Thursday, January 30, 2014

Full of It (Judges 3:15-24)

     Then the Israelites cried out to Adoni, pleading for deliverance, and Adoni raised up a liberator for them: Ehud ben-Gera the Benjamite, who was left-handed. The Israelites sent him to carry their tribute to Eglon, ruler of Moab. Now Ehud had constructed a double-edged sword eighteen inches long that he strapped to his right thigh under his clothes. Ehud presented the tribute to Eglon, who was very fat. After presenting the tribute, Ehud and the tribute bearers left for home. Near the stone quarries at Gilgal, Ehud left his travel companions and returned to Eglon, and said, "I have a secret message for you, my ruler." Eglon dismissed all his attendants from the room. 
     Then Ehud approached Eglon as the ruler sat alone in the upper room of his summer residence, and said, "I have a message from God for you." As the ruler rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right side and drove it into Eglon's belly. The sword sank into the body over the hilt and ended protruding out of the back. Then Ehud went out onto the porch, where he locked the door shut on Eglon.
     After a while, Eglon's attendants came up and , finding the doors locked, thought, "He must be relieving himself in the cool room." They waited a long time, but when the door remained locked, they grew anxious. So they took out a key, unlocked the door, and entered the room to discover the dead ruler.                                                                                                                        Judges 2:15-24

This, along with other stories in the book of Judges, is a bawdy yarn. It would fit nicely in compilations of naughty stories such as Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Remember, Judges holds up a mirror which reflects the early Israelite tribes engaging their surrounding neighbors. Just like when queer folk use humor or camp to harpoon the heaviness of certain parts of society, so too did the Israelites regale in such lampooning.

There are two pieces of campy goodness in this incident. We'll start with the antagonist. Eglon, a Moabite chieftain, captured Jericho and ruled it for about eighteen years demanding an annual tribute. Eglon is caricatured as obese - with tongue in cheek we may think of some rather hefty folk in spandex down at the Walmart. We are meant to squirt milk out our nose when we hear that the smell which came from Eglon's dead body was confused for the smell that came from Eglon's bathroom. Does camp get any better than toilet jokes?!

The second piece of camp is one we need to pay a little closer attention to. It is the type of camp that is satire and unmasks the powers-that-be. Ehud by the reckoning of other scripture is the grandson of Benjamin whom the Benjamite tribe is named after. Benjamin is the offspring of Jacob and Rachel - Jacob's favored wife. The other offspring of this couple is the more famous Joseph of "the amazing technicolored dreamcoat." If you recall, the climax of that story comes when Joseph threatens to hold Benjamin as a hostage and the true attitude of the brothers is discerned and Joseph reveals himself to them as the brother they sold into slavery. You can read up on this soap opera at the end of the book of Genesis. 

For the purpose of camp we need to note Benjamin's role in a story whose subtext is concealment and revealment, a subtext that is at play in Ehud's story. Also we need to note that the name Benjamin means "son of my right hand." Left handed Ehud is the grandson of the Son-of-my-right-hand. Now we begin to understand that this story is a satire on identity - who is up and who is down, who is full of it and who is not.

Smelly Eglon thought he was up, but it tuns out he was down. The Benjamites start down but by the end of the story are up. Eglon believed that God had a message for him, yet God had already given guidance to Ehud. By being left handed and hiding the short sword on his right thigh, those frisking the visitors would have only checked his left thigh where right handed people keep their swords. The powers-that-be are unmasked for what they are: prideful, vain, and full of shit (to follow the line of camp in the story).

We should also notice that the left handed one is the hero. As is the case today, so back in ancient Palestine left handedness was not the norm. Ehud was a minority. He was different. He wasn't like the others. I wonder if being different is what embolden Ehud to forge his sword, a forbidden activity. The Sacred worked with Ehud's differences to bring liberation to the oppressed community of the Benjamites.

Our sexual and gender diversity marks us as a minority, as different, as not like the others. Even our allies are marked as different for not toeing the line. In the engagement for full inclusion and equality it may seem that our difference is more a hindrance than a help. God, we discover, is at work through us bringing liberation to those who are oppressed by unmasking the powers-that-be for what they are - full of it.

According to the story it is this unmasking of the powers which enable the oppressed (queer or otherwise) to understand we are stronger than we realize.  Empowered by the right or true understanding of things, we are unshackled and can rise up with dignity and claim our own destiny as we engage our neighbors.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Drama and Cycles (Judges 3:7-11)

Because the Isrelites forgot Adoni their God and worshiped the ba'als and the asherahs, Our God's anger so flared up against them that they were allowed to fall int the hands of Cushan-rishathaim, ruler of Aram Naharaim, who enslavwed them for eight years.
     But the anguished cries and moans of the people brought Adoni to relent and raise up for them a liberator, Othniel ben-Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, who saved them. The Spirit of Our God came upon Othniel so powerfully that he became Israels first "sofet" (judge-deliverer-savior-champion) with the power to call for war. And into Othniel's hands Adoni delivered Cushan-rishathaim, ruler of Aram, and the land was at peace for forty years. Then Othniel ben-Kenaz died.
Judges 3:7-11

The book of Judges is fixated on a spiritual cycle which is the cause of self-oppression. The people of God will accomodate their identity to the point of forgetting who and whose they are. This accomodating and forgetting will cause them to be oppressed. At some point they will remember whose they are and cry out. God will hear their cry and raise up a savior-champion to deliver them from their oppressors. Unfortunately what the savior-champion cannot do is to deliver them from thier attitudes and behavior patterns which will repeat the cycle all over again.

Like the ancient Israelites we are enmeshed in cyclical events - recurring activities at regular or predicatiable intervals. There are cosmic events which affect the earth that seems to recur at regular spacing - the most intriguing being an astroid cycle which can be a game changer for life on earth. There are earthly cycles that we particiapte in such as the changing of the seasons. There are cultural cycles we enjoy such as sports seasons and holidays. The church itself has a grand cycle that takes us from Advent to Reign of Christ Sunday. 

Cycles can be good as they unconciously clue us in and even affect our moods. Some cycles of course can be dangerous. I personally don't want to be around if another game changing asteroid crashes to earth.  These are cycles outside of us. Cycles that are not within our control. I am just as hopeless in affecting the beginning and ending of sports seasons as I am in affecting an asteroid. I am caught up in these cycles and am born along by them.

Then there are those cycles of our own making. Ones that we do have control over because they exist within us. They are born of habit and attitude and behavior. They make us predictable and are the basis of all psychological profiling, whether done by a criminalogist, children knowing how their parents will react in particular situations, or even us knowing what pisses off our partner/spouses.

Like the Isralites, you and I have friends (or in some cases we are the friends) who are so enmeshed in the cycle of their/our life which is the cause of self-oppression. Often in this situation only an intervention from the outside - that is the involvment of someone beyond the cycle - can help them/us. That is we need a savior-champion to help break the cycle. In the book of Judges the savior-champion is raised up by God. In the symbolism of christianity we say God works incarnately, that is God works through people to help people. Othniel is one of those people. He has a history already as part of the people of God (told in the book of Joshua) and answers the call to champion his people.

I think one of the cyclicl patterns queer people get caught up in is our drama - the anxiety, fear, frustration, and exhilaration experienced as we leave our closets. No one comes out without some form of drama. In some cases the drama is light as friends and families give support and detractors are far and few between. In other cases the drama is more intense where negative attitudes leads to abandonement by family, the loss of friends, and even acts of violence. How we handle this drama, whether light or heavy, creates certain atttitudes and behaviors that repeat themselves.

The truth be known we need help in our drama, otherwise they remain unresolved and assert themselves when least expected. The Sacred, we find out is in our healing, or boldness, or whatever it is that resolves the cycle of your drama. This comes as no surprise to queer people of faith. I think what is more amazing is that God's presence is through our "champion" - family member, friend, buddy, lover, therapist - the one person who understands and helps us as we come out and emerge into the larger world. For those who are christians we also identify this one as Jesus the Christ, but I do not think you have to be christian for God to raise up a champion in your life.

The painting above by Suassuna speaks of cycles which lead to new beginnings, new births, new hopes. I think a similar thing happens when God-incarnate champions our lives. A new future opens up - as we find out with Othniel that future can be one of peace within ourselves and among our neighbors.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Accomodating (Judges 2:1-3, 16-19, 3:5-6)

An angel from Adoni set out from Gilgal to Bochim, and announced to the Israelites, "I brought you out of Egypt and into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I told you, 'I will never break my Covenant with you For your part, you must never make covenants with the people of this country. You must destroy their altars.' You have disobeyed me - but for what reason? So from now on I will not drive the inhabitants out before you. They will become your oppressors and their gods will snare you."
     Then Adoni raised up chieftains (judges, saviors) who delivered them out of the hands of the plunderers. Yet once more they refused to listen to their chieftains and prostituted themselves, worshiping other gods and bowing down before them. How quickly they returned to their pagan ways, abandoning the way of obedience to Adoni's commands that their ancestors had taught them! Every time God set up a chieftain over them, God kept the people safe from their enemies as long as the chieftain lived. In this way God took pity on the people's cries for mercy. But when the chieftain died, the people turned to their pagan practices, practices more corrupt than the behavior of their ancestors. They served foreign gods, prostrated before them, and refused to abandon these evil practices and vile conduct…
     So the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. They intermarried with them and embraced their intermarriage with Israelite daughters and sons. And they worshiped the gods of their neighbors.
Judges 2:1-3, 16-19, 3:5-6

To enter this text we must first deal with its blatant xenophobia. Our sensibilities are appalled by the nonchalant assumption that since some people are not like us "they" should be feared. The reason for the fear is obvious - "they" will pollute us and make us less. Queer folk have certainly been on the biting end of this assumption. 

The painting above by queer artist Jayson Ward invades our space as an "other" and alarms us since our frame of reference cannot make sense of the subject. Is this a female? Are those breast? Are those arms and legs? Certainly that is not a head, or is it a different kind of head? Is this a human form at all, or some other form which my point of reference wants to project a human figure on? Whatever it is, it is certainly other. We view it with concern which can become either contempt or curiosity depending upon our deepest fears or our highest bravery.

This passage calls on us to approach it with suspicion. Does the casting out, even death, of the other actually promote wholeness in my community, or does it simply allow me to stay within my comfort zone - within my frame of reference? If I choose to cast out, why must I be rabid in my assertions that my enemy is also God's enemy? These two questions drive us to delve deeper and to move beyond the rather naive assumption that as long as I can prove it from the Bible then I am justified in my hate. In fact here is a clear example that just becasue the scritpures says it, the Bible neither means I should believe it nor act on it.

When we delve down we begin to understand the dynamics that give rise to such a black and white passage. The Israelites are emerging, coming out and exercising self-determination. In the process they are encountering and engaging people who are culturally different. Among the chief concerns is the place of Israelite monotheism amidst the polytheism of her neighbors. Here is a bedrock issue for all people of faith - how do we know our god is the true god among a smorgasbord of options? The answer given in the text is the true God of Israel is the one identified as the God who freed them from slavery in Egypt, walked with them in the wilderness, and now is active in their coming out process - the God of covenant, to use the words of our text. In short the true God is the God who walks with us. 

The concern of this passage and the danger to which it points is one of accommodation. How far could Israel go in being like her neighbors and still retain her identity as "the people of God"? A similar question can be asked of us. How much compromise are we gender and sexual diverse people willing to undertake in order to be accommodated by the larger society? I do not wish to suggest that compromise is wrong, for compromise has a valid place in human relationships. I do want to raise the question - at what point, through the act of compromise, do we quite being us and become only what others project on us? Is my identity shaped from within and sparked by the pulse of the Divine? Or, is my identity shaped only by what others want me to be in order to accommodate some vague notion of comfort? When is compromise a virtue? When is compromise a vice? For me, the coming out process was stymied and delayed as I accommodated for the comfort of others, even while denying the issues swirling within myself. 

Returning to Ward's painting - at what point would his compromising of the subject to fit my frame of reference have made the painting into something else. Hybrid Subject 3 could easily become yet another "Study in Nude" lost among the centuries of such paintings which leave us yawning and are easily forgotten. 

The story of Israel's emergence reminds us that we are different. We need not let our difference be a source of conflict, but we are different. As sexual and gender minorities we have been created with an expression of love which does not have a frame of reference in a hyper-heterosexual context. Our presence is an invasion of this space and we will be tempted to assimilate aspects of a queer-negative god for our more outrageous queer-positive God - the God who walks with us.  The former is the "snare," the "evil practices and vile conduct," the "gods of their neighbors" we are warned about. The latter is light, life, and love. 

The wisdom here is to be aware. Be aware of what is gained and of what is given up when we compromise and accommodate. Not all accommodations are bad, yet neither are all accommodations good. Like Israel we must be vigilant so that the essence of our self-identity is not given away and we become simply what everyone else is. How boring that would be.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Holy Self-Awareness: Judges 1:4-7

When the troops of Judah attacked, Adoni delivered into their hands the Canaanites and the Perizzites. They routed 10,000 warriors at Bezek. On the field of battle they engaged Adoni-bezek in battle, and defeated the Canaanites and Perizzites. Adoni-bezek fled but was quickly captured. The victors cut off his big toes and thumbs. "Seventy rulers with their thumbs and big toes cut off used to pick my table scraps," said Adoni-bezek. "Now God has done to me what I have done to others." The victors brought him back to Jerusalem, where he eventually died.
Judges 1:4-7

The book of Judges is not a pretty book. It is about the emergence of a people in the midst of cultures that are hostile to them. The coming out process and it's attending resistance can lead to some rather ugly and frightful events. Such events are encountered throughout the book of Judges. With this opening narrative we are immersed in one of these struggles. It is easy to pass over this initial chapter of Judges as it amounts to only a handful of battle notices. It is interesting to note that the "conquest of the land" as outlined in this chapter - hill people moving into the fertile plains - mirrors more closely the archaeological evidence of Israel's emergence than does the better known conquest story associated with Joshua as an invasion from outside the region.

Of interest to us in this little battle notice is the treatment of Adoni-beke (lord of Bezek). The fact that a memory of him has been preserved and his attributed confession of "70" kings serving him indicate Adoni-bezek was a fierce warrior and a major obstacle to Israel's self-determination. We can imagine a fiercely pitched battle and a stellar sense of triumph when the fleeing Adoni-bezek was captured. We can even imagine a sense of poetic justice when his thumbs and big toes were cut off, a mirroring of how Adoni-bezek treated his captives. 

In any other book of the Bible this would probably be little cause for attention. Yet we are not in any other book. We are in Judges, a book dedicated to showing how the process of emerging can get foiled and mired and even fumbled. Israel's fighting forces (albeit a totally volunteer and seasonal force) isn't just another army. In the narrative of the scriptures these forces represent God's vision of an established self-identity called "Israel" and Israel is a "holy people," that is set-aside, different-from, not-as-the-others. 

In this first encounter in Judges between Israel and those opposed to her, the fighting forces turn out to be just like Adoni-bezek. This theme of "being like everyone else" occurs with rather frightening consequences at the end of Judges. Here the theme is just a battle notice, a little poetic justice given with a confession of karmic reality. We feel good and easily move on to enjoy the more detailed personal stories of the book.

We who are in the process of our own self-emergence, about the task of establishing our own self-identity, who are set-aside, different-from, and not-as-the-others due to our gender or sexual diversity need to pay attention here. We have a holy self-awareness given by God, the Sacred, the Universe (depending on your personal understanding) that there are other ways to lean into life and other ways of understanding. As the Sternberg Press book cover indicates, we encounter, interpret, and speak from a different perspective. 

When, as emergent Israel, we engage people who oppose us then our engagement should come from another perspective, from another point of view so new possibilities of understanding might be opened up. Unfortunately, also like emergent Israel, we may seek to treat others as they have treated us. Our sense of vulnerability and the struggles from our past raise up and poetic justice says, "Yes, do it! Treat them just like they treated you."

Yet, we are set apart. Being queer gives us a different perspective, while being people of faith aligns us with the Sacred's ideal of returning hurt with love. It is a difficult path to follow, especially when facing the Adoni-bezek (shall we say "lords of the straight") in our lives. We can treat others with dignity (even if they don't "deserve" it) or we can treat others as they have treated us. One opens up a path toward new patterns of relations, the other simply repeats the old patterns of dominance.

Friday, January 3, 2014

We Three Queens (Matthew 2: 9-11)

After their audience with the ruler (Herod), they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Matthew 2:9-11

Having celebrated Christmas on the church calendar and New Year's on the Julian calendar you may be wondering why we've returned to Bethlehem. One church word - Epiphany. In tradition the Wise Men worshiping Jesus is the first "revelation of salvation" to the Gentiles. Epiphany is a time to celebrate those outside the "in group" discovering the love of God. 

A number of years ago I served a United Church of Christ congregation in rural Utah. For those who are unaware, Utah is the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints, commonly called the Mormons. As a group (although individuals vary) the Mormon church is extremely parochial - if you are not Mormon then you are disillusioned and a part of all that is religiously false. In short, if you are not Mormon then you cannot know God. The Mormons see themselves as the faithful believers and all non-Mormons as "Gentiles." So in Utah Epiphany became a grand reminder that the in group does not corner the market on God's love.

As God's light came to those who had never heard of Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebecca, and Jacob/Lea and Rachel - little less their God - so God's light and love seeks out those who the church (regardless of its form) has turned its back on. We gender and sexually diverse people certainly find ourselves shut out and ostracized by certain voices within religious settings. In the midst's of these voices it is easy to think that we are forever Gentiles, cut off from the living God.

Yet as with the Magi so it is with us, God finds ways to work around the anger, the fear, and the misunderstanding that seeks to stymie our expressions of love. In the darkness, which certain religious voices seek to entomb us in, rises the star of God's guiding care. We discover we have not been abandoned and that providence finds us and guides us to wholeness, to the new dawn, to making it through "this," to forgiveness, to the intangible yet very real uplifting arm of the Divine. 

It is Epiphany - God known to us in the midst of who we are, as we are, where we are. Such is the working of God who wishes light and life for all, even the queer children of the family of humanity.