On Being a Gay Christian

“Trampled by Supriya Balasunderam (2011). Beetroot extract on paper.

I have to confess, first of all, that I am not a Christian.  I was raised as one, so I have some idea of what being a Christian is all about, but I am not one.  This is really not my issue.

In truth, I am writing this for a friend of mine who recently confessed to me her ongoing struggle with this sometimes seeming contradiction.  And I was once a Christian and I am gay, so I remember what that’s like.  It isn’t easy.

Religious beliefs and practices are some of the most important parts of our identities, and the idea of losing them over a different identity that you don’t seem to have a choice over can be almost unbearably painful.  So this post is for her.  Maybe it will help.

I say “seeming contradiction,” because being gay and a Christian can feel like something that isn’t even possible.  I know it once felt that way to me, and I know it feels that way to my friend sometimes.  It doesn’t have to be, but it is.

Why?  Is it because in Leviticus somewhere it says very strongly that “a man who lieth with another man shall be stoned to death….” or something like that?  Or that elsewhere the Bible mentions unnatural acts which are equally punishable by stoning?  But then Leviticus also says we should be careful how we die our clothes blue and that we shouldn’t be eating shellfish.  Clearly, some things have changed.  Why not others?  How do we know what to toss out and what to keep?

As a child, I was raised to take the Bible completely literally.  If it said it in the Bible, it was true and had to be followed.  However, we also wore clothes made out of mixed fibers without a twinge of guilt and never once asked our dinner guests–just to make sure–whether they worked for the IRS.  According to our ministry, all of those rules had changed with the “new covenant” that Jesus had brought.  At least that was the idea.

Still, Jesus never specifically says wearing polyester and cotton blends is off the table, or that it is now okay to eat pork.  So what happened?

If you look closely, the Bible is full of contradictions, both in specifics and in the general character of God.  The ten commandments will always remain, but a number of specific proscriptions are mentioned in the Old Testament that Jesus never mentions at all—either because they were settled and needed no further discussion or because they were just not important.  It’s no longer really possible to say.

As another example, the God of the Old Testament generally possess a significantly different character than his son Jesus presents him as having in the New Testament.  The Old Testament God is often described as a jealous god, even an angry god, who wipes out his enemies utterly.  He turns people into pillars of salt for not following instructions in situations when it seems like a mild case of the plague could have gotten the message across.

God is a guy you don’t want to mess with–although He is also the shepherd that will keep you safe if you follow Him.  In contrast, the New Testament God is more often portrayed as kind, forgiving, and gentle.  The Old Testament God may be your Father, but the New Testament God is your Dad.

Moveover. Jesus is presented as being the embodiment of kindness—enjoining us to have more compassion, to forgive, to turn the other cheek.  After all, he’s the one sent to provide the sacrifice that allows God to forgive us.  And, yet, according to the doctrine of the trinity, God and Jesus are the same.

In fact, Jesus himself is not portrayed throughout the Gospels in a way that is entirely consistent.  In general, different people have different recollections of events and different interpretations: Matthew’s version of Jesus is significantly harsher and more concerned with the rule of law than John.  It is in John that we are most most emphatically exhorted to love one another.

So what’s it all about?

As much as we’d like for our religious texts to be utterly reliable and unchanging, clearly there were changes in how God the father and Jesus his only begotten son were and are understood, as well as in the relative importance of laws related to purity.  Enter historicity.

According to a number of Biblical scholars, Christianity began as a Messianic sect of Judaism.  Jesus—like other men promising deliverance and the coming of a the Kingdom of God—held out hope of a quite literal overthrow of the Roman Empire in Palestine and the start of a divinely established Jewish theocracy.

“The core of Jesus’ preaching is the kingdom of God. And the difficulty is for us to hear that term as 100 percent political and 100 percent religious. ” (Crossan, J.D.)

Most of other messianic movements in that period fell apart when the “messiah” was killed and the new kingdom the Jews so badly wanted failed to materialize.  When Jesus was crucified, the early Christians fell quickly into disarray and scattered.  The resurrection allowed for hope, but it was still assumed that the new kingdom would materialize–and then the First Jewish Revolt failed.  Nonetheless, Mark wrote assuming that the transformation would occur during his lifetime, even if there seemed to have been a bit of a hiccup.  By the time John was written a few centuries later, this clearly wasn’t going to happen.  The kingdom could only be understood as metaphorical.  That’s one of the reasons for a change in tone over the course of the Gospels.  Christianity needed to be about something else aside from a change in government.

Getting back to mixed fibers, pork, and blue dye, during the early missions of the first disciples, the raging issue was whether new “gentile” converts needed to follow Jewish law.  Paul, who took it upon himself to preach in non-Jewish communities, thought not, and he was able to get the other early disciples to agree to this.

So that’s why we’ve dropped the dietary restrictions or the requirement that male Christians have their foreskins ritually removed.  What I think this says is that Christianity is a religion—like most religions—that has evolved over time.  Either times changed, and what human beings needed to do in order to have a well-functioning, observant, and respectful society has changed, or we have come to have a different (and hopefully better) understanding of what God requires of us.

The problem is that gay issues weren’t really a priority in the first century CE, at least not from what I can make out, and no one asked Jesus what the deal was with gay people and if they had to try to be straight, or just be settled and monogamous like straight people, or what.  So he never said anything about it as far as we know.  And there’s no way to double-check that.  There is no longer anyone around alive who can say, “I asked Jesus about that once and he said….”

If you’re Catholic or Orthodox, you have a pope to ask, because he’s got a direct line to God and should be able to tell you.  For anyone else, you’ll have to ask God yourself.  And maybe that’s at the core of Christianity, or at least a Protestant view of Christianity.  It’s all about your personal relationship with God, isn’t it?  That you don’t need to access your faith through a rabbi or a priest.  You can ask him yourself.  So, go ahead.  Ask Him.  And make sure you listen.

Works consulted:

Bible.  New International Version.

Crossan, J.D. (1998).  PBS.  Frontline.  From Jesus to Christ.  Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/

Why School?

Over the course of the last week, eight of my students served detention with me, mostly for being a pain in the neck.  (Given that this is the second week of school, the phrase “having my work cut out for me” comes to mind.)

Because I am not a believer in children sitting idle, and I never like to confuse academics with punishment, these were “cleaning” detentions.  As often happens, I did not actually have 30 minutes of chores for all of them to do and duly farmed them out to my colleagues for such rewarding work as cleaning desks, vacuuming, and washing white boards.

Afterwards, a colleague and I were commenting on how respectfully and quietly they were able to work at menial tasks, despite their disruptiveness in class. Without an audience, we agreed, these kids were just fine.

As I often do at these times, I also said that part of the problem is that these young men (and they were all young men that week) are “doers.”  They want to be doing things.  They don’t want to be sitting and listening and definitely not sitting and thinking.  They don’t even want to be walking around and thinking.  They want to be doing.  And they want to be doing things that have value and meaning for them–probably things like fixing cars or building cabinets or putting together the parts of an airplane.  Not academics

My heart breaks a little to think of the kind of torture I am inflicting on them everyday, as I attempt to persuade them to learn something they do not really want to learn.  While ninth grade is too soon to make a decision that would affect the course of the rest of their lives, the fact is that they do not have a choice about what they learn and they will not have a choice for at least two years.

High schools now are increasingly oriented towards a “college-for-everyone” approach, and the high school graduation requirements where I teach are in line with college admission requirements for the California State University system.  The argument is usually that this is more equitable–and given than students who are not “college-ready” upon graduation are disproportionaly poor and non-white and non-Asian, there is something to be said for this.

However, I do not believe a “college-for-everyone” approach really is equitable.  It causes some students an undue amount of misery and even despair about themselves and their futures.  Others turn away from education altogether, so that they are neither “college-ready” nor “work ready,” because they simply stop going to school to learn anything.

While I believe all of my students can learn college-preparatory material, not all of them want to or find in any meaning in attempting to do so.  It makes them feel fidgety and stupid.  So why do we do it?

In a word, the economy.  Our economy has shifted away from work that requires little formal education to work that requires tremendous formal education.  Even skilled labor–skills that can be learned on the job or in trade schools–is reported to require more reading and writing, more communication, and more mathematics.  I need my students to be educated, whether they want to be educated or not, and so does the rest of the nation.

East Side Union High School District Graduation Requirements
Like many school districts, East Side Union High School District requires its graduates to complete courses that meet minimum college admission requirements.
Source: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/39285156/CALIFORNIA-STATE-UNIVERSITY-ADMISSION-REQUIREMENTS

However, we seem unable to acknowledge this as the real purpose of education in America, leading to a number of contradictions in policy–especially in terms of funding.  Does school primarily give individuals a chance to advance themselves?  Or does it mainly create workers who can figure out how to stop climate change and produce the next generation of electronic device-toys? We seem to be unable to decide or to consistently hold to one point of view.

As an example of this, children living in poverty (20% in 2009 according to Kids Count) are more likely to be malnourished, fall sick more often and have less access to preventive and other kinds of health care, and are more often witnesses to or victims of violent crimes.  They are also more likely to have new teachers (poor districts have higher turnover), and new teachers are known to be less effective than experienced teachers–even well-prepared, creative, and talented new teachers.  And that is not even touching on environmental and industrial hazards that disproportionately affect poor neighborhoods.

All of these factors place poor children at risk in school.  More illness means more missed school days.  Malnourishment can lead to a poor ability to concentrate, remember, or control impulses, as does psychological trauma.  Trauma can additionally cause greater emotional reactivity or inappropriate and disproportionate reactions to interpersonal conflicts–leading to defiance, fighting, and other infractions that then lead to suspensions and more missed school.

School performance and poverty.
Most data reveal a positive correlation between academic performance and economic status. Source: http://shankerblog.org/?p=6009

If we understood that an educated population is necessary for success as a society, we would address these factors that interfere with learning and school success systematically–providing school-based medical treatment, creative responses to missed  school days, psychological counseling, and additional incentives for talented teachers to stay.  School districts in poor areas would receive much greater funding than those in middle-class areas to pay for the additional services.

Instead, they receive approximately the same or less funding than other districts.  In fact, if you remove welfare-oriented services (such as free and reduced lunch programs) from funding calculations, school districts in poor areas receive several thousand less per pupil than average (Ramirez, 2012).  Not only is there no money for extra services like counseling, there is less money to maintain school buildings, pay teachers, and buy books.

If education is there to benefit the individual, and is an opportunity and a privilege, then that approach makes sense.  Just like middle-class children, poor children need to work hard to succeed regardless of the additional challenges they may face to earn their educations.  Removing some of the barriers to their success by providing additional services is coddling and unfair.  People need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, just as our grandparents and great-grandparents did.

The economy, on the other hand, is not concerned with the character of its workers.  It does not care whether you got where you are because you worked harder than everyone else, or if you had an easy ride of it.  On the contrary, it needs nearly everyone to be at the top of the boot, as the percentage of jobs in unskilled labor fields shrinks and jobs expand in skilled and professional fields.

We need to make up our minds.

References:

National Kids Count Program.  (2012).  Children in Poverty.  Retrieved from: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/acrossstates/Rankings.aspx?loct=6&by=a&order=a&ind=43&dtm=322&tf=38&gclid=CMWmvNGXkrICFUheTAodZkcA1Q

Ramirez, R.  (2012, August 29).  Federal Loophole Enables Lower Lower Spending on Students of Color, Study Says.  National Journal.  Retrieved from: http://www.nationaljournal.com/thenextamerica/education/federal-loophole-enables-lower-spending-on-students-of-color-study-says-20120829

Suburban Discomfort: Across a Veil of Difference

“Would you feel uncomfortable speaking to a woman in a burqa?”

Woman in burqa protesting.
Source: AsiaNews.it 8/2/210. See http://www.asianews.it/news-en/An-anti-burqa-law-to-renew-Islam-in-Europe-17565.html

Two years ago, a diversity trainer asked this of the staff at the suburban, mainly white middle school where I taught.  I think it remains a relevant question.  For me, the question really means–at least for someone from that environment-how well have you managed change?  Are you comfortable?

I’ve been listening to the music of Faudel recently–a French-Algerian known as the Prince of Rai, although his music has drifted increasingly to mainstream French pop.  I am a huge fan of rai, but I am also reminded as I listen to what he has to sing about that Americans aren’t the only ones wrestling with questions of difference and identity.

Just as Faudel must puzzle out what it means to be French-Algerian, and the French must puzzle out what it means to be French in a nation that is now increasingly African and Muslim, we must puzzle out what it means to be American at a time when we are surrounded by difference that is, well, more different than it used to be.

I never did sit down to a parent meeting with a child’s mother in a burqa while I taught at that school, but I did meet a number who wore hijab, and I wonder about that other teacher.  Was she comfortable with the parents of the children in her class?  Was she able to navigate the change?

Hate and Difference

The rise in hate crimes against certain groups in recent years testifies to the idea that we have not as a nation been able to do so, that the change is too great for us to manage.  Some of us are quietly uncomfortable, some of us vocally so, and some of us violently so.

So let’s break down the source of this discomfort.  Let’s try together to make some sense of it.  On the one hand, there’s been a change in the world that I think most people in the United States failed to notice until 9/11 brought it home.  This is a complex change, and not one I’m sure I understand entirely.  However, to take a stab at it, extremism–including various forms of right-wing extremism, and Islamist extremism in particular–is now a serious threat to the safety and security of people around the world.

Though questions remain as to whether the ‘threat’ of the radical right is inflated and whether our fear of violence might be higher than the risk, we should not ignore this fear  (Ramalingam, Vidhya).

This doesn’t mean our hypothetical mother in a burqa is a threat, but it does mean there is a genuine threat out there with which she could be confused.  It also means some people are already more afraid, and therefore more likely to attempt to locate a reasonable source for their fear.

Immigration

Meanwhile, global hot spots for armed conflicts have shifted away from the conflict zones of the 70s and 80s–Central America, Southeast Asia, Europe–and landed much more squarely in the Middle East and Africa.  Places where smaller conflagrations were already burning are now at a point of explosion.  Naturally, many people who lived in these zones of conflict and its ensuing economic problems fled–in many cases, to foreign powers involved in those conflicts, such as the United States.

Newer immigrants are, I suspect, a little more different from the immigrants who came in earlier generations–and are now more likely to be culturally, religiously, ethnically, linguistically, and sometimes racially different from desendents of the first large wave of immigration from Europe that still makes up much of the country.

Finally, immigration patterns within the United States appear to have changed as well.  Rather than heading towards large cities which have traditionally been home to much of the country’s diversity, many new immigrants are settling in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas–places that offer a quieter lifestyle and a lower cost of living.  The American Dream is now more commonly believed to be in El Segundo and Yorba Linda rather than Los Angeles and New York.

In other words, the difference is not what we’re used to, and it is appearing in places where people are less used to difference.  No wonder it isn’t all going so well.

Anxiety

At the same time, there is rising evidence that suspicion of difference is instinctive–and not just a bad habit or a character flaw.    It’s not just about racism or acquired prejudices, but innate.  We are anxious around people that are unfamiliar to us–the more “other,” the higher the anxiety.  The only real solution is to make the unfamiliar familiar, the worrisome safe.

However, instead, what we often do to cope with our anxieties about what is different, or simply the insecurity of the world, or our frustration at not having our grievances addressed (Ramalingam, 2012), is to retreat into the comfort of identity–especially group identities.  We look for what is most essentially “us” about ourselves, wear it prouder, say it louder, and believe it more firmly (Staub, 1992).

For example, while some of us may be more convinced than ever that the United States is superior in terms of the advancement of the status of women, and by implication, that wearing a burqa is tantamount to accepting sexism and subjugation, others are equally convinced that wearing a burqa represents being an observant and respectful Muslim.  As our discomfort increases, so do the outward markers of identity. We are uncomfortable, and this inevitably gives rise to more we might be uncomfortable about.

Today, I have no solutions.  Only problems.

Works Consulted

Ramalingam, Vidhya.  (2012, February 9).  Europe’s radical right: recognizing and managing the ‘threat.’  Retrieved from http://www.opendemocracy.net/vidhya-ramalingam/europe%E2%80%99s-radical-right-recognising-and-managing-%E2%80%98threat%E2%80%99

Staub, E.  (1992).  The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mumbai Burning

STR / EPA
A vehicle burns on Aug. 11, 2012, at a protest in Mumbai over riots in Assam state
Read more: http://world.time.com/2012/08/13/india-continues-to-grapple-with-fallout-from-assam-violence/#ixzz24fjtbUPo

On Saturday, 11 August, a protest organized in Mumbai by NGOs to draw attention to the killings of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam degenerated into violent rioting. Police now claim that the riots were organized in advance, and that at least some individuals turned up to the protest armed for violence. Given the nature of some the injuries, the truth of their assertion seems likely.

The debate that has ensued is reminiscent of the debates that have followed nearly every event of communally-motivated group violence in India since Partition. Were the riots organized in advance?  Who organized them? How can the leaders be brought to justice?  The rioters themselves are either dismissed as naive followers or demonized as lawless hoodlums.

Meanwhile, individual police officers are held up as heroes, even as leadership is assumed to be in on the conspiracy.  However, the reality is that large-city Indian police forces who periodically must disperse violent rioters as a part of their duties almost never respond effectively.  The fact that they did not in this case is not any particular surprise.

In contrast, Los Angeles (which also has a long history of rioting and mass violence dating back to the Zoot Suit riots in 1943) deployed hundreds of officers in the streets surrounding the Staples Center in full riot gear, some of them on horseback, who quickly blocked off streets to pedestrians after Lakers fans first turned violent following the championship game in 2010. (Why LA fans riot when their team wins is a question unto itself). This effectively prevented eruption of full-scale rioting that Los Angeles had seen the year before.  The fact that there was already a plan of action, officers were already in position, and they knew when to act made all the difference.

None of this occurred on Saturday.  Officers were not in position and they acted too late, the result of either no plan or an ineffective plan for preventing violence that quite obviously could have been anticipated, given prior riots elsewhere over the same issue.

Although there is no real question regarding the corruption of the Mumbai police force, what seems more pertinent is the lack of planning, knowledge, and training to respond to such events by Indian police forces in general.  In other words, although police leadership may have been paid or promised favors if they failed to act, it is unlikely they would have been able to act effectively even if they had not.

The net result of the debate is that no one is held responsible at all, at least not in the eyes of the general public.  The leaders remain nameless, their identities only vaguely alluded to.  And, although some of the rioters are in custody, the public at large seems to consider them either too stupid or too inherently bad to be at fault.  And indignation over police corruption obscures police ineptitude.

The public response to Saturday’s riots would be less disturbing if it weren’t so predictable, and it weren’t so well-designed to allow nothing to change.  Leaders can continue to blame “hoodlums,” participants can continue to shift responsibility onto leaders, and police ineptitude will continue to remain a low priority.  Mumbai–and India–will continue to burn.  Change is harder than pointing fingers.

Madness in our Midst

In 1986, James Huberty told his wife he was “hunting humans,” took his 3 guns, and went to McDonalds—not for a Happy Meal, but to do exactly what he had said he would do.  After 77 minutes, a SWAT team sniper finally ended the massacre that left 21 dead and 19 wounded in San Ysidro, California.

This was not the first large-scale shooting incident.  In 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman killed 14 and wounded 31 in Austin, Texas.  It was the first, however, for me, and it was also geographically the closest.  Like 9/11 has become for many people, the San Ysidro tragedy provided the backdrop against which I understand other events of large-scale violence.

A motiveless, senseless crime, San Ysidro left me unsurprised at other senseless crimes—not understanding providing its own form of understanding.  In contrast, grasping for motive and cause is usually our first reaction.

After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed a teacher and 13 of their classmates—and wounded countless others—stories of how they were rejected and bullied at school began to surface.  These stories later turned out to be false, or at least extremely exaggerated.  For Harris and Klebold, the final analysis revealed that they were emphatically not ordinary young men pushed to the edge by cruelty, but psychologically unsound and temperamentally inclined towards hatefulness.

Relieved?  I think we should be.  Violence exists along a continuum.  Hitler with a machine gun in a crowd is frightening.  Hitler with an army, storm-troopers, and a nation of citizens willing to target their neighbors—or at least willing to look the other way while it happens—is terrifying beyond words.

Behind questions about the sanity of Wade Michael Page (the suspect in August sixth’s gurudwara shooting), is a question about if and how far the madness has spread.  While we were sleeping, or updating our Facebook statuses, or just plugging along at our jobs, has the country become one in which the most important of the ten commandments no longer applies?  Is it one person, or 10, or everyone that has slipped across the line of conscience into madness and violence?

Scale, in a word, matters—not just because it is reflected in the extent of the suffering that follows, but because it indicates the scope of the problem.  The more perpetrators and the more “average” the perpetrators are psychologically, the more likely it is that the thinking behind the violence has also become “average,” and the more likely the violence is to continue and expand.

Adolf Eichmann is the quintessential example of this: As the man responsible for planning and executing the Final Solution, he directly or indirectly caused the death of millions of people.  After being examined by several psychologists, he was found to be perfectly sane and without indication of personality disorder.  He was sane.  His culture and society were not.

What can be confusing about this are the contradictions within our understanding of what constitutes madness.  As a criminal defense, insanity means the defendants were unable to grasp that what they were doing was wrong.  In a psychiatric sense, insanity is usually synonymous with psychosis—a mental state marked by hallucinations and delusions.  Mass murderers are only rarely either insane or psychotic, and we are consequently flummoxed.

In everyday usage, “crazy” means something rather different.  “Crazy” people are functional enough to hold down jobs at least some of the time, make to-do lists and, as it turns out, plan and execute mass murder—but their thinking is often substantially disordered, has large logical gaps or errors and seems to be based on firm beliefs that are demonstrably incorrect.

In that sense, a lot of mass killers probably are crazy.  They have delusions of God-like importance, or a firm belief that they are being persecuted or have in some way been grossly victimized and are entitled to redress.  They believe the rules of society do not apply to them, or that they have some special knowledge of what is happening in the world that obligates them to act because they are the only ones in a position to do so.  Some of them really do lack conscience and others have  created elaborate justifications riddled with flawed logic and based on false facts.

If that is the case, then our main concerns are primarily mechanical and oriented toward policy and procedure–comparatively simple stuff.  The good news is that, with a few notable exceptions, local agencies have improved immensely in their ability to respond to mass shootings.  While it took police in San Ysidro more than an hour to subdue James Huberty, officers were able to surround the theater in Aurora within five minutes of the start of the shooting and had the suspect in custody after seven minutes.  If they had not, the tragedy in Aurora might have been much worse.

Unfortunately, between shootings, the general public seems to forget that violence like this occurs at all.  We forget that people like Huberty and Holmes are among us, that they have access to incredibly efficient to weapons, and that they periodically surface to use them.  Amnesia is a bad habit with us, and the consequences of it are extremely high.  Until we begin to remember, all we can ever do is react after the shooting has started.

Works consulted:

(This was not intended to be an academic paper, but I did read some things.  Also, if you are a responsible reader, you will want to check my facts.  I have attempted to make this easier by listing where I got them from below.)

Arendt, H. (1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil.  New York: Penguin.

Gresco, J.  (2004, July 18).  20 years later, San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre remembered.  North County Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/years-later-san-ysidro-mcdonald-s-massacre-remembered/article_2ba4343e-7009-54ce-98df-   79a23ff8d0d7.html

Staub, E.  (1992).  The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Timeline: Colorado Theater Shooting.  CNN.  Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2012/07/us/aurora.shooting/index.html

Toppo, G.  (2009, April 14).  10 years later, the real story behind Columbine.  USA Today.  Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm