Harding University and The State of the Gay

Nestled in the heart of Arkansas west of the mighty Mississippi, but east of the Ozarks lies a quaint Southern town with a big college atmosphere. It’s quiet and hot (the humid type!) during the summers, but is lively and thriving with youth during the fall and spring when classes are in session at Harding University, a 6,800+ liberal arts institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ. This is my alma mater. Four years of my life were spent in Searcy, Arkansas with daily chapel and nightly dorm roll calls. There was a lot to offer; the great outdoors, small classes, mentorship-style relationships with professors, close-knit friendships, what more could one ask for? Not much really, because I was a part of a little “Heaven on Earth.” An overwhelming majority of the students were white like me, Southern like me, Church of Christ like me, Republican like me, and heterosexual like me. It was the “Harding Bubble.”

I learned a lot, and I owe so much to my formation to this setting and institution. I was given a language here to worship, to be in awe, and to express immense gratitude for there being something rather than nothing. However, I now realize that the sectarian model of higher education that Harding University propagates had gravely failed me in preparing me to be a world citizen. Upon graduating, I remained deafened and blinded to all that was different from me. I knew so much about divinity, but I was hopelessly lost when it came to humanity. I had never learned to foster a relationship with any person that would potentially fall into a category of “other.” I majored in Psychology and Bible, which was taught from an evangelical, missions-oriented perspective. The only time I encountered a person of another faith was when I was introduced to other religions in order to learn more effective ways of evangelizing and converting the respected constituents. This same ethic was extrapolated and used in dealing with those that were of another sexuality; while there we tried to pray them into becoming like us. The lenses that Harding passes out with which to view the world are marred with binary oppositions.

Though I no longer subscribe to many of the tenets that would characterize this particular institution’s “flavor” of Christianity, I see why it gives meaning and structures one’s life. They attain the “greatest story ever told.” With good reason does one want to share the good news. Life is easily explained, quantified, and objectified when it is viewed as concrete, black and white- or even better with only one lens, one color. However, when monotheism is understood as monochromatic (here I credit a dear professor), and God and tradition are absolutized, the dynamism of God is chocked out, the living God is reduced to an idol that upholds ones own ideals and buffers one’s own insecurities. When does “in one accord” become life restricting??? What if there is dignity in diversity?

This week my alma mater has garnered national attention as can be viewed at The New Yorker BlogChange.org, The Arkansas Times, the Advocate.com, the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, the New York Times and another graduate of Harding University, whose father is a professor there, Brett Keller who also writes about his experience as a past student at Harding and on what is currently transpiring on campus.

The administration has taken a strong stance to squelch out diversity and champion the dominant biblical interpretation with a sole brush of one dark color. It has publicly stated that, persons that do not identify as being heterosexual are offensive and demeaning and will not be permitted to convene openly. The administration has taken initiative in the past to allow for “safe spaces” where the LGBTQ community might meet publicly in what is called “Integrity Ministries.” Though I question the motives for creating these “safe spaces.” The administration made this statement in response to a student publication, The State of the Gay produced online by HU Queerpress. The school promptly had it blocked from accessing it via their campus while simultaneously calling for a cessation of bullying.

In the eyes of these students it is the university itself that is perpetuating the act of bullying.  Their statement as it appears on the site is as follows:

We are made up of a variety of queers with varying affiliations with Harding University. The State of the Gay is a self-published zine that aims to give voice to the experiences of gay and lesbian students at Harding. It is part storytelling, part religious and political critique, and partly a manifesto of hope for Harding’s future. The voices enclosed are the unedited and uncensored voices of individuals who are all too familiar with censorship. In truth, there is no single, identifiable goal of this zine other than to put our voices out there. Our aim is that through reading these pages you might become the ones to create the zine’s ending—to usher in its full political, social, and religious implications. We fully believe in the potential of communities to be free of oppression, hatred, and misunderstanding of queer individuals—will you help us create that reality at Harding and beyond?

Many of the contributors describe their situation as “stifling, suffocating; We’re at a place that hides us behind lies.” One exclaims that “[We are] suffocating in closets, have a fear of expulsion, don’t know which professors or even counselors to trust.”

Many people have rightly stated that Harding University is a private institution and that it has a right to teach its own values and discriminate against whomever it wishes. This is valid. However, I wish to address the fact that President Burks in using an umbrella statement found within its student handbook (pp. 11-12) concerning a zero-tolerance policy on sexual activity prior to marriage when addressing the student body in chapel this week is completely bypassing the issue here. An administration that attempts to sweep the effects of its moral policies under the rug and offers complementary “counseling” which to me is suspect of unethical practices and a “Christian Home” course to correct same-sex attractions, is pure cowardice. When stories of suicidal thoughts emerge in direct connection with an environment that an administration upholds and maintains, I would hope that said administration would act accordingly, especially in the wake of last year’s string of tragic events. Perhaps it is time that the entire denomination become conversant with mainstream Christianity to explore more holistic ways of dealing with the “sexual deviant.” Demonization and expulsion of this population of students is a lose-lose situation. Also I don’t recall anyone being expelled from Harding on account of dancing (I remember Spring Sing), which is also prohibited in the student handbook (p. 11). Though the institution that employs double standards in interpreting biblical passages would only be seen as being consistent with itself in employing that same method in exercising discretionary disciplinary actions.

Others may note the fact that matriculation into this university is non-obligatory and that students who do not wish to remain enrolled may simply transfer. Many do, however it is not easy for many others. For many this school and its affiliated denomination is all that their social network consists of. For others their parents will only allow them to attend a Church of Christ school, and for others they can only afford college with the monetary support that they receive from either their Church or family or both. So it is not as if simply changing schools is a feasible option for many that live in the shadows. One contributor laments,

“If we don’t want to lose everything we have ever known, then we must conform to their idea of what God wants for us.”

And so they seek to change the system from within. I’ve left this tradition, it took years. I know, I can relate. It’s not easy, one must relinquish a whole world.

Harding University is unabashedly discriminative and all the while it hides behind the Bible. However, what I see when I read the contributions of the students in The State of the Gay is so encouraging, because they are not trashing their tradition, they are not damning their religion to hell. They are knocking on its doors, they are intending to widen the door frames so that their native house of religion will accommodate them.  They are exclaiming that “we’re not going anywhere!” This is our house too and we can pray here as well (Isa. 56). We can co-create this story, life is big enough to share, and so is our God. Many of them meet their situation with profound theological insight and integrity, for example, “Z” states:

“Like Jacob at Bethel we must wrestle with God. When we triumph our name becomes Israel.”

What wonderful life-giving dynamic multivalent interpretations of Scripture they present. I admire their courage and integrity in demanding a full life and reminding all of us that we are all co-creating either hospitable or inhospitable indeed habitable or inhabitable environments. Viva la résistance!

For You love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that You have made, for You would not have made anything if You had hated it.”  (Wis. 11:24)

Check out soulforce.org for some food for your soul. There is dignity in difference and diversity.

-mlw

Why is Interfaith Dialogue Important?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Interfaith Movement, perhaps not. Either way, it should be important to you. Already in cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other large cities in the U.S., interfaith dialogue is occurring with such frequencies in universities, seminaries, and houses of worship that with quite certainty there will be mention of it in conversations at almost any lecture and brewing at any local coffee shop. Since 9/11 it has become almost blindingly apparent why interfaith dialogue is a critical component for the maintaing of civic and international stability. One’s faith traditions should not be asked to be separated from a person as they enter the civic arena. We must no longer claim ignorance towards the religious other, and we must no longer continue in a practice of monopoly of truths, hegemony of God, and assimilation of those that fall into our periphery. Interfaith dialogue does not exist for the sake of proselytizing others to one religion or one culture, nor does it exist to create a melting pot of syncretism where all religious identities are conflated into one. Not all religions are the same, there exist a myriad of differences, however there is dignity in difference, and this is a central tenet of the Interfaith movement.  Interfaith dialogue is an exercise of learning about those that are radically different from myself and my community and learning how to coexist with those persons that subscribe to different beliefs, customs, and worldviews other than my own. It also serves to strenghthen my own faith identity. It’s one thing to describe my beliefs to another Christian that already comes pre-wired with a set of similar vocabulary and understanding of social constructs to interpret what I am saying within similar parameters to how I myself perceive it. However, it is an entirely different game when I have to explain my faith to someone outside of my faith. I have to use different vocabulary, I am pushed to own what I am saying, search and find different forms to articulate particular truths. I am stretched. I am also amazed to learn similar teachings of say, for example, creation in Islam or Judaism, and consequently in that interaction of learning my own resources are then amplified.

Some have the luxury of embarking into Interfaith dialogue, due to their particular social location it is not necessitated. For example, myself, I had never met a person that was of a different faith than Christian until I was college-aged. The extent of my interfaith interactions was actually intra-faith- I had Catholic and Mormon friends.  Interfaith exists for me because I have earnestly searched it out. Though for many, in such cities as listed above, these interactions are compulsory due to close proximity with the religious other. However, the growing trend in the States is that in the very near future no city or town no matter the size will be immune to these types of interpersonal interactions; no person will have the luxury to elect to participate. I am pleased to learn that a documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville is soon to be released about a small rural town, Shelbyville, TN, just 30 minutes from where I grew up, chronicling the changing of the times, the influx of immigrants and with them the influx of their faiths and traditions and how this is affecting small-town America. It appropriately demonstrates the necessity for authentic interfaith dialogue at the religious as well as at the civic level. Interfaith Dialogue is no longer for just the spiritual guru’s, the academic, or the urban hipsters in the concrete jungles, it has now become a necessary tool for all; yes, even Joe the Plumber. Below is a trailer:

One thing to remember is that we’re all in this together. This year marks the 10th year anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11. I also believe that we as a collective society are at a watershed moment in our history, something big is brewing, we are learning how to live again, but differently, to construct bridges and not bombs, constructive conversations and not hateful diatribes that only build up some at the expense of a whole demographic. Relationships are the difference that make a difference. I am proud to be a Christian, to learn about others and how Christians are perceived through the lenses of different communities. I am privileged to be a part of this collective dialogue and to be a catalyst for change, to advocate a particular pluralism, to engage the religious and the non-religious alike, and to be a part of an amazing community that is writing on these very pertinent issues, State of Formation.

For further reading and more information about the interfaith movement see my Interfaith Resources.

-mlw

Going Home For Christmas (or The “I am From” Post)

The past several years have been full of change- c’est la vie, no? After returning to the States from Mexico, my wife and I stayed in the San Francisco area before moving to Boston in order to embark on my journey as a seminarian. The 2010 year was marked by not only the start of this journey but also the initiation of many new relationships and new ways of relating to the world about us. All in all 2010 was a challenging yet great year.

This past Christmas season was the first one to be spent back home with family in a few years. It was challenging to re-enter the South again for such an extended period of time (4 weeks) after reconstructing an identity that is seemingly diametrically opposed to the one I had growing up. We knew we were getting closer to where my parents live when on Interstate 81 it seemed as though every other radio station was broadcasting a flavor of Protestant evangelicalism that had “God” micromanaging every detail in their lives, down to their own bouts with cancer and heart attacks.

It was different this time though. It was different to visit my parents’ church. It was no longer my role to rebel against my parents’ ways or belief system. I was now the son that was coming in to visit family during the holidays. Though I still cringed as I sat through several sermons during our stay (this also happened during our stint in Texas), I no longer felt the impetus to impart some form of greater knowledge of the workings of the world to my past fellow congregants. Had I grown tired, weary, apathetic? Or did I no longer possess the same knowledge that I was so sure to have possessed all those years ago? Was I amused at observing a community that possessed such a certitude and concrete understanding of the innards of the cosmos after I had spent so long swimming in a pool of methodological agnosticism? Just as my flame to evangelize “the lost” was once extinguished, had the flame to provide a corrective to the theological system that I was nurtured in also waned? These are a few of many questions that were prompted by a brief return to my roots, to the tradition that nurtured me. I suppose these things happen when one relinquishes a system of beliefs and chooses to subscribe to another one. This process is part of my “state of formation.”

Psychologist Mary Pipher, in her book Writing to Change the World, recommends an exercise for all writers in her chapter entitled, “Know Thyself.” In light of my recent travels, I think it apropos to undertake her challenge.

I am From

I am from E and B, J and K, and Grandma B.

From the foothills of the Appalachians, the gentle rolling hills that lie before the Great Smokey Mountains, Rocky Top, and the Grand Ole Opry, the Tennessee Valley and the Elk River,

from tornado lane, southern creeks, buttercups, blackberries, cotton and tobacco, hay bales, cows and more cows, copperhead snakes, snapping turtles, crawfish, coyotes, turkey, and white-tail deer, and of course big trucks, four-wheelers, and rebel flags.

I am from fried chicken and country ham eaters, chicken fried steak and country fried steak eaters (yes there is a difference)- if it’s fried it’s edible. I am from sweet tea and Sun Drop, suga’-butta’ biscuits, Bar-B-Q, and Wal-Mart.

I am from loggers, lumber yards, and sawmill men.

I am from, “If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all,” and “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you,” “shake it off,” “hush up before I give you something to cry about,” and the classics, “bless his heart,” “Whatchdya go and do that for?” and “dog gon’it!”

I am from no-dancing-no-drinking-no-gambling-no-swearing-bible-believing-a capella-singing church of Christers, and from 65-minute Gospel meetings, and all-night singings. I am from the buckle of the Bible Belt, where no pastors were to be found, but where all male preachers were in abundance.

I am from General Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Dolly Parton.

Where I am from men wear boots and women wear aprons.

Where I am from it is all still this way.

There’s something powerful about honoring my heritage- even liberating. In a state of perpetual formation, it is imperative to recognize where I have been. But at the same time, knowing that where I am now is significantly different because of choice is also empowering. Edmund Husserl, philosopher and founder of phenomenology, is known for putting into words the concept of “free variation of possibilities.”  When applied to religious experiences it espouses that each expression is just as valid as the next. Am I willing to come to terms with the notion that the flavor of Christianity that I grew up in, with a dualistic apocalyptic worldview, is just a valid expression as the flavor that I now associate with (my posts Relinquishing & Receiving, and Acceptance (or Coming Out of the Closet) chronicle these changes)? I find the irony unsettling that I am very much at ease in being in dialogue and even sharing religious experiences with persons that identify with other faith traditions than Christianity, yet I am still cringing when I am in close proximity to certain flavors of my own faith tradition. The seminary that I attend has very close connections with a rabbinical school. So does a certain large evangelical seminary. Sometimes it’s easier getting along with those that have extremely divergent faith traditions than getting along with those that are almost like us, but not the same as us. It’s the infighting that can be the most fierce. As I continue on my journey, I hope to see the continued dismantling of age old boundaries between mainline & evangelical expressions of Protestant Christianity. Am I any better for journeying towards God without God? Am I better than the evangelical preacher that I heard on the radio a few weeks ago, simply because I strive to attain a methodological agnosticism and speak of a “God beyond God” rather than inheriting that ole’ time religion? I still think there’s something beautiful in particular truth claims. Surely it’s not just a “Southern thing,” we’re all engaged in using hermeneutical imagination.

Now I’m back in Boston and looking forward to the year ahead that will no doubt be filled with interfaith and even intrafaith interactions. I’m looking forward to reflecting on these experiences and writing to make a difference; playing my part in changing the world from where I am.

A Hermeneutic of Gracious Pondering in a Season of Glorious Anticipation

Shortly before leaving Boston for the holidays I had an opportunity to attend a lecture by philosopher Richard Kearney at Boston College on his more recent publication, Anatheism: Returning to God After God. For the sake of brevity I will not attempt to summarize his work that tries to push us past the theism/atheism divide, but rather I mention him to credit him for sharing what I believe holds immense implications for the interfaith movement.

After spending much time working with the social construction of the other, and religion’s role of demonizing that other, I was reminded that the sacred is something you find rather than something you seek. With so much energy put into deconstructing what makes us see each other as a stanger for the sake of harmony and social cohesion, we often forget to embrace the differences that our proximity with the other creates and to look for the sacred in this part of our narratives.

It is the advent season for Christians. In this season we abide in anxious waiting as we commemorate the time leading up to the birth of Jesus. As part of the lectionary reading during this season Gabriel’s annunciation of Jesus’ birth is read. The beginning of the passage is as follows:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:26-29, NRSV)

Much attention tends to be focused on the part of the passage that follows. However, I think in this season it is good to dwell in the uneasiness that Mary does, to abide in the tension of the uncertainty that she finds herself in.  It is this uncertainty that Mary has in interacting with the stranger at her door that reminds us of the uneasiness that we may feel in our own social encounters. A vexed and perplexed Mary is depicted as pondering what this unfamiliar messenger brings to her. What are his intentions? Does he seek to harm me? I do not recognize this man, in all probability he is a thief. She fears for herself and for her child. However later in the passage we find that Mary does not close the door, but let’s the message of the stranger permeate her. It is her willingness to give into the idea that the impossible might be made possible, that the imaginable might be made into a concrete reality that allows the door to remain open and the message to come. She relinquished her fears in hopes that her hospitality, her own outstretched hand would bring whatever goodness to fruition.

This pondering and perplexement is not unfamiliar to the Jewish and Christian tradition. Not only is it present in the vacillations of Mary before Gabriel, but also our forefathers and foremothers knew this feeling all too well. It is expressed in the laughter that preceeded Isaac; the stammers of Moses; the cries of a barren Hannah that pierced the night; and in the proclomations of Qoheleth that all was ephemeral. Nor did it culminate in Mary, for a doubting Thomas was constantly grasping for the impossible made possible. This place of uncertainty amid strangeness holds a prominent place in our narratives.

Today we need to recognize this space where strangeness meets familiarity. There is a certain aesthetic quality to this sort of event. These occassions should not be reduced to their lowest common denominator were all focus is on commonalities. In difference lies dignity. Emmanuel Levinas states,”My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world, within the ontology of sameness.” Therefore, the stranger cannot be simply viewed as a mere social construction, but rather as a gift; indeed a sacred gift. In essence without the other, there would be no meaning.  We need each other to survive, to make meaning and ultimately community- just the way we are. The stranger is thus not a category to deconstruct, but a reality to be embraced, upheld; that which is constantly behind doors waiting to be opened, waiting to be called neighbor. For Christians messianisim is a concept that keeps opening the door to the stranger that comes after the baby in the manger (Mt. 25:40).  It is the concept that lights the flame of hope during this advent season. Dorothy Day, a journalist, social activist, and Catholic commends us to never stop opening the door to the someone who’s inevitably going to arrive.

So in our pondering and discerning may we relinquish our fears and extend hospitality to bring about things that are only imaginable this holiday season. It is this vulnerability that might just lead to the forging of new relationships or the mending of old ones; the creating of sacred spaces of gratitude where difference is no longer demonized.

-mlw

Christians in the Sukkah

Have you ever heard the expression, “You’re in my personal space?” As Americans, we love our space. During the frontier days, barb wire delineated my space from your space. Today, elongated “privacy” bush hedges and white picket fences take their place. We drive spacious SUV’s and have luxuriously wide hi-way lanes. We live in storied houses, and play in our own backyards.  This coveting of space can be detected in our physical interaction with other humans as well. Judith Orloff, MD., says that “most Americans need an arms-length [of personal space] around them,” and that an invasion of that personal space “causes our stress hormones to skyrocket and can affect our physical and mental health. Blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension are all affected.”

In my travels and subsequent period of expatriation in Latin America, I found that in order to truly experience the culture that was up until that time foreign, I would have to lower my arm’s length of personal space. I could not bring my hedges with me and I certainly could not drive a 7-passenger SUV. In my two years residing in Mexico City, I, like most of the 30 million residents, would pile into a metro station every morning and lose all concept of my socially constructed “personal space” all over again. This entailed a time of sustained vulnerability; a living as other and with other. I was a gringo en la casa (An American in the house). However, in Latin America, I was never reprimanded with “you’re in my personal space,” but rather as the saying goes, “Mi casa es su casa.” And soon I too became uncomfortable with wide open spaces, and like those in the communal culture about me, I longed for the closeness of my neighbor – I needed my neighbor.

I am currently in a Master’s of Divinity program at Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS), a now interdenominational Christian seminary (and soon to be an as-yet-undefined “Interfaith university”) in Newton, MA. ANTS shares a campus with Hebrew College (HC), which has a transdenominational Rabbinical school. Two months ago, at the start of the academic year and during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, my peers from ANTS and I were invited into the freshly erected Sukkah. After we were served delectable kosher food, we entered the festive song and joy of the Sukkah. It was packed full of people: Jews, Christians, Unitarian Universalists, agnostics, and I’m quite certain that others who self-identify with other traditions or philosophies were also there. Again, there were so many people – and so little space. I felt like I was back on the metro in el DF (Mexico City).  It was in this experience that I felt the similarities that an immersion-style interfaith experience has with an immersion-style cross-cultural experience. Once again, the hedges are to be left at the entrance of the Sukkah. Anything that impeded me from relating was to be left outside. Like Moses, taking off his sandals to commune with the Holy Other, we discarded parts of our constructed selves, in this case our “personal space,” to commune with others.

During the sacred time, I saw no flustered American with blood pressure rising, trying to demarcate his or her own personal space. Though I’m sure some thresholds were crossed, especially if being in such close proximity with the “religious other” was not normative for some, but it was in this action of tabernacling together, in the confines of being and relating in the presence of the other that our personal spaces, and I suspect in some instances, even our preconceptions of the other were to some extent deconstructed.

In my experience, it is in the art of relinquishing certainty and security, when one dares to be truly vulnerable, that one begins to more fully relate with others. I think this principle is no different in an interfaith exchange. Here on “the Hill” (our institutions share a campus on a hill just outside Boston, MA) we express this concept with the phrase, “sacred hospitality.” In participating in the Interfaith movement and in claiming a role in a common commitment for the bettering of the world, I have experienced “sacred hospitality” as a wonderful starting place; a practicing of being intimately present, radically serving/being served, and deeply listening to and mutually cherishing narratives. I believe this is essential for a genuine dialectic encounter. This is why joining State of Formation is important to me. I want to be a part of the bettering of the world; I want to be able to co-experience sacred texts; I want to co-participate in meaning-making dialogue; I want to co-construct communities; I want to be able to enter Sukkahs and I want to be able to say “mi casa es su casa también (My house is your house too),” because we indeed do need each other for the proliferation of Creation. I am far from advocating a universal syncretism of religions, but rather a conscious particularism; a maintaining of religious identities, coexisting in a pluralistic world.  How all this is playing out in my own experience as a Christian and how my own story affects this process will be the focus of future posts. Also I look forward to blogging about the happenings on the Hill here and in the Boston area.

“Truth is to be found in unhindered dialogue.” –Jürgen Moltmann

“Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.” — Emmanuel Levinas

–mlw

You Might Be Becoming a Biblical Scholar If. . . (In honor of the newly inaugurated “Society for the Advancement of Biblical Scholarship” fellowship on the Hill)

[If any of  10 or more of these statements apply to you, then this fellowship could be for you.]
  1. You consider persons such as Hermann Gunkel or Albert Schweitzer to be more important than Michael Jordan or Steve Jobs.
  2. Your Amazon list consists of titles such as The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, or The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.
  3. You have ever held a copy of Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel.
  4. You know what the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis is.
  5. You have ever asked for the Anchor Bible Dictionary for Christmas.
  6. You have ever received a lexicon for your birthday.
  7. You have ever cited one of these Normans: Norman C. Habel, Norman K. Gottwald, or Norman Golb.
  8. You have ever parsed a verb of a dead language at 2:00am.
  9. You have ever lied awake at night pondering the origins of Christianity.
  10. You have ever given pets names like Enkidu, Qumran, or Nag Hammadi.
  11. You think the Iron Age is better than the Digital Age.
  12. You can explain biblical parallelism.
  13. You have read Semantics of Biblical Language.
  14. You hear the phrase “hill country” and you don’t automatically think of rural Appalachia, but rather of Judea.
  15. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry actually sounds appealing.
  16. The “Jesus Seminar” you refer to doesn’t involve a band and strobe lights.
  17. You know how to spell “pseudepigrapha.”
  18. You are familiar with the “New Perspective” on Paul.
  19. At some point in your life, Indiana Jones was/is a role model.
  20. The word “Kitchen” is synonymous with “Egypt.”
  21. You make vehement distinctions between the Hebrews, Israelites, Judahites, and Jews.
  22. You know of an ancient gospel where a character is a talking cross.
  23. You are not referring to your TV signal when you speak of “reception history.”
  24. “Second Temple” doesn’t refer to the local church or synagogue.
  25. You know the Chicago Manual of Style has nothing to do with fashion.
  26. “Heilsgeschichte” is a colloquialism for you.
  27. You refer to voluminous lexicons with a tender last name, e.g., “Kittle.”
  28. You can identify any of these acronyms correctly: ANE, APOT, BDAG, BCE, BHS, DTR, JBL, JEDP, NMS, Q, SBL.
  29. You are now considering Akkadian or Coptic as course electives.
  30. “Canon within a Canon” is not a board game.
  31. You can name more than five types of biblical “criticisms.”
  32. Israel or Turkey make the list of possible future vacation spots.
  33. You ever played “deciphering the ostracon” as a child.

Immigration, The Bible, and Monstrous Races

We’ve all heard of the phenomena of human migration, and most have been directly affected by immigration of people into their home country or by family members migrating to another country. Speaking of the constituents of the United States, one would have to be 100% Native American to claim that he or she is where s/he is today not dependent upon the immigration of ancestors to this country. We are all here because of the phenomena of immigration. Often times, one is too quick to acknowledge this when approaching the topic. We must recognize that the phenomena is just as valid today as it was centuries ago or even decades ago when our ancestors made the journey to the New World. The reasons for the migration of people groups today are the same that prompted the Mayflower to set out and the same that invoked early man to cross the Bering Strait: Persecution, based on religion, race or tribal/political affiliation; and Scarcity of resources- economic, agricultural, etc. More often than not it is a combination of the two categories. Our own past should serve to humble us, no matter from which side of the argument we engage the subject.

 

Phoenix Arizona artist, Francisco García aka GRAFFTRUTH

In order to properly address the current social issues that arise out of the phenomena of immigration, attention needs to be addressed to how one group (the “in group”- in this case, citizens of the US) views another distinct group (in this case, non-citizen immigrants). This is often referred to as the “us-them” syndrome. It is a binary discrimination that characterizes much of the dominant forms of cognition within the Western world. In writing about the issue of immigration, I’d like to examine biblical texts as well as a text that predates the biblical tradition, paying special attention to their treatment of the “other,” and of the construction of Monster and how the “foreigner” is often denoted as Monster.

Many literary texts deal with the “other,” the “strangers,” and demonstrate the natural tendency toward such binary discrimination. Going back as far as we can trace the archiving of human consciousness, to the earliest writing of epic proportions, the Epic of Gilgamesh, we can see how people some millennia ago that were just beginning to acquire literacy treat this sensitive topic. The two main characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh are Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh is Conan meets Hugh Hefner. He is the quintessential testosterone-filled male hero. He makes the boys squall with his never-ending brawls and the women swoon with his sexual exploits. Nothing is out of his reach of domination. The text begins by stating that he has seen and done it all: there was no match too great for Gilgamesh. On hearing the cries of the daughters and sons of men the gods decide to make a match for Gilgamesh. Thus Enkidu is made by the gods to be an equal (yet simultaneously very different) match for Gilgamesh. Enkidu’s home unlike Gilgamesh’s in the city, was in nature, in the wild. Not only did Enkidu differ from Gilgamesh in his choice of habitat, but also in his physical appearance. Enkidu was covered in hair and fought for not the taming and subduing of creation, but in defense of nature. Enkidu was trusted with uprooting the trapper’s traps and putting a log in the advances of deforestation. Enkidu, as viewed from within his ancient context, shares many affinities with a Laḫmu, a character in Eastern Semitic myth that possesses superhuman strength and is depicted with locks of braided hair (cf. Samson in the Bible), but never can fully assimilate to culture, the civilized way of life. This figure though, is often represented within the confines of civilization, as if it were somehow domesticated, guarding points of entry and exit for the bourgeois. Though they may be domesticated and used as a sustainer of culture, Laḫmu will always be destined to be referred to as “other.”

This description makes me think of how classes will use those from outside (Buber’s I-It relationship) their borders to give form to and maintain their empire, yet never grant them status as citizens. These characters are forever relegated to status of foreigner. This occurs throughout the story of mankind over and over and over again, as if the vinyl of human history had been given a scratch and we repeatedly hear the same story, over and over and over again as it skips into infinity. And then just when we think we’ve heard it all, there’s a cry- a cry that reinitiates history, like the one that we read of in Exodus. . .

The Epic of Gilgamesh beautifully captures the age-old conflict between the wild and the civil, and on a more cosmic level, order and chaos. This theme is extremely important to ancient civilizations of the Near East. This concept as known to the Hebrew peoples is ședeq and is similar to the neighboring Egyptians concept of ma’at. Chaos and Order are constantly waging battle within Creation. My inquiry is to what extent is this narrative still a part of our being and becoming as individuals and collectively on a societal level? After millennia of the record of human history playing, we now come out of the womb hard-wired with this narrative. It was all too easy for a former President to tap into our predisposed constructs of reality where binary discriminations reign in order to garner support for rigidly dichotomizing the geo-political community as we then knew it and allow that to inform an entire nations foreign policy concerning the “axis of evil.” I think I’ve read this story somewhere, and the record keeps on spinning. . . A lot of deconstruction is in order.

Do we at times think that we are aiding in the eviction of Chaos, holding together the lacerated flesh of the heavens to keep the floods of disorder from once again inundating the physical plane of existence, are we helping support the pillars of Boaz and Yachin from buckling up under the vices of evil, the powers and principalities? Are we a part of a cosmic game? If this plays out in the public arena, no wonder fences are constructed to keep out those that threaten our consistency of life, with good reason centers are constructed to detain persons that threaten the very order of our existence. The axis of evil/disorder/chaos has now broadened to incorporate not only North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, but Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, oh yeah the Jews, Blacks, Mexicans, Gays and Lesbians too while we’re at it. The litany at any point in history could be without end. The point is simply this: Monsters do exist and they are the henchmen that grind away at order.

A monster represents an extremity of the category of “the other.” They are wonderfully depicted in art and literature throughout the ages. Many hybrid monsters make their first appearances in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Monsters are ways people distort strangers and are used to explain the proliferation of chaos. Foreigners, those that a particular people group know (intimately) little about, make a great target for monstrous labels and grotesque narratives. Monsters, just as foreigners, in culture lurk at boundaries. Hollywood movies are born out of scenarios of monsters transgressing their lairs and entering the world of civilization. Villages often build forts to keep monsters out, likewise countries raise fences and build walls to inhibit the entrance of foreigners/monsters. Today’s monsters are peoples and races that we do not identify ourselves with and peoples of other faith traditions. This fuels much of the fear that runs rampant in today’s world. In the last century (not to discredit the stories of eastern Europeans that also immigrated) in the U.S. alone we have witnessed the atrocities of concentration camps against the Japanese during WWII, illegal raids and deportations of legal documented U.S. citizen Mexican-Americans (note especially The Mexican Repatriation 1929-1939, and Operation Wetback 1954), the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s and the suffering that the black community had to endure, the so-called “White-flight” of the 1970s from many urban cities to establish more white-concentrated suburbs (which many are gated), and more recently detention centers for Arabs, and the admonishment for teaching monoculturalism in public schools in numerous states (What then happens when our children’s socialization entails a deeper ingraining of “us-them.” Is this beneficial for humanity or are we still riding that same scratched piece of vinyl into we know not what?), and legalizing racial profiling (AZ SB 1070). The same propaganda is always employed: “They’re going to eat our culture! They don’t assimilate! They are Evil! Monsters!“- Mary Shelley had it right. Mary Pipher does too:

Language is weaponized when it used to objectify, depersonalized, and dehumanize, to create an “other.” Once a person is labeled as “not like us,” the rules for civilized behavior no longer apply.

Today, we are no different than our counterparts of antiquity. There were those in classical Rome that used to identify peoples of new religions with monsters, going to extremes of telling stories of how they would partake in incestial orgiastic love feasts were they would also consume human flesh and blood. Christians created quite a name for themselves in the Pre-Constantinian Roman Empire. Oh sure, today we may not be as blunt about it- though at times we’re pretty damn blunt, try watching Fox News- we try to seem accepting and welcoming, “Sure come in, just speak the way I do, dress the way I do, eat what I eat when I eat, and adopt many of the other mannerisms that I have so I won’t feel threatened. Today, our society likes to conjure up many images for the immigrant, muslim, homosexual, etc., you fill in the blank. What have you been socialized to associate with any of the aforementioned peoples? If you are honest, truly honest I think you would be able to recall a time in which you equated a people group with a Monster. grrrrrrrrrr.

“Ok so what? I am a Christian. I am counter-cultural.  Those old books or even international relations don’t influence me, I let the Bible guide my life. It’s a light to my path and a lamp to my feet. Besides, my religion teaches me to love my neighbor.” If you find yourself aligning with this statement, then perhaps the question should be asked: “Does the Bible- the most authoritative text in the Western world- legitimize a worldview that repeatedly demonizes the foreigner and labels them as Monster?”

My answer is partially yes. Conceivably, this could help enforce why this over-exaggerated binary distinction keeps cropping up in our western (I personally cannot speak of Eastern cultures, although I suspect they experience similar phenomena, due to my limited knowledge I chose not to overstep realms of experience) cultures. One must remember that the Bible is multiphonic and multivalent.  There exists many voices within the Biblical canon and it is imperative that not one voice triumph over the others at any given time- history can be a grim reminder to us when that has happened- but rather they all must be allowed to be held in tension, not as one coagulated harmony, but rather as many traditions keeping the other in constant check.

Within the Bible we find monstrous races (aside from flat-out monsters, which are many to behold). In Canaan exist the giants from Hebron, the Anakim; in Jordan, Og of Bashan; in Philistia, perhaps the most famous monster of all, Goliath. All these accounts represent demeaning racial generalizations taken to their extremities, superfluidity of digits and enormity is caricatured in many passages. And as so elegantly put forth by the Deuteronomic Historian and the Priestly Visionary, they should all be exterminated (see the genocidal campaigns against the Amalekites in Exodus, the book of Judges, and Josiah’s reforms in Kings for primers), for the sustaining and proliferation of dominion/order of course. In Ezra-Nehemiah, intermarriage was more than frowned upon, force was used upon the people of Israel to “purify/cleanse” them from all things foreign, and even the texts makes out an ally to interracial relations to be a monster, stating that “Tobiah tried to frighten us,” which is what monsters do best. It is of no consolation to think that this anti-miscegenation concept is at best archaic and far removed from our modern situation when it wasn’t until 1967 that it became legal in my state of birth for a person to marry outside of their race. So it seems as though these “biblical” concepts have followed us throughout the millennia. But are they biblical? Or are they part of a larger natural narrative that just so happened to be a part of the biblical inventors landscape, just a part of the backdrop. If this is the case we must listen more acutely to distinguish more radical and subversive voices- voices that have either gone unnoticed because they are nearly muted by the mundaneness of everyday life that speaks to us from the pages, or because they were intentionally quietened for the service of some status quo.

As Westerners, these narratives have been imprinted on our consciouses whether we choose to admit it or not. Thankfully the Bible is multivalent and offers texts to counteract this treatment of the other, narratives that function to disassemble the normative. Within the many voices of the biblical corpus exists a Ruth, and no tradition should have the right to extinguish her voice. Her voice is one of compassion and inclusivity. And across that skipping vinyl record of human history her story is on par with the Exodus event (note Ex. 12:38 attests to the formation of Israel as a mosaic consisting of many peoples), though you must strain to hear it. Her complete and total acceptance as a stranger/foreigner coupled with statements from the Holiness Code (i.e., Leviticus 19:33-37), and Jesus’ ethic of open commensality table fellowship should be held in tension over against the above narratives concerning the treatment of strangers. One such text, Exodus 18, deserves special attention. In it a foreigner, a Midianite, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, imparts the knowledge of self governance and judiciary law to the camp of Israel. He’s an outsider! Israel began to govern using a “foreign” pattern Not only that, he was the first individual to witness and give testimony concerning the great acts of YHWH post-exodus. It states that “Moses listened to his father-in-law and he did all that he had said.” (Augustine’s was on to something when he stated: “All knowledge is God’s Knowledge.”) By the way, Moses had married this guy’s daughter, a Midianite, uhm. . .

We need to come to terms with the monsters, confront them and find out for what reason they were constructed, what purpose do they serve the dominant narrative, the status quo? Why am I supposed to be afraid of homosexuals, of Muslims, of Arabs, of Mexicans? What purpose is it serving that I buy into over-exaggerated stereotypes and drive the wedge of binary discriminations deeper into collective human consciousness? Do I project grotesque labels onto people groups that are unlike me? Do I describe “the other,” with monstrous physiognomy,  projecting horrid things from narratives of uncertain origins onto peoples that I have yet to have had the opportunity with whom to experience an authentic subjective relationship. Do I realize that my biases might be naturally working to exaggerate differences to protect my own “in-group.” This is a plea to be brutally honest. A theology of monsters can go a long way in adding to ministries of reconciliation, how faith communities approach immigrants, and can help inform interfaith dialogue. Monsters and humans are not in the end enemies, but are really brothers. This can be seen not only in biblical texts, but if we go back to the ancient story of the Epic of Gilgamesh, we see Enkidu and Gilgamesh befriending one another, having life long adventures with one another, loving each other, making love to each other, and in the end Gilgamesh laments over Enkidu’s deceased body and feels as though a part of himself has died. This is the moral: To see the Monster within and see ourselves in others. As with all things, a little epistemological humility can go a long way. And this brings us back to GRAFFTRUTH’s piece of art: “Who’s the Illegal Now?” for you were once slaves in Egypt, you walked many miles sharing the same moccasins. . . This too is a narrative that we have the power to choose.

-mlw


RESOURCES

    To Read:

Books:

  1. Timothy K. Beal – Religion and Its Monsters
  2. Martin Buber - I and Thou
  3. Richard Kearney – Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness
  4. Lawrence M. Wills – Not God’s People: Insider’s and Outsiders in the Biblical World
  5. Miraslov Volf – Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

Articles:


Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.