Saying Goodbye to Tolerance

I am a Unitarian Universalist, and we consider ourselves the most tolerant of faiths.  In the 19th century Universalist churches were known for opening their doors to dissenters of all varieties, and our modern-day UU churches have continued to provide space for those who cannot find a welcome mat elsewhere: atheists and agnostics, religious humanists, political dissidents.  We UUs see ourselves as “broadminded,” and so tend to say things like, “There is truth in every religious tradition. We respect all religious beliefs.”  In one of our services, you might hear a reading from the Bible, but just as likely from the Koran, Black Elk, Lao-tse, or Starhawk.  However, in spite of our long history and tradition of tolerance, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant—specifically, of the theology and practice of many evangelical Christians. 

I say this with some real sorrow, and some measure of guilt.  I was brought up Southern Baptist, and the church nurtured me and cared for me as I grew up without a mother in a small town in North Louisiana.  I owe that church a lot.  Some of my relatives remain in fundamentalist-evangelical churches.  A professor at a local conservative evangelical seminary has reached out to me in friendship and has asked me several times to speak to his World Religions class.  He published my response to one of his essays in a recent book on Christology.  He is a good man.  He wants his students to know that our world is multi-cultural and to understand and respect the different faiths and ethnic groups they will encounter in the real world, outside the seminary.  He and I have had long theological conversations over coffee, and because of his progressive beliefs about environmental issues, I suggested him as a speaker at our UU national conference a few years ago, where he was well received. 

The last time my friend asked me to speak, however, I refused.  I find myself in the strange position of being a liberal who is closed, in relationship with a theologically conservative evangelical who is open.  I’m having to ask myself why. 

I thought about my visits with his students over the past few years.  To me, a seminary is a place where students open themselves to new ideas, where they question received beliefs.  Seminary changes people who attend, sometimes radically.  When I visited my friend’s class, I did not try to convince students that Unitarian Universalism was the faith they should adopt—I just gave a review of our history and tradition.  But as I have tried to explain to my friend, during those visits I always felt like “an insect under glass.”  The students were unfailingly polite.  They smiled.  They were not confrontative in the least.  The closest comment that came to confrontation was the honest, halting expression of one young woman who closed out the discussion by saying, “I just wish . . . I just wish . . . you believed . . . more like I do.”  I could see that she was concerned for me, maybe concerned even for my soul, which she no doubt thought would be burning in hell upon my demise.  Each time I visited, I went away depressed and discouraged.  I wanted curiosity, passionate discussion, even a reasoned rejection.  Instead, the students put up a glass shield I couldn’t penetrate.

But my classroom experience is not the only reason I have lost tolerance for this brand of Christianity.  Conservative evangelical Christians are sure that they are right about so much, but from my vantage point, much of what they believe is unloving and in fact destructive.  I’m thinking about my two nephews.  One is a handsome, talented, funny, warm human being who happens to be gay.  His older brother is also handsome and talented, but he is a jock sports star and business man—and in his case, a conservative Christian who lives in the Deep South.  The older brother will not speak to his younger brother, nor allow his four children to see their uncle, presumably because they might be adversely influenced.  The brothers’ alienation is deeply hurtful to my sister, the boys’ mother.  The older brother’s attitudes are culturally influenced in a region that is profoundly, fervently conservative, both socially and theologically.   

Of even more concern is the preponderance of hate crimes being committed against gays and other minorities.  There were 6,628 hate crimes reported in 2010 (the last year data was available), 47% race-related; 20% religion; 19% sexual orientation; 13% ethnicity or national origin.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 1,018 active hate groups were operating in the United States in 2011, a 60% increase since 2000. 

Is it fair to blame these crimes on conservative Christianity?  Not directly.  No doubt, the great majority of people who commit hate crimes would not call themselves Christians of any variety.  Indeed, conservative Christians typically say that although they may disagree with the sexual orientation or religion of another, they “hate the sin and love the sinner.”  In fact, they may go so far as to say that they themselves are “sinners saved by grace.”  However, I would maintain that these Christians, almost all of whom condemn gays for loving differently, support and perpetuate the milieu in which hate crimes take place.   They contribute immensely to the cultural ground out of which prejudice grows and flourishes. 

Ministers, respected authority figures in conservative evangelical churches and related institutions all over the country, are preaching their theology of singularity.  To be sure, some evangelicals, such as my friend the seminary professor, are encouraging their people to be more like Jesus in terms of social justice and to be more protective of God’s green earth.  These “new evangelicals” are a growing subset of evangelicals who are changing the religious conversation in conservative circles.

But my friend is a theological conservative, and so far as I know, all conservative evangelicals  believe there is but one way to salvation: through faith in Jesus as your personal savior.  That stance turns everyone else into an infidel.  An unbeliever.  A moral pervert.  A sinner doomed by God to everlasting punishment.  So if these “others” are offending God by their sins and are on their way to hell, what covert permission is being given to those inclined to act violently on their prejudices?

Oppression could be thought of as on a continuum, with one end of that continuum being genocide and the other being more “acceptable” forms, like jokes making fun of minorities, women, and gays.  Somewhere in the middle is the silence, the refusal to speak out against prejudice, of which Martin Luther King said the following: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy . . . was not the strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.”

All religious traditions are not equal.  Some beliefs foster freedom, growth, and a deepening of compassion.  Others are rigid and exclusive, warning of eternal punishment for those who don’t believe in the one true path to salvation, as they see it, or for those who love someone of the same sex.  For the personal support the church of my childhood gave me, I remain thankful.  I’m sure many conservative evangelicals today feel similar gratitude for their community. But for the damage that conservative Christianity does to people and for its perpetuation of prejudice and hate, I must reject this tradition. I believe those who teach it and preach it are doing great harm, and I in no way wish to be an ally.

The Sexuality of Jesus

Karen L. King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, has caused quite an uproar with her discovery of a scrap of fourth-century papyrus that suggests Jesus may have been married. She is not the first to speculate about Jesus’s marital state-various theologians as well as writers of fiction have suggested that Jesus was married, or gay, or bisexual. King is the first with primary evidence that may be credible, though not definitive, as she has conceded.

The significance of King’s discovery is that it has pushed both Christians and non-Christians to think about Jesus as a sexual being. Christian tradition, in avoiding the question and seeing Jesus as asexual or anti-sexual, has been guilty of failing to make him fully human. How did this tradition develop?

Although the earliest Church was Jewish, the Gospel was being preached chiefly to the Gentiles. They were immersed in Greco-Roman philosophical ethics, which posited the dualism of body and soul. Paul himself had studied widely in this tradition and the impact of that philosophy shows up clearly in his teachings. He saw the body as a hindrance to the spirit — at best a temporary housing for the soul.

Control of their followers, including sexual control, was essential for the early Church, because of their conviction that they were in the “end time.” Modern-day readers of the Scripture often greatly underestimate the importance of the eschatological time frame of the early Christians. Sexual abstinence was practiced not because of some imagined abstinence of Jesus, but rather because these Christians thought earthly time was limited. Also, perhaps early Christians wanted to set themselves apart from the known sexual excesses of the Roman world.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), arguably the most influential theologian of Christendom, answered the question “How are we to be saved?” from a Platonic perspective. He propagated the belief that the sex act itself was sinful, and that original sin was transmitted by concupiscence. So, for Augustine, we poor humans are inherently sinful. Since Jesus was perfect and without sin, it follows that he must have been conceived by God and born of a virgin — and needless to say, never had sexual feelings himself.

So Augustine’s unfortunate premise and shaky logic calls into question human sexuality, per se: it follows that those who strive for the purity of Jesus would look upon their sexual impulses as sinful. We use sex for pleasure as well as procreation, of course, but often the pleasure is laced with guilt, and we find ourselves unable to celebrate sex with our whole being. Instead of integrating our sexuality with our spirituality, the cultural norm evidences a striking incompatibility of our sexual impulses with our yearning for God. Women are reduced to the virgin and the whore. In spite of the supposed freedom of young women to indulge in loose sexuality liaisons, the double standard still reigns: bad girls are for sex, good girls are for marriage. How many synonyms for “slut” do you know?

Was Jesus married? The Gospels are silent about the subject. But as William Phipps argued long ago (“Was Jesus Married,” Harper & Row, 1970), Jesus most likely followed the expected pattern of conduct for a young man in ancient Judaism, which was to be betrothed shortly after puberty. In fact, marriage was not a question to be determined by a Hebrew boy; rather it was his father’s duty to betroth his son. The average age of marriage for boy was 16 and the age of betrothal even younger. We know that Jesus was circumcised at the age prescribed and that he was taught Scripture and apprenticed as a carpenter. Is it not reasonable, then, to believe he was an obedient son in being betrothed and later married? Of course it is difficult for some Christians to accept the fact that Jesus was throughout his life a Jew.

Certainly Jesus’s open, easy, egalitarian relationships with women were unconventional. He was known to consort openly with prostitutes. He drew many faithful women followers, who were apparently treated as equal to his male disciples. This accepting attitude of Jesus toward women stands in great contrast to the heavily patriarchal Hebrew practice of his day.

Even a cursory view of the Scripture shows us Jesus to be intensely alive, vital and responsive. He had a strong sense of humor, and he was certainly no ascetic: Jesus in fact was criticized by his enemies for being a “glutton and a wine-bibber.” He enjoyed the company, conversation and the celebration of marriage feasts. He was forever eating and drinking in many various homes, of Saints and sinners alike, during his ministry. He was pleased and delighted to be anointed with sweet smelling oil.

Moreover, Jesus was keenly aware of the natural world: the reaping of grain, the sheep in the fold, the sparrows’ flight in the marketplace, the wind listing where it will. The images in many of his parables are drawn from the sensual pleasures of everyday life. Surely we can conclude from the evidence that Jesus was very much in touch with the erotic dimension — that is, the life force within him. To believe that he could be this responsive to his immediate environment and be unaware of himself as a sexual being is highly unlikely. Chances are that this very sensual man was moved to sexual desire easily and frequently.

Typically, Christians are afraid of Jesus’s humanity, preferring to see him as a Divine stick figure without the usual human flesh and frailty. Why does this image persist? Perhaps it is because we know all too well the failures and inconsistencies of the flesh. We know we are animals, we know the ways in which our physical needs and desires upset our equilibrium. Could Jesus really have awakened with an erection, or desired a sensuous woman in the marketplace? Blasphemy! To conceive of Jesus struggling in the same way we do is unthinkable.

Maybe these images seem blasphemous to us because we don’t want a God clothed in flesh. We cannot accept incarnation — we need a God “up there,” perfect in beauty and form. We deny Jesus’s humanity because we cannot stand his likeness to us. In Jesus, God is saying to us, “Accept your own sacredness and beauty! This is what it can mean to be human!” But we turn away, afraid.

The Jesus I know is robust — a carpenter, capable of doing heavy work. He is a fleshly man, filled with thankfulness for the beauty of the natural world, and one who enjoys good food and drink. He is a man of great tenderness, not ashamed of his tears. He does not hide his feelings, and goes straight to the heart in a few words. The Jesus I know enjoys his body and is aware of the wonders of its shape and movement, likes to feel the sun on his limbs, takes pleasure in resting after a long day’s journey. He likes the feel of splashing water on his skin when he washes.

And he is a sexual man, one who enjoys being a man, including having a penis, though it is sometimes troublesome for him, demanding attention when he wants to be otherwise occupied. But he accepts that as simply part of what is, like being thirsty or feeling weary or getting angry. Sexuality is part of being human, and it’s good.

In his remarkable self-acceptance, Jesus seems to bring new life to whoever comes near. His presence is extraordinarily vital, is fearsome, and calls for a profound response. Jesus is in fact God’s invitation to wholeness and self-hood. When we are able to celebrate Jesus in the flesh, we understand that we, too, are called to incarnation, called to embody God’s Spirit in our earthly form. Perhaps this challenge is too daunting, so we prefer to strip Jesus of his humanness and to deny our own potential for divinity. Karen King has asked us to consider what we have lost.

Marilyn is the subject of a documentary film, “Raw Faith,” now available on Netflix.

Mortality and the Gift of Perspective

The first thing I was aware of was my husband George asking frantically, “Can you breathe? Can you breathe?” He had found me in our home unconscious, face down, in a pool of blood.  I was absolutely still, he said, and he thought I might be dead. But then he heard a bubbling sound as I tried to find air through my nose. He was afraid to move me, lest I had broken something – my neck, for example. So he very carefully rotated my face out of the blood so I could breathe. I was coming around by that time, so he slowly helped me sit up. Then he got wet towels to clean the blood off my face, which he said was totally red with the stuff. He asked me if I could stand, and I was able to do so, by using him as a bench to push myself up from the floor. He walked me over to the sofa and told me that we should go to the emergency room. This I did not want to do, because even in my very dazed state, I knew I would be sitting there for hours, waiting to be seen, and I just wanted to rest. But when George called the emergency room physician for advice, he said to bring me in right away, that there was not much of a wait.

When we got there, George insisted on putting me in a wheelchair, and wheeled me in. Why all this attention? I’m all right. I had to wait only a few minutes before being called into the intake room, and then my memory fails me again, because the next thing I vaguely recall was the pain at having a catheter inserted. I had become unconscious a second time, and had experienced what the staff was calling “a seizure.” So then comes the neck brace, the oxygen mask, the IV. At this point I was wheeled away for an MRI. Or so George says.  I have no memory of any of this. No permanent damage was discovered, so I was released after several hours with the diagnosis of a concussion.

A week or so later, I saw Dr. Ferguson, a seizure specialist. I had had two episodes of grand mal seizures from stress over 40 years ago. Was this a recurrence? I knew that I had all of the indicators that made me vulnerable to stress seizures: a viral infection, exhaustion from a 2 ½ week tour of speaking engagements, and serious jet lag from the trip back home. Dr. Ferguson said,”If you had seizures this time around, they were atypical. I don’t know what happened. No one can tell you what happened. You had a . . . brain event.” I appreciated her candor, her honesty. Did I have an atypical seizure, initially, and then another seizure in the emergency room? Did I faint, because of exhaustion and dehydration? Did I, in fact, trip on the rug, the edge of which was upturned, but hit the floor before I had a chance to catch myself? Or did some other physical phenomena occur, some unknown something or other which put me down, which could have killed me, and which I have no knowledge of, and no way to protect myself from? What remains is a lot of fear.

Dr. Ferguson is wise. She said to me, “This was very frightening for you. You have come face-to-face with your mortality.” That would be correct. I am a changed person, in some fundamental ways. I know more about what is important to me. I mean, I know more, not just intellectually, but in my bones, in my blood. I know I love my husband, my husband of less than three years, not just in the way I used to say, “Love you, Honey,” when he leaves in the morning, but I love him in the way I love my own flesh.  Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. We are married anew.

When I met George and we fell so suddenly, drastically in love, I was in my late 60s, and he was in his early 70s. I told him, teasing and yet halfway meaning it: “I’ll marry you, if you will give me 30 years.” After all, people live to be over 100 years old these days, don’t they? One of my congregants when I did an interim ministry in Boca Raton, Florida, was 103 years old. His name was Herb, and he was there every Sunday, third row, chair on the end. Happens all the time nowadays–centenarians breaking through time, challenging the ravages of age. That’s the way I thought, because that’s the way I wanted to think. I wanted our lives together to go on for a very long time.

Was I denying reality? We all do, in order to function. We can’t imagine the automobile accident when we start the car, or the stroke that floored grandmother, the one whose genes for high blood pressure we inherited. We don’t know, any of us, how much longer we have on this earth, but we do know that the older we get, the shorter that time is likely to be. Our bodies are not machines that can be repaired and restored endlessly. They stop healing so quickly, they wear out, they will at some point break down irrevocably, and we will leave this mortal flesh. Existentially, it is impossible for most of us to actually understand that we will one day not exist, although that is what is in store. It is the natural course of things. Part of Buddhist practice is to imagine one’s own death, to further imagine one’s corpse decaying.  The Buddhists say, “We are of the nature to become ill. We are of the nature to die.” So it seems.

The great value of coming close to death, by accident or illness, is the gift of perspective. The gestalt of our daily existence becomes distinct, and what is trivial drops away to make room for the essential. And what is the essential? Love in all its forms. We discover that we have no interest in grudges, little patience with gossip, no use for sarcasm. Anger gives way to the deep sadness that is its one true source, and we wonder at the foolishness of hate. We look at others as they go about their daily living, judging and misjudging people, getting in a tiff over a parking ticket, complaining yet again about the weather. And we think, “Stop it! Don’t you understand? We don’t have time.”

So what do we have time for, my darlings? We have time to notice the flight of the smallest sparrow, to imagine and dream, to take pleasure in beauty in all its forms, to relish good food. We have time to live in thankfulness, which is another way of saying to pray without ceasing.  We have time to hear a cry for help. We have time to be present and available, to be still and give ourselves to the moment. We have time to be fully alive in the days we have been given, for they are numbered.

Rush Limbaugh and the Legacy of Margaret Sanger

For three days Rush Limbaugh verbally attacked a young Georgetown University law student who testified in support of the Obama administration’s requirement that health insurance plans cover contraceptives for women. Among other pejorative terms, Limbaugh called the young woman a “slut” and a “prostitute.” For this behavior, he has lost many advertisers, and is in danger of losing his credibility as a radio personality.

We need to remember that just a few short years ago, historically speaking, Limbaugh would have been speaking for the majority. More than any other single person, a diminutive woman named Margaret Sanger changed all that.

Working as a nurse among the poor of New York City, Sanger was entreated by poor women, over and over again, “Please, Miss, tell me what should I do, not to have another baby right away?” She was at a loss to answer this question, and when she asked doctors, they were of no help. Women from families of wealth and education learned how to plan their pregnancies, but poor women were vulnerable. Sanger saw these women having baby after baby, falling deeper into poverty. Desperate, they sometimes took the risk of aborting a pregnancy themselves.

Then one incident pushed Sanger over the line, giving her clarity about her life’s work. This is how she tells the story in her autobiography. She had been called to the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Sachs, as she refers to them. When the husband, a truck driver with little income, came home, he had found their three young children crying and his wife unconscious from the effects of a self-induced abortion. Sanger and the doctor worked hard to save the woman, and Jake, the husband was at hand, doing what he could. Three weeks later, Sanger was preparing to leave the home after her final visit, and Mrs. Sachs said to her, “Another baby will finish me, I suppose?”

Sanger told the doctor that Mrs. Sachs was terribly worried about having another baby. The doctor was a kindly man who had heard this sort of thing so often that he just laughed and as he went out the door, he said, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.” Sanger looked at Mrs. Sachs and saw on her face a look of absolute despair. “He can’t understand,” Mrs. Sachs said, “but you do, don’t you? Please tell me the secret, and I’ll never breathe it to a soul. Please!”

Sanger didn’t know what to tell her, but she promised to come back. Night after night, the wistful image of Mrs. Sachs appeared before her, but she made all sorts of excuses to herself for not going back — she really felt helpless in the face of this woman’s need. Then the telephone rang one evening three months later — it was Jake Sachs, and he was begging her to come, in an agitated voice. She hurried into her uniform, grabbed her bag and started out, dreading to enter that home again. When she turned into the dingy doorway, she saw the three little children, and then she went to the bedside of their mother. Mrs. Sachs was in a coma and died within 10 minutes. Sanger folded her still hands across her breast, remembering how this woman had begged so humbly for the knowledge that was her right to have. Mr. Sachs was pulling out his hair like an insane person and wailing, “My God! My God! My God!”

Sanger walked and walked and walked for hours through the hushed streets of New York. The sun was just coming up, as she arrived at her home. It was the dawn of a new day for her, too. She had been irrevocably changed by this experience. She ends this chapter of her book by saying, “I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliatives and superficial cures; I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky.”

Margaret Sanger eventually became the founder of Planned Parenthood International. But it was a long, hard slog getting there. She began doing research on contraception, and in 1916 opened the first birth control clinic. Nine days later she was arrested. She was convicted, with the judge stating that a woman did not have “the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”

She went all over the country with her message of contraception, violating the Comstock law against sending “obscene” reading matter through the mail, and was thrown in jail eight times, once in my hometown of Portland, Ore., now a progressive enclave. She was invited by a Portland church to address their congregation, and she was the honored guest at a lovely dinner. But then when she began to distribute her pamphlet Family Limitation, she and others were arrested. Undaunted, she writes, “I was tremendously gratified by seeing women for the first time come out openly with courage; over a hundred followed us through the streets to the jail asking, ‘Let us in too. We also have broken the law.’”

Once again, almost 100 years later, women seeking information about contraception are called “obscene,” and poor women are threatened with the loss of protection from unwanted pregnancies. But as Susan G. Komen learned last month, and Russ Limbaugh is learning now, great numbers of us will rise up in protest if women are denied access to contraception. Those days are over in this country. It’s about time. Would that we could say the same for the whole world.