Touch Me in the Morning

In Your Hands For Moodle

I want to thank my friend and student Jasmine for pointing me toward the following article:

Touch Me…PLEASE! – Elephant Journal

In the midst of national crises about gun violence, racial profiling, privacy, our role in international war and the like, we forget that we are in the beginning and in the end just human beings…not human DOINGS, but human BEINGS.  The most accessible aspect of that state is our ability to touch.

This semester, I am teaching a class: In Your Hands: Spirituality, Language and Ethics of Touch at Starr King School for the Ministry.  It is geared toward students in seminary, to get us thinking and open up the dialogue about touch.  You see, I believe that the solution to the problems listed above is finding a way to reclaim our ability to be in physical contact with one another without it being commodified.  We have stepped so far outside of our bodies and our embodied experience that we immediately associate touch with exchanges of power, particularly of a sexual nature, and although touch is intimate, intimacy does not always mean sex.  The way a child breastfeeds is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we touch the hand of someone when they need help is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we embrace others in a time of joy is intimate, but it is not sex.  The intimacy is determined by the emotional context that we share when we touch, not by the act alone.

Why do a graduate class on touch in seminary?  Because faith communities have simultaneously done the most to destroy the language of touch and also have the most to lose by eliminating touch.  There have been abuses in every religious denomination…it is not just a Catholic problem.  It is an issue of power and using touch as a tool to gain that power.  Inappropriate touch is the tool of people who are scared and desperate and who have no other way in their understanding, to find what they really seek.  They understand that as people of the big monolithic religious body, they have certain power to direct people’s lives…yet they still feel out of control within themselves.  I am no psychotherapist, but I am a body therapist and I have seen reflections of this kind of behavior in the massage room; where someone who is struggling to feel more in control of their own body is looking for something more from the massage…they never quite surrender to the experience of touch and may direct or anticipate your every move.  Some will make an out and out a pass at you. Not at all to say that this is every case, but I’ve seen it first hand.

Let me be clear, I am not teaching people how to touch in church.  However, I may be trying to teach people how to ask why and why not to touch in church.  If faith communities can make an effort to not just enforce boundaries, but learn about and teach through our natural boundaries, we might just be able to reclaim this thing.  I am not a Christian minister (though I identify as Christian within the Unitarian Universalist Church) but there are countless examples of Christ touching people, or people touching Christ (Matthew 9: 18 – 22 is chocka) and these are beautiful and inspiring examples of faith.  By reacting to those who would abuse touch by saying “don’t touch” we all lose and the abusers win.  Suddenly, we are agreeing with those who misuse touch and in our tacet response we are saying “you’re right, touch is bad and evil and can only be a no-good thing.”  We don’t deserve that as human beings.  Instead I say, don’t let the abusers win; let’s explore and thoroughly discuss the ways and the reasons why we touch in the open.  Shine a light on it and leave the  abusers nowhere to hide.

Already, two weeks in, my class is deeply fascinating and threads of thought and engagement are emerging that I could never have  anticipated.  We’ll see where it goes.  At the very least there are seven future religious leaders in the world who are asking questions along with me.  Its not much, but an avalanche starts when just one stone comes loose.

Peace.

20130916_075406Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog. My last post Heartbreak received about 1000 hits and numerous comments.  Again, I am deeply grateful to those of you who read, but it is bittersweet that tragedy would have to touch us this way.  I have not written, and may not write about the shooting in Virginia, because truly, my heart is too heavy with the combination of these stories.  I only offer a prayer for those we lost, including the gunman, their families and for our nation to find a solution to feeling as if we need to carry around life and death in our pockets.

Happy Birthday

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  It was a pivotal day in the history of the Civil Rights movement in America.  Although it had been conceived before (reference is made in the film Brother Outsider to a plan in the 1940’s for a march of this nature) it was the first time any demonstration of this magnitude had ever come together in this country.  A mixing of races and religions and economic backgrounds came together and stood united in demonstration of the need for change for one specific demographic sector…black people.

These kinds of demonstrations aren’t so simple now.  As we progressed from the era of fighting for the rights of one marginalized population, other groups began to find their voices in the song of freedom.  Women, Gays and Lesbians, Latinos, Asian Americans, people with disabilities, Jews, Muslims, Atheists.  But eventually people started to realize as well that they weren’t just part of one group.  We used to joke (before political correctness) that if you were a black Jewish lesbian in a wheelchair, you had the ultimate minority status.  But we don’t make those jokes anymore; in fact, we are starting to see the value of recognizing what a black, Jewish, disabled lesbian would represent in the mix.  She would represent the degree to which we all sit at intersections of cultures, demographics and social standings.  Each of us has privilege; each of us has disadvantage.  The Civil Rights Movement ushered in an age of self identity that has now culminated in all of us finding multiple self identities.

As we look back on the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, the brilliance of Bayard Rustin’s organizing and the willingness of the people to buy into the effort and gather en-masse during a weekday, it does seem clear that somethings have definitely changed.  But it is also clear that some things have not really changed at all.  People have died for a cause who’s banners would be just as relevant today.  A white man can kill a black man and walk free.  We talk about how demographics are shifting to make people of color the majority in this country by 2050; but that kind of binary based demographic still leaves white people as the “norm” or the barometer against which everyone else is measured.   Change…but the same.

Progress…real progress, will mean a time when we are able to look at the world through something other than the binary lens: black/white; gay/straight; male/female; rich/poor; able/disabled.  We will look at each other as hearts and minds and we will look at life and maybe even God as a continuum…a spectrum of experience.  We will have no need for demographics because we will no longer be judging each other.  We will fully embrace our selves as black lesbian disabled Jews and our society will actually not raise an eyebrow when it is asked to embrace us back.

But over all, my point is, this day, in 1963 is when it began.  Certainly others fought hard before and after this date, but it is the one date we can point to when we know that at least 250,000 other people were thinking pretty much the same thing: “we need to do something about this mess.”

Today is also my friend Stacey’s birthday…in fact at the exact moment when those 250,000 people were gathered on the National Mall, when Martin Luther King, Jr. declared “I Have a Dream”, while Mahaila Jackson sang “How I Got Over,” Stacey sent her first cry to the heavens.  And although both Mahalia and Dr. King are gone, Stacey is still here and still crying to the heavens, singing jazz.  In 50 years, she has changed of course…as we all have, yet she is the same; just like this country, just like our dreams for justice and equality for all.

So, today, rather than lamenting how much things are the same after 50 years, let’s celebrate what is good about those things that haven’t changed…our basic desire for honesty, humanity and humility; our basic desire for good.  Our need to see the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.  Our God given talents and gifts that lift one another up and unite us as one people to declare that we ALL have a dream; and of course the fact that we are still singing jazz.  For without dreams, whether they be great or small, what else do we have to live for?

Happy Birthday Stacey!

Colonial Fool: Part IV – The REAL war on Religion

Sam Rohrer, president of the Pennsylvania Pastors’ Network, stated that he was “stunned at [the decisions on DOMA and Prop 8] today to take a 360-degree turn away from the biblical definition of marriage.…we must continue to work to keep marriages and families intact, the way God intended them, and pray for a continued revival of the values upon which this country was founded,” said Rohrer.1

When I was 15 years old I created a 2 and a half foot tall statue of Marilyn Monroe.  It was quite an engineering feat: there she was in all of her youthful voluptuousness striding forward supported on nothing more than two strappy sandal, stiletto high heels.  I determined that once dried and kilned, she would balance perfectly.  Her curves, her expression her pose evoked a totally different era for womanhood…both good and bad.  Tragically, she exploded in the kiln due to unseen air pockets throughout.  That’s what I think of as I watch Paula Deen’s demise and it is also what I think of when I watch some of the conservative Christian reaction to the demise of DOMA and Prop 8.

Poor Paula.  She doesn’t understand why people get upset when she uses the word ‘nigger’ when she is angry or threatened or why having it as a part of her personal vocabulary is seen as…uh, questionable.  But then this shouldn’t be surprising coming from a woman who was fully willing to recreate a “Gone With the Wind” era South, complete with black slave help, for someone’s wedding2.

But remember, Paula Deen has always been this way; we’re just finding out about it.  We still lapped up every dollop of butter she served and bought every book and laughed with her when she was brained by a ham.  So what’s so different now.  Well, now we know.

So what do Paula Deen and Conservative Christians against Marriage Equality have in common?  A lot more than meets the swollen ham eye.  Although statements like Sam Roher’s and pretty much anything Michelle Bachmann has ever said, are just plain offensive, they point to a deeper more restrictive concept of religion than the one they are touting as being solely for married heterosexual couples and couples in waiting (aka their offspring) in much the same way that Paula Deen’s claim that ‘nigger’ is a fun expression is a sign of a deeper set of flaws.  These limited religious factions have decided that there is only one God, and only one interpretation of God not to mention deciding for everyone that there IS a God.  Last time I checked, most Atheists didn’t quite run that way, Hindus are creeped out by that kind of limitation in the concept of existence, Pagans question “just one?”,and well, us Unitarian Universalists don’t accept anything that hasn’t been decided by committee.

Before MB makes a statement like:

Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted….For thousands of years of recorded human history, no society has defended the legal standard of marriage as anything other than between man and woman. Only since 2000 have we seen a redefinition of this foundational unit of society in various nations.3

She might want to consult a Rabbi:

RebJeff on “What does the Bible say about marriage”

If you didn’t navigate away and look at Reb Jeff’s article on marriage (from 2012 but effective nonetheless) he basically says that the Bible just doesn’t lay it out that clearly.  He also brings up American law that only in the last 100 years gave married women ANY rights at all to their own property…largely because they were property themselves.

And Lord knows Michelle might be pretty confused by some of the “ins and outs” of Kosher sex…particularly where it says that the woman may not withhold sex or it is grounds for divorce.4

If the conservative Christians are not willing to accept even the twisted and conflicting language of their own Bible, do we really believe that they are going to take the time to truly accept Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, Zoroastrians, Shinto or any tribal religions?  The framework that Roher, Bachmann et al are using is to declare Protestant Christianity the official national religion of the United States.  I will not argue that Protestant Christianity is what the dominant population who founded this country practiced.  But that same dominant population also practiced and perpetuated slavery, genocide, dowry rituals, marital rape, incest (first cousin marriage is still legal in 20 US states5) blood letting,  and more recently pre-frontal lobotomies, thalidomide, ‘hygenic’ circumcision, silicone breast implants and anti-miscegenation.  Not a great track record.

In the world of Bachmann, church is on Sunday, sex is in missionary position (appropriately named), marriage equals babies, people are either white or something else and God is God.  The terrifying part is that there are an awful lot of people in America who think this same way on some level, just like Paula Deen ignorantly accepts ‘nigger’ as a form of endearment (and she is definitely no rapper.)  The repulsion to same sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg here.  This is a group of people that does not want to see beyond their limited view and gay marriage is the current whipping boy.  After 9/11 Muslims got their wrath (and still carry it.)  Next year, there will be a new ‘other’ for them to be afraid of.  Prior to 1967, it was interracial marriage and before that integration in general and throughout our history any kind of immigrants.  These are all assaults on diversity and our rights to seek independent truth.

I return to my ill fated Marilyn statue, beautiful in some ways though she was, she could never have survived…and that is a good thing; let her rest in peace with all the conflict of talent, honest womanhood and male objectification and victimization she has come to represent.  Similarly, we need to see the limited thinkers who invoke the US founding fathers to foist their beliefs on the rest of us just for what they are: perilously constructed statues of dead icons, waiting to self destruct in the kiln of modern justice.

Footnotes

1. Christians Stunned Disappointed in DOMA Prop 8 Decisions
2. Paula Deen uses the n-word: 8 Shocking Details from her Deposition
3. Michelle Bachmann Rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 Attack our Constitution
4.Kosher Sex
5.Wikipedia – Cousin Marriage

The Big Day

This is a big day…for those of us who grew up in shadows, hiding our desires and feeling like criminals for acting on them.  The shame of desire, the social orphan pariah…to have come out of the shadows, into the light of recognition and to have come even this far with the rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8 is nothing short of a miracle.

But I point to this as being a big day not for the actual decisions, but for the direction in which it is now pointing us.  As far as I’ve been able to read the opinions of the court, there is still a lot of gray area.  In fact, I feel as if the court has squarely kicked the ball back to us the people and in particular to faith communities.  WE need to figure this out.  There is no amount of legislation or “legaleze” that will transform people’s hearts.

So the real work must begin.  Lay people, faith leaders, communities, must now come together and have real conversations about how to live peacefully and supportively of each other.  I encourage you to have the tough conversations with each other, but first have the conversation with yourself to ask, not just what you believe, but how do your beliefs play out in a world that is built on love and not fear.  How do you love someone…and I don’t mean love the person/hate the sin, because being LGBTQ is not a sin…I mean how do you genuinely love someone through their difference from you?

May it be so.

Too Quick to Covenant

“Should we create a covenant?”  These are familiar words to Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve found that in UU circles covenants are as common as coffee and dounts.  Bless our bleeding, left leaning hearts, it seems that UUs more than any group are always determined to be in “right relationship” with one another, and we frequently begin any kind of process or group exercise with a “covenant.”  Although I admire this eagerness to have level playing fields and understand how this can be a useful tool for helping groups stay on point, the specific use of the word “covenant” is a bit of a hot button to me.  As I delve deeper into understanding faith traditions and magnify that understanding in the lens of our modern world, I caution us all not to miss the point of true covenant or how the assumptions built into social covenants can actually harm us.

The covenants that most people are familiar with are those from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament.  The covenants entered into between God and Noah, God and Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, the covenant beween Jonathan and David and the Covenant of Christ are those which inform much of our modern interpretation of the word in Judeo-Christian culture.  I do not have the scholarly or linguistic heft to venture into a sufficiently deep explanation here of each of these examples, but suffice it to say that these are solemn agreements with God that assume two important absolutes: a) that one believes in God; b) that one believes in a God that believes in them.  Again, this is a much longer conversation…

I believe, however, it is useful to explore how in modern relationships, we take for granted a certain culture of covenant that has its own built in assumptions.  One of the basic definitions of a covenant is as an agreement.  It is first and foremost an agreement that two parties will fulfill certain obligations to one another.  One could call a covenant a “contract” of sorts.  One key difference however, is that a covenant is entered into between people or entities, or groups who know one another and hold a common goal or purpose, whereas a contract is generally between people who only have that agreement as their primary means of relationship.  A covenant serves to bind or enhance an already existing relationship.

The Biblical agreements that I mentioned before are definitely not just contracts. Often involving blood commitment, God (for those who believe and/or follow Abrahamic scripture) surely “knows” mankind.  God “knows” Noah, Abraham and Moses.  David and Jonathan “know” one another intimately and because of that intimacy, enter into their covenant.  The Covenant of God made through Christ, giving his Son for the forgiveness of man’s sin is one made based entirely on God’s omniscience, Jesus’ knowledge of his predestined mission and the acknowledgement man is willing to make in recognizing Christ as savior.  There is a lot of “knowing” going on here.

In today’s environment of deep political and social divide, it could be argued that we are in need of a covenant.  We are in need of an agreement that obliges us to protect one another and serve a common good.  Of course, we already have many agreements that are intended to do this, from the US Constitution to the Kyoto Protocol to NAFTA…and certainly the Judeo-Christian  covenants I point to should serve the purpose of making our world safe and nurturing.  We put on a good show in treating these agreements like covenants.  We see entire governments shaping the course of history based on some of these agreements.  We watch people protest for their rights based on their spiritual covenants.  But in a world that stumbles along on fractured social relationships…fractured by inequities and ignorance and fear and broad assumptions…even these solemn agreements with God become merely contracts that are too easily broken.

We all know what assumptions make….

The conservative LGBTQI hating Christian assumes that the world should want to function in their paradigm of truth.  The rich American capitalist assumes that everyone wants success in the way they see it.  Likewise, some of the the best ultra liberal Unitarian Universalists assume that the most damaging force to people of color is white privilege. These are just examples.  The point is that “right relationship” cannot happen until you are actually IN relationship with the other party. How well do you know me?  How well do I know you?  How deeply do our communities of trust actually engage one another in today’s world? Are we willing to sublimate our personal desires, agendas, guilt, etc. to acknowledge the world as it is seen through the eyes of others long enough to offer them the respect and love that would allow us to enter into a true covenant of human dignity?  A covenant is not a contract, so much as it is a commitment.  It is a commitment to be not just in right relationship, but to be in genuine relationship with one another.

Pardon the mixed cliches here…love your neighbor, but do not suffer fools.  If your neighbor is not willing to genuinely know you, and you are not willing to genuinely know your neighbor, you never stand the chance of embracing the true covenant of peace.

Bounce

Resilience.  This is a term that is new to me in the context of my current job.  I work for a non profit organization that is focused on equity.  All day long, I am surrounded by a brilliant and diverse team of analysts, coordinators, managers, associates, assistants and directors who are deeply engaged in asking questions of our government and our society that will lead to better outcomes for people who are poor and or disenfranchised.  My understanding, from a totally non policy-wonk standpoint is that “resilience” is the built in capacity for someone or a system to overcome or survive adversity.  When we talk of New Orleans after Katrina, we speak of resilience; or the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan or Indonesia…again the question of resilience.  This also goes from the macro to the micro level, when we look at human beings in poor neighborhoods or unhealthy situations…we ask the question of why some people not only survive, but manage to thrive while others become mired in patterns of un-success.

In a recent meeting to explore this word and its applications, understandings and questions, I was privileged to hear some incredible perspectives that related to everything from housing to health as well as our political structure and disaster relief.  This was a fabulous introduction for someone like me coming from a theological perspective, to the very specific way in which resilience is assessed in circles that deal with equity.

But what struck me about these very practical and tangible examples of resilience in a socio/economic related context, was how much this concept resonates with the spiritual and physical realm that is much less tangible and often regarded as totally impractical.

It is a proven fact that babies and children who are not touched do not thrive.  We must experience human touch to have a sense of safety in our world.  Without this, we have no boundaries and we are deprived of our most basic form of communication.  I would argue that above all the senses, our sense of touch is the most highly developed.  Within touch we are able to receive information about intention that can escape inflection in the sound of words, or expression in the faces we see, and so on.  I would imagine that this is one reason we have words in our language that come from this sense and apply directly to our emotions: feeling, holding, embracing, touching….But there is also touch that is not healthy and “bad” touch can do as much damage as no touch at all.  Children and people who are abused or deprived of agency in touch do not learn to trust the world around them or themselves.  It is a long road to recovery when someone has been taught that this basic interaction with the world around them is a constant threat.

I was recently reading the book The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life and in it Dr. Patricia Love gives extensive detail on how parents who have inappropriate emotional relationships with their children, can do as much damage as those who have inappropriate physical relationships with them.  This is a perfect example of the bridge between the physical and the emotional aspects of touch.  In the book it is very clear that if a child is deprived of the unconditional love of the parent child relationship…if they are given a conditional relationship or are asked to “parent” their parents, they do not thrive in a balanced manner.  Likewise, if they are given too much contact (the emotional incest element) and asked to fill the role of surrogate “spouse” in a family relationship, they are equally damaged.  These structures, based on how we learn to touch one another physically and emotionally are what I see as a basic part of how we navigate our world.

In theological circles, we deal with the concept of resilience every single day.  Among other reasons, people come to religion to be sustained in times of trial, or to be “born again” or to find parts that are missing in their lives.  In short, spirituality is one of the most basic sources of human cultural resilience.  The church is often the first resource for communities in distress, whether that be emotional or physical; whether there is a tornado or a mass murder.  Churches, synagogues  mosques and temples are full when communities face disaster.  The reason for this is simple: unconditional love.  This is what we seek in religion, just as we seek this in our family relationships.  Christians speak of the unconditional love of Jesus that sustains and rebuilds them.  There is an assumption and security in how this love will always be present.  Like a child of the best parent, a believing Christian (and I would imagine any other devoutly religious person, or person with a solid belief structure) knows they will always be loved.

In Jim Wallis’ book Rediscovering Values on Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street, he talks a great deal about how religion and faith in community should be the moral bedrock for creating resilience in our culture.  He wrote the book at the height of the economic downturn and highlights both scripture and economic data to support the moral and ethical argument against big impersonal business and the robber baron mentality that brought our financial system to a collapse.  He points to personal moral obligations driven by both faith and conscience as a beacon to lead individuals and on a larger scale, business and even government toward equitable practices.  His formula has validity and we are seeing it now play out as communities are rediscovering small business and farmer’s markets and ways to make what is essentially “small town America” the hub of our culture.

I would take this all one step further.  Equity, that is balance throughout our economic and social structures, cannot exist unless we create an environment that is based in what is essentially unconditional love.  The “market” is not real; it is only a reflection of our relationships with each other.  If we have a financial system that is based on “I’ve got mine, who cares about you”, that is how we are relating to one another.  The market cannot “self correct”…we must correct it by entering into properly balanced relationship with one another.  We as individuals must understand that all of our actions do not exist in a vacuum. This goes for finances, for government, for local business, for education, for parenting and for how we relate to one another.  Young people graduating from college are burdened with lifetime debt before they have had the joy of properly earning a wage and feeling like a contributing part of their communities.  This is a classic example of how we are in an emotionally incestuous relationship with our society, where the “parent” (greater society) is asking them (recent grads) to provide parental stability when they have only just learned to walk; how can they succeed?  How can we succeed?

We will need to examine our cultural relationships.  Our most successful models are families/relationships with balance between parent/provider and child; an environment of unconditional love where we learn to trust and thrive; and a language of touch/interaction where we communicate a clear intention for mutual success.  These are important  foundations of our humanness and we must respect them on on levels of our existence.

Resources:

Jim Wallis’ books are available at Sojourners (http://sojo.net/)

Patricia Love’s books are available at her website (http://www.patlove.com/)