“invisible” oppressions (part 2)

So, the second type of “invisible” oppression that I mentioned in my last post was oppression that we participate in largely unknowingly because it is structural.

I hope that you have encountered the term “structural oppression” before, but if not, then let me explain. The term refers to practices or policies that cause oppression even without an individual choosing or intending to cause oppression.

An example: Imagine a factory owner in the late 1960s needs to hire a new manager for one of the floors of the factory. Up to this time, Black workers have be explicitly excluded from managerial positions, but this factory owner is decidedly in favor of equality and supports the Civil Rights Movement, so he wants this new management job to be open to everyone, regardless of race. The hiring committee understands, however, that in order to ensure that the new manager is as effective and successful as possible, they should select the most qualified (re: most experienced, aka person who already has managerial experience) person for the job. This seems reasonable, but upon reflection we see that this means that they will not be able to pick a Black person for this job because a Black person without managerial experience will never be as qualified as a white person with managerial experience. So, even though the owner, and perhaps the hiring committee, were explicitly anti-racist, they still had to participate in a structure (re: capitalism) that included inherent racism.

The same story can be told about contemporary college admissions decisions. While the admissions committees are not explicitly racist (and in fact many are explicitly “equal opportunity”), if they are forced to choose the “most qualified” applicants, that may mean they only admit the people with the best high school grades and highest SAT scores…. which means that they are admitting the people who had the best teachers, the most resources, most access to tutors and SAT prep classes…. which means that they are admitting wealthy and largely white applicants. The structure of society means that access to resources is inherently racist, class-ist, and sexist, so choosing “the most qualified” is almost always an unfair form of evaluation.

So, how do we intervene in/stop perpetuating structural oppression? Well, in some ways, we can’t. The structure is much larger and more powerful than any individual, and in order to function in society, we must function within those structures. But we shouldn’t give up hope entirely.

Instead, we can continue to ask questions and have conversations about the impact that various structures (re: institutional policies, cultural practices, etc.) have on individuals from different backgrounds. Do wealthy white men experience college admissions differently than poor black women? Probably. But why and how? And what can be done to make their experiences seem more equitable? Asking those questions is powerful.

Strides have been made to address the structural oppressions that have been identified, but these strides often inadequate and/or ineffective. Affirmative action is an example of a attempt to fix some of these problems, but as we have seen, it was an imperfect solution. But an imperfect solution is still something, and I believe that with continued dialogue and reflection we can reach more adequate and more effective methods.

Can you identify any forms of structural oppression at work in American society? Do you participate in those structures? Can you think of any ways to interrupt those structures?

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“invisible” oppressions (part 1)

So, when I say “invisible,” I don’t mean oppression that is totally unobservable; instead, what I mean to highlight here is forms of oppression that people perpetuate inadvertently. I believe this happens it two main ways: 1) we may individually perpetuate a form of oppression because, as a result of our culture, we are blind to the harm that the practices cause & 2) we may be complicit in forms of oppression that are structural. And, as we will see, these two ways are not really that separate.

For this post I will stick to describing the first type of invisible oppression (blindness due to culture), then I will post next week about the second type (structural).

In particular contexts around the world, girls often undergo a procedure that alters their genitalia. This procedure may be called Female Circumcision, Female Genital Mutilation, or Female Genital Cutting, depending on the perspective of the person speaking. Whatever you decide to call it, this procedure is generally performed on these girls by or at the request of their mothers. These mothers are convinced–by the form of religion they have been taught, by social pressure, or by the traditions they were raised with, etc.–that this procedure is necessary for their daughters to be successful and respected women in their society. It would therefore be a dramatic misunderstanding to assert that the mothers who have these procedures preformed on their daughters are purposefully harming/oppressing them. These mothers are simply doing what they believe is required for their daughters’ success and happiness. Whatever harm these procedures cause their daughters, they believe that it is worth it. Furthermore, the identities and self-respect of the mothers themselves has been formed within this context. The mothers themselves probably underwent the procedure and understand themselves to be respectable in society because of that. In this way, the culture “forces” (I use quotes to suggest that this term requires negotiation) the women to have their daughters undergo the procedure at the same time that the women-forcing-their-daughters-to-undergo-the-procedure produce the culture which “forces” them to have their daughters undergo the procedures; it is a simultaneously co-productive cycle. (That sentence is purposeful, so it is seems confusing, please re-read it.) Standing at a distance from that practice, we might quickly say that this is oppression. It is fairly easy, and I think reasonable, for us to assert that no amount of improvement in social standing merits the intense pain and lifetime of medical complications that these procedures cause. The UN has even established a “International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation” which is to be observed on February 6 each year. So, while the term oppression itself remains in constant negotiation, I think we can agree that “forcing” girls to undergo this procedure is a type of oppression. But the mothers of these girls do not see the procedures in this way at all; if they did, I believe that they stop the practice. The way in which these procedures might be oppression is made invisible to them by their social/cultural context.

Within the American context, these types of invisible forms of oppression may be harder to identify because we are already ingrained in the culture that perpetuates the practices. However, one example might be the way that our society forces women to meet certain expectations of beauty. Our culture teaches us that women must be thin, wear high heels (In Sexism & God-Talk, Rosemary Ruether says you can tell the status of women in a society by their footwear.) and makeup, and dress and behave in feminine ways in order to be attractive, well liked, and successful. We learn these lessons from society in a thousand different ways. We learn those lessons when the media discusses what Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama are wearing instead of what they are saying. We learn those lessons from Carl’s Jr. commercials, America’s Next Top Model, and fashion magazines. But we also learn those lessons from each other. When we tell a little girl that her dress is pretty instead of asking her about her favorite book, we perpetuate the oppression. When we compliment a woman (or man) for losing weight by saying that they “look thin” (instead of focusing on health), we perpetuate the oppression that continually defines women (and increasingly men) by their ability to conform to expectations of appearance. While these small actions don’t feel like oppression when we do them (they may even feel like we are being nice), I contend that they are oppression, or at least that they might be oppression and therefore deserve further reflection. We individually perpetuate these harms on each other because the harms that these “compliments” cause is made invisible to us by our society/cultural context.

To give further examples:

  • In a context where women have never had leadership roles in government, the women may say that they are not oppressed because their fathers & husbands speak for them in politics, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t encourage those women to question those practices.
  • In a context where a certain group of people has never been taught to read, they may not articulate that as oppression because they may not know that they have the ability to read and are being denied access to the resources necessary to allow them to gain that skill. But, after being taught to read, these people would likely look back at their illiteracy and understand it as oppression.
  • In the context of extreme poverty, employing children in sweatshops may be experienced by the families as an opportunity, not oppression. But I am still against the practice.
  • In the context of a religious group that convinces LGBT individuals that they can, through therapy, become straight, these individuals may see this therapy as hope and freedom. But I would want to ask these people to consider finding hope and freedom through less painful alternatives (re: acceptance, etc.).

What these examples demonstrate is that oppression may exist even when people (both those in power & those without it) do not recognize it as such. Oppression can even exist when the oppressed people themselves do not articulate their experiences as oppression. We have to be suspicious of the way that people articulate their own experiences, because their experiences are experienced through their own cultural location. [See Ann Stoler’s Race & the Education of Desire for more on this.] However, this also does NOT mean that we can go around telling anyone who doesn’t live like an elite American that they are oppressed. That would be a whole other type of oppression. Instead, my point here is that oppression is a term that must be constantly negotiated. Oppression looks different in different contexts and to different people. It is slippery– constantly changing, hard to grasp, and often nearly invisible. Therefore, we must be constantly questioning the ways that our own actions may be inadvertently oppressing others, and we must be alert for ways that others’ actions may be subtly oppressing us. It is only by keeping the term oppression in flux that we have any hope of being able to address it.

Can you think of other examples of contexts where a group of people may not articulate their own experiences as oppression even though you believe they may be oppressed? How would you go about addressing that situation?

Do you participate in any behaviors that may deserve further interrogation regarding potentially being a form of invisible oppression?

What do you think about the possibility that all oppressions are at least partially “invisible”? If a form of oppression weren’t at least partially invisible would people still perpetuate it?

How do you feel about leaving the definition of oppression in constant flux/negotiation?

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shout out to REL 100

Quick second post to say hello to my new bunch of blog followers, aka my students! Hello, and welcome!

To my more regular blog readers, an explanation:

This semester I am teaching three classes. Two of those are REL 100: Intro to Christianity at CLU and the other is REL 100: Intro to Religion at ULV. I’m really excited to be doing a bit of a social media experiment with these classes, so here is what I’m doing:

In one of my CLU classes, we are doing this big Twitter project. You can read or participate in our class discussion by following #REL1002 on Twitter. Tonight is the first night of the discussion, but I think it’s going well. I’m excited to see how students respond to the project and if any non-class members get involved in the conversation. Head over there now and see what people are talking about.

In my second CLU class, we are doing a blog project. Each student has a separate blog, and they are responsible for keeping their blog going through the semester. Since their blogs may be a bit personal in nature, I will leave publicity to them…. but if you see any commenters on my blog, feel free to click over to their blogs and take a look at what they’ve been writing.

In my ULV class, we are going to have one class blog to which all class members will contribute. It will be here on wordpress, and I will post the info about it once we have it up and running (hopefully next week). You are cordially invited to read along with that class and see what we are talking about in there.

So that is the plan for the semester.

Anyway, I will keep you updated about how these projects are progressing, and I really do hope you will be able to participate in them as well!

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“protecting life” as a consistent ethical system that is pro-choice & pro-euthanasia

It is interesting to see what motivates a blog post. This one is motivated by something a dear friend posted on Facebook. Her post was about how people’s perspectives on different issues often do not form a consistent whole. When people’s perspectives on different issues seem contradictory, it is possible that they haven’t had the opportunity to stop to think about how their perspective on one issue might have implications for another issue. However, it is also possible that the contradictory positions are not as contradictory as they first appear.

If I boiled down my ethical worldview–the perspective with which I approach all topics–to one phrase, it might be “protecting life.” This may be surprising, since many of you know that I am both pro-choice and pro-enuthanasia. So let me explain.

First, what do I mean by “protecting”? Well, I do not mean anything like ensuring that no one steps on your toes. I do not mean anything like using violence to “protect” rights. No. Instead, I mean something more like nurturing, respecting, allowing to thrive, and celebrating life. By protecting life, I mean that we should work to build environments where life can flourish.

Second, what do I mean by “life”? Well, I do not mean being alive. And I also do not necessarily mean one individual’s being alive-ness. It seems to me that life is much more than either of those things. Life is much more than being alive, and life is much more than an individual. Life is complex, relational, intersectional, multiple, powerful, co-production, vulnerable, communal, and vast. In seems to me that in order to see all that complexity (re: beauty) we must stop seeing the concept of life through American individualism. Each individual life is more than a singular autonomous unit; human life is more than the sum of its individuals, and that is to say nothing of the complexity of non-human life. Anyway, my point here is that each of us is part of an ecosystem, both within humanity and within our environment in all its layers. What I do impacts you. What you do impacts me. My life includes you. And your life includes me. What’s more, there are many forms of being alive that are not life. The certain viruses are alive but deny and steal life. Certain bacterias are alive but in that context of causing sickness and destruction, they are not life. Cancer is living cells, but those cells are not life. Of course, tomes have been written about what makes up life, and I can’t even begin to explain life adequately here. Regardless, my point here is that life is complicated, and it must be distinguished from being alive. Those terms could also be reversed, but I hope you don’t get distracted by the language and see my point despite the limitations of English. Anyway, the relevant piece for my ethic is that I assert that we must always nurture life–dignity, community, fullness of life. We should encourage the best, the most dignified, the most beautiful of humanity and the world to thrive. To do so, we must oppose exploitation and dignity-stripping in all its forms, but this does not necessarily mean that we must oppose ending being alive in all it’s forms.

So how does this play out in real world issues (although each of these issues is vastly complicated, so my explanations here will necessarily be incomplete):

Torture- I start with this topic because I think it is particularly illustrative of my point. Some may argue that there are certain cases where life is most protected by using torture to gain information. These people would claim that this is the case in the event that a person has planted bombs around a school yard and is now in captivity refusing to tell officials where the bombs are placed or how to diffuse them (or you can imagine your own similar scenario). The argument is that the lives of the innocent children are most thoroughly protected if any means necessary are used to ensure that the bombs are removed. However, in my opinion this argument is short-sighted. Of course, the innocent children must be saved. Their individual lives are valuable beyond measure. However, life as a whole is not protected if government sanctioned torture is permissible. A society which condones torture does not protect life because the life of the person who planted the bombs is not a life that is disconnected from other lives. Even if the children do not die from the bombs, they then live in a society where torture is a reasonable way to treat suspected criminals, and that is not a society that values the dignity of life.

Slavery- I believe protecting life means that we must oppose the dignity stripping exploitation that is forced labor (manual, sexual, militaristic, or anything other kind). No human, no matter who they are, deserves to lose control of their bodily integrity or the fruits of their labor. That is the ultimate form of squelching fullness of life. All humans are equal in worth, and as such, none of them should be de-humanized into lesser beings. That seems fundamental to protecting life. We might also consider the implications of this for non-human slavery. Is it ethical to eat meat that comes from animals who lived a life of slavery? I’d say no. But might it be ethical to eat meat that comes from animals who enjoyed the fullness of life (whatever that may mean for their species)? Maybe.

War- I believe that “protecting life” requires us to oppose war, and in fact violence in general. Fullness of life is only nurtured in peace, and it must be a peace without the threat of war. War requires soldiers to de-humanize their enemy in order to kill them, and de-humanizing them denies them fullness of life. Furthermore, war leads to a whole bunch of other life-denying activities, like torture, environmental degradation, deaths of active community members, etc. Furthermore, the fullness of humanity is best nurtured when we use words to learn from each other, to negotiate with each other, to compromise with each other on a way to move forward. When two children are fighting over a toy, their mother can walk into the room and say, “If I see you fighting for one more minute, I will throw out all your toys.” So the children, sensing the threat of violence (or an action that they would experience as violence), stop fighting as long as the mother is in the room. However, as soon as the mother leaves the room, the children fight once again because the problem of sharing the toy was not really addressed. Neither child understood why the other wanted the toy so badly, and until they do, no real and lasting peace can be established. Their “peace” only lastly as long as there was a threat of violence. Likewise, war (or the threat of war) only postpones the real work of understanding each other’s perspectives, dealing with differences, and coming to an agreement that both parties believe in (and that lasts beyond threats). Like a society that allows torture, a society that allows war is a society that does not highly value the fullness of life and does not see the harm that the possibility of war causes its citizens.

Death Penalty- We are not protecting life by killing serial killers. I think we must admit that a serial killer is suffering from some kind of mental illness. I don’t use that term lightly, so let me explain. What I mean here is that a serial killer does not understand the human community and her or his place in it in a healthy way. That is a problem with perception, and that is mental illness. That is not to say that all people with mental illness might be serial killers, but it is to say that people with skewed perceptions of the world (on a spectrum from slightly skewed through depression/anxiety to drastically skewed through compulsion to kill… and let’s be honest most of us have skewed perceptions sometimes, and we don’t choose that) are victims to their own brain chemistry. And victims don’t need punishment, they need care and rehabilitation. To restate: we all suffer from skewed perception that we did not chose, and that never ever means that we deserve to be stripped of our dignity. This is not to say that we should let serial killers roam the streets however. No, we should provide them with the care they need, and that care will likely take the shape of constant supervision and removal from contact with most other members of society. By doing this, we protect the fullness of life both for members of society and for the serial killer.

Poverty/Capitalism- At the heart of capitalism is exploitation. Capitalism rests on the ability of producers to make the cheapest products and sell them at the highest prices. That is the nature of profit. But that production process nurtures exploitation and leads to poverty. Producers will always try to get cheaper materials, cheaper labor, cheaper production methods, and as a result workers, consumers of those products, and the natural environment are all exploited. Capitalism does not protect life.

Euthanasia- In November of 2008, my mom died of bladder cancer. She came home from the hospital on hospice about 2 weeks before she died, and during that time my brother, my aunt, and I were responsible for her care. Nurses would come to check on her everyday, but we were the ones to care for her throughout the days and nights. We rotated who would stay with her throughout the nights so that she would never be alone. 2 days before she died I guess, it was my turn to spend that night with her. Apparently her pain level had spiked that evening because it became very obvious that the constant drip of pain medicine into her IV was not enough to keep her comfortable. We had a button that we could push to give her more pain medicine, but we could only push it every 10 minutes. So, for about 8 hours, every 9 minutes or so, I had to listen to my beautiful mother whine, and moan, and cry in pain until I could push the button for her again. That night was the most traumatic night of my life. To this day, I can’t talk about that night without crying. I am crying now as I type this. Four years later, I still have anxiety problems because of that night (and the events surrounding it). That night did not protect life. That night stripped both my mom and me of our dignity. That night was exploitation. There is no reason at all why either of us had to experience that. My mom had already chosen to die. She had decided a few days earlier to take herself off TPN (IV nutrition), and she was a dietitian, so she knew exactly what that meant. If she would have had the option to die peacefully, with dignity, without all that pain, I believe she would have. Allowing her that option would have granted her dignity. Allowing her to chose to end her alive-ness on her own terms would have protected her life, but as it was, in the last moments of her alive-ness, our society chose to strip her of her life, her dignity, her ability to control what happened to her own body. And in so doing society also stripped me of a part of my life, my dignity, and my ability to live peacefully. That night convinced me that an ethic that “protects life” also supports euthanasia.

Abortion- In much the same way that I believe protecting life means supporting euthanasia, I also believe that protecting life means supporting a woman’s right to chose an abortion. Let me be clear, I am not pro-abortion. No one is pro-abortion. No one says, “Abortions are fun and cool, and everyone should get one!” No, abortions are always a tragedy. Any woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy has been betrayed. Maybe she was betrayed by a man who raped her; maybe she was betrayed by an inadequate sex education class that didn’t teach her how to use birth control properly; maybe she was betrayed by birth control that didn’t work properly; maybe she was betrayed by a society that didn’t teach her that she was loved without sex. Whatever the circumstances, if she is pregnant and she doesn’t want to be pregnant, she was betrayed by some aspect of the universe, and she is a victim of that betrayal. And, as I said above, victims do not deserve punishment, they need care and rehabilitation. And, though we may not chose an abortion ourselves, I believe that we must acknowledge that a society that outlaws abortions is not creating an environment where that woman can receive care and rehabilitation in safe and effective ways. A society that outlaws abortions also stigmatizes unwanted pregnancies and forces women (who already feel betrayed and victimized, and therefore desperate) to chose unsafe, ineffective means of ending the pregnancy— with coat hangers, vacuums, and falling down stairs. We must protect life by creating an environment where women can seek care, and that means allowing women options and freedom to choose. If you believe that both the pregnant woman and the fetus are lives, and you believe in protecting life, then I think you should support the right to choose as a way to ensure that an unwanted pregnancy can end in only one death, instead of two. If you believe that the fetus is not yet a life, then I think you should support the right to choose as a way to protect and nurture the dignity of the pregnant woman, who deserves to be in control of what happens to her own body and deserves circumstances that allow her to seek the care she needs.

Again, each of these issues is super complicated, and I can’t address all the complexities in one post (or ever, really). I clearly acknowledge that I did not clearly delineate how to define “life” or “violence” or “nurturing dignity” in this post, but I hope that I showed you a way to understanding “protecting life” in a more complex and nuanced way.

I should also note that I see “protecting life” (as I have described it here) as a core tenant of feminism as well. My feminism and my ethic to protect life are basically just two ways to articulate the same commitments.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Do you think that “protecting life” can sometimes mean supporting a procedure that ends being alive? Do you think that life can be understood beyond the individual? Do you agree or disagree strongly with anything I’ve said here?

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some things I’ve been thinking about

My (somewhat unintended) blogging vacation has ended, and I’m back!

There is so much stuff running around in my head, and I’ve been trying to narrow in on a post topic for about a week and a half, to no avail. Therefore, I am simply going to bullet point the things I’ve been thinking about lately. Maybe this will be a new trend, Rachel Maddow “what are you reading this morning?” style. Let me know what you think.

Things I’ve been thinking about:

  • The start of a new semester!!! Always exciting, but this semester particularly so because I’m starting my blogging and Tweeting projects! I’m teaching three courses this semester: a Twitter focused Intro to Christianity, a multiple blog focused Intro to Christianity, and a single blog focused Intro to Religion. [And hello current students/new blog readers!] All of those courses will have some “public” element, so stay tuned for details on how you, dear reader, can participate in my class discussions! It will be interesting to see how these projects play out, which format works best, and how students respond. I’m sure there will be some future blog posts on all that.
  • This week marks 40 years since Woe v. Wade. I know that some of my readers see that case as something to be mourned, but whatever your stance on the beginning of life, it does seem important to note that this case has meant that for 40 years women have had safe alternatives to coat hangers, vacuums, and staircases, and because of that, lives have been saved.
  • I’m also thinking about writing a blog post on my views on how being committed to “protection of life” can lead to a consistent ethical theory that opposes war, poverty, and the death penalty while supporting euthanasia and the right to choose (re: abortion).
  • I’m thinking about young adult fiction. IMHO: Twilight makes Mad Men look feminist. And makes me want to pull my hair out. Hunger Games is good as social commentary, but bad as character development…. which is maybe the point. Divergent is a bit underwhelming, but I’ll stick with it at least through one more book. Nightshade is fantastic, if a bit too heavy on the heavy breathing.
  • I’m excited that I will be presenting a conference paper in Washington, DC in March. I will present at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference, and my paper is about the complexity of coming out narratives on Fox’s Glee. That paper is also forthcoming in an edited volume, so more details about that at some point this year.
  • I’m planning a few panels for the National Women’s Studies Association meeting this coming November in Cincinnati, OH. I’ll let you know how those applications go.
  • I want Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2016 because she is awesome, and brilliant, and awesome. I also want her to be healthy.
  • Obama’s inauguration speech was great. Did you watch it? Powerful stuff.
  • I need to write a post about how we can be simultaneously complicit with (re: perpetuating) and opposed to (re: fighting) oppression.
  • I need to write about “invisible” oppressions.
  • It is rainy and cold outside and that makes me want to eat french fries.

What are you thinking about these days? Any topics you’d like to have a conversation about? How do you make time in your life to keep up with news/current events?

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committing to stay connected

It seems to me that there is a really large group of people (young professionals? academics? anyone with specialized career training? Americans? anyone in the globalized world?) who have moved far away from all their family members and close friends to attend the right schools and get the right jobs (or any job at all). After each completed degree or career segment, we’ve moved again, and even when an individual stays in one place, most of their friends move away. We are geographically separating ourselves again and again from the people we love.

All that moving around has its benefits, of course. We’ve experienced different cultures and climates; we’ve met people that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to; we know people in every state in the country and many countries around the world. But all that moving around also has its drawbacks–we are often isolated and lonely.

I have some really good friends here, and if I really needed help, I’m sure they would come through for me. But still, I feel like my support system is not here; it is spread all over the country. I’ve lost the real connections I had with some of the people who have impacted my life most profoundly, and I think that is a tragedy. And that has had detrimental effects on my mental state, my physical health, and my quality of life.

It seems to me that there was a point in history when community emerged on its own. There was a time when close proximity=close relationship. Neighborhoods were communities, and you lived in the same community throughout your life. But things are different now. You probably don’t even know the people who live near you. Furthermore, there is something powerful about relationships that last over decades, spanning life changes and hardships, and when those relationships wane because of distance there is a loss. Given that this is our plight (re: geographic separation), we need to be pro-active about preserving relationships across distance. It seems to me that we now have to really make a commitment to be able to stay closely connected to one another.

Social media seems an obvious solution to this problem. And you all know that I’m a huge fan of social media. So, yes, I think social media can help. As long as your family and friends post about themselves, social media can do a pretty good job of keeping you informed on the major events and even the mundane details of people’s lives. Social media can even be a tool for dealing with culture shock, so it does definitely provide some real form of connection. However, social media does not necessarily adequately fulfill the need for close relationships that I am discussing here. Perhaps it can for certain populations, but I think that the way social media is commonly used, it does not provide the sense of a personal support system that isolated people really need.

Therefore, in an attempt to address this problem in my own life, this fall I have made commitments with 9 friends and family members to communicate on a regular basis (and I am working on making a few additional commitments). Several of these commitments take the form of a promise to email each other on a specific day each week. With one friend, we committed to a weekly email plus one piece of snail mail each month. With my brother, it is a weekly video chat. With another friend, it is a video chat every other week. With another friend, our commitment is that we can’t end one phone conversation until we have scheduled our next one. The plan is that these commitments will last for years to come.

I put these “pen pal dates” in my calendar as appointments that are just as important as class or meetings. (The first few commitments were email and snail mail, so calling these friends my “pen pals” seemed appropriate. The commitments have now moved beyond only writing, but the name seems to have stuck.) For me, putting the commitments into my calendar has been a really important move. I save time in my day to fulfill these commitments, and I have shifted my thinking to see these commitments as an important part of my self-care (just as important as eating, sleeping, and exercising). Staying connected and maintaining relationships is a useful and important way to spend my time.

I can already tell that these commitments are improving the quality of my life. I feel much more connected and whole than I did six months ago. My outlook is brighter, my ability to deal with frustration is greater, my thought life is not consumed with worrying about my career, and my stress level is lower. What is more, I feel loved. Not that I felt unloved before, but now I know that I am loved. I know that there are people who would worry if they didn’t hear from my in a week. There are people who care about how my week has been, and I care about how their week has been.

Interestingly, when I approached each of these people to propose these commitments, in almost every case the person responded that they had been feeling isolated too. Almost every one of them told me that they had been needing to establish better connections. Isolation seems to be an epidemic, and I think that we need to do something to combat it.

If you are also feeling isolated, I would encourage you to make some commitments to stay connected with people. Be honest with yourself and your pen pal about your time/schedule, and don’t over commit, but also be willing to see these commitments as important ways to spend your time. Do you think you’ll try to make some commitments with people?

Or if you are already doing something to prevent isolation, I’d love to hear how you commit to maintain relationships with people far away. What has worked for you in the past? What hasn’t worked?

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why i am no longer a christian

This is a bit of a departure from my normal feminist musings…. and it also isn’t a departure at all. This story has shaped me into the feminist I am today… this is the story of my experience with Christianity….

I grew up in the midwest in a family and religious community that believed and practiced what I now understand to be a fairly common midwestern and conservative form of Christianity. I’m told that I prayed the prayer to “ask Jesus into my heart” when I was 5 (but I don’t actually remember that event). I was baptized when I was nine (and like a good Baptist, I do remember that). Throughout my childhood, all of my friends were Christians, and all of my family members were Christians. The Christianity I was taught was my truth. I went to church at least 3 times per week. I could recite the books of the Bible in order. I went to a Christian college, thinking that I wanted to be a pastor. At one point, I had memorized the Sermon on the Mount. You get it.

When I was about 14, I began to feel uneasy about the Christian beliefs I was being taught. I felt like I had to judge/admonish/discipline people who were doing things that didn’t match up with teachings that I had been absorbing. People who believed in evolution needed to be corrected. People who drank or had sex needed to be disciplined. Gay people needed to change. Women needed to be submissive. Everyone needed to forgive, constantly, without fail, even when they were being exploited or abused. In high school, these social aspects of “Christianity” really bothered me.

When I started taking theology and philosophy classes in college, my uneasiness gained new depth, and I learned to articulate new questions. If Jesus preached about God’s forgiveness (aka not requiring reparation/repayment for a wrong), why did God require Jesus’s death as repayment for human sin? That isn’t forgiveness; that is someone paying your bills for you (even a mob boss would let someone do that). If God is all powerful, either God allows evil to happen and doesn’t try to stop it or God purposefully harms people…. and either one makes God into a sadist. If the Bible is supposed to be God’s word and God is supposed to love everyone equally, how can the Bible endorse the mistreatment or inequality of women, slaves, and homosexual people? Unacceptable. Over time, I could no longer ignore those questions. And the only answers I could find made God look like a big jerk…. a selfish, tyrannical, fear-mongering, dictator…. someone I wanted nothing to do with.

In 2005, when I moved across the country to start grad school (aka seminary), someone asked me if I was a Christian. I’m not sure that anyone had ever actually asked me that before, because everyone already knew/assumed that I was one. But I remember this specific conversation very well. We were at “John’s Incredible Pizza” standing by the bumper cars, and this person asked me, and I said no. My answer actually surprised me. I didn’t know that I didn’t think I was a Christian until my mouth had said it, but when I heard the words, they felt accurate….and liberating. Once I moved across the country, I no longer had to identify myself as an insider to the religion I found so harmful.

So, I went through a period of Christianity-hating. I hated everything about Christianity. I thought it, and religion in general, was all that was wrong with the world. I really thought that the world would be a better place if everyone gave up on religion entirely.

But over time, I realized that Christianity didn’t have to be as harmful and hurtful as I originally thought. After years of study, I concluded that there are no compelling reasons for Christians to think that slavery is acceptable, that the Earth was created in six 24 hour days, that homosexuality is a sin, that women can’t be religious (or any kind of) leaders, that Jesus was forced by God to pay the price for humanity’s sins, or that there is a literal hell of any kind. Those are all interpretive moves that occurred in certain historical and political contexts, and there is no reason whatsoever for Christians today to hold on to them. There are, however, many compelling reasons for Christians to oppose slavery, human trafficking, and exploitation of any kind. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to support science, medical research, and technological advancements. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to support gay rights. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to work to empower women. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to enact Jesus’s example of loving community. And there are many compelling reasons to work to ensure that “The Kingdom of God” (re: dignity, love, and respect for all) is enacted on Earth now, today.

Happily, throughout grad school, I encountered many wonderful self-identified Christian people who don’t believe in substitutionary atonement, who embrace and find beautiful the love and sexuality of LGBT individuals, who accept evolution, global warming, and modern science, who don’t read the Bible literally, and who find feminist interpretations of text and tradition meaningful and long overdue. These people are Christians who live love instead of judgement and who live thoughtfulness instead of blindness/ignorance. In summary, these Christians demonstrated that Christianity didn’t have to hurt all the time.

And if I’d known that type of Christians existed when I was 16-21 , I might not have had to go through the painful experience of leaving the only worldview and only community I’d ever known.

I am writing this story to be of some use to you, whether you are a religious leader, a religious practitioner, or a member of the human race in general. Maybe this story is useful for reminding you about the harm that can come at the hands of religion. Maybe this story can encourage you to combat those harms as zealously as you can. Maybe this story can encourage you to participate in reforming Christianity. If you experienced something similar, maybe this story can show you that you aren’t alone. Or if you’ve been hurt by it, maybe this story can remind you that Christianity can be beautiful and empowering. Maybe this story can remind you that Christians can be loving and supportive and that religion can bring something useful to the world. Or maybe this story has some other meaning for you….

I’d love to hear from any of you. Thoughts? Responses? Questions?

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