We’ve read about scheming politicians, afflicted refugees, innocents killed for the sake of “national security.” We’ve seen protests suppressed, military overkill, and, of course, an utter disregard for the truth supported by the dissemination of “alternative facts.”
I am, of course, talking about the biblical texts we’ve read in church.
For congregations that follow the Lectionary-assigned readings, it’s been a rough few months. Immediately after Christmas, before the baby’s umbilical cord stump had fallen off, we read a charming story we like to call “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” King Herod has heard rumors of a baby king—a rival for his throne. Since Herod can’t find the particular baby in question, he decides to kill all the babies.
So we have a paranoid, narcissistic ruler with poor impulse control. And we have plenty of people who should know better carrying out the cruel and insane orders of this ruler.
Jesus’ parents save him from the slaughter by becoming refugees. In an ironic reversal of a foundational Jewish story, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escape into Egypt and remain there, in a foreign land, until word comes to them of Herod’s death.
So, we have targeted innocents fleeing a brutal political regime, and, fortunately, no wall at the Egyptian border.
After this cheery episode, we arrive at Epiphany, which gives us the back story to Herod’s death orders. You may know this as the story of the three wise men. There weren’t necessarily three of them, and they were magi, or astrologers, who really weren’t very wise. But still, lots of people know the basic idea: men from the east follow a star to find the Christ child and offer the most inappropriate baby gifts ever. These gift-bearing foreigners show up anachronistically in nativity scene after nativity scene.
The character that doesn’t make the cut for the nativity scenes is King Herod, but he’s a central figure in this story. The magi come to him asking, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” Herod’s advisers cite the prophets, who say the child will be born in Bethlehem. And Herod says to the Magi, “Hey guys, when you find that itty bitty little baby king, swing back by and let me know where he is. I’d love to go worship him.”
So we have a fearful politician desperate to maintain power who is not honest about his intentions.
The men from the East don’t seem wise enough to figure out that the last thing Herod would do is worship a rival king. Perhaps Herod was charming, a convincing liar. Perhaps the magi were the type of people who hear what they want to hear, who filter out disconcerting and inconvenient warning signs. Whatever the reason, they don’t seem to suspect Herod’s ulterior motive in wanting to find the child. (Fortunately for baby Jesus, though maybe not for all the other babies, God comes to the magi in a dream, sending them home by another way.)
So we have people who can’t—or won’t—recognize the true nature of the dishonest political leader.
And that’s all within a couple weeks of Christmas. Fast forward through Lent to Palm Sunday and we meet another insecure ruler. Okay, we don’t actually meet Pilate in the Palm Sunday story, but he’s there. The Bible tells the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowd waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!” Historians tell us that Pilate, too, would have ridden into Jerusalem—he needed to be there during the week of Passover to make sure the pilgrims didn’t get out of hand. As governor of the region, Pilate would not have been riding into town on a donkey. He would have been on a war horse accompanied by a military entourage.
So, we have a politician desperate to look powerful, eager to be adored by the people—people who, for the most part, despise him. And we have a joyful, peaceful parade that amounts to a protest against the current political establishment. I imagine Pilate insisted that his crowd was bigger than Jesus’ crowd.
As you might know, while things start off pretty well for Jesus on Sunday, by Friday it’s all gone to hell. Judas, a disciple, has agreed to betray him. His best friends keep falling asleep in the garden where Jesus is praying his heart out. And then the mob shows up—a group of men rounded up by the chief priests and elders, carrying clubs and swords. They are there to arrest Jesus. Jesus who, as far as we know, never carried a weapon. Jesus who, as he tells them, had been preaching in broad daylight all week and could easily have been arrested without this stealthy nighttime campaign.
So, we have a group in power using disproportionate violence, committing their violent acts in the dark so the broader public doesn’t know what they are doing.
Jesus’ ensuing trial is a master class in dysfunctional politicking. (Or, I suppose, functional politicking—depending on your perspective.) A conservative faction of a religious group convinces the powers that be to go along with their agenda, threatening dire political consequences if the political leaders refuse their request. The political leaders, Herod and Pilate, pass Jesus back and forth—neither wanting to be responsible for him. And Pilate asks a haunting question at Jesus’ trial: “What is the truth?”
So we have politicians who fail to carry out justice, instead engaging in political maneuvers designed to shift blame away from themselves and appease a wealthy and powerful special interest group.
Then we have Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. The men who had been guarding Jesus’ tomb tell the priests and elders what happened: there was an earthquake, and then an angel descended and said that Jesus had been raised. The religious leaders are worried about how the people will react when they hear this story, so they pay the guards to tell a different story: we all fell asleep, and the disciples came and stole the body.
So we have fake news.
I realize that these dark musings may not be in line with what I, as a pastor, am expected to preach in Easter season. I should be proclaiming the Good News. Shouting about new life from the rooftops. Exalting in God’s power to heal and transform. Pointing to God’s promise to bring justice in this world and eternal life in the next. And sure, as a Christian, I think that’s all true and grand.
But these days I’m actually gravitating to the human aspects of the biblical story. I’m somehow glad to know that politicians have always been corrupt, that the poor and otherwise vulnerable have always been oppressed, that violence has always been the go-to solution for those in power, that fake news was not invented by Breitbart. I suppose some might find it depressing to have these ancient stories of corruption and death as companions to the troubling daily news. But I find it oddly comforting.
If humanity can survive the likes of Pilate and the Herods, maybe we can survive our current president. When I consider the biblical story, I realize that, as awful as things are, maybe we are simply dealing with mundane, run-of-the-mill evil, and not a new breed of unconquerable super-evil.
In addition to the “misery loves company” comfort I find in scripture these days, I also find hope. Because the Bible doesn’t just show the long history of evil, but it also shows how people have fought against that evil. People cross borders they aren’t supposed to cross. They disobey orders from corrupt leaders. They join in protest marches, finding joy in communities of resistance. And people keep speaking the truth.
Here’s what amazes me about the Resurrection narrative. (I mean, besides the earthquake and lightning angel and dead guy alive again.) There were two basic stories circulating about the body of an executed Jewish rabbi. The logical stolen body story was being circulated by respectable male guards and the powerful religious establishment. The unbelievable Resurrection story was being circulated by a couple of women—at a time when the testimony of women was not even valid in a court of law. Yet somehow the women’s story is the one I preach every year.
Today, there are two basic stories circulating about the current presidential administration. Let’s call one the “inauguration story”—that America is first; that our military power makes us great; that this president has the biggest crowds. Let’s call the other one the “women’s (march) story”—that America is on open and inclusive country; that our commitment to care for the vulnerable makes us great; that this president is an incompetent sexual predator. (I mean, he’s a competent sexual predator and an incompetent president.)
Two stories. I find comfort in scripture these days because these ancient words suggest that, in the end, the story told by the women is the one that endures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just before 7 p.m on July 7, as protesters gathered in Belo Garden Park, in Dallas, Texas, I settled onto a hard wooden seat in the choir stall of St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota. As they chanted “enough is enough,” we chanted Psalm 59: “You have been a refuge in the day of my distress.” As they shouted, we sat in silence. As they marched, we bowed.
I imagine everyone was praying, in our own ways. At the church, we prayed in formal style, a monk beseeching God, the congregation responding: “Lord, hear our prayer.” One monk prayed for “Philando Castille and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.” I wondered if Philando and Diamond were members of this church. I wondered what had happened, that they merited the prayers of this holy community.
On retreat at a writing workshop, I had not been keeping up with the news. I had no idea that just eighty miles away from where I sat, Philando had been killed by a police officer the night before. No idea that Diamond had somehow had the presence of mind to begin recording the incident even as her boyfriend sat bleeding beside her. I had no idea, but I prayed for Philando and Diamond: “Lord, hear our prayer.”
As peaceful yet angry people continued to gather and chant and march in Denver, I recited the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth.” I received the blessing. I watched the men in black robes file out of their seats, bow to the cross, and head back to their mysterious—though likely mundane—monkish lives.
Later that night, I was drinking and laughing with my friends when the gunshots rang out on the streets of Dallas. Were we talking about church politics, or bad dates, or our cute dogs when the first police officer died? And then the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.
I slept well that night, but some of my friends at the retreat did not. One woman had a frantic text from a friend whose husband is a police officer in Dallas—whose husband was at the protest and hadn’t come home yet—whose husband, she thankfully learned later, was not physically harmed in the attack. One man from Nigeria received an early morning call from his sister. His family heard about the black man shot in Minnesota and they were worried, because he was a black man—in Minnesota. “Come home to Nigeria where it is safe,” his sister begged him.
It is a strange experience, to be on retreat while the world is falling apart. I did read some news stories, but not deeply. I did skim Facebook, but I didn’t participate in the conversations—not the important ones. Because I wanted my week away. Even as people were dying, I wanted to walk by the lake, enjoy the beautiful gardens, gaze at the stained glass windows, listen to the breezes and the birds. And I did all of these things, but with an underlying consciousness that my space, the peace of my moment, was far from the reality of many.
Being on retreat during these events heightened the struggle I feel in the face of any national or international tragedy: What is the appropriate response? Or rather, the good response? How do I acknowledge and honor the pain of strangers? How do I live into the truth that we are all connected to each other? How do I maintain my own sanity and fulfill my ongoing obligations while still giving time and energy to address what is happening in the world?
I care about the hurting people. I care about the injustices in the world. I want to speak and act against racism and homophobia and gun violence. I want to write powerful words and preach prophetic sermons and pray faithful prayers. And I want to watch Netflix. And I need to have supper ready by five because my daughter has gymnastics tonight.
I generally end up doing all of these things. I write and preach and pray and watch Netflix and make dinner. Though I increasingly recognize that not needing to worry about my nineteen-year-old son being shot by police is a luxury parents of black boys don’t have. And my ease makes me uneasy.
Paul, the New Testament missionary/writer, and I have something of a love/hate relationship. One of his concepts I love is the metaphor of church as a body. “The body is not made up of one part but of many . . . If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14,17) This metaphor helps sustain me when I struggle with what to do, when I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough.
Paul specifically applies this metaphor to the church, but I consider its application to community more broadly. We are a body with each other—across the country and around the world. This may sound a little cheesy, and if you’re of a certain age you might have an image of swaying pop stars singing “We are the world” and be tempted to roll your eyes.
Go ahead and get the eye rolling out of your system. Then consider the implications of the metaphor. Being a body means that we are connected—head to toe connected. If you stub your toe, the message courses along your nerves all the way up to your brain. If you injure an eye, it makes your hands and arms less precise because it messes with your depth perception. An inner ear infection can make you tip over. . . . You get the idea. All connected.
At a basic level, this connection means that what is harmful to some is, ultimately, harmful to all. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we say, “Black lives matter,” it is not a denial that other lives also matter. It is a claim that black lives are not being properly valued; and in failing to value black lives, we harm the quality of life for everyone. I do not want to live in a society where anyone of any race gets abused or shot by police for having a toy gun or reaching for his ID or asking to see a search warrant or being a little grumpy when they get pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. As Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
In addition to telling us why we should work for justice—because we are all connected—this metaphor also gives us insight into how we can continue to do the work of justice. The eye focuses on seeing. The stomach digests the food. The legs hold us up and move us forward. And we each do the work that is in front of us to do, while trusting that other parts of the body are doing the work that is in front of them to do. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).
I teach my children and preach to my congregation and write my columns. Others research the criminal justice system and police brutality and traffic stops. Others organize rallies and gather people on social media and in real life. Others promote legislation that will address the systemic racism in our country. Others work from within police departments to change police policies and procedures. The work being done is as varied as the people doing it.
A body works best when the eyes do the seeing and the stomachs the digesting and the legs the walking. Movements for justice work best when we each do what we are given to do. When we do it well. And when we cheer on others who are doing the work they have been given to do.
This is a comfort to me. Because there is so much I am not doing. There is so much I cannot do. And some things that, if I’m honest, I don’t want to do.
This body metaphor is a comfort to me because I was praying with a bunch of monks while people were marching in the streets insisting that Black Lives Matter. I need to trust that my contemplation and prayers, conversations and tears, are also part of the work that must be done.
Please. Please. For the love of God and your constituency, find a real problem to write bills about. Because transgender people in bathrooms are not causing any problems. None. Zero.
My preference would be that you spend your energy addressing pressing concerns that threaten to destabilize society and possibly annihilate the entire human race. Might I suggest: generational poverty, mass incarceration, underfunded public schools, or Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
If, for reasons I won’t pretend to understand, you insist on creating bills related to public restrooms, allow me to suggest some bills that might actually improve the bathroom-going experience of the general public:
A bill requiring “occupied/not occupied” signs on stalls. The older I get, the more awkward it is to bend over and check for feet under the stall door.
An “all or nothing” bill regarding automation of bathroom amenities. Does the toilet flush by itself? Will the soap squirt out automatically? Will the water turn on if I move my hand back and forth faster under the faucet? How long should I stand here waiting for the paper towels to emerge? An “all or nothing” bill would help me avoid quite a bit of embarrassment.
A bill prohibiting the use of 1-ply toilet paper. For reasons I shouldn’t have to explain.
I appreciate your time and attention to my concerns. And I hope your next experience in the public restroom of your choice is a pleasant one.
Dear Conservative Christian “News” Sites and Conservative Talk Show Hosts,
I imagine you and I disagree about many things. Evolution. Abortion rights. Gay marriage. Women pastors. Israel/Palestine. Military service. But with all of these issues, I at least understand where you are coming from. I can articulate the values that undergird your opposition to same-sex marriage. I can turn to the Bible passages that you quote when you champion creationism. I can even tell you all the reasons you would say that I should not be a pastor.
I don’t agree with you on these issues; I do (more or less) understand your perspective. But when it comes to your opposition to inclusive bathroom policies, I am truly and completely at a loss. I listen to your arguments in favor of forcing people to use the bathroom of the sex they were assigned on their birth certificate. I try to find some shred of reason in what you say, but every single argument I hear either says nothing or it says something that is so obviously false I can’t imagine anyone really believes it.
The say nothing arguments go something like this: You know we’ve just always . . . and we’ve never . . . and society and common sense and values.
The obviously false arguments go like this: If you let people use the bathroom that corresponds to their chosen gender identity, men will go into women’s restrooms and attack women.
Also, it has NOTHING to do with allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. The man was not transgender. He was not even a cross dresser. He was a creepy guy who walked right into the women’s restroom and strangled a girl. Which, by the way, is against the law everywhere.
I don’t get it. I have deep roots in the Christian tradition—Baptist roots. I’ve read a broad theological range. I’ve attended prayer meetings where people spoke in tongues. I’m fluent in evangelical-ese (if a bit rusty), and I almost always understand the conservative Christian perspective, even though I don’t often agree with it.
But not this time. This time I’m stumped. I truly and honestly have no clue why you are opposed to letting people use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. I thought maybe there was something in the Bible that I’ve somehow missed in all my years of study. So I did some searching.
Turns out that many relevant bathroom words are not found in the Bible at all: bathroom, toilet, pee, poop, feces, shat. None of them are in there.
But “urine” was a hit. God tells Ezekiel to proclaim the coming devastation: “Every spirit will become faint and every leg will be wet with urine.” (Ezekiel 21:7) Also, in a story repeated in 2 Kings and Isaiah, a commander declares that the defeated enemy will “have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine”. (2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12)
Which led me to “excrement” and a passage in Ezekiel where God relents and lets the prophet bake his bread over cow dung instead of human excrement. (Ezekiel 4:15)
Very vivid verses—but not especially relevant to the topic at hand.
I was able to find only one verse that seems at all related to modern bathroom use. In Deuteronomy 23: 12-13, instructions are given to the Israelites:”Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.”
I think we can all agree on the basic Christian principle of covering up our excrement. Or flushing. Beyond that, perhaps we should keep silent where the scriptures are silent.
Your Sister (I can show you my birth certificate if you like) in Christ,Joanna
Dear Cis Woman in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
If I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
Dear Trans Woman in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
If I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
Dear Cis Man or Trans Man in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
It seems only fair that if you enjoy the privileges of being a man in our society—higher pay, more respect, a wardrobe that does not go out of style every six months—then you should also experience the down sides of being a man in our society—nasty public bathrooms.
But, at any rate, if I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
In bathroom solidarity,Joanna
Dear Sexual Predator in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
Dear Men who were in the Men’s Room when my Woman Friend Accidentally Wandered in there and Used the Bathroom and then Noticed You All Looking at her Funny While She Was Washing her Hands,
She feels pretty silly and wants you to know she was really tired and jet lagged. It won’t happen again. Probably. But if it does, thanks for being cool about it.
The last time I saw my nineteen-year-old son, he grumbled at me in the middle of the public library: “Just stop yelling at me all the time. I’m sick of it. I’m finally living my life how I want, and you can’t control me!”
For the record, I wasn’t yelling at him. I had told him that I left an Easter card from his grandma at his apartment. Also, “living my life how I want” involves not taking his medication and staying up all night playing Xbox, which means he obviously can’t be expected to go to work in the mornings.
But he’s right, of course. I can’t control him. I’m doing a whole lot of psychological and spiritual work right now to let that sink in and to create the boundaries I need in our relationship so that encounters like this don’t send me into brooding anxiety for days on end.
Being a mother is not the most delightful part of my life. And I’m not the delightful mother I wish I were. So I approach the upcoming Mother’s Day celebration with deeply mixed feelings.
Mother’s Day is often celebrated in church, but many people will come to worship on May 8 with ambivalent—if not downright hostile—feelings about the day.
There are plenty of women who are not mothers—some by choice, some who desperately want children but, for different reasons, didn’t have them.
There are people whose mothers have died, and those whose mothers might as well be dead. There are those whose mothers abused them or stood by and let others abuse them. There are adopted kids (my oldest son and daughter among them) who wonder about their “other” mothers. There are women who have given their children up for adoption. Women who have had miscarriages. Women who have had abortions. Women who aren’t biologically female and so cannot ever hope to experience the very physical and feminine reality of pregnancy and childbirth.
Mother’s Day is riddled with landmines. I was relieved to get through our last worship planning session without any mention of the dreaded date. I thought I might get away with just ignoring mothers this year. But alas, someone emailed after the meeting and said, “Oh. We forgot about Mother’s Day. We should do something.”
We should do something. Fine. Here’s what I’m going to do: take a page from my more conservative Baptist upbringing. Not a page from how they celebrated Mother’s Day—with cheap carnations and sappy bookmarks and rhyming poems about a mother’s love being from heaven above. I’m going to take a page from how we Baptists used to celebrate Father’s Day—talking about God as the great and ultimate Father.
Celebrating earthly motherhood in worship is problematic on many levels. But lifting up the maternal qualities of God is, it seems to me, a valuable way to observe the holiday. After all, the earliest roots of Mother’s Day can be found in Greek and Roman celebrations honoring the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. And the modern manifestation of the holiday in the United States is based on women’s efforts toward peace, justice, and equal rights.
And of course, since it’s church, we’ll read the Bible.
The foundational Biblical image of God as creator is strikingly feminine. The writer of Deuteronomy chastises the people, saying: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (32:18). And in Isaiah God says she “will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (42:14).
The Biblical images of God as a nurturing mother provide a necessary corrective to contemporary religious rhetoric about judgment and punishment, getting even and building walls. In Isaiah God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (66:13). Hosea writes these words from God’s mouth: “I led them with cords of human kindness, / with ties of love. / To them I was like one who lifts / a little child to the cheek, / and I bent down to feed them” (11:4).
And another Biblical image is a necessary corrective to our tendency to think of mothers only as gentle nurturers: God says, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, / I will attack them and rip them open” (Hosea 13:8).
I love that some of these images are soft and comforting, while others are powerful and disturbing. Motherhood is as much about wailing in labor and viciously protecting our children as it is about kissing boo-boos and singing lullabies. In fact, some experiences of motherhood involve far more wailing than kissing.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we acknowledge the complicated identity of being a mother (or not) and the complex relationships that many people have with their mothers and other maternal figures.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we lift up the fullness of God and explore the rich and varied images for the Divine provided in the Bible and other religious texts. This broadened conversation matters not just because it allows us to understand God more fully, but also because it allows us to move beyond the strictly gendered ways we think about each other.
Many theologians will argue that God is neither male nor female. I prefer to consider God as female and male and non-gendered and multi-gendered. We could say that God is gender fluid, or gender queer: a fierce mother bear one moment and a generous father the next (Matthew 7:11); a father whispering secrets to children and a mother gasping and panting in childbirth (Matthew 11:25, Isaiah 42:14); an eagle spreading its wings to catch its young and a hen gathering her chicks to her warm body (Deuteronomy 32:11; Matthew 23:37).
Perhaps Mother’s Day can be a time to question rather than reinforce the gender binary and stereotypes so prevalent in our society. Rather than feeling shame around our own experiences with mothers and motherhood, it can be a day for us to acknowledge that none of us have perfect mothers; that none of us are or will be or would have been perfect mothers.
And if we must celebrate this secular holiday in the holy space of worship, perhaps it can be a time for us to recognize and celebrate the fullness of Divine identity; a time to praise the mothering God who gave us birth, to rest under the warmth of her wings, and to find power in her fierce love.
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” 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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
 Turman, Eboni Marshall. “Seven Writers Assess the Movement: Black Lives Matter.” Christian Century. March 16, 2016.
 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.)