’s blog, “Something Inside So Strong,” says,

The more you refuse to hear my voice
The louder I will sing
You hide behind walls of Jericho
Your lies will come tumbling
Deny my place in time
You squander wealth that's mine
My light will shine so brightly
It will blind you
‘Cause there's......

Something inside so strong
I know that I can make it

This is the hope of the resurrection. This is the central message of the resurrection. Every power in the world in which Jesus lived sought to silence him, because his message that the reign of God had broken into the world was intolerable for those controlling the world in which he lived. This message of God’s preferential love for those on the margins, for prostitutes, for social outcasts, for the poor and the downtrodden, was unacceptable to those who profited from things as they were.

As a result, the powers that be in Jesus’s world sought to silence him definitively. They hung him on a cross and watched him breathe his last. They placed him in a tomb, and rolled a rock across the entrance. They left him there in a silence that, in their expectation, would be forever.

The Easter message is that Jesus remains alive beyond all attempts to silence and humiliate him, all attempts to stand athwart history and say “stop!” to movements of hope and progressive change. Far from silencing him, those who humiliated him by consigning him to the lowly fate of a common criminal made his voice louder, strong, universal.

I am not among those Christians who believe that only in Jesus is the voice of the divine accessible to the world. In my view, there are many ways to hear that voice, and followers of Jesus stand to gain much by listening for the voice of God in religious traditions other than their own—and in the lives and witness of those who may repudiate religion altogether, given their experience of the demonic face of religious groups, a face that every religion is capable of displaying.

I use the theological language of Christianity, of death and resurrection, of hope premised on this pivotal event in human history, because I grew up within a Christian culture, and that culture forms the framework of my religious imagination. In using this language, I make no claim that it is the unique, solitary way of talking about the intrusion of the divine into human history. To make such a claim would be to deny what is evident to anyone with eyes to see: that God manifests Godself in the world in many different ways, through many different religious traditions, and that, at the same time that religious communities across the globe sometimes show demonic faces to the world, all religious communities are also capable of being vehicles of salvation.

In my own Christian-framed religious imagination, part of the message of the resurrection is that one lives now as if the reign of God to which Jesus pointed—and for proclaiming which he was put to death—is already breaking forth in human history. Because of our witness to the resurrectional force of Jesus’s life and message, we live now as if the world has begun to change significantly, even when we recognize that our hopes point to dreams that have not yet come to pass.

We live for a more humane world at the same time that we are painfully aware that this world does not yet exist. We commit ourselves to making that world evident in our lives, to creating the conditions for making that world possible in the lives of others. We try to live as Rilke encouraged the aspiring poet to live in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

It is against this backdrop of the already here but not yet, of crucifixion-resurrection, that I keep seeking to address the social problems that reach my own tiny life, that call forth a concern in my own shriveled heart. It is against this backdrop that I struggle to keep talking in a world that seeks to silence those who speak from the margins, who insist on saying what others do not want to have said.

Only when such discourse can find a way to make itself heard beyond the margins, will the world will ever truly change for the better. As Ashon Crawley’s reflections suggest—as the National Day of Silence indicates—silence about school bullying and its root causes only reinforces the violence that will continue to repeat itself in our schools, unless we find ways to talk, to break silence.

Interestingly enough, after the New York Times posted its article yesterday about the bullying of Billy Wolfe in the Fayetteville, AR, school system, a blog discussion of this story developed on the website of the statewide free newspaper, Arkansas Times. This discussion was fascinating—more for what bloggers did not want to say or discuss, than for what they actually said.

The discussion began with a blogger reporting that he himself was bullied in an Arkansas school in the 1950s. Predictably, those bullying him tagged him as a “fag,” though he is heterosexual. Building on that account, another blogger noted that the same theme is present in the story of Billy Wolfe: though he identifies himself as straight, the Facebook site set up by his bullies (to which I referred in yesterday’s blog) refers to Billy Wolfe as “a little bitch” and a homosexual that no one likes.”

This theme of identifying boys as gay, and then abusing him because they are gay, is omnipresent in patterns of school bullying in American schools. We cannot address—we cannot solve—the problem of school bullying, without confronting this issue head on. In order to address school bullying, our schools have to address homophobia.

And yet, they do not want to go there. The churches do not want them to go there. Parents influenced by the churches often fight tooth and nail to keep any discussion of these issues out of our schools.

The blogger who brought up the omnipresent pattern of homophobia underlying bullying of boys in our schools was met by silence yesterday, on the Arkansas Times blog. Though discussion of the Billy Wolfe story continued throughout the day, other bloggers obviously did not wish to engage the homophobia issue.

This is the sadly typical response to analysis of school bullying as homophobia-incited: silence. Until we break this silence and move beyond it, until we discuss these issues honestly and openly, we will not resolve the problem of school bullying. And that means that more youth will be bullied in American schools. It means, sadly, that we are likely to see more incidents such as the Lawrence King incident in the future.

And, in a country that historian Martin Marty has called “a nation with the soul of a church,” there is no way to discuss the endemic problem of school bullying premised on homophobia without engaging the churches in the discussion. The churches are at the heart of the problem.

As a fine blog posting on the Bilerico Project website last week—Terrance Heath’s “Apology Accepted”—notes, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of American (ELCA) recently issued an apology to the LGBT community for the way in which historic Lutheran teachings have been used to wound, rather than welcome, gay people (see

But as Heath also notes, the very way in which the announcement is framed—as part of a validation of the historic teaching that the only acceptable form of marriage is between one man and one woman—continues the wounding and unwelcoming process. Heath insightfully focuses on the way in which Christian teachings about marriage, and about the “natural” order of human sexuality, implicitly diminish the full humanity of gay human beings:

[B]eing gay means that I have to expect less and accept less from life. Being gay means I deserve less from life. I don’t deserve love, I don’t deserve family . . . . Of course that means understanding that as queers we must accept less and expect less from life than our heterosexual brothers and sisters, because we are less than our heterosexual brothers and sisters.

Churches cannot become welcoming spaces for LGBT persons as long as their teachings frame gay humanity as somehow less than the full humanity of straight human beings. And the problem of violent assaults on young people tagged as gay or gender-inappropriate will not be successfully addressed until the churches examine their own homophobia, and call on their members to cope with the homophobia that is inside all of us and is all-pervasive in American life.

There is hope. In this Easter season, I celebrate the prophetic witness of people like Sister Jeanine Gramick, on whom a Clerical Whispers blog posting focused last week (see

Jeanine Gramick has been a longstanding fighter for gay rights in the Catholic church. She has suffered for standing up and speaking out. The Vatican has sought to silence her. Fortunately, it has not succeeded.

As Jeanine Gramick notes, her conscience does not permit her to remain silent. As the Clerical Whispers interview notes, Jeanine Gramick agrees with the observation of a Catholic bishops’ conference which says, "Prejudice against homosexuals is a greater infringement on the moral norm than any kind of sexual activity.”

Yet Jeanine Gramick wants to push the conversation further. As she notes: “Well, let's put this into practice. Instead of the Vatican making all these pronouncements about homosexual activity, let's make the pronouncement about the evils of prejudice and violence against the gay community. That's what we should be teaching."

Amen. Thank God for those who refuse to remain silent when the powers that be choose to silence them. Thank God for those like Jeanine Gramick, who choose to speak truth to power within the churches in which they remain active.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter Church, Welcome Spaces, and School Bullying

So. Easter leaves us with the obligation of returning to the everyday.

No easy task, that. The precise obligation is to live the everyday as if it is more than ordinary. If Easter has any meaning, that’s its central message: transfiguring the everyday, so that it is shot through with significance transcending the “mere” ordinary.

Such highfalutin’ language. Poor chatty little Christianity, E.M. Forster said. Always relying on one more word to limp along, to try to get its message across to a new group of believers.

And I understand that critique, and share it, so that I don’t belong—not on the churched side of the line, not among the respectable. I can’t be there, because I don’t see a lot of transfiguring going on. I completely understand—and agree with—Nietzsche when he says that if anyone is going to buy the Christian message of salvation, Christians need to look more saved. Or with Gandhi, when he observed that he found Christ exceedingly attractive, but did not find Christians attractive.

I write, think, live out of a specifically gay perspective and gay experience with the church. That experience is, brutally and frankly, one of unwelcome. There is no other word to describe what happens to us who are gay, vis-à-vis the churches.

I know that many churches have sought to create welcoming spaces in their midst for gay believers. The Episcopal church in the U.S. has ordained an openly (emphasis on “openly”) gay bishop.

And yet that bishop is not being invited to the coming Canterbury Conference. The mere acknowledgment that some priests and some bishops and many believers are openly gay (emphasis on “openly”) is intolerable for some members of the Anglican communion. A communion in which a leader of a ministry, Changing Attitudes, in Nigeria to build bridges of acceptance between the church and the gay community was savagely beaten last week: see News reports indicate that violence such as this towards LGBT people and their supporters in Nigeria is actively being encouraged by some Anglican church leaders in Nigeria, including Archbishop Peter Akinola.

The churches are, at their best, tolerant. They are not welcoming. Not yet. They are not affirming, accepting, capable of blessing gay people and our lives and our relationships. They are not transfigured. They are not places in which gay people can experience transfiguration—the Easter experience or the Easter message.

And so we live our spiritual lives on the outside, those of us who care to salvage any vocabulary of spirituality from our brutal encounters with the churches. And, ultimately, it’s not precisely the brutality, the savagery of the churches towards gay persons that is the all-determining factor in my inability to commune: it’s the stolid refusal of church people even to admit that the inability to welcome—to welcome anyone at all—undercuts everything about church, everything about its message.

A church that is unable to welcome—anyone at all—is simply not church. A church that is incapable of becoming a welcoming space for anyone in need of compassion and healing is not truly church: such a church is not living the gospel message in a sacramental way which allows that message to be understood and accessed through the life of the church itself.

I say all of this today against the backdrop of ongoing conversations with some of my co-religionists at the National Catholic Reporter blog café—conversations that leave me extremely frustrated. The struggle to establish some common ground for dialogue with people who appear to share one’s conviction that our culture desperately needs ways to talk about becoming a more humane society—that struggle seems impossible when one of the dialogue partners refuses to occupy that common ground, that shared dialogic space.

When people already have all the answers (and some Christians persist in thinking this way), there is no point in dialoguing. From the standpoint of the catechizer, conversation becomes an act of imparting nuggets of truth to the poor soul who needs those nuggets. It is not an exchange in which each dialogue partner offers insights from her own life experience, in a shared journey towards a truth that transcends both conversationalists.

And for those who have all Truth in their hands and are intent on dispensing nuggets of The Truth to the rest of us, it is fatally simple to arrive at an imagination of one’s dialogue partner as fundamentally defective. In my “dialogues” with my co-religionists at the NCR café, I find myself continuously up against the brick wall of others’ definition of me as less than human.

Again, this is the persistent experience of gay human beings in relation to the church. The churches, at their best, imagine us as rather pitiful objects of charity, who need those nuggets of truth to make us more stalwart followers of the Lord. If only we could understand that there is a plan for the world, God’s plan, and that it’s premised on getting everything in its place: men here, women there; male and female God created them; men as guardians and protectors, women as homebodies and cheerfully obedient servants. If only we could understand the basic plumbing of human sexuality, that everything fits in its proper place—at least, from God’s perspective.

How simple life would be for us poor misguided gay souls, and for the church itself, if people would just understand The Truth, remain in their places, cooperate and believe—and submit and obey.

This is the approach of some of my co-religionists with whom I have sought to talk about our shared interest in a more humane society. It is an approach that demeans me, an approach that—ultimately—reduces me to silence by reducing me to an object, something these conversation partners imagine, rather than a complex human being with human depth, intense human feelings, human questions.

It is so easy to “place” the other when we imagine him as Other, when we reduce her to a stereotype, to an object. And placing the Other is what Christianity seems all about, in the application of its truest adherents today.

In taking that path, the churches are forfeiting the chance to become real agents of change in postmodern culture. In taking the path of making placement of the Other the central task of Christianity, the churches forfeit the claim to be places of a welcome that makes any real difference in the lives of their members, places in which real transfiguration of the ordinary and every day occurs.

In taking this path, the churches cause many LGBT persons simply to shrug our shoulders and reject the language of spirituality altogether, because that language has become so tainted with disdain for our gay humanity that it is toxic for us.

And meanwhile, the task of creating truly welcoming spaces in our culture continues: today’s New York times reports on a boy, Billy Wolfe, who is being bullied on an ongoing basis in a school in Fayetteville in my state (see This is a school system in which, a decade ago, William Wagner was bullied for being gay, and beaten so viciously that he still suffers from the aftermath of that beating.

Not much seems to have changed in a decade. Though Billy Wolfe is not gay, his attackers—who have now assaulted him repeatedly—use the gay tag as an excuse to assault him. The NY Times reports that one of the bullies created a Facebook site several years ago entitled “Every One That Hates Billy Wolfe,” on which a picture of Peter Pan was superimposed over Billy’s face, with the statement, “There is no reason anyone should like billy he’s a little bitch. And a homosexual that NO ONE LIKES.”

This is a persistent problem in American schools. It should not be happening. The pattern repeats itself over and over: a boy is identified as gay or gender-inappropriate, or he himself identifies as gay. He is then assaulted. The response of the school system and of parents is all too often faint-hearted. Sometimes the boy himself is blamed for “causing” the bullying.

The violence escalates. The beatings continue. Murder is sometimes the outcome.

This must not happen again. The churches lose all credibility when they provide the conditions for such violence in any shape, form, or fashion. The churches in places where such school bullying occurs must stand against violence and for acceptance. Churches that take seriously and live the Easter message must commit themselves to becoming welcoming places in which social divisions are healed and social wounds are staunched.

If the Easter message means anything at all, it has to mean that Lawrence King did not die in vain. Churches, are you listening?


And for those of us who stand outside, but still sing Easter songs, an anthem for this Eastertide, Labi Siffre singing his powerful "Something Inside So Strong":

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Francis of Assisi and Mother Birds: The Story of Jesus Always Renewed

I’ve begun my Holy Saturday listening to Paul Robeson sing “Were You There.” And thinking about rivers, about Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan. About vocation, and about how crucifixion and resurrection is everyone’s story.

Paul Robeson: that deep, rich voice that sounds like something emanating from the center of the earth. And which, for the same reason, has the power to touch the depths of one’s soul, such that the words of the spirituals he sings becomes the song of one’s own soul. The genius of African-American spirituality is to take biblical texts, read them through the prism of historic injustice, historic unmerited and imposed suffering, and cause them to shine as though the texts had been written just the day before yesterday.

The bible as our story. This is one of the many significant contributions of African-American culture to American culture at large, this genius for making the text meaningful here and now, so that the call and response of the text implicates us, implicates me, and is not simply a perplexing word from a strange, unfathomable past with no obvious significance for the here and now.

At a time in which American culture seems curiously, willfully amnesiac about the manifold contributions of African-American culture to the nation’s culture at large, Paul Robeson—and the spirituals—bear remembering. And bear hearing anew.

The immediacy of the biblical story in the spirituals’ rendition is a reminder that the story of Jesus is not simply his story, but everyone’s. I think today of a remark that I believe Henri Nouwen makes in one of his books—that, when John plunged Jesus under the water of the Jordan River, the river took Jesus.

In submitting to baptism by John, in going into and under the waters of the flowing river, Jesus let go of leading his life as if it were his life. His life became the life handed over to God. The river took him. From the Jordan to Calvary, Jesus lived out the consequences of a vocational decision to live utterly and completely for God, for others, and not for himself.

The river takes us. The river takes us when, in the depths of our own souls, we somehow lay hold of our unique calling in life. The river of vocation runs through each human life, giving depth meaning to the shallows of everyday existence. When we reach into the depths, when we reach the rivers flowing at the depths of our own being, and when we give ourselves to those depths, the river takes us. Our lives become not our own, but the life lived in the sway and current of the river flowing through us.

A river that leads inevitably, in every human life, to crucifixion. Crucifixion is part and parcel of the human experience of life. It happens to us over and over again. It is where the river takes us, if we plunge into the river and allow ourselves to be taken: if we give in to vocation.

But inherent in that giving up of our own command of our destiny is the simultaneous—and insane—hope that the self-abnegation will become a fruitful gift: not for ourselves, but for others. This is the resurrection half of the diptych that forms the central mystery of Christian faith: in dying we are born to eternal life; in death, we rise again. We live to become the grain of wheat sown in the ground, which produces sheaves of wheat in abundance for others we will not see, who will come after us.

Or, as Maya Angelou puts the point, “When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor’s gift.”

A certain kind of distorted piety has often led Christians to think of the story of the crucifixion and resurrection as unique to Jesus. And yet the implication of the four gospels’ account of Jesus’s life is clear: this story of grappling with the voice of God, with a calling to submit to the river, to be plunged beneath it, to let it carry us where it will, to die in order that others may live—this story of Jesus is our story, as well. This is the raison d’etre of the gospels, the reason they were written: to link our human stories to the story of Jesus, such that the story of Jesus becomes our own story, and our story part of the story of Jesus.

We do not dishonor Jesus and his memory when we appropriate the story to our experience, or when we use our human experience to hear and understand the story of Jesus. In doing these things, we show that this story has become paradigmatic for us, that it casts ultimate meaning on our lives: that it has become the hinge story of our own vocational lives.

This recognition that the story of Jesus belongs perennially to the people of God, and not to the hieratic classes that, in any church and any culture, keep claiming the story as the unique possession of the guardians and purveyors of the sacred mysteries, is a recognition that, again and again, enlivens the churches with reforming experiences. This recognition again and again calls forth reformers whose task is to point to the possibility of living the story of Jesus in a new way in new cultural settings.

I have been thinking in this vein this week as I finished Linda Bird Francke’s On the Road with Francis of Assisi (NY: Random House, 2005). Francke writes about a pilgrimage she and her husband took several years ago, in which they sought to visit every place of significance to the life of Francis of Assisi that they could discover.

Francis lived at a turning moment in European history, a time of urbanization in which the traditional monastic patterns of spirituality no longer reached the lives and cultural experiences of the newly urbanized masses of European nations. Part of Francis’s genius—part of his unique calling to rebuild the church—was his ability to act out, with a band of followers, the gospel story in a way that made this story fresh to those living in a new cultural setting.

Much has been written about the charism of Francis and his followers, and the ways in which they reframed the story of Jesus to fit new socio-economic patterns. Something that I have not seen discussed much, however, and which crops up here and there in Francke’s re-telling of the life of Francis, is an interesting gender-transgressive tendency of Francis and the early friars.

Francke notes that, in a letter to Brother Leo now held by the cathedral of Spoleto and dated sometime before 1220, Francis refers to himself as Leo’s mother. “I speak to you, my son, as a mother,” the letter begins, after Francis has greeted his devoted companion (as cited, p. 25).

The use of the maternal language is also found in Francis’s 1217 rule for hermitages. In the rule, Francis called for each hermitage to have three or four friars, in which two would be the mothers of the hermitage, and the other(s) the son(s) (p. 129).

My posting yesterday noted that, from the first creation narrative in Genesis, through the prophets, to the gospels and the words of Jesus, God is continuously imaged as a mother bird seeking to bring her chicks under her wings, to enfold them with love and protection. Francke notes that Francis also employed this imagery (p. 176).

As his community struggled over the question of how or whether it was possible to live Francis’s ideal of absolute poverty, Francis dreamt of himself as a hen spreading her wings to enfold and protect her chicks. Francke indicates that this dream is depicted in paintings in southern Italy, with Francis holding his cloak around his followers.

What to make of these whispers of an alternative view of God and gender in medieval Christianity? First, the whispers can’t be dismissed. Francis’s goal was to tell the story of Jesus in a way that reached those living in an entirely new cultural setting. Like Jesus himself, he acted out his message in dramatic ways—disrobing and handing his clothes to a father who sought to make him over in the father’s image, dramatically repudiating the paternalistic vision of his life. Francis acted out the Christmas narrative in a way that has radically influenced all subsequent generations of Christians. It was he who developed the idea of staging nativity scenes to make the story real (and human) to Europeans of his day.

Francis’s kissing of lepers, his sitting on the floor to eat scraps with lepers and other dispossessed wanderers of the roads of a Europe in which urbanization was widening the economic gap between rich and poor, also brought the gospel message home to his countryfolk. Francis is known as alter Christus because, in so many radical ways, he sought to enact the life of Jesus in a new cultural setting, to keep the story alive, and as a result, his own life is seen as an exemplary emulation of the life of Christ.

This being the case, Francis’s choice to echo Jesus’s use of the maternal imagery of the Genesis creation narrative must not be dismissed or taken lightly. This choice may have been ignored for generations, as Christians focused on other aspects of the story.

Today, however, when currents within the churches seek to use distorted interpretations of scripture and tradition to force women (and men viewed as feminized) into submission, the story takes on a new, portentous, radical (and radically important) significance. If we take Jesus seriously, if we take Frances as alter Christus seriously, we must also take seriously the willingness of both to bend traditional gender lines by using maternal imagery to refer to themselves.

At the very least, the story of Francis illustrates that those rooted firmly in Christian tradition should not find it shocking—as many Christians do today—to see a male assuming what is thought of as a “female” role, when the nurturing role is warranted for a male. There is a quicksilver quality about the varied gender appropriations within the Christian tradition that makes our current fixation on using religion to assure that men be real men and women be real women seem outright bizarre. It did not bother Francis to assume the “female” role of nurturer, of mother, of the mother hen drawing her chicks beneath her wings.

It does bother many Christians today to think in these terms. To the extent that it does so, perhaps we have lost sight of some central strands of the scriptural text and of Christian tradition. And Easter is about remembering that the most central strands of all—the message of ongoing dying/rising—belong to all of us and have to be lived by all of us here and now.