Girling in the Season of #MeToo

It is the season of #MeToo.

The hashtag trends. A status, copied and pasted, is shared: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Soon, the status is altered – “women” becomes “people” to be more inclusive. Depending on your platform, depending on your connections, sometimes the message is simple. Sometimes people customize with a personal story, an identifying detail. Some are explicit. Some call out names. A spreadsheet circulates, disappears, and reappears. A blot of mold blooms. The stomach roils.

Amidst the outpouring of #MeToo, some women begin to talk about why they don’t hashtag, why they don’t share. Even though they are in the #MeToo (who isn’t, they wonder?) – what does or doesn’t count as serious enough to stand up and claim your space? One woman writes in to an advice column that #MeToo is triggering, an additional reminder of her rape everywhere she goes. Some people are private about certain parts of their lives, and even a cause like #MeToo isn’t likely to fundamentally change the way they use social media, especially with a part of their lives they’ve held soft and dear, cocooned close, and told very few.

In fairy tales, the wolf is never really a wolf, and no matter what he says, “hungry” isn’t quite what he means. If a man kisses you when you’re sleeping or dead, he thinks you’re beautiful and you’re meant to be together. If you want love, give up your voice for legs: you can either call out, or run – but not both. Who needs either anyway . . . it looks like a handsome prince is headed your way. Perhaps fairy tales are an archaic and covert version of #MeToo.

In my novella, Girling, girls grow up in the contemporary world, but the narrative is undergirded with a reflexive use of fairy tales. They navigate their own desires, but those wishes and dreams have been planted, dusted into the characters’ psyches by the world-as-it-is. The two main characters, Kate and Ann, best friends and almost-sisters, meet wolves and princes and try to discern which is which; they are disobedient girls, and princesses, and evil stepsisters all at once. Kate and Ann realize that fairy tales re-tell these same stories over and over; the hardest part is becoming a queen, which is why there are so few fairy tales that tell a story after marriage –they’ll learn this too.

In one chapter of the novella, Kate and Ann are spending an adolescent summer in Acapulco. They are both fourteen, the time of transformation. Sirens appear. Multiple versions of The Little Mermaid appear. Older Kate intrudes with a line from Eliot. Older Ann’s husband appears to rush around trying to show Kate a manatee. In that summer of fourteen, Kate is exploring her transformation to womanhood, wishing childhood would be quickly done. She’s snuck a bikini into her luggage (something her father wouldn’t allow her to wear at home) – and when they visit the resort hotels, she escapes to the bar and pretends she belongs there. Ann holds on a little more tightly to the child she still is, not quite ready to shed that potentially protective skin. Ann is also protected by her unwillingness to be seen, a glamour of awkwardness. Kate thinks she finds a Prince, but ends up on a pebbled beach, with an insistent frog who never turns into the stuff of young girls’ dreams. Later, Kate will try to tell her mother about this: about desire and shame and what’s she’s learned about their twining.

Kate would be hashtag conflicted. She would worry that her experiences aren’t serious enough for a #MeToo. Sure, there was that thing when she was little, but they were both kids really, so does that count? Sure, there was that thing when she was fourteen and he didn’t listen when she said No, but they were pretty close and maybe he didn’t hear her, or couldn’t stop? There was another time that would absolutely count, but nothing happened in the end, because . . . well, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Anyway, she’s fine. She’s lucky really. She worries more about Ann’s daughter, Luna; she worries about her.

I’ll be teaching contemporary women’s literature this spring, and I’m preparing my book order: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once upon a River.

I was talking with a colleague the other day, and he asked if I ever give a trigger warning for this class. These three novels all have at their center the rape of a child; the last time I taught this class, on the first day, I pointed that out to all the students. I told them why I chose these novels, why we needed to talk about these issues, and that I completely understood if they wanted to drop the class. That was a few years ago, the season of #YesAllWomen.

My colleague said, “But it’s a women’s literature class – do you really have to tell them you’ll be addressing the lives of women?”

It was Campbell’s Once upon a River that inspired me to write fiction in the first place, to try my hand at storytelling, moving from the forms of poetry, from the lyric and episodic, to the narrative.

In River, I met Margo Crane, a young female protagonist who survives, who stakes out on her own, learning to make her own way in the dangerous world, negotiating beast-men who could be alternatingly kind and cruel. If a woman’s love can turn a beast into a man, the tales suggest the opposite is also true. In that women’s literature class, I asked students to trace the underpinnings of fairy tales that moved through Margo’s story.

When my best friend, Carmen, to whom Girling is dedicated, had her daughter, I was driving in the car with her and her husband. They were talking about something – clothes, or toys, decorations, readying for her birthday party, and I was reading Cristina Bacchilega’s Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. “‘Girling’is a continual process,” I said, looking out the window, their baby asleep in the car seat. Her husband looked at me blinking; Carmen laughed a little – I was always saying things like that, apropos of nothing it seemed. Later, I tried to explain. Girling is my fuller attempt to explain.

At the end of that women’s literature class, I asked students to reflect on the three novels we’d read together. The class was mostly women, only a few men. The women allowed as to how they’d been glad to read all three novels, Allison especially, although that had been a difficult read. A necessarily difficult read. It was beautiful and brutal. The men were mostly quiet in this discussion. During that season of #YesAllWomen, a hashtag had answered back: #NotAllMen.

In this season, some have begun to use #HowIWillChange to respond to #MeToo. Many men have pledged to call out harassment, to challenge sexist jokes, to demand better of their friends, to listen when women tell their stories. The hope is that #MeToo isn’t just a conversation among women, because we’ve been having that conversation for a very long time. Perhaps someone –some friend, brother, father, beloved (whether he imagines himself a prince, dwarf, or beast) saw a woman he cared about post #MeToo and thought: I had no idea. Really? Her? Her Too?

As for Girling, I hope some friends, brothers, fathers, beloved princes, and beasts will read the book. They may find themselves there.

On Making Memoir

Memoir is getting naked in front of a room full of strangers and saying, “Here are my stretch marks, here are my fat rolls, here is my cellulite, and here is the irritating boil on my ass and my reoccurring chin hair.”

One is not allowed to wear Spanx, utilize Instagram filters or self-tanner in memoir. To be authentic, the author has to expose it all — the lovely, the ugly, the funny, and the humiliating. That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.

In revealing one’s experiences – joys, accomplishments, trials, and traumas – the writer is exposed not only to strangers, but to loved ones and friends. It is one thing to stand in front of strangers – unapologetic in one’s nakedness. It is a whole other thing to say, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Mom! Check out this foot-long stretch mark. No, it’s cool. It’s out there. Anyone can just Google my name and see it. Aren’t you proud?”

That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.

This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public. It makes my thumb freeze up over the “Share” button on Facebook when a piece I am proud of is accepted for publication — fearing not only criticism and judgement, but also praise and that confusing-without-the-benefit-of-tone-or-facial-expression response of “Wow!”

However, it is not just my exposure that I need to be concerned with. As a memoirist, I have a moral responsibility to the other people I write about. I can justify showing the world my naked ass without the benefit of Spanx, but I cannot justify lifting my aunt’s skirt over her head, regardless of how important her exposure is to telling my own story authentically.

My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete. That love has taken on many forms over the years — puppy love, obsession and control, unrequited love, abuse, lost love, and motherly love — but the love I always found most easy to access was baited with sex. The psychological, biological, and even astrological reasons for this are some of the subjects I explore in my writing. To write memoir well (to counter that impression of navel-gazing confession by expertly swinging between various theories and confession, so as not to bore the reader), one must ground one’s personal experience with something more solid and research-based.

Unfortunately, this psychologically driven exploration of my life and behaviors leads to the inevitable exposure of others. My father, my step-father, my mother, my friends, my children, my grandfather, my grandmother, my siblings, and my lovers are all placed under a flaw-revealing blacklight. I may be holding that blacklight over my own head (giving myself the most exposure), but they are revealed in the ambient light. They are also reduced to their relationship to me. Their memories and experiences are not fully explored and explained. They are incomplete.

This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public.

This moral responsibility I feel for my characters can be debilitating. I am not afraid to expose my rapists, my abusers, my bullies. As Anne Lamott so wisely stated in her book Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But it is a different matter to expose the sins of my family, their dark secrets, and the roles they may or may not have played in my psychological deformities.

Teachers of memoir writing offer some common techniques to counter this particular struggle. One is to change the names of the characters, and the other is to create a composite character (a character made up of traits from multiple people). These techniques are useful when one is writing about one’s high school bully, best friend, or even a lover (sometimes), but one cannot often disguise one’s parents, family members, or children this way. They will recognize their own cellulite or odd moles, regardless of the fake mustache applied to the lip of their character.

I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share, despite how it affects me, my life, and my relationships. I have changed the names of the characters. I have chopped and edited important scenes. I have attempted to convince myself to submit it as fiction, but I can’t.

My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete.

One might wonder why I bother to write memoir at all. The struggles seem to outweigh the benefits. Why do I put myself or those I love through all of this? Why not just write my story and submit it as fiction? I guess the simple answer is because I truly believe in the power of memoir — specifically, its ability to give others the courage to speak the unspeakable and to allow them to be vulnerable in the face of my vulnerability. Memoir validates my memories and experiences while also validating the memories and experiences of others. All of the anxiety I experience while writing, submitting, reading, and publishing my memoir is temporarily relieved when I receive confirmation of this validation from someone who has read and strongly related to my work. There is an instant intimacy created through our related experiences. And is it not intimacy that I ultimately crave?

I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share.

My first public reading of memoir was in a packed coffee shop filled with my graduate school professors, my fellow students, a few of my friends, and my oldest son. My voice shook through the entire first page; I couldn’t look up from the overly-familiar-from-revision words on the page. The audience laughed, gasped, and “awwww-ed” in all of the right places. And despite my certainty that I would have a heart attack in the middle of this written reenactment of my rape and suicide attempt, I didn’t. After stepping down from the stage to the supportive applause of the familiar crowd, a handsome middle-aged woman in a broom skirt and an oversized knit sweater approached me. She had tears in her kind eyes. “You are incredibly brave,” she said as she embraced me in a surprisingly strong, sandalwood-scented hug. “I experienced something very similar in my teens and I found your story inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with me.” She said all of this as if we were the only two people in the room, and for a moment, it felt like we were.

I have had other moments like this after I have publically read or posted my work. Some express their shared experiences to me in a private message on Facebook, some approach me personally (shy and refreshingly sincere), some confess to me in drunken interactions at the bar. But regardless of how they do it, I feel a powerful sense of validation from this solidarity and shared vulnerability. They see me and I see them, fully and completely — my flawed fellow humans, naked and unapologetic.

top photo by Mohammad Gh on Unsplash

The Poetry of Excel Spreadsheets

So, the news is out.

A spreadsheet that circulated online for a very short time, that named names, that filled in details ranging from harassment to assault, that warned about men to be wary of, to avoid, that utilized the clean formatting of cells and color-coding, as a kind of organized and efficient clarion call, has had its original maker named. Moira Donegan named herself because she had to – because rumors had begun that she would be named, because she received a call from a fact checker, calling to check the “fact” that she created the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet.

It was true, sort of. The original spreadsheet began with her, but it became something much more than her work. As it was online for only a few hours, anonymously, and as it was a crowdsourced document, the work became a collaborative piece — added to by many others. Women added names, added details and situations to names already there, added categories of behavior. If a man was accused of physical sexual assault more than once, his name was highlighted in red. Concerned about the way anonymity could allow for false accusations, Donegan added a disclaimer at the top of the document. The spreadsheet’s clean lines, tidy columns, organizational format allowed for the document to grow to encompass all its authors — a community — writing of their experiences, warning others, bearing witness to the kind of interactions they navigate on an often daily basis inhabiting their bodies and identities in this world.

The original spreadsheet began with her, but it became something much more than her work. As it was online for only a few hours, anonymously, and as it was a crowdsourced document, the work became a collaborative piece — added to by many others.

What does this have to do with poetry? Fair question.

The poet Isobel O’Hare has been creating erasure poems by blacking out the statements and/or apologies of celebrities accused of sexual assault and harassment. So many of these statements are lacking — full of misdirection, qualification, what-about-ism, conveniently faulty memories, long-winded sentences that never track back to what it is they’re supposed to be addressing . . . all in the interest of avoiding/distancing/distracting the reader/listener. O’Hare strips them down to an essence, finding a mystery message of a phrase within the expanse of text crafted by handlers and publicists. These erasures are thrilling to read, as if maybe — just maybe — we could imagine these being the actual words hidden within the words. O’Hare’s erasure poems will be collected and published this February by University of Hell Press, titled all this can be yours (with proceeds going to RAINN and Futures Without Violence). Additionally, O’Hare is editing an anthology/manifesto of feminist redactions. As with the spreadsheet, once O’Hare shared their work online, it engaged others and led to a continuation of that work.

I imagine O’Hare, not unlike Donegan and the community of women who created the spreadsheet, using the tools of the office (the world of work) to create a poetry from these most unpoetic of materials: picture them grasping Sharpies, giveaway pens with corporate logos, and printed text from press releases, and uncovering what is there – what is really there, beneath the surface.

These erasures are thrilling to read, as if maybe — just maybe — we could imagine these being the actual words hidden within the words.

Consider Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes: Gentileschi painted her own face as Judith, her mentor Agostino Tassi as Holofernes. This is an old old story. Tassi had originally denied the accusation, denied ever being at Gentileschi’s house. Later, he admitted proximity, claiming he’d visited to safeguard her honor. He’d been accused of previous rapes, was suspected of the murder of his wife. He was found guilty of raping Gentileschi, sentenced to two years, but the verdict was annulled and just a year later he was free. Gentileschi painted this painting a few years later, her second version of this scene. She imagines the moment of the knife at Holofernes’s throat, his last breath, being held down; Judith is assisted by her maid, a much younger woman. They work in concert and overpower him.

She imagines the moment of the knife at Holofernes’s throat, his last breath, being held down; Judith is assisted by her maid, a much younger woman. They work in concert and overpower him.

What I mean to say is that poetry, like all literature, must challenge the status quo — must challenge the reader to reconsider what power means, who has it, who should have it, and how it should be wielded. What is more of a challenge to that than the very notion of author, of “I”? Collaborative texts, intertextual texts, and anonymous texts kick the legs out from under the very notion that a text can be owned and controlled. It’s why when Moira Donegan was going to be outed, so many women responded online with #iwroteit; it’s why the erasures Isobel O’Hare began, inspired, and is now collecting are so powerful – they take the words of others and incorporate them into the poetic project, creating a hybrid text where the boundaries of ownership are blurry.

Poetry is also about form, which is another reason I’m drawn to erasures – they uncouple ordinary language from syntax and grammar, summoning a dream-voice from the carefully constructed language of (often, in this case) not-apology, from rationalization. In doing so, they allow to speak the words that have power but were heaped with watered-down, corporate-speak, passive-voice nothingedness; they separate the power of language from the uses those in power often coerce language into. Erasures are an act of resistance — subversive. Gentileschi too worked within a form: a biblical story, an oft-painted scene, working in the vein of artists like Caravaggio and her own father. But she makes some important changes even working within this existing tradition — including the much-younger maid (a warning there); including her own face, her own rage; calling out the identity of her rapist and mentor, ensuring he’ll be remembered for all time for that . . . for what he did, and for that scene of her imagined revenge.

What I mean to say is that poetry, like all literature, must challenge the status quo — must challenge the reader to reconsider what power means, who has it, who should have it, and how it should be wielded.

Spreadsheets are useful to keep track of submissions, threads of story, dates and details for character developments. I remember when I realized that they were more than just elegant-looking tables, but rather something I could use — an organism to be crafted and tamed. They could do my bidding, they could morph, they could serve my needs and desires. A well-wrought spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, even when what it tracks is pain. Think of the possibilities for poetry — think what could be tracked within those cells, how to de-couple language from syntax, how to weave language and pattern and power. Thank you to all those writers who added their voices, who painted themselves into the picture, who took the sad pseudo-apologies and fixed them. Thank you to everyone who communicates in words, in a touch of the arm, with the safety of their presence, with a whispered warning, a too-long holding of eye contact — from whisper networks to the more formal spreadsheet, we need to take care of each other.

top photo by Umanoide on Unsplash

The Theology of Abuse

I read recently about a man who was a faithful member of his church. He was involved with the youth group and hosted summer activities at his farm. And he sexually molested many children and youth.

When the civil authorities finally exposed him as a child predator, the leadership of the church made a plan to discipline and restore him to the community. This man was asked to confess his sins at a members-only meeting of the church. After his confession, the pastor urged everyone to stand “as a sign that you have forgiven him.” And people stood.

Imagine being a teenager, sitting in the pew at your church, looking at the man who has raped you. Then imagine your pastor, your family, your friends, your Sunday School teachers, your choir director . . . imagine everyone who is part of your most important community standing in support of that man.

Imagine being a teenager, sitting in the pew at your church, looking at the man who has raped you. Then imagine … everyone who is part of your most important community standing in support of that man.

This is a particular—and very real—situation, but the presence of sexual abuse in the church is not unique, nor is the church’s poor handling of such abuse. Many churches are taking more precautions in an attempt to prevent sexual abuse in the congregation: requiring windows into children’s classrooms, not allowing adults to be alone with children, running background checks on church volunteers who want to work with children and youth.

All of these actions are important. Practical, commonsense measures should be put in place to minimize the abuse that happens within our faith communities. But in addition to implementing protection policies, Christians have a lot of theological work to do as well.

On Forgiveness

In addition to implementing protection policies, Christians have a lot of theological work to do as well.

I imagine that the pastor who asked the congregation to forgive the sexual predator was considering Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:21–22. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone in the church who has sinned against him. Seven times? Jesus tells him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Still, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words just a few verses earlier: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Yes, the Bible teaches forgiveness. It also proclaims judgment—particularly against those who harm the most vulnerable. When we insist on public forgiveness rituals for sexual predators, we get it wrong on at least two levels.

Yes, the Bible teaches forgiveness. It also proclaims judgment—particularly against those who harm the most vulnerable.

First, people who are not directly victims of the abuse presume to offer forgiveness on behalf of those who were abused. It is not the pastor’s or the congregation’s place to grant forgiveness for the violations done to the most vulnerable in their midst. It is the sole right of victims to grant or withhold forgiveness for themselves; to set the terms by which forgiveness will—or will not—be extended to perpetrators. When pastors and others in the church who were not directly victimized offer forgiveness to abusers, they take even more power away from victims who likely already feel powerless.

We also get forgiveness wrong because it is too often a simplistic substitute for healthy accountability. The church uses “forgiveness” to ensure silence on the subject so that people in the church don’t have to feel bad or uncomfortable. It is a way to allow the abuser to remain part of the congregation because he’s probably a really nice guy—when he’s not raping children—and he possibly gives substantial money to the church as well. This type of forgiveness is significantly easier than true accountability, and it can seem best for the institution in the short run.

In the long run, however, forced forgiveness is deeply damaging for victims and entire communities. Studies show that most people who sexually abuse children are repeat offenders with multiple victims. No matter how sorry an abuser seems, if he is allowed continued access to children and youth, odds are he will abuse again. And again.

On Sexual Shaming

In 2011, according to reporting by 20/20, New Hampshire pastor Chuck Phelps discovered that a member of his congregation had raped and impregnated a teenager. Pastor Phelps’s response to this discovery was to force the teen to stand in front of the congregation and confess her sins.

When pastors and others in the church who were not directly victimized offer forgiveness to abusers, they take even more power away from victims who likely already feel powerless.

Too often in the church world, people are taught that sex is shameful. Sex is only mentioned in terms of sin. The message received, especially by children, is that sex is dirty and yucky (unless you are married and trying to make babies).

Without clear teachings about healthy sexuality, children and youth often view their bodies as potentially dangerous sexual objects. So if they are touched in a sexual way, they can feel confused and deeply ashamed. The people they should be able to turn to in such a situation—their pastor, Sunday School teachers, parents—are likely the people who have taught them this shame.

Too often, when sexual abuse is reported… the victim gets blamed for their sexual sin. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation.

In some cases, if a young person gets up the courage to report, an adult can help them through their confusion and shame. But too often, when sexual abuse is reported, the situation looks like that reported by 20/20: the victim gets blamed for their sexual sin. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation. They fall back on the simple rule: sex between people who are not married to each other is bad; therefore, anyone who engages in sex with someone to whom they are not married is bad—even if the sexual encounter is a result of grooming, coercion, or outright sexual assault.

There are many problems with this simplistic rule for sex. (I commend to you the book Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan.) But in the context of sexual abuse, the primary problem is that the victim is considered just as sinful as the perpetrator. After all, they both “had sex.” And so, in addition to suffering through the abuse itself, victims then face being shamed within their church communities.

On Self-Sacrifice

Several years ago, a student in my Feminist Theology class shared that her mom had stayed in an abusive relationship for years because their pastor told her she should. That it was God’s will for her to suffer, like Jesus suffered on the cross. That such suffering made her holy.

The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering.

Sacrifice is a significant aspect of Christian theology, being linked to Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow him. And the idea that we, at times, must make sacrifices is not a bad—or even an inherently Christian—teaching in its basic content. We sacrifice money for flood victims; time for the local little league team; canned peas for the local food pantry. Maybe we even sacrifice an advancement in our careers for the sake of our family, or the convenience of a car for the sake of the environment. Sacrifice for others can be a good and blessed thing.

But this theological requirement of self-sacrifice is also dangerous, and sometimes lethal, for abuse victims. The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering. Victims are told that if they want to be Christlike they will submit to their abusers—or at least submit to the will of the church leadership by not reporting abuse to outsiders.

People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.

Abuse victims within the church are counseled to sacrifice their pursuit of justice, their own personal comfort and safety, for the sake of the church’s image. The pastors who counsel this may well be concerned with the image of their individual congregation, but the prospect is presented more dramatically to the victim: “If you tell outsiders that someone in the church has abused you, it will make Jesus look bad. You will become a stumbling block that prevents nonbelievers from finding salvation.”

People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.

Toward a Theology of Accountability and Empowerment

The church cannot prevent every instance of sexual abuse—within or outside of religious institutions. But it can do a better job of empowering victims and holding perpetrators accountable. The stories told in church matter. And the way they are told matters. Victims of sexual abuse can be either further victimized or moved toward healing depending on how the church talks about forgiveness and sex and self-sacrifice.

Victims of sexual abuse can be either further victimized or moved toward healing depending on how the church talks about forgiveness and sex and self-sacrifice.

Jesus’ crucifixion—the central story of the Christian faith—is not a simple story of self-sacrifice. It is a story about how political, economic, and religious leaders tried to silence a voice and a movement that threatened their tightly clutched power and precariously balanced systems. If we believe in the resurrection, it becomes a story about how those powers fail—and about how we can be part of bringing them down.

top photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Racism and the Myth of Scarcity

At a recent meeting of (mostly white) local clergy, we were asked whether or not our congregations would add their names to a “Black Lives Matter” banner.

“When I brought it up at church,” said another pastor, “one of our members pointed out that LGBTQ people still face a great deal of oppression in this country, too. She wanted to know where her banner was.”

And, of course, the common rejoinder to Black Lives Matter—not explicitly stated at that clergy meeting but certainly underlying many of the reasons given by churches who declined to have their names on the banner—“All lives matter.”

None of the pastors in the group are overtly racist. None of them said their churches were not signing on to the banner because they think black people are inferior or they want to go back to the days of Jim Crow. The churches represented by these pastors are not filled with neo-Nazis and KKK members.

So I’ve been contemplating my colleagues’ responses to this request to sign on to the BLM banner. I’ve been wondering how a movement described by Eboni Marshall Turman of Duke Divinity School as “the Jesus event of the 21st Century”[1] has come under such suspicion from “progressive” white Christians.

I’ve been wondering how a movement described by Eboni Marshall Turman of Duke Divinity School as “the Jesus event of the 21st Century” has come under such suspicion from “progressive” white Christians.

There are plenty of reasons, I suppose—reasons connected to white power and privilege, to racial ignorance and fear. I won’t deny the myriad economic, sociological, and psychological dysfunctions at work in white critique of BLM. But as a pastor, I’m most interested in the theological roots of white suspicion, which I think is connected to a belief in what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the “myth of scarcity.”[2]

In the story of the Exodus, argues Brueggemann, Pharaoh is convinced that there is not enough—not enough money, not enough power, not enough food—to go around. It is this fear of scarcity that causes him, with the administrative help of Joseph, to hoard food in the first place, and then to use the hoarded food to exploit the Israelite people during the famine. In order to access the food Pharaoh has stored up in his silos, the people give up their money, and then their land, and finally their freedom.

When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, they again face the specter of scarcity as they wander the desert. But the economic system established by God in the wilderness differs vastly from the market economy created by Pharaoh in Egypt. God does not ask for money or land or lives in exchange for food. The food—in the form of manna and quail—simply appears on the ground each morning and evening. The people are allowed to take the food freely. The only catch is that they cannot take more than they need. Any food they tried to hoard “bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:20).

The food—in the form of manna and quail—simply appears on the ground each morning and evening. The people are allowed to take the food freely. The only catch is that they cannot take more than they need.

Jesus reenacts this wilderness miracle when he feeds the hungry crowds on the mountainside. The disciples insist that five loaves and two fish are not enough to feed the thousands who have gathered, but Jesus says to pass around the food anyway, and in the end everyone has enough. Over and over again, the biblical story shows how the human belief in scarcity is confounded by the reality of Divine abundance.

The death-dealing effects of the myth of scarcity—in the stories of scripture and in our lived experiences—are starkly evident when we consider economic systems and other concrete realities. Overwhelming problems such as human poverty and environmental degradation are directly grounded in our fear that there is not enough stuff to go around—not enough money, not enough resources. So those of us who can hoard stuff for ourselves do—because you never know when famine will strike.

Over and over again, the biblical story shows how the human belief in scarcity is confounded by the reality of Divine abundance.

But it’s not just food and crude oil and money we fear are in short supply. The comments I have heard about the Black Lives Matter movement convince me that our fear of scarcity goes well beyond concrete things. We also fear that there is not really enough of intangible things—things that we desperately want but find difficult to grab and hoard. Things like respect, status, energy, attention, dignity…

In listening to well-meaning liberals question and criticize BLM, I keep bumping up against this idea that if we are specifically for one group of people, we must be against other groups of people. Because there is just not enough for-ness to go around. If we are for Black Lives Matter, we must be against the idea that all lives matter. If we are for dismantling racism, we must be against dismantling homophobia and patriarchy. If we are for victims of police brutality, we must be against the police.

In listening to well-meaning liberals question and criticize BLM, I keep bumping up against this idea that if we are specifically for one group of people, we must be against other groups of people. Because there is just not enough for-ness to go around.

These lies, I believe, are born out of the myth of scarcity—a myth to which we are all susceptible. The reality, of course, is that we can be specifically for one group of people without being against others. The struggle for the rights and dignity of black people in the United States is necessary for the movement toward the rights and dignity of all people. Saying “Black Lives Matter” is to name those who should be, but are not yet, included in our national belief that all lives really do matter.

The founders of the BLM movement—Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors—identify as queer black women. The BLM movement is a strong voice for LGBTQ justice. Their insistence that Black Lives Matter in no way suggests that queer lives don’t matter, that women’s lives don’t matter, that any other lives don’t matter. Demanding respect for the lives of people in a particular group does not diminish the respect afforded to people in a different group—or people (which is most of us) whose identities overlap multiple groups. There is enough respect—an abundance of respect—to go around.

The reality, of course, is that we can be specifically for one group of people without being against others. The struggle for the rights and dignity of black people in the United States is necessary for the movement toward the rights and dignity of all people.

It is the lie of scarcity that suggests that offering respect to one group diminishes the respect of another. It is the same lie of scarcity that says being pro-BLM means you must be anti-police. In reality, being anti-police brutality is being pro-police doing their jobs well. Holding abusive police officers accountable is supporting those police who work hard for more just communities. Affirming the worth of black people makes all communities more prosperous and safe, which will ultimately save the lives of police and community members alike.

The myth of scarcity is deeply engrained in our spirits and is at the root of much human sin, including the sin of racism—whether overt or covert. As an alternative to this myth of scarcity, Brueggemann suggests a “liturgy of abundance”—a realization and proclamation that this world contains enough for us all. Enough food and shelter and natural resources; enough respect and attention and dignity. This liturgy of abundance assures us that we don’t have to parcel out what and who we will be for and against; we can be for all good things and all people in this world.

It is the lie of scarcity that suggests that offering respect to one group diminishes the respect of another.

It is hard to live out the liturgy of abundance in a culture obsessed with scarcity. But if we are going to believe in abundance, spring is the time to do it. When the birdsong drowns out the traffic noise, and a strong breeze brings a rain of pink and white petals, and yellow daffodil clumps pop up in even the sparsest yards.

If we are going to believe in abundance, Easter is the time to do it. When we celebrate the story of courage overcoming fear, of love overcoming hate, of life swallowing up death forever.

It is hard to live out the liturgy of abundance in a culture obsessed with scarcity. But if we are going to believe in abundance, spring is the time to do it.

If we are going to believe in abundance, now is the time to do it. When we can add our voices to those proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, to those insisting that people valued least in society be granted the dignity they deserve, to those who understand that there is enough of everything good to go around.

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[1]   Turman, Eboni Marshall. “Seven Writers Assess the Movement: Black Lives Matter.” Christian Century. March 16, 2016.

[2]   Brueggemann, Walter. “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity.” Christian Century. March 24-31, 1999, (Bruegemann explores this concept in many of his other writings as well.)

top photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash