Friday, July 26, 2013

Insidious Straight Acting Donatist Queers

People will never fight for your freedom if you have not given evidence that you are prepared to fight for it yourself. Incidentally, that’s the reason that every gay who is in the closet is ultimately a threat to the freedom of gays. I don’t want to seem intolerant to them and I think we have to say that to them with a great deal of affection, but remaining in the closet is the other side of the prejudice against gays. Because until you challenge it, you are not playing an active role in fighting it.
            Bayard Rustin, Brother to Brother: An Interview with Joseph Beam, 1986[1]

Over the past few weeks I have heard from many different venues statements about how members of the Queer Community[2] can forgo social stigma by acting “straight”. I have come across this in the form of “I have the privilege to act straight and not face persecution” as well as “gays are not really persecuted because you choose to act out like that”. These statements are not new but they seem to come at heightened levels at times of high racial tension.

I know about “acting straight” to avoid prejudice. I grew up in an “act straight” household. My act straight mantra growing up included “The open palm never touches the hip”, “Always squat never bend over”, “Always say “here, [dog’s name]” never use the word “come” to call a dog, and countless others.[3] Breaking any of the mantras resulted in verbal abuse, restriction of privileges, and at points physical abuse. “Straight Acting” might be a necessary short term reality but over the long term it helps no one, least of all the individual doing it.

There is so much insidiously wrong with the idea of “straight acting”. It is basically a secular form of Donatism. Donatism is a Christian heresy where the outward moral actions and history of a person is what validates them to be called Christians. The reality is that there is not a litmus test of outward moral actions and history of a person that defines them as “straight” or “queer”. To pretend such is to both buy into the system of prejudice and to deny the validity of certain individual’s “queerness”.

I can think of several heterosexual couples I know that involve a bisexual or transgender member. Now walking down the street on a given day are these couples “straight acting” or “queer acting” or are they just being wonderfully themselves? I remember a colleague of mine being mortified that his mannerisms did not betray that he was a gay man, that he was in some way not acting “queer” enough. I know people who, in my opinion, could not “act straight” if their life depended on it, despite possible protestation to the contrary[4], and people whose attempts to “queer it up” are so dead in the water it is not funny. Being “queer” is about being true to who you are and allowing other people to do the same it is not about fulfilling certain projections of an insidiously broken society.

This call to “straight action” is even more insidious, however, when it is brought up in relationship to race. Bayard Rustin, in an earlier part of the interview quoted above, said that we have “to say to the gay rights movement, if you want to win you must join us as individuals into the civil rights movement and to say to the civil rights people if you really want to get freedom for blacks don’t think you can do it by getting freedom for blacks alone”. A portion of the white queer community does indeed have the capacity, to call it a privilege is to defy the word’s definition, to extricate themselves as individuals from the basic cause of freedom through harmful complacency by “straight acting”. This portion does not, however, in any way represent the fullness of racial and ethnic diversity within the queer community nor even the capacity of all its white members.

Now for every group with a freedom movement there are members of that group who habitually practice harmful complacency, various relatives to “straight acting”.  The privilege, as it were, of some white queer individuals is the ability to partake of only one practice of harmful complacency in order to extricate themselves from the overall fight for individual’s freedom. Individuals who are people of color or other minority group who are also queer would have to take up multiple such practices in order to extricate themselves.

To say that the queer community can simply “act straight” to avoid prejudice denies the inherent racial and ethnic diversity of the queer community; projects a false capacity of its individuals to universally do so in any believable fashion; and also reinforces basic prejudices around what it means to be “queer” or “straight”. The saddest part, however, is that each attempt to be in the closet not only fails to challenge the prejudice against the queer community it is a failure to challenge prejudice in all its forms. The “privilege” to “act straight” that a few have is the ability to perpetuate the system that harms not only their fellow queers but all who desire freedom. Maybe I spoke too soon, as the truly saddest part is that this is how we actually define “privilege” and that any one in our society actually wants it.  

[1] Carbado, Devon (ed), Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2003. p. 278
[2] I recognize that this term is still divisive within the community as a whole. As a theologian I am using the term to represent the entire community from which queer theology derives, which is more expansive than LGBTQ.
[3] In case these are confusing: Placing an open palm on a hip was considered a very feminine stance. Bending over to pick something up was considered a seeking of anal sex. Use of the word “come” to call a dog could be taken as use of the word “cum” thus making Timmie’s call to Lassie, “Come, here boy”, no longer innocent.
[4] My protestations to the contrary I include myself in this category… so much for the “straight acting” indoctrination of my youth.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Seeing a priest like me... reflections on first vocations and the dissolving ageism of the Episcopal Priesthood.

A key thing about my trip/class to England at the start of the summer that continues to stay with me was finally encountering a celebrant of the Eucharist of my generation and age demographic, aka late twenties and early thirties, in this case also a white male. I do not know if I had ever really thought about it until I looked up at a Eucharist and there was a presider in whom I could see myself reflected back. It caused a strange shift inside myself to see, God willing, this resonate image of my call.

Growing up priests were always people my parents age, always. I had no concept of priesthood being anything but a second career, a calling to a special form of retirement, a thing people did when they got bored of whatever they had really done and made their mark. I know now that this was not a fair assumption, but I was fourteen at the time and filled with bad assumptions about the world. The reality is that at the age of fourteen my assumption was I could never think of ordained ministry or discernment for thirty years. The few times I brought it up to others, my parents and my parish priests, my assumptions were reinforced.

There was an exception. At about this age I started attending a conference, which on many levels was exceptional. It was an Anglo-Catholic conference with conservative leanings, ones that would be highlighted as the decade progressed. There I was introduced to a theology that viewed woman's ordination as invalid and called all homosexuals to celibacy. It was there, however, that for the first time I was encouraged to discern a call to ordain ministry in the here and now as a teenager.

To be very clear this conference gave me the community and support to keep me going through some of the darkest days of my life. My home environment and my internal struggle around my sexuality had me on the edge of suicidal ideation. There were many nights when I did not sleep, I stayed awake crying very quietly, clutching a rosary, and thinking of the love and community of St. Michael's conference. There my internal call was affirmed, there I was "out" (in the confessional booth) and promised support and love in dealing with my sexuality, there I was caught up in a community and faith that connected me to a God I knew loved me.

This was compared to a moderate liberal episcopal church, with female and male priests, who saw my growing sense of call as a childish flight of fancy and in which the topic of human sexuality was so taboo as to never be mentioned. A place I assumed held the same basic approach to sexuality as my mother, as she was on the vestry and I had overheard her and one of the priest talking about such, a place that would be ripe and ready to send me to ex-gay camp (a fate far scarier to me than a monastery) at the near mention of my sexuality. I think it understandable why I thus began to lean towards conservative Anglo-Catholicism.

Now in college a few things happened. First I found my first LGBTQ affirming theology deep in the works of Martin Thornton in his speculations around Thomists Theology. This began my steady growth to more liberal thinking theological waters. Secondly I encountered a priest, a woman, who expressed positive views about young vocations and human sexuality. It took me quite a while to get over internal fears and baggage but one Ash Wednesday grace transpired a transformational time of confession and reconciliation.

This, and a few other key events, brought me to begin discerning a call to ordained ministry in university. I was told from the start it would be a near impossible journey. I spent several years in internships, helped found an emergent worship group, worked for several churches, acquired non profit and social service jobs, kept discerning. At this point I began to encounter the rare Generation X priests.* All of them still spoke of having had another vocation, they spoke of the difficulty of discernment before the age of thirty, there was closeness but a gap. They were older cousins but not quite peers and siblings.

Now in seminary I find that something has shifted. I am finding myself one of many trailblazers along a path with ever widening doors. First vocations coming straight out of college or a much shorter series of internships than my own. I had seen pictures of people my age, younger, that I knew, that were my friends, presiding at first mass before that Sunday in England. It is an amazing time, one that is going to be something new for most of the church.

This is something we have not seen since the first days of ordained ministry of some of our eldest clergy. An inter-generational clergy is going to bring about a whole series of new experiences, points of conflict, and change. The end result is that some of us are going to finally be seeing a priest more like us up at the altar and many will be forced to see a priest who is not what they expected up at the altar... and that in all the permutations of diversity, can only be a good thing.

*Some of these individuals were in their mid thirties but at the time I was in my early twenties and there is a resonate barrier there.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why denominations still matter now that they don't.

There is a lot of talk, and a lot of good reasoning behind it, as to why denominations no longer matter. This is exceptionally true in the muddle of main line Protestantism where the actual differences between what occurs on a Sunday morning at an Episcopal vs. Lutheran vs. Presbyterian vs. Methodist vs. Moravian vs. [insert name here] service is rather moot to everyone but rubric fiends like myself. If a person is looking for a liturgical worship on a Sunday morning and a faith community to integrate with then there will be a long check list of what they are searching for before what denominational name is in small print on the sign.

In praxis, that fancy word for practice, on Sunday morning every mainline Protestant denomination is using a somewhat similar Morning Prayer and/or Eucharist services with the only variances being hymnody and what generally appears to be inconsequential issues of ordering.[1] Likewise most mainline Protestant denominations are engaged in similar attempts at welcoming, inclusive, community integrated, etc. parishes and worship communities. So what comes about is similar to eating a delicious pastry along the streets of New York, the fact it came out of a Japanese school of Pastry baking and not a French is of little consequence to enjoying the pastry.

What a person cares about is can they take all their stuff with God into this community, and experience something Holy and blessed.  The simple reality is that for the average lay person the Venn Diagram of the mainline Protestant denominations is one of humongous communal overlap when it comes to experience. Combine this with the fact that all of them allow a high level of plurality of thought and questioning, especially amongst the laity, and it is easy to see why denominational allegiance is waning.

This conflation of praxis, however, does not mean that the tradition, theology, and history of individual denominations is suddenly moot. What has been lost is not the importance of our traditions but those traditions being used as the coat of arms for country clubs. People generally are not interested in being an Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc. because those are "my people", "my family", "my tradition", "my fast track to a raise and better position at work". They are interested in being part of a community where they can integrate and sort out their faith, spirituality, and practice.

So few are interested in being a Methodist, but many people are discerning a spiritual call that should be directed toward Methodism. Likewise Episcopalians now generally roll their eyes at the idea of being the bastion of the Christian Upperclass (a sure sign that in many ways we still are) but affirm very strong spiritual calls to Anglicanism. I might very well find myself talking to a seeker who will never live close to a Moravian church, will seek membership in an Episcopal one, but for whom the works of Jan Huss will be essential works for bringing to rest a personal conflict of faith.

So while I fully recognize that Denominationalism is of ever falling consequence to the new generation of Christian practitioners what I strongly suggest is that the historical community residing within the traditions of the various denominations is ever more of consequence. We must be able to not only connect people with a vibrant community in the here and now but also to the vibrant community of Christians gone before and help them identify possibly friends in that great host.

What this inherently means is that the saying no one cares about denominations any more does not translate to there is no longer any reason to be formed and know a specific faith tradition. Exactly what brings people to a community is a longing to be formed and informed by that community and its traditions. What no one cares about denominations any more truly means is that no one cares about the hubris and self righteousness of any particular sect of Christianity. Truth be told it is the sin of the church of the past decades and century that anyone ever did.

[1] the ordering of the service, such as where the confession is placed or where the Lord's Prayer is said, is consequential to the shape and feel of a particular liturgy and its affects and effects but not in regards to the discussion at hand. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Dreaded Pastoral Phone Call and some advice from Bukowski

I recently reopened a few of the poetry books of Charles Bukowski I have about the place (I used to have more but I think many have wandered away in the hands of friends). In them I am finding, once again, a really relevant and purposefully dangerous voice. This one truly struck home with me when it comes to the concept of the late night “emergency” pastoral calls those of us preparing for ministry are told dread stories about.

the telephone

will bring you people
with its ring,
people who do not know what to do with
their time
and they will ache to
infect you with
from a distance
(although they would prefer
to actually be in the same room
to better project their nullity upon

the telephone is needed for
emergency purposes only.

these people are not
emergencies they are

I have never welcomed the ring of a

"hello," I will answer

"this is Dwight."

already you can feel their imbecile
yearning to invade.
they are the people-fleas that
crawl the

"yes, what is it?"

"well, I'm in town tonight and
I thought..."

"listen, Dwight, I'm tied up, I

"well, maybe another

"maybe not..."

each person is only given so many
and each wasted evening is
a gross violation against the
natural course of
your only life;
besides, it leaves an aftertaste
which often lasts two or three days
depending upon the visitor.

the telephone is only for
emergency purposes.

it has taken me
but I have finally found out
how to say

don't be concerned for them,
they will simply dial another

it could be

"hello," you will

and they will say
"this is Dwight."

and then

the kind

Now to be clear from the start I am all for being available at all hours for true emergency phone calls. One of the most intense emergency phone calls I have ever taken was at three o’clock in the morning from a couple in the throws of intense mourning on the two year anniversary of the death of an individual who I thought at first had been a young child but, twenty minutes into the conversation, turned out to be a pet dog. By some criteria an hour-long pastoral conversation over the loss of a pet in the early morning might seem frivolous but the crisis and mourning was exceptionally real and clear. I would not have forgone that phone call, especially for something so readily found as a good night’s sleep, because it was readily and apparently real.

There is another type of phone call and another type of conversation that is not quite the same thing. It is a type of trap, I will call it “the kind understanding soul trap”. The components of the trap are relatively simple. A chaplain wants to “be the kind understanding soul” and places internal value on whether or not they enter into pastoral conversations, especially with people they find draining. Broken and needy individuals seek out the chaplain seeking “the kind understanding soul”. The chaplain feels that saying “no” would be unkind and takes the phone call and has the conversation.

All of this is allowed because of a theory that taking the phone call, having the pastoral conversation, being “the kind understanding soul” is an absolute moral good. This does not account for the fact that a chaplain and those being served can become enmeshed. I, as the chaplain, can bring myself to ignore all of the internal signs telling me that something is wrong with a pastoral relationship on the altar of “I have to take this phone call or I am a bad chaplain”. While those under my pastoral care can actually be enabled in their brokenness and neediness by my constant openness not to their actual needs as individuals but to my need to define myself as “the kind understanding soul”.

Which does not mean I plan to stop taking phone calls, nor that I do not strive to be kind and understanding. What it means is that I step back and discern. What is my gut telling me about these phone calls and conversations? In my attempts to be kind and understanding am I actually being enabling and ignorant? Am I here to make myself feel good about being a chaplain or is this part of the abundant life with God Jesus is calling me towards? At the end of the day it goes back to the fact that the Love of God is about compassion but it is also about challenge. As chaplains, as people of God, we have to be about both.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Homeless, Racist; Dignity, Shame

For a while I was a case worker with a community of individuals dealing with homelessness. Note that I did not say “I was a case worker with the homeless”. This might seem like a small variation but it is a rather important one. “Homeless” is an adjective not a noun; it is a context someone finds oneself in not a state of being that defines a person. It is the difference between allowing someone to identify as an individual or forcing an individual to be nothing more than a stagnant identity. Recognizing someone as an individual, regardless of their context, is a key component of dignity. It is also a key component of not causing an individual to feel ashamed.

I want to take a moment to look at shame before going on. I have never found shame to be a good motivator. When I feel ashamed I am stuck, I feel I cannot change or do anything about my condition. Also I have never found shaming someone an effective teaching tool for long term change. At the end of the day I can find no use for shame.

What I do find effective is guilt. If someone comes to me and points out an action I have done that is wrong, shows me its wrongness, and promotes guilt, that can be a strong motivator for change. This process respects my dignity, it allows me to identify outside of the wrong action and make a set of achievable goals to over come it.

Now individuals should feel neither ashamed nor guilty if they find themselves in the context of homelessness. Shame should not be there for reasons stated above. Guilt should not be there because homelessness is a context not an action. Now an individual might engage in a series of wrong behaviors that might lead them, or perpetuate. the context of homelessness. Now in respect to those wrong behaviors guilt might not only be appropriate but requisite for the change necessary for leaving the context of homelessness. Some individuals find themselves in the context of homelessness not because of wrong doing but on account of right action in a broken world, an individual fleeing an abusive spouse with their children for instance.

What I have come to realize is that racism (a long with heterosexism, homosexism, misogyny, misandry, cisgenderism[1] etc.) is that it is also a context. This does not validate racism, any more than naming homelessness a context makes it any less a societal injustice. Racism is simply a context for which there is generally less compassion for those obviously caught up in it than homelessness. This lack of compassion makes it very easy to shame individuals, ignore their basic dignity, when they are caught up in the context of racism.

My suggestion is that this is counter productive. What I feel when I call someone a racist (or heterosexist, etc) is a very good feeling of self righteousness and when I am called a racist I feel an inordinate amount of shame. I know that when I am filled with either self righteousness or shame that I am generally blind, stuck, and unable to communicate. Now when I am perpetuating wrong actions that bring me into the context of racism, homosexism, cisgenderism and misogyny (all of which I have been called to task on and I expect such to occur again) I do need to be brought to task, I do need to feel an effective level of guilt, and I do need a community to be in conversation with me so that I can goal set to right and appropriate action. This cannot occur, however, if I am feeling shame and ineffective unrest and pain from those calling me to task.

I want to remove myself effectively from contexts that are filled with societal injustice and promote others to like actions. This means I have to place aside a need for vindication through shame, it means I have to recognize the basic dignity of those who are caught up in horrendous contexts and might be perpetuating severely wrong actions. It means I have to have compassion and empathy for those whom it is not necessarily easy so to do. It means striving to recognize the dignity and forgo shaming all individuals in all contexts unilaterally.        

[1] I have never encountered a prejudice similar to racism or sexism from the transgender community towards the cisgender community (of the opposite I have sadly encountered too much). To that end I do not attempt to formulate an opposite of cisgenderism in this list and pray that no experience will ever lead me so to do.