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Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Cross and the cuckoo's egg

I have followed with interest recent reports in the LGBT press on Christianity and its presumed attitude toward men who love men, women who love women, women who emerge from the bodies of men, men who discover themselves to have been born women, and children who have been born with indeterminate genitalia.

To me, these are conditions with which we are born, or which reveal themselves, as we go along in life, as imperatives, more so for some than for others. Our having them has little to do with our philosophy of life, or the moral schemes to which we subscribe. So please pardon me if the lines that have been drawn, on both sides of the debate, strike me as somewhat artificial.

Joan of Arc was told by the Inquisition that she would not be executed if she would simply stop dressing as a man. She actually tried. On the morning of the third day, they discovered her, once again, dressed as a man. They remonstrated with her, representing to her, as any reasonable, feeling jailer might, the horrors of living flesh peeling away in the flames, and even of the shameful nakedness that comes, before the eyes of the crowd, as clothing burns away. She would die, in the eyes of the witnesses, an unclothed woman. "I cannot go back from wearing men's clothing," she told them. And the sentence was carried out exactly as they had described it to her.

Some ... are less brave. Lacking support from Joan's divine voices, we go in terror our lives long for fear of being discovered to have been born, or to have found in early childhood that we had had the ill fortune to have hatched from the cuckoo's egg. I learned early on that if my parents found me in my mother's dress, wearing her bracelets, necklace, brooch, earrings and lipstick, wobbling about the living room on her high heels, there would be trouble.

Big trouble.

So I learned, painfully and always awkwardly, but with massive will and attention, to play baseball, to hunt, to fish, to sharpen knives, clean rifles, strip outboard motors, clean game, punch boys, tease girls, play football, tie a four-in-hand, wear cufflinks, carry my books on one side instead of in the middle, and part my hair on the left. It was a relief, later, that my Adam's apple came in, my voice deepened, and my shoulders broadened. Now no one will ever know. I'm safe at last. Over the decades, secure in my testosterone-mandated masculinity, I would skin cats (drive bulldozers), boss forest fires, cruise timber, and skid logs with the best of 'em. I was able to forget, for the time being, the solemn promise I had made to myself when I was eight: when I grow up, I will be a girl.

Our family went to church. We practically lived there. Our church was one of those where Communion appears in every Sunday service, small unleavened crackers on a silver plate, along with a silver dish with some forty holes in its lid, each bearing its own tiny shot glass of reconstituted grape juice. The sermons were about Hell, the place reserved for sinners, and about the appropriate demeanor of wives, and the importance of supporting the church. (Meaning, I now realize, the sermonizer and his family; congregations in our denomination were independent, and relatively little escaped the collection basket to serve a national or international infrastructure. We were encouraged on a regular basis to help fund the conversion to Christianity of the Kiowas, but that was about the extent of our collective philanthropy.)

As a sola scriptura church, we were given many opportunities to become familiar with Scripture. There were two Sunday school sessions before the eleven o'clock service, another at 6:30, before the 7:30 service, another on Tuesday at 7:30 and one on Wednesday at 6:30, before that 7:30 service. And there were constant Bible bees: "Shortest verse?" "Jesus wept, John 11:35!" "Very good!" I attended them all. Each of the 66 books of the (bisexual cross-dresser King) James' version was gone over at least five times by the time I left high school. We read and discussed everything from the Levitical proscription against eating anything that goes on its belly, or all fours, or has many feet ("for they are an abomination," Lev.11:42) to the prophecies of Revelation. We spent much time on the instructions to one of the seven churches (Rev. 2-3), though I was never sure why.

One of our activities was a role-reversal where the congregation's young people ran the bible classes and the services for a week. I was given the Wednesday service. I gave the choir their numbers, chose the hymns, and gave the order of service to the Church secretary. I wrote the prayer of invocation, the prayer for forgiveness of sins, the collection prayer, the communion prayer and the invitation, and labored for days over my sermon neglecting dangerously my school paper on the distinctions between the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of geological time. I didn't see any contradiction there between my two worlds; one simply doesn't when raised not to question such matters.

The day came. I directed the music, got through the prayers (always the scariest part for me) and began my sermon.

It was on that resounding passage, from Paul, the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, ending: "...and now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity." Our sermons ran about half an hour. I constructed mine as a meditation on each of the thirteen verses, drawing connection to love-in-action passages elsewhere: The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), the question of the greatest commandment and Jesus' response (Luke 10:25-37). The small mid-week congregation seemed to like it well enough. I was ecstatic. I can do this, I thought. Perhaps I should go to the Bible college; with the Lord's help I may get to help people.

The following Sunday the preacher asked me into his office for a few minutes. "We appreciate the effort you made last Wednesday night, son;" he began. "I'm concerned, though, as are some of the elders, that the approach you're taking could lead someone not grounded in the Faith to take some things out of context."

I was given to understand that only by emphasizing faith and the hope of resurrection and eternal life could sinners be brought to salvation. Yes, love is the greatest of the three, but when people became confused about how to express it, they were apt to fall prey to the blandishments of ...

... are we all ready for this?

... Communist infiltrators.

In that moment I had a flash of intuition. It's, of course, possible I was mistaken, and if so I apologize to the long-dead ghost of that harried and well-meaning man, who, Lord knows, worked hard enough for his meager pay, and whose wife and children always looked a bit pinched ... but ... rightly or wrongly, the message I got was that too much sermonizing on love might shift income from the pastoral account elsewhere. And thereby lay open before me the root of economics as politics, and the uses of cosmology, epistemology, and even eschatology (beliefs concerning the "end-times") to cover the basic motivation in most public activity and discourse: watch your own back. Anything that will disadvantage any outgroup means more resources for me and my descendants.

That night, I took my Bible to the family living room and left it in the bookcase. I retrieved the B volume of the family encyclopedia and retired to my room. Thus began my lifelong study of Buddhism.


Fast-forward four decades, now, to the twenty-first century.

Our daughter, who is nineteen, has moved back in. I take advantage of this by asking her to accompany me to a rally at the state capital for moral support. She's a natural-born rabble-rouser, and, unlike me, absolutely fearless.

We find the freeway heavily fogged-in on the valley floor, which was once a seabed and is now a flat expanse of farmland mostly given over to industrial-strength grass seed farming. It's always beautiful, even so, with mountain ranges on either hand. Huge flocks of sheep flash by, alternating with mysterious wetlands. From one of these a ragged gaggle of white snow geese lifts off, flashing past our windshield in the first blaze of sunlight.

At the capital, we park on a back street in a quiet neighborhood, one of the few in the vicinity with no parking time limits posted, check our faces in the mirror, gather up our purses and walk toward the State buildings. LGBTQ people and allies have descended upon the State Capitol Building to lobby for a bipartisan human rights bill, introduced by a Republican, written to end discrimination against citizens on the basis of sexual preference or gender identity and expression. A thousand of us march round to the front of the Capitol, where a few well dressed senators and other politicians will address the crowd. Across the sidewalk, about eight dour-looking men, holding placards with slogans on them, shout something to the effect that God hates fags and we will all burn in Hell.

Brave men, carrying their convictions in their hands amid a sea of angry opponents. Somewhere in my heart, I admire them and wish them well.

I feel moved to shake hands with a very tall, quite handsome, well-dressed, bearded counter-demonstrator. "How do you do, sir?" He almost reaches for my hand, then peers at me suspiciously. I have been on hormone replacement therapy for two years and electrolysis for one, am wearing my best cranberry ribbed turtleneck, black elastic-waistband slacks, silver hoop earrings and have worn my curlers for ten hours the night before, in an effort to look my best. I'm sure I've got the voice right, too. But something tips him off. Is it the big shoulders? Hand size? Some aspect of posture? Or maybe it's the Adam's apple that has protected me for so many years, and which I can't afford, yet, to have removed.

"You, you ... y-y-you're a sodomite!" And he withdraws his hand. An abomination. Mustn't touch.

"Umm ... I don't think so, sir. I've been married to the same woman for twenty-eight years." And worked five days a week the whole time, took my kids to your Vacation Bible Schools, and paid my taxes, same as you, I mean to add. And: I did it your way, dammit, until I could no longer stand having to bear false witness. And I almost lasted it out, all for you. So you could give me a little credit here.

But he is gone already. He fades back into the tiny pack, glaring at the crowded steps above me, shouting with redoubled effort.

My daughter puts her arm around my shoulder as we march up the marble steps past them, looks me straight in the eye to be sure I'm paying attention, and says "I so love you, Mommy2." It is one of those stunningly defining moments that give life to a parent's soul.

And we go and stand with my people, gay, straight, trans, queer, and intersex: grandmothers, infants, school children, mothers, kids in purple hair, old men in their seventies and into their eighties. A couple of white-haired women standing near us have been together for forty years. One achingly beautiful child in a rainbow dress, with rainbow ribbons in her hair, poses with her moms, one white, one black, for an entire roll of pictures, her smile growing more and more radiant with each click.

We hear, enjoy and applaud the speeches, but my daughter and I find ourselves more interested in the inscription on the wall behind the podium. This was carved, in letters a foot high, to the left of the entrance many years ago:


As in, the foundation of a free society is justice. I remember then the passage from the prophet for whom one of my sons is named: "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8). And at that moment, I join hands with my queer sisters and brothers, and sing, weeping.


This nation is now in the hands of what should have been, at most, a tiny movement of malcontents, easily shrugged off by thoughtful citizens, whether Christian or otherwise. But their ranks have swelled into the millions since the 1970s, while most of us were not paying attention, with obsessed right-to-lifers, paranoid white supremacists, and various keepers of narrow, antidemocratic agendas working together to confuse and co-opt mainstream evangelical Christians by using the same biblical and sectarian language with which they, and I, were raised. Their two persistently raised wedge issues are homosexuality and abortion, the same ones used by Hitler and Himmler's moral-enforcement agency, a wing of the SS, in the 1930s. But they are also interested in systematically weakening and eliminating public debate, public space, schools, universities, libraries, and almost all means of carrying out and disseminating the results of scientific inquiry, especially the teaching of environmental science, evolutionary biology, geology, and even astrophysics. Every progressive on the planet now has a common and implacable foe, one which is growing daily. And it's not even Osama Bin Ladin, though he has some similar ideas.

The core theorists of this movement are known as Reconstructionists, Dominionists or Theonomists. The idea is to reconstruct Christianity as a vehicle for taking over government so that God may have dominion instead of man, by the re-instituting of God's Old Testament moral laws (theonomy). The Old Testament is, for them, the proper law of the land, obliterating the Constitution and the United States Code, or the laws of any other country whatever, for their mandate, which they believe will bring the end of history and the return of Christ, is to conquer the world.

All this turns upon the interpretation of a single Greek word: plerosai. It occurs in this passage: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill [plerosai]. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-19)."

Christians in general translate this as fulfill, and talk about the New Testament as the rule for Christians (hence new) and replacing the outer Mosaic Law-by-rules with an inner Law of following the Spirit, by faith, hope, and charity. Paul, in the epistle to the Galatians, goes to much trouble to explain this. Tossing aside two thousand years of Pauline exegesis, the Theonomist theologian R. J. Rushdoony, founder of the Chalcedon Institute, and his followers declare that plerosai means "establish" or "confirm" -- even though this is not how it's used elsewhere in the New Testament (The Christian Reconstruction Movement and its Blueprints For Dominion, Greg Loren Durand ). For the Theonomist, the moral (but, oddly, not the ceremonial) law of Moses shall be applicable to all the land in perpetuity. In case you're thinking you have never seen these people, think 700 Club.

Assume for a moment, that they are right. Christianity may be finally turning to the correct interpretation of the words of Jesus as reported in that passage. If so, all the following will be applicable (See Lev. 15-27):

If a man has an emission of semen, he shall wash his whole body in water, and be unclean until the evening. 
A woman shall be unclean for seven days after her menses begin and she cannot be touched. Whoever touches anything on which she sits will wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. If a man lies with her at this time they shall both be cast out from among the Lord's people. 
You may not eat any fruit from a tree you have planted until the fifth year. You may not let your cattle breed with another kind. You may not plant your field with two different kinds of seed. Nor shall you wear anything with two different fabrics in its construction. Each of the four corners of your cloak must have a tassel.
Tattoos are strictly forbidden. You will not trim the edges of your beard. When an old white-haired man enters the room you must stand up.
You will treat your slaves with kindness. If they scrape together enough money to buy themselves from you at a fair price, you will not refuse them the sale. 
If a man sleeps with his neighbors' wife they shall both be executed. If a man sleeps with another man's slave girl they shall both be put to death. If two men sleep together they shall be executed (it doesn't seem to specify whether they have to have had sex). 
If you have a rebellious son who will not obey you or the elders, take him outside the city and throw rocks at him until he is dead.
If you obey all this and much, much more, you will always have good weather and good crops and your enemies will always fall before your sword. Five of you shall be able to chase a hundred of them.
You may have seen similar lists. The complete one is very long. You can find it in the top drawer of the dresser or side table in almost every motel room in the United States.

The world as we knew it on September 10, 2001 is gone. And of those who plan to profit from the confusion, not all speak Arabic. The two new religions are planning to kill each other off, yes, but both are principally bent on the destruction of Western Civilization. There are going to be sacrifices made, and if you are a progressive, you and I and my daughter are sacrifices some people will be willing to make. If you believe this is an exaggeration, run an Internet search to see if you can find some widely-disseminated sermons and newsletter articles -- both Islamist and Dominionist -- calmly and reasonably explicating the South Asian Tsunami as a punishment for homosexuality. And that's just the appetizer.


As we drive home, using fossil fuels, of course, in the uncharacteristically hot winter sunshine, my daughter asks about the apparent belief system of the men who had shouted at us to go back in the closet. "What do you and Mommy1 think about the Bible and gay people?"

What to say? "Judge not, lest you be judged" will come off a little pat. Everyone knows that one already, and the bigots never seem to think it applies to them....

As a counselor rather critically noted recently, when asked how I feel, I tend to resort to a story. But I know I'm not the only one who's ever done that. So I try this one on her:

"Well, dear, people used to crowd around the country rabbi and ask him about this stuff. Some of them were hotshot lawyers whose job was to know all the proof texts, so the power structure sent them to hang out in the crowds and see if they could trip him up on his teachings and get him arrested for stirring up the people.

"So this dude, who's trained all his young life in the laws of Moses, stands up and says, "Hey! Rabbi! What do I do to get to live forever?'

"'What does it say in your Book say about that?' replies the itinerant rabbi from the boondocks.

"So the lawyer says: '"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" and, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"'That's right', says the rabbi. 'If you do that you're gonna live forever.'

"Everybody's standing around, looking at these two, and thinking, uh-huh, the quick-thinking traveling preacher has got the big shots by the beard again.

"So the lawyer looks around, sees people grinning at him, and so he sticks out his lower lip and spreads his hands in a kind of apologetic shrug.

"'Sure, but that's just it. Who exactly is my neighbor?'

"'The rabbi looks him over. The kid is bright, he's moving up through the infrastructure, but he seems to mean well too. Might be worth saving.

"'Tell you what. Sit down a minute, I've got a story for you.' Everybody moves in close to hear the story.

"'There's this traveling salesman, kind of a Willy Loman type, puts up a load of shoes or whatever on his donkey to sell down at Jericho. On the way there, in the middle of nowhere, a bunch of local guys relieve him of his stock, his gear, his transportation, his clothes, and his last water bottle, and beat him senseless for good measure. Then they clear out, leaving him there for the vultures to find.

"'After awhile, along comes a priest. He sees the guy lying there, not moving, covered with, by this time, dried, caked blood. He's not a bad person, the priest; he'd go over and check the situation out, but he has responsibilities -- spelled out in detail in Leviticus -- to the people up in Jerusalem. If he handles this person, he'll have to touch the blood -- and/or the nakedness of another man -- and that means he won't be able to do his job, because he'll have been polluted. So he crosses the road and passes by, maybe making a mental note to call 911 when he gets to town.

"'Nothing happens for awhile, and the vultures are starting to pay attention. But then here comes this other guy. He's a lawyer, of course, just like you [significant glance; crowd chuckles] and again, a good person with duties and responsibilities and mustn't get polluted -- can quote you chapter and verse verbatim on the things that God has required of him in serving the people properly. There are real penalties for goofing this up, so he, too crosses the road and moves along, a little faster, maybe, thinking about making that same 911 call.

"'So he's been gone awhile, and the sun's getting really hot now, and the first couple of vultures are hopping toward the body, and now a third guy shows up.

"'Any idea who?'

"Here the lawyer shakes his head. People in the surrounding audience turn to one another, raise their eyebrows, make a few suggestions to one another, shake their heads as well, some of them shrugging.

"'Well, as luck would have it, he's from Samaria.'

"Here a collective groan rises up from all the rabbi's hearers. They should have known; they can see where the story's going now, and almost nobody's happy with it. Samaritans, like lobsters, infants born out of wedlock, shrimp, nocturnal emissions, compound interest, lepers, fried rattlesnake, men with crushed testicles, bacon bits, camels, bloody victims, menstruating women, rock badgers, hares, sea urchins, octopus, homosexuals, and dead cows, are, of course abominations, meaning God can't abide 'em, and so neither can the chosen people. You don't marry a Samaritan, eat with a Samaritan, pray with a Samaritan, sleep with a Samaritan, give the time of day to a Samaritan, sit down to a cup of tea with a Samaritan, or even read a book by a Samaritan, if you can possibly help it. Because, although they are not Jewish, they insist on worshiping the Jewish God, but haven't got the rituals and such down right and so can't possibly get to Heaven.

"You can tell this story to a white supremacist and you know exactly who to substitute for the Samaritan. Or, for the Irish Catholic, there's the Protestant. Ad infinitum. You can imagine the expression on the young lawyers' face at this point.

"So the rabbi says: 'The vultures hop away as the Samaritan dude walks over to check out the body. He discovers signs of life, rolls the salesman over, gives him a drink of water, pulls off his own cloak and wraps him in it -- blood all over it by now -- loads him on his Samaritan-sweat-bedewed donkey -- maybe has to leave behind some of his own load, I forget -- and slowly and carefully, falling farther and farther behind on his own schedule as he does so, because there's a really broken-up man saddlebagged across his donkey's back, and the road's rough -- takes him to the next little town down the way. Right about sunset he pulls up outside the local roadhouse, unloads the still half-conscious victim from the donkey and carries him in, and asks the manager for a bath, hot meal, and a bed for him.

"'Look here, man,' says the Samaritan to the manager, 'I'm really running behind now, so I gotta keep going --' here he hands him his Visa card '--just run a tab on this poor guy while I'm gone, and when I make my return run, I'll settle up with you. Cool?'

Cool. But don't let's shake on it, the manager might say with his eyes.

"'Kay,' says the rabbi, standing up and brushing off his robe a bit, looking around at the crowd, then returning his piercing gaze to the young lawyer. 'Of these three, which one was a neighbor to the shoe salesman?'

"The lawyer looks up at him. He can't even bring himself to use the word that names the abomination. 'The ... the ... the one that was kind to him,' he says, reluctantly.

"The rabbi gives him that unsettlingly kindly smile he's famous for. 'That's right,' he says, softly. 'Do just like him, and you will live.'"


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