preferential option for #BlackLivesMatter

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “Black Lives Matter” vs. “All Lives Matter” arguments, and for me it again returns to the theological concept of the preferential option for the poor and/or oppressed. Simply put, God’s universal love extends to everyone, but God has a special concern for those most in need of justice and mercy, and that special concern does not diminish or take away from God’s universal love for all of us. If we are people of faith, we are called to also show that preferential love and concern, and sometimes that means taking a side. Or, as this comic illustrates, if there is a house on fire, you don’t prove your commitment to equality by spraying an equal amount of water on a house that’s not on fire and a house that is on fire. Tend to the house that is on fire, where people’s lives could be in danger. It doesn’t mean you care less about the people in the house that’s not on fire. It means you care about helping the ones most in danger at the moment.  #BlackLivesMatter

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About that protest at the Vatican

So I watched footage of the Femen protest at the Vatican, where a topless woman grabbed the Baby Jesus statue out of the crib with the words “GOD IS WOMAN” on her bare chest.  I am conflicted.

On the one hand, I’m really uncomfortable with the whole protesting topless thing that Femen does.  Not because I’m a prude about nudity, but because (according to a recent documentary) Femen actions are largely directed by a heterosexual man who ostracizes women who won’t go topless or who don’t fit his ideal of beauty. The group claims noble ideals of feminism, but I don’t think that choosing conventionally attractive women to take part in the actions does a lot to further full equality of all women regardless of size, skin color, or (dis)ability.  And I don’t buy the argument that naked breasts are the best or only way to get attention to promote gender equality.

On the other hand, I love a creative, provocative, direct action protest, and grabbing Baby Jesus from the crib at the Vatican nativity scene while shouting “God is Woman!” is pretty fabulous.  A lot more thought provoking than holding up a sign.  Christmas is the day Christians believe God became incarnate, a human being.  And many Christians hold on to a centuries old unfounded assumption that God is solely male and could only become incarnate as a biological man.  It is a harmful theological assumption that continues to devalue women and keep women from living lives free from oppression.  So a protest that interrupts the standard Christmas narrative, subverting the assumptions about who God is and how God is gendered?  I love that. I don’t believe God is a literal woman (any more than I believe God is any literal human form we can imagine, male or female), but I love the fact that this protester stopped the traditional Christmas festivities for even a moment to prod us into considering the implications of God as something other than a baby boy or an old white man with a long beard.

How might we treat baby girls if Jesus was born a little girl? How might we treat women if we truly believed them to be in the image and likeness of God?  I’m grateful for the woman who snatched up the Baby in the nativity scene and reminded me to ponder these questions.

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a mental health ministry

When I finished grad school with a master of theological studies degree, I had a lot of accumulated knowledge about theologies of liberation and a whole lot of uncertainty about how to put it into practice in a meaningful way.  I knew that I wanted to do some kind of advocacy ministry around mental health and spirituality, but I didn’t quite know how to go about it, or what it would look like.  I was also struggling to keep myself mentally well, and while it is possible to be a wounded healer, it’s also true that there is a reason why flight attendants instruct us to put an oxygen mask on first before attempting to help someone else with theirs: it’s easier to help another breathe when you yourself are not gasping for air.

So with deep gulps of fresh air in my lungs I’m starting to get involved in the mental health peer recovery movement, also known as the consumer/survivor/ex-patient (c/s/x) movement of people who live with a mental health diagnosis.  This movement wants to transform the way that mental health is talked about and treated, and for me this extends to faith communities.  I’m using my ministry and theology studies, combined with my own lived experience, to talk about stigma in faith communities and find ways to make faith communities more welcoming to people who live with mental health conditions.  I gave my first presentation earlier this year at a local gathering of peers, and I am presenting a workshop this weekend at Alternatives, a national conference of the c/s/x movement.  My hope is that my words and reflections will resonate, and that I can continue to meet others who share a desire to transform faith communities into places of healing and refuge, free from shame and stigma.  I welcome your prayers, support as I continue to discern this possible emerging ministry.

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When we tremble and fall down

I was walking to the cafe when I saw the sirens.  Firetruck. Ambulance.  Was someone hurt?  As I neared the entrance they were wheeling him out.  Eyes open, alert, gurney tilted to a seated position.  I didn’t want to stare, I’ve been in similar shoes and I hated the stares.  But as I was looking away, in the corner of my eye I caught the movement.  The trembling shake, the arms not quite settled, and asked myself a question I already knew the answer to.

Walking into the cafe I saw the gawkers still staring out of the window at the ambulance.  Someone asked the waitstaff what happened and the answer to my question was what I guessed: “He had a seizure.”

“Poor thing.”

Yes, it’s a common phrase.  But do people ever stop to think about what they’re saying?

Poor thing.

When did he cease to be a human being and become a thing?  Did he become an object to stare at and to pity the second he fell down convulsing?

I didn’t stay in the cafe.  I didn’t feel comfortable among the pitying gawkers.  I walked around the block, and in my mind I was rushing back to the ambulance to say something.  To tell him, I know what it’s like.  I get it.  Me too.  I see you.  Not as a curiosity, not as an object.  I see you as a person who sometimes trembles, who sometimes falls down, who sometimes needs a hand.

JUST LIKE EVERY ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE STARING AT YOU.  At us.

We epileptics make people uncomfortable when we shake.  We remind people how out of control life is.  We remind them that at any minute they too could fall down, that they’re not as independent as they think they are.  And that reminder, it terrifies them.  We terrify them.  So they distance themselves from us.  We become poor things, Others.

In some cultures the epileptic is honored as a holy person.  Seizures are a sign of connection to the Divine.

In my mind I went back to the cafe and addressed the gawkers.
Can you shift your gaze?
What if, instead of staring in pity and fear, you saw a person having a seizure as your teacher?  As a holy messenger, telling you:
We need one another.
We all tremble, we all fall down, we all need a hand.

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Armchair epilepsy experts

Epilepsy is in the news again in Minnesota, after the head coach of the Minnesota Gopher’s football team, Jerry Kill, had another seizure during a game.  Instead of the typical armchair quarterbacking after a game, commentators and fans are weighing in on a neurological condition most know nothing about and calling for Coach Kill to retire or resign.  The comments follow a pattern familiar to anyone who lives with a disability or chronic illness–not because of what will be said, but because of what won’t be said.

What’s said:

“I just think that for the good of the team he ought to resign.  I mean, he has a duty to the fans!  It would be for his own good to retire.  Really, it’s the best thing to do for everyone involved.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with people with epilepsy!  I’m totally not bothered if people have seizures…”

What’s not said:

“…as long as I don’t have to look at them, or be expected to show compassion when they have a seizure.
…as long as they don’t inconvenience me.
…as long as they are perfect overachievers with inspirational stories of how they overcame all obstacles and never have a bad day.
…as long as they don’t expect me to make accommodations for them.
…as long as they don’t get all “politically correct” and expect me to not make jokes at their expense.
…as long as they don’t expect to make up their own minds about how to live their lives.”

Of course the critics are not going to say any of the above out loud.  They might not even be aware of their own bias, and will vehemently deny any prejudice if you attempt to criticize their words.  But for those of us who live with epilepsy (or pretty much any other disability for that matter), we’ve learned how to translate the language of What’s Said.  We can tell the difference between genuine concern and condescending pity.  Their disguised discomfort from having to coexist with us is not as disguised as they think it is.  And just because they saw a man have a seizure does not mean they’re experts on how he should live his life.

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I’m not defending Michele Bachmann, but…

Michele Bachmann will not be running for another term in Congress.  There will be a lot of celebratory posts online today, and I’m bracing myself for a final round of otherwise thoughtful individuals posting lazy insults based on her appearance, gender, and perceived mental health status.  This happens to a lot of women in politics, regardless of political party,* but it seems to be especially vicious with Bachmann.   There are so many ways one could criticize her Tea Party priorities and her conspiracy theory influenced actions.  Yet when it comes to women we find unreasonable, the quickest route is often to make fun of her appearance (and deliberately publish unflattering photos), to attack using gendered insults (witch, b*tch, c*nt) and to demean by using ableist mental health related slurs (batsh*t crazy, insane, nutjob).  It’s continually disappointing to see people I count as friends and allies so gleefully insult her this way, not realizing that these kinds of insults don’t harm Bachmann, they instead perpetuate stereotypes about women and people with mental health conditions.  It reminds women to keep silent, because women who speak up and say the wrong thing aren’t debated on the merits of their argument, they’re just called a b*tch and told to shut up.  And every time someone says “she’s bats*t crazy” instead of explaining why her beliefs are contrary to basic human decency, that person is feeding the harmful cultural narrative that says that having a mental health diagnosis is shorthand for being dangerous, intellectually inferior, and not worth listening to.

So yay, Michele Bachmann will no longer have the power to pass legislation that harms women, immigrants, and sexual minorities.  Hopefully the rest of us can stop using her as an excuse for making cheap insults and opt for more respectful rhetoric when it comes to talking about how we disagree with someone.

*See also Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, etc.

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a plea and a prayer (on hearing of the death of Matthew Warren)

Associated Press, Published: April 6
LAKE FOREST, Calif. — The Southern California church headed by popular evangelical Pastor Rick Warren announced Saturday that Warren’s 27-year-old son has committed suicide.
Warren’s Saddleback Valley Community Church said in a statement that Matthew Warren had struggled with mental illness and deep depression throughout his life.

Please, please may this news bring greater discernment in how we treat those with mental health struggles in Christian faith communities.

May the talk of automatic hellfire for suicide victims cease.  

May the blaming of the victims who take their lives cease.  May the judging of their moral strength or depth of faith cease.

May the poisonous theology of the prosperity gospel cease to be a driving force of Christianity.  May we stop equating happiness, wealth, and worldly success with evidence of God’s favor.

May we stop equating deep sadness, despair, and strong emotional outbursts with demonic spirits.

May expressed emotion, tears, and vulnerability not be dismissed as “womanly” or “unmanly,” but honored as human traits.

May those who cry “My God, why have you abandoned me?” be recognized for who they are: The Christ in our midst, begging to be taken from the cross of mental anguish and anointed with soothing balms of compassion and understanding.

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