Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bullies (Judges 9:50-55)

     Abimelech went to Thebez camped against it, and captured it. There was a strong tower inside the city, and all the men, women, and lords of the city fled there. They locked themselves in  and went up to the roof of the tower. When Abimelech came to attack the tower, he approached it entrance to set it on fire. But a woman threw the upper portion of a millstone on Abimelech's head and fractured his skull. He quickly called his armor-bearer and said to him, "Draw you  sword and kill me, or they'll say about me 'A woman killed him.'" So his armor-bearer thrust him through, and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, the all went home.
Judges 9:50-55 HCSB

Abimelech is a bully. His story is not told for us to emulate. The book of Judges is about the emergence of Israel as a political and cultural unit among her neighbors, a "coming out" of the twelve tribes. In Abimelech's story we encounter a coming out gone wrong in horrid ways with dire consequences. 

Abimelech is one of the sons of Gideon. At the end of Gideon's story the tribes offer him the office of king. Gideon humbly refuses the office and in the refusal denies his son any hope of a "family ascension" to a throne. Abimelech obviously disagreed with his father's choice. After Gideon's death Abimelech conspires with the leaders of Shechem to kill his other brothers and proclaim him king or chieftain. The rest of Abimelech's story is a fated struggle to enlarge his kingdom. 

Abimelech's strategy for territorial advancement is to bully his way around the surrounding towns. Before the scene we encounter here, he has a similar encounter that ends with him torching a tower in which the town's people has sought shelter, essentially burning to death the children, women, and men gathered within. Here Abimelech is again bullying a town refusing to submit to him and facing a populace that ran to the safety of its tower. We expect a repeat of the former strategy to subdue those resisting. Here however, a woman has the wherewithal to toss a millstone down on Abimelech. I love the picture above which shows men cowering behind the unnamed woman who is carefully taking aim almost within reach of Abimelech's hand. Courage in the face of danger, courage in the face of fear, courage to do what others should be doing that seems to be thrust of the picture.

Sexual and gender diverse people are aware of bullies. We know that bullies somehow work with importunity. They have an ability to get away with their behavior even when caught in the act. I have always been surprised at the fine-tuned ability of bullies to target the most vulnerable. Narcissistic, driven by hate, and singlemindedly determined, no one really wants to be the target of bullies. As Abimelech amply demonstrates, life is made a living hell by bullies.

In a former ministry I worked with children and especially middle school age kids (13-15 year olds). Those that were of an ethnic minority often spoke of being bullied at school and finding teachers unwilling to intervene. I wonder if those teachers allowed the bullying because they agree that these kids had to be kept in their place? I wonder if the same dynamics are in play when the bullying of sexual and gender minorities take place whether at school, work, or out in public?

Unfortunately this behavior by those in authority leaves those being targeted with little options. It might be that the "It Gets Better" campaign has a worthy insight that sometimes we simply have to wait it out until circumstances changes. It is not an option that thrills me, but I am realistic and can agree that sometimes the changing of our circumstances must wait until better options become available. 

Yet, even in these circumstances we are not at the total mercy of the bully. The actor Michael J. Fox has said, "One's dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered." I see the woman with the millstone as casting it with a determination not to surrender her dignity, whereas those cowering behind her have already surrendered theirs. If it is to get better, it will do so because we have guarded our dignity and did not give it away under assault, vandalization, or cruelty. 

Now it would be easy to stop here. Feeling good that we can out-survive the bully and enter into a life where that presence does not oppress us. But the scriptures never leave us so easily situated. This story is about an Israelite who as he "came out" blew it big time due to his ego needs and inability to be empathetic with others. In this reading then the behavior of Abimelech may mirror our behavior in our own coming out processes.

While I have never been a bully as Abimelech was, the text does ask me to reflect on what ways I may participate in bullying behavior as a bravado to my own coming out. I think of some of the ways I have responded to negative attitudes with a bullying attitude of my own which stopped me from entering dialogue and instead allowed me to belittle the other person. I think of this blog itself and the one friend who related an unease to post opposing opinions because he is concerned of the comments he would need to endure. I think of the church I serve which is extremely pro-lgbtqia and tends to "silence" those who are not. 

Looking at Abimelech I begin to understand that this behavior is also bullish, if not bullying. I know hurt and pain plays into some of these reactions I slip into. I know that historically I may have a "right" to respond with all I've got to respond with. Yet, if I am seeking for someone to surrender their dignity to me - then am I not the bully in the situation?

I am no Pollyanna, and don't live with a sense that if we can all just set down and talk, we'll end up holding hands, singing Kum-Ba-Yah. I totally agree with Bishop Desmond Tutu:"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." Yet, I also think that to become a bully in order to answer a bully leaves us all less.

I come away from Abimelech, seeing him as a tragic figure of egomania and power mongering. I applaud the woman who did not surrender her dignity, even as others had, and I ask the Holy to help me watch my own behavior so that I never end up demanding the dignity of someone else.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Irrelevant Faith (Judges 8:22-25,27)

     Then the Israelites said to Gideon, "Rule over us, you as well as your sons and your grandsons, for you delivered us from the power of Midian."
     But Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you and my son will not rule over you: the Lord will rule over you." Then he said to them, "Let me make a request of you: Everyone give me an earring from his plunder: …
     They said, "We agree to give them." So they spread out a mantle, and everyone threw an earring from his plunder on it… Gideon made an ephod from all this and put it in Ophra, his hometown. Then all Israel prostituted themselves with it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his household."
Judges 8:22-25, 27 HCSB

It's easy to think that power lies in a person or the memory of a powerful event. The Stonewall riots which sparked the contemporary gay rights movement in the US is both a place and date of empowerment. Gay pride celebrations taking place at the end of June do so to mark June 28, the date of the fateful police raid on Stonewall Inn. It is good to have a date, a celebration, even a place of empowerment for we need this connection to look within ourselves and find the integrity and character to carry on. 

It is easy though, to believe that the date, or the place, or the object, even the person carries power within itself. This is Gideon's bind. He has lead a successful war against the oppressive power of the Midianites. The ancient Israelites are so impressed they are willing to lift him up as a prototype king, albeit given the circumstances it would have been more of a high chieftain or warlord. However, the aim is still the same - a popular personality and his lineage governing a loose confederation of tribes. 

To Gideon's credit he refuses the crown, or whatever would have been put on his head. In so doing he also seals the fate of his lineage as something other than royal. The consequences of this decision will play out a little further in the narrative of the book of Judges. For now what captures our attention is that while Gideon has the sense to refuse the advances to make him a king, he nonetheless ask for gold, specifically plundered gold. Which tells us that this gold carries with it a certain psychological power and is understood as the very riches of the people who made themselves rich off the Israelites. This gold is melted down and turned into an "ephod": presumably the breast plate of the high priest with twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel (although later King David would be described as dancing in an "ephod" before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought to Jerusalem, there indicating some sort of garment gathered around the waist).

For those sensitive to the biblical stories the use of gold to make an object of veneration is a red flag warning that we are entering the territory of idolatry. The problem with idolatry is that it takes a metaphor or understanding of the sacred and freezes it, declaring this is what God is like, has been like, and will continue to be like, world without end, amen. For the queer community the idolatry of a heterosexual god has been the bane of our existence. Texts that were intended to be mailable have been hardened as our need for certainty provokes us to infuse metaphors with an eternal quality they were never meant to bear. This ephod proved a stumbling block for it froze God in a particular role, leaving God no longer free to respond in different and adaptive ways. 

For most people, including queer people, there is a tendency to seek the Sacred among more solid images than to dwell in the images which are liquid and flowing. We have made the mistake of confusing flowing with fleeting and solid with firm. I agree that fleeting ideas of the Sacred bring little comfort, for unless our faith is a firm rock it will not see us through. But liquid is not fleeting, it is flowing, ever washing us anew and even moving us along with a buoyancy that both gives way to us and cradles us. Solid does not necessarily mean unbending and never giving, it can mean committed and sure. In the face of an idol - whether a person, date, or object - it is easy to think our sense of empowerment comes from that very thing, rather than from our response to it. 

This is the stumbling block of the ephod, it takes a living faith and stagnates it to one aspect, one quality, one characteristic and raises it above all others. God becomes crucially anemic and we become unbearably rutted in our sense of what is right and life blessing, often participating in attitudes that are wrong and life denying. Far from mediating the presence of God, idols often block and hinder the flow of the Sacred into our living.

It is an interesting scene which closes out Gideon's story. He has remained singularly humble, yet provided for an idol to which future generations will turn with less and less assurance as the god it represents becomes less and less relevant. This is a spiritual quandary for all people, but one I think very active in the life of queer folk. What metaphors of Ultimate Reality do I grasp tightly as a way to get through the week? Have I invested them with a solidness that will one day cause God to become irrelevant to me for while I have movd on, God remains frozen in an understanding I no longer relate too?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Gift of Mortality (Genesis 3:19/Ecclesiastes 3:20)

By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19 NASV)

All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. (Ecclesiastes 3:20 NASV)

In North America to be young is to be queen or king of the world. The US especially has enshrined youth and youthfulness as the golden age to be. Our plastic surgery industry cranks out modified bodies by the millions to keep breasts perky and bums bubbled. The present emphasis on the hairless body of both males and females reinforce the notion that the young body is desirable while the older body is disappointing. Gay men even have well defined reactions to the cult of the young with bears and daddies as the anti-hero to our culture's pursuit of all things nubile.

Parts of the christian tradition observes what is called Ash Wednesday. It is a day, or at least an hour service, that counter-cuts the thrust of the cult of youth. It rather bluntly raises up the mortality of humans. For the uninitiated, Ash Wednesday appears as a morbid service concerning sin and death with its reminder that we are nothing more than dust returning to dust. The imposition of ashes on our foreheads become a neon sign of our destiny, regardless of the number of pills, surgeries, or gyms we can afford. 

Ash Wednesday services, for obvious reasons, do not attract the crowds as Christmas or Easter services do. It is much easier and "happier" to celebrate birth and re-birth than it is to observe mortality and death. Yet, in spite of all we do to worship youthfulness, it passes us by and we are but fools thinking that somehow we denied the relentless marching of the years their prize of age and aging.

I think there are certain gifts that come from being mortal and being aware that dust is our immediate, if not ultimate, destiny. I think mortality has just as positive an influence as it does a negative influence. Without such awareness where would be our motivation to improve the human condition? Would earlier LGBTQIA generations have worked so that those following would find a more accepting and tolerant society? Would allies and friends speak with courage and love if there wasn't the urgency of speaking up before death silences? Would we - humans of all strife - seek out love with all its beauty and anguish if mortality's hand was not on our shoulder?

The story told in the movie The Rose King, an angst ridden gay sexuality exploration piece, is unbearable without some acknowledgement that death is always at hand threatening and subverting our lives. It is love born in protest of this natural subversion which grants us sanity. Yet, would this love be so urgent without death's threat? Twice the scriptures remind us that our lifespan is dust to dust. Some of scripture is concerned with what awaits after dust. Most of scripture is concerned about what happens before the dust reclaims us. 

This thing called life emerges and moves and twists and flows. Sometime we master it and at other times life masters us. Irregardless of our place in society, we are all in part motivated by our awareness that someday life, our life, will come to an end. All that will matter on that day is how we heeded the gift of mortality to foster in us the want and hope that our living amounts to something.