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Friday, March 31, 2017

Honest Lent: Heap Burning Coals

Picture of a lego, with the text "Hope you step on a". Image source.
Today for Honest Lent, we are reading Romans 12:9-21.

Specifically, I'd like to talk about this part:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
... what.

Okay, the way I understand this- the way I heard it in Sunday school- was this: You should be very nice toward your enemies, because then they will feel really bad. They'll feel much worse than they'd feel if you just used normal, expected ways of fighting with them.

And... wait, so the writer of Romans thinks it's totally cool that we want to make our "enemies" feel really bad? And he's advising us on the best way to do it?

(As an aside, I'd like to point out that this will only work if your "enemy" has a conscience and also knows that you were hurt by something they did. If you don't have both those conditions met, then they will just think "oh this person is being nice/ being normal" and not really think much of it.)

And "leave room for God's wrath"- does that mean "I know you want revenge, you want to see this jerk suffer, well let me tell you the BEST way to make them suffer- let God do it"? I'm really uncomfortable with this idea that wishing bad things upon your "enemy" is totally fine, and that by obeying the bible, you can bring THE MOST bad things upon them.

Longtime readers of my blog know that I am very much NOT a fan of the idea, within Christianity, that it's not okay to have certain feelings. So yes, I very much believe it's okay to be angry at someone who treated you in an evil way. It's totally okay to hate them, and never want to see them again, etc. But in terms of actual punishment- wishing or causing actual bad things to happen to them- wow then you gotta slow down. I believe in justice but not revenge. And "is it okay for me to hurt this person in this way because they hurt me in that way?" can be a difficult moral question. I'm not saying the answer is always "no, turn the other cheek"- but I'm saying you have to be careful, because revenge is not a good thing.

But this passage in Romans doesn't advise caution, or encourage people to think about the difference between justice and revenge, or anything like that. Instead it tells you how to "heap burning coals on his head" and still maintain the appearance of kindness. And I'm not okay with that.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Blogaround

A group of labrador puppies, sleeping in a row. Alternating between yellow and black puppies. Image source.
1. Do you remember your first time? (posted 2014) [content note: descriptions of assault by medical staff] "I remember the first time I was treated by force."

2. The Obamacare provision that saved thousands from bankruptcy (posted March 2) "This Obamacare provision took effect September 23, 2010. Timmy was born September 29. On December 17, he surpassed $1 million worth of bills in the neonatal intensive care unit. He didn’t leave the NICU until he was 6 months old."

3. Feeding the hungry is a Good Thing (posted March 16) "The disagreement is about something far simpler, far more basic and fundamental. Some people think that preserving the health, nutrition, and dignity of older Americans is an important Good Thing. And other people do not."

4. A Janitor Preserves the Seized Belongings of Migrants (posted March 12) "He’d always known, technically, about the C.B.P.’s strict confiscation policies, which were posted on bilingual signs and applied to all items classified as either “non-essential” or “potentially lethal.” But he hadn’t spent much time thinking about these policies, and he hadn’t realized how broadly they were applied, or just how many of the confiscated items—including cell phones and wallets, many still containing I.D.s, prepaid debit cards, and cash—were ending up in the trash, never to be returned."

5. The audacious claim that we are not shaped by history (posted March 21) "That claim is this: Hundreds of years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow oppression had no effect on the shape of American Christianity."

6. How University Professors React to Requests for Disability Accommodations (posted 2015) "Universities tend to work on a reporting system so if something goes wrong, students are put in the position of reporting the bad behaviour of people who have power over their academic success."

7. Why I’m Done Being A ‘Good’ Mentally Ill Person (posted March 27) "We see this kind of ableism most distinctly when we categorically divide up disabled people into “higher” and “lower” functioning — which can be a coded way of saying, 'These are the people that can conform to society’s expectations of what a ‘typical’ person should be, and these are the people who fail to do that.'"

8. 'Sightings' of extinct Tasmanian tiger prompt search in Queensland (posted March 27) Cool!

9. Science, reality and ‘persecuted Christians’ (posted March 27) "Dinosaurs are cool, but these poor folks aren’t able to fully enjoy the latest cool news about cool dinosaurs because they’ve convinced themselves that they’re obliged to hear every such bit of news as a kind of attack on their faith."

10. can you explain why "straight passing privilege" isnt a thing? (posted 2014) "regardless of your sexual orientation, the vast majority of people are going to assume you’re straight all the time unless you are doing something specifically coded as being romantic or sexual with someone of the same gender (or someone who is assumed to be the same gender) at that exact moment. still in the closet? straight. went out to grab dinner with someone of a different gender than you? straight. hanging out with your friends? straight. stepped out of the house to get milk? straight."

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Honest Lent: Teacher's Pet, God's Pet

A little girl gives an apple to her teacher. Image source.
For Honest Lent, let's read Mark 10:35-45.

This is the story where James and John show up and ask Jesus if they can sit as his right and left in his kingdom. Jesus more or less says no, and uses it as an opportunity to talk about wanting greatness by being a servant, etc.

But the bit I want to talk about is where Jesus says, "but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared." (Matthew's account of this story says, "These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.")

I remember one time, long ago, reading that verse and wondering, "Wait, does that mean that 2 people actually will get to sit at Jesus' right and left? And God the Father will pick them? ... I wonder if it'll be me."

Because I used to be that good kid that got unexpectedly recognized and rewarded by teachers. Most of the time, I was just quiet, didn't really talk to anyone, kind of lonely, didn't really understand the entire concept of social interaction. I just did what the teachers said we were supposed to do. Do homework, don't make trouble, etc.

And most of the time, it felt like no one really noticed me. But every now and then, there would be a "one amazing student is getting this special reward/ opportunity" and suddenly the teacher was talking about how smart I was.

And I used to wonder if God saw me that way too. I was good little girl, I was following all the rules- but that meant I didn't stand out. Because in general, if you don't make trouble, the adults don't have to step in and deal with you. (The principal at my elementary school knew all the "bad" kids' names, but not mine.) But apparently my good grades and math ability spoke for themselves, and every now and then there was some pretty great unexpected recognition. And I wondered if God would do that for me too.

I read about Mary, how the angel visited her and said she had been chosen to give birth to the Son of God. Could that have been me? I wondered. Did God pick her because she was the best at following all the rules, getting good grades, and not making trouble, like me?

And I read the story of Noah, about how God killed everyone because they were all bad except Noah and his family. And I was scared- because what if, among the victims of the flood, there was a little girl like me, who was quiet and didn't attract attention, who was good all the time but most people didn't notice... and God didn't notice? God said everyone in the world was so bad they deserved to die, except Noah and his family, but ... could God have missed some of the quiet ones?

Like the times that our teacher would make a whole long speech about how our class was so bad and we need to get our act together. I hadn't done anything bad, but they hadn't noticed me. A bunch of kids in the class were "being bad," so the teacher said we were all being bad. What if God was like that?

One more thing I'd like to say: I no longer define "good" and "bad" in that way. Back when I was a little kid, my identity was very much based on "I'm smart" and I thought I was better than the other kids because of that. I don't necessarily think that was a bad thing for me at the time- I didn't really fit in or have friends, and the adults always said the most important thing was education, not something "shallow" like having a social life- so it would have been difficult for me to not see the world that way. But now I'm an adult, and nobody hands me a list of number theory problems and then tells me I'm so much smarter than everyone else when I get them all right. And "goodness" doesn't mean just avoiding bad behavior (though that's consistent with evangelical teaching on "sin" and how "God takes sin very seriously", blah), but it means actually making a difference in the world. And it's better to make mistakes in your efforts to do good in the world than to just lay low and not break any rules.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Sound

A little girl sitting alone in a classroom. Image source.
The students all shuffled into the classroom together. Jesus sat in the second row.

"Today," their teacher said, "we have a special guest who will show us some chemistry demonstrations." There was a tank of gas at the front of the classroom. Oh no, thought Jesus, I hope it's not explosions. His mind filled with worry. There was nothing he could do except hope and hope and hope that there would be no explosions. He was powerless, trapped in that classroom.

After a bit of talk about gas and molecules, the speaker pulled out a balloon. The King of kings felt trapped in his seat in the second row. A mess of emotions swirled around his mind, but the biggest one was fear. Fear of what would happen if that balloon popped. The sound, the unbearable sound. No one would protect him. He knew that. A lifetime of people telling him it's not that bad, just makes you a little bit startled, that's all.

No one would protect him. No one would care about his pain. Jesus stared as the speaker blew into the balloon to inflate it.

He lit a match.

And God put his human fingers into his ears. He tensed all his muscles, held his breath, put his head down, and then the pop came. The sound filled the whole room and seemed to fill his brain, like the whole world was blocked out for that one instant, as Jesus pushed into his ears but couldn't stop the intense pain.

It was over. But he was shaking. And nobody seemed to notice the trauma he had just endured.

Now the guest speaker was saying something about hydrogen. And Jesus began the cycle of fear all over again. He knew that guy had more balloons. He knew there was a tank of hydrogen. It was going to happen again. He was trapped in his seat, with his classmates all around, but so totally alone.

All he could do was wait for the pain to come and then it would be over, and then it would be okay.

At the front of the classroom, the speaker stretched a balloon over the nozzle of the tank, and the Messiah heard the hiss of the gas. The balloon inflated, and he squirmed in his chair, not even aware of the fact that he was pushing his fingers into his ears. It was a response he did automatically.

He was stuck, so stuck, trapped in that chair. When will this end? he wondered. Anxious, desperate, fully aware that he could not stop the pain. If- when- that ballon popped, the sound would overwhelm him again. For an instant, it would destroy the entire world, and then everything would snap back to normal, and everyone would just continue on as if they hadn't just experienced a cataclysmic event.

All he could do was stare, and worry, and wonder when the sound would come. When the pain would come.

This time, the speaker taped a match to the end of a meter stick. He lit the match and lowered the meter stick, closer and closer to the balloon, as the Creater of the entire universe- of hydrogen atoms and vibrations and sound and the human auditory system- cowered in his chair, twisting his body in an attempt to become smaller... Anything to guard against that awful, indescribable sound. It wouldn't be enough. He knew it wouldn't be enough.

And it popped. It was loud. It was overwhelmingly loud. He pushed into his ears as hard as he could, as the sound overtook him and blocked out everything else. For a moment, nothing else existed besides that monstrous sound, beating him down, and it ended as suddenly as it had come.

It was over. Oh thank goodness it was over. Surely that guy wouldn't do another one. It must be over.

The Son of God listened with dread as the speaker started talking about ratios of gases. A carefully-proportioned mix between hydrogen and oxygen would make an even more spectacular result. And he got out a third balloon.

No. This was too much. This was torture. But there was nothing he could do. He had to stay in his seat, in the second row. Terrified.

The balloon, the meter stick, the match. And Jesus shrank into his chair, powerless. No one would save him. No one would protect him. It was just him and his fingers in his ears, but of course that wasn't enough.

And the balloon exploded.

It felt like the entire world exploded.

The sound overwhelmed him and drowned out everything else. It filled the whole room, his whole mind, his whole body. In that moment, he couldn't think- the explosion had completely overtaken and destroyed the place where his thoughts were supposed to be. His body reacted the way it always did, the way he had been trained, through years and years of enduring this trauma alone, while other people seemed completely unaware. Head down, fingers pushing so hard into his ears, all his muscles attempting to curl his body as small as possible.

At the same time, a giant fireball swept from the front to the back of the classroom. He felt the heat and the air whooshing by. But the sound was what caused him incredible pain.

And just as suddenly as it had come, it was over. The other students were chattering excitedly, seemingly delighted by what had just happened. Jesus finally let out a huge breath, as he decided it was okay to relax now. It wouldn't happen again. It was over.

The other students started to file out of the classroom. Emmanuel, God With Us, followed them, his long hair hiding his tears. He would go to his next class now, and just move on with life, internalizing the message that had been forced on him every time this happened: that he was the weird one for having such a strong reaction to sound, that it was totally fine for other people not to notice or care about his pain, and everything would be better if he would just learn not to care about it either. If he could force himself not to "overreact." And "be normal."

With his hair still covering his face, Jesus wiped away his tears, and felt so alone.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Honest Lent: Whitewashed Tombs

Whitewashed tomb. Image source.
Today for Honest Lent, let's look at Matthew 23. This is one of my favorite chapters in the bible. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Seriously go read the whole thing.

I love this because it's about religious leaders who are so sure that they have the "correct" beliefs. They can back it up with Scripture and logic- but they have no compassion. They don't care how their beliefs affect other people.

They think obedience to the bible is the most important thing. They don't realize that love for people is the most important thing. They ignore the clear teaching of Scripture, "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath."

These are the politicians who don't think everyone deserves health care. I guess if you have a child born with a disability, you should have to live in poverty. They talk all kinds of talk about "personal responsibility." They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

These are the churches who don't "allow" women to be senior pastors. They pull out bible verses to justify their misogyny- as if hate is okay if the bible says it is. They strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

These are the Christian organizations that refuse to be associated in any way with the message that being queer is acceptable. The Christian bookstores who pull an author's books because the author made a statement in support of marriage equality. The concerned parents who think trans people are predators and shouldn't be allowed to use the bathroom. The Christians who won't give money to a relief organization if that organization has employees married to same-sex partners. The churches that would never allow a queer person to be a pastor. The Christians who claim equality for LGBTQIA people is an attack on "religious liberty." They shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces.

You can find bible verses that support your hate, your bigotry, your desire to blame other people for their own problems so that you have an excuse not to help them. You can feel good about yourself because you have the truth and other people aren't as godly as you. You can be a whitewashed tomb. But you're missing the entire point of Jesus.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Blogaround

Comic strip showing a cat using the scientific method. The cat looks at a wine glass and thinks, "I wonder if this will bounce." It pushes the wine glass and watches it fall, then turns and looks at a second glass and thinks, "Maybe that one will." Image source.
1. Street Preaching and the Christian Right, Part 1: Suffer the Little Children and Part 2 (posted March 17) [content note: extremely misogynistic, gay-hating, trans-hating, queer-hating, Muslim-hating language]

2. Animation: The Little Mermaid (posted 2012) "As much as Ariel laments in a moment that "If I become human, I'll never be with my father or sisters again", her father has driven her away. Ariel isn't safe under the sea, not emotionally or psychologically. Her life's obsession with studying and understanding and educating herself on human culture will never be accepted -- and if she persists in trying to do so clandestinely, it will only be a matter of time before someone discovers her secret, betrays her to the king, and all her work is destroyed. She knows that fate is inevitable, because it's just happened not ten minutes ago."

3. ‘Somebody else’s babies’ (posted March 13) "Think about it. “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here,” the signs say, because it’s understood that “Drive Like Somebody Else’s Kids Live Here” wouldn’t be an effective slogan."

4. Katy Perry’s Memorable Move from Jesus Camps to Kissing Girls: “People Can Change” (posted March 20) "These days, I get an incomparable high from finally knowing myself. And it feels more real than any story I was ever taught on a felt board."

5. Princess or Scientist: It’s Not an Either/Or (posted March 22) "Yes, girls need to know that they don’t have to like princesses and pink and sparkly and pastel barbie sticker books. But they also need to know that they can like all of those things and still aspire to a career in science."

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Honest Lent: "Think About Such Things"

Image shows a pretty tree with the text of Philippians 4:8 written next to it. Image source.
[content note: Christian ideology which is damaging to mental health]

Today for Honest Lent, I'm reading Philippians 4:1-9.

Specifically, I'd like to talk about verse 8. "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

Okay, sure, there's something to be said for thinking about positive things rather than negative ones. This verse could be interpreted as encouraging self-care. It's good for your mental health to focus on the positive things in your life, instead of dwelling on bad things. That's good advice.

But.

See, this is a bible verse. And that means, when I was a good evangelical, I would have viewed it as an absolute command, not a sometimes-useful piece of advice. And there is a world of difference between those two things.

If it's a bit of advice about mental health, then that means its purpose is to make us feel better, to give us less stress. It means we can understand the purpose, and we have the ability to judge whether or not this advice is worth following in our current situation. If following it would help achieve that purpose, then we should totally do it. But if there is a situation where it would not be helpful to try and force ourselves to think about "excellent or praiseworthy" things, if doing so would cause more stress, then we can make the choice not to follow this advice. In other words, when it's useful, we can do it and benefit from it, and when it's not useful, we can just ignore it. (The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.) When viewed in this light, this verse about focusing our thoughts on positive things is a very good and healthy principle.

But if it's a command from God, then everything is different. If it's a command, then when we fail to do it, we're sinning. The church taught me that sin is a big deal- committing any tiny little sin meant I deserve death, I deserve to go to hell, I killed Jesus. Any little sin is a serious rebellion against God, a vicious, heartless attack on the one who constantly showers us with love, mercy, and forgiveness. If you keep thinking about sad things and you can't help it, you're hurting God. You are a bad bad person. And if you have depression, first of all it's your fault; if you had been obeying God and thinking about "whatever is true, whatever is noble," then you wouldn't have depression. And now in addition to your depression, you should feel really guilty for your failure to obey what God commanded here. And in addition to that, you should try to force yourself to only think of good things, and then feel even worse when that doesn't work. (They tie up heavy burdens for others, but they themselves will not lift a finger to help.)

The difference between viewing this as a command and viewing it as a possibly-helpful piece of advice is enormous. If it's a command, any good it might have done is completely destroyed, and it heaps more guilt and self-hate on people who are already struggling.

But if it's just some good advice we are free to take or leave, that means we're in charge. We have the authority to decide when it would be helpful to follow it, and when it doesn't apply. But of course this would be unthinkable in the evangelical Christianity I learned. Believing that I had the ability to know the purpose behind biblical "commands" and I should choose to ignore them if they wouldn't achieve that purpose in my current situation? Ha. Of course not. Of course humans are so sinful, we can't trust our own minds, we're always looking for excuses to ignore the "clear teaching of Scripture."

Just because the bible says something doesn't mean you have to obey it. Only obey it if it's a good and healthy thing that makes sense. This stuff about forcing yourself to think about "positive" things and then feeling bad when you're not able, labelling your mental illness as "sin", doesn't help anybody. The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Love as a Means to an End (My Thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast”)

Chinese movie poster for "Beauty and the Beast." (美女与野兽)

[content note: spoilers for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Frozen”]

I saw the new “Beauty and the Beast” movie, and as a 90’s kid who grew up on Disney, I totally loved it. So much nostalgia. Seriously, if the cartoon “Beauty and the Beast” was an important part of your childhood, you have to see this new movie.

And I want to talk about the concept of love as a means to an end. Because you see, in “Beauty and the Beast”, the curse that turned the prince into a “beast”* and his staff into furniture could only be broken if he learned to love someone and get them to love him too. This creates a very very weird situation where love is not necessarily something that is seen as valuable in and of itself, but it is a step in the process to reach the goal of turning into a person again.

And first of all, I’d like to point out how incredibly strange it is that everyone assumes the love that can turn him into a human has to be romantic love. At the beginning of the movie, the prince was turned into a “beast” because he was a jerk to everyone; in particular, he refused to help an old woman looking for a place to stay. That has nothing to do with romantic love. Why on earth would romantic love be the one type of love that would teach him to be a better person and undo the curse? What if, for example, the “beast” learned to show kindness to poor people who came to him asking for help? Wouldn’t that be a more fitting way to atone for his previous heartlessness?

Actually, that's the direction that "Frozen" went, and I LOVED IT. In the movie “Frozen,” we are told that only “an act of true love” can save Anna’s life, and the characters in the movie work hard to help her find a male love interest that can kiss her, because obviously that’s what “an act of true love” means, right? But no, in the end, she was saved because of the love between her and her sister. I totally loved that ending. We need movies like that because in our culture, people have this idea that the very best form of love is romantic love. Which is just not true.

Anyway, back to “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s weird that the prince is supposed to get a woman to fall in love with him as a means to an end. That’s not what love is. And I really really appreciated the bit where Belle asks how the curse can be broken, and offers to help, and the castle servants (who are various household objects) refuse to tell her. They do NOT say, “he has to get someone to love him,” because that would be extremely coercive and unethical to put Belle in a situation like that (even though that is technically what they are doing, in a less direct way).

But the movie is aware of how messed-up it is to try to make love happen as a means to an end, and that’s why we have the part where the “beast” lets Belle leave. Instead of continuing his efforts to woo her, the “beast” sees that Belle really cares about her father and needs to go help him- and because he loves her, he decides that’s more important than his curse ending. (You guys, I cried when the “beast” sang the song about Belle leaving.) He lets her go. Really. No strings attached. Of course he wants her to come back, but he has no power to force her to.

That’s what love is. So yes, the movie understands that love isn’t just “two people meet and start this sweet romantic relationship”- real love allows the relationship to end when that’s what’s best for the other person.

(The backstory with Belle’s mother is also an example of “sometimes love means letting the relationship end” but way more heartbreaking.)

I’ve seen several examples of this concept of “love as a means to an end” in evangelical Christianity. First, there’s the idea that the secret to finding a spouse is loving God. I’ve heard a lot of stories like this: “I was so desperate to find a person to marry, but then I stopped pursuing that and focused on loving God instead. And then, right when I least expected it, when I had learned to be content in God and wasn’t even looking for a partner anymore, God brought this person into my life and we are married now.” These stories are often presented as advice for single people, as the “secret” to finding a partner to marry. Think about that: The message is “you need to love God, and then after you do that, God will give you a spouse.” But how real can your love for God really be, if you’re doing it for the purpose of getting the reward of a perfect marriage?

Actually, back when I was “on fire for Jesus,” I pushed back against this idea. It was very very important to me that I loved God just because loving God is an amazing thing in and of itself, that it brings so much more meaning and happiness than a romantic relationship could. Being single was an important part of my testimony because it was proof that God really was “all I need.” I worried that if I got into a romantic relationship, people would think, “She’s so devoted to God, and finally she’s getting her happy reward for it” which would be totally wrong.

Another big example of “love as a means to an end” is the idea of loving God in order to escape hell. If you’re explaining why people need to become Christians, you could go the “my relationship with God is the best thing ever and I just want everyone to experience that happiness” route or the “if you don’t get saved, you will suffer in hell forever” route. And if your ideology includes a hell for people who don’t believe the correct things, then no one is truly free to choose or reject God. Their choice to love God can’t be separated from their desire to avoid eternal punishment. Can anyone really love God under these conditions?

(Christians who believe in hell, let me ask you this: What if heaven and hell were reversed? What if you could live your earthly life in relationship with God, with all the love and purpose and meaning that came from that, but it means after you die you go to hell? Is your love for God great enough that you would still choose it, even if it meant you go to hell? If not, maybe don’t go around claiming that hell isn’t a huge motivating factor in your reasons for being a Christian.)

In all of these examples- “Beauty and the Beast”, loving God in order to get a spouse, and loving God in order to escape hell- people believe the ideal resolution is to love, to love in such a way that’s so real and true that you no longer care about the supposed reward, and you also get the reward in the end but that’s no longer your real motivation. Which makes for a nice happy ending, but at the same time, the desire for happiness and self-preservation is a completely legitimate thing, and I don’t like how all of these “happy endings” require you to stop treating that as a goal that is worth pursuing.

Really, there can be no good resolution when love is merely a step in the process toward achieving some goal related to one’s own happiness or survival.

But wait. There’s a problem with the point I’m making here.

What about marriage?

See here’s the thing. A lot of people have a desire to get married, but they would only want to marry someone they really love. And a lot of people have a desire to have sex, but they would only want to have sex with someone they really love. (Note: I don’t think there’s anything immoral about choosing to have sex with someone you don’t have super-deep love for. Just, you know, be honest, treat them with basic human decency, and that’s fine.) And those desires are very normal and legitimate. (Please note, however, that asexual and aromantic people exist.) And the idea of only being willing to do it with someone you love is also legitimate.

So here we have a problem, don’t we? People have marriage or sex as a goal, and in order to reach that goal, they need to love someone and get that person to love them too. But didn’t I just say that it’s really messed-up to treat love as a means to an end, as some kind of intermediate step in reaching one’s own personal goals? But yet, desires for marriage or sex (and standards about certain levels of love and commitment before doing those things) are perfectly normal and healthy. So what can we do about this seeming contradiction?

For one thing, if love is a requirement for you to get married or have sex, then you have to also be okay with not having those things. You can’t force anyone to love you- that’s not love. You may have to live without those things for a long time.

At the same time, there are actions you can take to increase your chances of finding someone who can love you and who could potentially be interested in marriage or sex. (Like purposely going to places where you can meet people who are likely to share your interests.) Love means you want someone else to be happy, so what you need to do is find someone who also has that desire for marriage or sex- then there’s a possibility it would make them happy to do those things with you. And those are pretty common desires, so in many cases the goal is achievable.

But the key is that, even if you find a partner who desires marriage or sex with you, in the future the situation might change and they might not desire those things anymore. And love means you do what’s best for them. Like the “beast” did when he let Belle leave.

This is actually an important thing I need to think about, since I’m getting married soon: Under what circumstances would we choose to get divorced? My view on this is that we love each other, and that love is more important than the marriage itself. If in the future the situation somehow changes so that it would be healthier for both of us if the relationship ended, then that’s what we would do.

Love should be seen as a good thing in and of itself. To treat it as a means to an end necessarily twists it into something that isn't love. And yet, our own happiness and health often depend on other people loving us- and our happiness and health are good things, things that we definitely should work hard to achieve. It seems that, for practical reasons, we can't completely avoid treating love as a means to an end.

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*I put “beast” in scare quotes because I just LOVED the line where the “beast” says to Gaston, “I’m not a beast!” Perhaps the real beast in this movie is Gaston, who literally says women are his “prey.”

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Honest Lent: "Seek First God's Kingdom" Doesn't Work If You Have Autism

Mushroom cloud. Image source.
For Honest Lent, let's look at Luke 12:22-34.

In this passage, Jesus teaches his disciples "do not worry." Specifically, do not worry about food or clothes. He says God will take care of you because look at how God provides for the ravens and flowers, and obviously you're so much more valuable. I won't get into the fact that food insecurity and malnutrition are real things that exist in the world- which proves that no, God does NOT always take care of people's basic needs. (Jesus makes a promise here which is NOT TRUE.) What I really want to talk about is verse 31: "But seek his kingdom, and these things [your needs] will be given to you as well."

This is what I was taught in church. Seek God first. Don't focus on your own needs. Follow God, put others before yourself, and then God will make sure your needs are met too.

Let me tell you something: This doesn't work if you have autism.

As it turns out, I have different needs than other people. And I've only realized this in the past few years; I wasn't diagnosed with autism until I was in my early 20's.

For me, the biggest example of this "different needs" thing is related to sound. As it turns out, other people are hearing sounds not nearly as loud as I hear them. For most of my life, I had no idea. I had lived 20+ years baffled over how other people can tolerate such awful awful unbearably loud sounds. Finally I found this explanation: My sensory system is such that sounds are much louder for me than for other people. For me, those loud sounds literally are unbearable. They are literally painful.

So that means I have needs. Like the need to not go see a fireworks display. But nobody ever told me "you know your own needs better than anyone else, and those needs are real things that other people need to take seriously." I believed I was being unreasonable if I asked for something that was different from everyone else. I believed that it was just me being weird and if I went to therapy and tried hard enough I could become "normal", so my sensitivity to sound was my own fault and not something that other people need to take seriously.

I can't blame this all on the church. In society in general, there's so much ignorance about mental health and disabilities, and people aren't taught to take people at their word when they claim to have some invisible condition that requires special accomodation. But the church's teaching about "don't focus on your own needs, just obey God and help others and then your needs will magically be met too" certainly didn't help things.

So I thought it was wrong to ask for special treatment. I thought it was "selfish" to ask the adults if I was allowed to sit out of some activity that was going to be overwhelming for me in terms of sensory stimuli or social interaction. Actually, I didn't even know it was an option. We go see fireworks on the 4th of July because that's what we do on the 4th of July. I didn't understand that it was an activity that was intended to be enjoyable, and that other people actually enjoyed fireworks. I had no idea. And then one year my mom said I could stay home if I wanted, while the rest of the family went to the fireworks- like, YES! OF COURSE I want to stay home. But I wouldn't have thought to ask for that on my own because I didn't understand that my cowering in pain was completely different from how other people experience fireworks. I had no idea I had different needs. Real needs. Real pain. Not just "me being weird."

If you're neurotypical and not disabled, then maybe the concept of "don't advocate for your own needs, they will naturally get met when you focus on God and helping others" might work. Because your needs are obvious things that your loved ones can relate to. It will be easy for others to see when your needs are not being met, and they will step in and help you.

But that doesn't work for me. If I don't say anything, then people don't *get* that loud sounds are unbearably painful for me. For most of my life, I didn't even *get* that. And even people who cared about me and wanted to help didn't know how, and treated me in ways that actually turned out to be harmful. I wonder how things could have been different if someone had told me I am an expert on my own needs and I have a right to advocate for myself, to tell others what my needs are and insist on it even if they try to ignore me. I wonder if that's even a realistic thing to imagine- even if I did get a diagnosis as a child, would any adult actually give a child the authority to act as an expert on their own needs and choose for themself whether they were able to participate in various activities?

I used to act uncertain when I tried to communicate about the loud-sounds problem. I didn't have the language I needed back then- I didn't know it was about needs and pain; I thought it was me being weak and unreasonable and selfishly asking for special treatment. I used to ask instead of tell. My tone of voice showed that I believed it was an unreasonable request, and so people didn't take it seriously- or they made suggestions based on their total ignorance of the problem, and I treated those suggestions as more important than my "silly" sensory issues (which, I thought, are my own fault because I could choose to go to therapy and become "normal"). I used to end those conversations with "I don't know if I'll be okay with that or not, but ... okay."

But now I've learned to say it this way: "Loud sounds are extremely painful for me, so if there are balloons at the party, I will not be able to go." Like it's just a fact of the universe, just a simple cause-and-effect, and I'm not going to entertain any suggestions about how I should "get over it" and "it's not that bad." I'm very much "leaning on my own understanding" here- nobody told me "it's perfectly reasonable for you to avoid things that make loud sounds, because they cause pain to you in a way that's completely different from what most people are experiencing." I figured that out on my own, and it's not like I can ask other people to confirm it- they don't know what I'm feeling, and I don't know what they're feeling. I've decided I don't need anyone's permission to advocate for myself. If I say this is what I need, then I have the right to tell people and expect to be taken seriously.

I used to "seek first God's kingdom," but God did not take care of my other needs. The only way to make sure those unique needs are met is if I stand up for myself, if I communicate to other people that this is a real thing that needs to be taken seriously. Any hesitation, any "humility", any "putting others first" on my part, when coupled with the fact that other people can't relate to what I'm feeling, gets interpreted as an indication that what I'm asking for isn't a real need that other people should care about.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Blogaround

An unimpressed kitty laying in a pile of hundred-dollar bills. Image source.
1. Bomb Threats to Jewish Community Centers and Organizations. Holy shit.

2. Laziness isn’t why people are poor. And iPhones aren’t why they lack health care. (posted March 8)

3. This map of Earth is the most accurate ever produced, and it looks completely different (posted March 2)

4. How did a ‘heart for missions’ lead to contempt? (posted March 6) "It makes sense that years of prayer on behalf of other people would, if nothing else, form habits of concern and care on the part of those doing the praying. But here we have a powerful counter-example. The very same people who have spent years praying for those within the 10/40 window now seem to regard those people with exceptional contempt."

5. I'm Pregnant. What Would Happen If I Couldn't Afford Health Care? (posted March 11) "Women without prenatal care are seven times more likely give birth to premature babies, and five times more likely to have infants who die." Everyone who claims to be "pro-life" needs to push to make health care affordable for pregnant people- because it literally saves babies lives. Pro-choice people also need to fight for this- because what if a pregnant person wants a baby, but they can't afford the pregnancy costs, so they feel like they're forced to have an abortion? That's not "pro-choice." Really the only way you could seriously think that it's fine to not guarantee health care to pregnant people is if your ideology is neither pro-life nor pro-choice, but anti-woman.

6. Understanding The Spectrum (posted 2016) "Since you're very autistic I don't think you should have a job, just to be safe y'know?"

7. Educated Evangelicals, Academic Achievement, and Trumpism: On the Tensions in Valuing Education in an Anti-Intellectual Subculture (posted March 6) "I had long since become critical of this notion of God “confounding the worldly wise” by using people with dubious qualifications as “vessels” of his will in particular callings to which they are not naturally suited, but it is a deep-seated part of Evangelical culture."

8. Autistic people need diagnosis, not denial (posted March 10) "When these kids grow into adults, and find they need more support, they may engage with the formal procedures themselves and at long last get the paperwork they need. But a great many of them will be told 'But you’ve gone this far without support, so you must not need it'."

9. Gay Conversion Therapy Advocate Joseph Nicolosi is Dead. His Ideas, Unfortunately, Will Live On (posted March 11)

10. Christianity Today Goes Full Pick-Up Artist (posted March 16) Libby Anne's analysis here is spot on. This is the kind of evangelism I was taught. This is what I did. Looking for points of vulnerability. Using people's politeness against them.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Honest Lent: Abraham's Slaves

Fighting between Abraham's and Lot's workers. Image source.
For Honest Lent, let's read Genesis 12:1-9.

This is "The Call of Abram." God tells him to go to a new land, and that God will bless him. So he goes. With "his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran."

Huhm.

People?

See this is something that bothered me, back when I was a little kid and the adults were so proud of me for reading the bible on my own. Abraham had a bunch of servants, and the bible doesn't talk about those servants like they're people, but as if they are property.

Here is what the bible says about Abraham's servants:
  • Genesis 12:5. Abram goes to the land God showed him, along with "all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran."
  • Genesis 12:16. Abram goes to Egypt and says Sarai is his sister. Pharaoh then took her and "treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels."
  • Genesis 13. Abram and Lot separate because both of them have such huge groups of livestock and herders, the land can't support them both.
  • Genesis 14:14. When Lot gets captured, Abram leads "the 318 trained men born in his household" to fight and rescue him.
  • Genesis 15:3. God promises Abram will have many descendents, but Abram says, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."
  • Genesis 16. Abram and Sarai decide that Abram is going to impregnate Sarai's servant Hagar. Hagar doesn't seem to have been given a choice in this.
  • Genesis 17. God again promises that Abram will have tons and tons of descendents, and he changes his name to Abraham. Also, God says all males in Abraham's household must be circumcised. Including the servants. "And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him."
  • Genesis 18:7 mentions that a servant prepared food for "the three visitors."
  • Genesis 20. Abraham tries that whole "Sarah is my sister" thing again, and king Abimelek took her (notice that Sarah's consent seems to not exist?). When Abimelek finds out that actually Sarah is married and God is [illogically] upset with him about this, he freaks out and gives Abraham a ton of gifts so he won't get in trouble. "Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him."
  • Genesis 22:3. Two servants came along when Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac.
  • Genesis 24. Abraham sends a servant to go find a wife for Isaac. (Even though the servant is the main character of this chapter, he isn't given a name.) In verse 35 he says, "The Lord has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys."
Servants appear again and again in the background of Abraham's story, often mentioned in lists of property to impress us with how rich Abraham was. It struck me as very strange, when I was a little kid- in Sunday School we were taught that we should be like Abraham; Abraham was the hero, he trusted God, God gave him so many blessings. But I wondered, what about the servants? Where was their opportunity to trust God and be rewarded with riches? Why didn't they have a chance at being a role model for little kids in Sunday School?

It didn't make sense for the church to tell us "be like Abraham" when the majority of the people in Abraham's story never even had an opportunity to "be like Abraham."

They're just there, in the background, and nobody ever asks about their faith or whether God cared about them. (Or what their reaction was when Abraham announced "today all the men are getting circumcised!")

You could give this explanation: Maybe Abraham was the most godly, maybe the people who had to serve him as slaves wouldn't have trusted God like Abraham did if given the chance, so it's actually not unfair that the story isn't about them. Whoa, hold up there, that is some very dangerous ground you're on. Because if you believe "maybe people in bible times were trapped in lives of servitude because they weren't the sort of people who would have obeyed God and been role models for Sunday school kids anyway" then it's also reasonable to believe "maybe people living in poverty now are morally inferior and they deserve it." And that can serve as an excuse for all kinds of immorality.

I wish we could have acknowledged this injustice in Sunday School, in bible study groups, in evangelical culture in general- I wish someone would have pointed out how it's kind of messed-up the way the bible talks about Abraham's servants (slaves?) as if they're not people. But of course that's not an option. Good Christians have to force themselves to believe that everything in the bible is right and good (with caveats about how just because the bible says something happened doesn't mean it's endorsing that). In that culture, you can't point out, "Hey, isn't it weird that servants are being listed right along with cattle and donkeys, as if they're nothing more than property that symbolizes God's blessing to Abraham? And it's written like readers are supposed to be impressed by how rich Abraham was and how he owned so many people? Isn't that kind of ... immoral?"

You can't. You're not allowed to believe that the biblical writers endorsed anything that was immoral. And so you train yourself not to notice, when people- human beings created in the image of God- are referred to as property that can be bought and sold, forced into pregnancy, forced into circumcision. Just as the biblical writer did, you ignore the servants' agency and choices and see them as nothing more than symbols of Abraham's obedience to God and reward. It's all about Abraham. You imagine yourself as Abraham, or maybe Sarah- as if there is no one else in the story.

Reading the bible- really reading the whole bible- while believing that everything it teaches is by definition right and good requires you to silence your brain and your conscience. It trains you to read but not to notice. To internalize these mentions of immorality, as if they're not immoral at all, because you're can't allow yourself to question them.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Animals Screw Over Other Animals and Get Away With It

Book cover for "The Selfish Gene" (30th anniversary edition) Image source.
I recently read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It's a book about how we should conceptualize natural selection as choosing between rival genes- not choosing between individual animals or groups of animals. And therefore, a gene always "selfishly" influences the animal (or plant, or whatever) to do things that benefit the gene itself.

This book has been criticized for being depressing, and yeah I can see why. The main point is, whatever thing is able to produce more copies of itself is the thing that will increase in number. The world will be full of them. That's the deciding factor. That's it. Even if it succeeds through cruelty and immorality, it still succeeds. If it gets away with it, then it gets away with it. And the world just goes on, but with more and more copies of whatever thing is able to copy itself best. No accountability, no justice. It's the responsibility of every organism to protect itself- if it's bad at that, it dies. And the world just goes on.

But let's start at the beginning. "The Selfish Gene" was published in 1976 and is still important today because of the groundbreaking way it explains natural selection to a lay audience. Here's the basic idea: among many people, including scientists, there is significant misunderstanding about how natural selection works. Natural selection chooses between replicators- the replicators that are best able to create more copies of themselves are the ones whose number increases. And what is a "replicator"? It's anything that is able to create identical copies of itself. Animals are not replicators, because an animal's offspring aren't exactly the same as the parent animal. No, instead, genes are replicators. The same gene can be passed down for hundreds and hundreds of generations. It lives in the bodies of many different individual animals, but the gene itself always stays the same. We can think of animals, plants, and other organisms as the "vehicles" which the replicators build to help them create more copies of themselves.

In this view, we can imagine that genes "want" to create more copies, and they "make decisions" about what kind of characteristics their vehicle (the animal/plant/etc) should have in order to increase the chances of passing on its genes. Obviously, genes aren't actually capable of "wanting" or "making decisions," but it's helpful to conceptualize things in this way. (Because really, the genes that aren't able to successfully create more copies would die off. The genes that exist are the ones that are able to copy themselves. So of course we can assume that, whatever effect a gene has on the organism it is in, it is an effect that helps the gene survive and copy itself. Imagining that a gene "wants" to copy itself makes this simpler to understand.)

In biology, genes are the replicators, and therefore, natural selection is choosing between genes. It is not about choosing between individual animals, or groups of animals. It is just about the genes. Natural selection chooses the genes which are best able to copy themselves. So the successful genes are the ones that are "selfish"- that always do what benefits themselves, even if it's cruel to others.

And how does a gene copy itself successfully? First of all, genes are copied when organisms reproduce- so the most important role of the gene is to help the organism survive and produce offspring. In that sense, the gene and the organism both have the same "goal" (though as I said, it's not literally true that a gene or an organism can have a "goal", with the exception of more complex animals with brains which are capable of that), which is to keep the organism alive. In this sense, the gene's "selfishness" also causes the organism to behave in a "selfish" way- to do what benefits itself, even if it comes at other's expense. For example, a tall tree can "selfishly" access more sunlight and block shorter plants from receiving any. The tree isn't doing this in a conscious way, and neither are its genes, but this is reality because it works. Trees that get more sunlight will be stronger and more able to reproduce. The tall tree screws over the other plants, and it works. It gets away with it. And so that gene- for growing taller- makes more and more copies of itself.

However, there are situations where a gene's "selfishness" will cause an organism to behave in an altruistic way. Specifically, an organism might do something which puts itself at risk but benefits a close relative who is likely to share the same genes. A mother animal will spend so much time and energy caring for her offspring. Her behavior is altruistic- she is helping her offspring at her own expense, but her genes are being selfish. If the offspring grow up healthy so they can reproduce, this means there are more copies of the mother's genes too. So from the gene's point of view, it's a good strategy to have the mother animal put herself at risk because the benefit to the offspring- who share the same genes- is huge.

Dawkins argues that all animal behavior can be explained this way. There must be some benefit to a gene's chances of survival- even if it's not necessarily good for the individual animal's chances of survival.

This book was fascinating for me because, really, it's about the mathematical field of game theory. From a gene's point of view, when is it beneficial to have an animal make a sacrifice to help another- for example, to help a cousin? Well, there is a 1/8 chance that the cousin shares the gene in question, so if the benefit to the cousin is more than 8 times the cost to the first animal, then it's worth it. (In reality, though, it's hard to say what exactly the relation is between members of a family of animals living together, and there are other factors to consider, like an animal's age and how that affects its chances to reproduce in the future- it's better to make sacrifices to help an animal that's more likely to reproduce.) Or, let's consider this question: Is it better for a young animal to leave its parents and have offspring of its own, or to stay and help raise its brothers and sisters? Its siblings and its offspring would both share 50% of its genes, so it's not clear which is a better choice, from a gene's point of view. And indeed, there are many species where its common for animals to help raise their siblings, even though they could go off and have offspring of their own.

(Note: When we use language like "shares 50% of its genes", we're only talking about genes which are rare, not genes shared by the entire species. Scientific research has found that all humans share over 99% of their DNA. We're not talking about that; we're only talking about the genes which are more rare, which you can't expect any random member of the species to have.)

Here's another interesting game-theory problem: Two members of the same species compete for food and other resources. Suppose you and another animal of your species both want the same food. What should you do? Should you fight them, or just give up? If you fight, there's a risk of getting hurt, even if you win. There are many different strategies, and it's an interesting math exercise to pit the strategies against each other. Keep in mind that the successful strategies will allow the genes to create more and more copies of themselves- in other words, if a strategy is successful, it means more and more of the population will use that strategy. So really, it needs to be successful against copies of itself. This is called an "evolutionarily stable strategy", or ESS.

For example, the strategy "the one that found the food first should keep it [and fight to keep it, if necessary], but don't fight if you weren't first" may be an ESS because, if all the animals use this strategy, it would be impossible for another strategy to appear and be successful in that population. Maybe you suddenly have a mutant animal which uses the strategy "always fight." This animal would end up getting in a lot more fights than others, and the cost of fighting so much would mean the animal is less likely to survive and reproduce.

However, the strategy "never fight" is not an ESS, because if everybody used this strategy, and then a mutant animal appeared with the strategy "always fight", the mutant would win every time, and the new "always fight" strategy would spread through the population. However, "always fight" does not do well against copies of itself, so it is not an ESS either. (For example, the strategy "if you are bigger than the other animal, you should fight; if not, you should give up and leave" would be wildly successful in a population where everybody else was using "always fight.")

The concept of an ESS is NOT "if everybody does this, it's beneficial for everybody." Nope. Instead, it's "if everybody does this, it's not possible for a new strategy to show up and successfully take advantage of us." You don't trust other members of your species not to screw you over just out of the goodness of their hearts. The only reason they're going to not screw you over is that it doesn't work.

And then there was the chapter about interactions between males and females. For species that reproduce sexually, the female provides the egg and the male provides the sperm, and eggs are much bigger than sperm. Therefore, at the moment of conception, the female has already invested more into the offspring than the male has. Really, from a gene's point of view, the ideal situation would be if the animal could just abandon its offspring and assume that its mate would care for them, and then it would be free to go off and have other offspring. Since the female has already invested more than the male, it's less of a risk for the male to abandon than for the female to abandon. And yes, we see that there are many species where the female animal does most or all of the work in raising the offspring.

Well, yeah, so that kind of sucks for females. The male can just dump off his sperm and then disappear, and the female has to do all the work. Males who use this strategy will end up having more offspring, and the genes for males abandoning females will spread through the population. It spreads because it works, because the animal gets away with it and there is no justice.

However, there are strategies females can use to deal with this situation. The book discusses two: the "domestic bliss strategy" and the "he-man strategy." In "domestic bliss," the female requires the male to go through a long period of "courtship" before she is willing to mate. She may require him to bring her food, or build a nest, or whatever. This way, at the moment of conception, the male has already invested heavily in the offspring, and would not want to abandon his mate and take the risk that some of the offspring would not survive. If the majority of the females in the population use the "domestic bliss strategy," it will no longer be a "successful strategy" for a male to abandon his mate.

In the "he-man strategy," females are very picky about which male they mate with. They choose a strong and healthy male who, presumably, has good genes. The strongest males in the population will have a big harem of females. The males won't help in caring for the offspring, but at least the females know that their offspring will have genes from a strong, successful father- maybe their sons will go on to have their own harems, and help the mother's genes spread even more. If we look at animal species in the real world, we can find examples of species that use the "domestic bliss strategy" and others that use the "he-man strategy." Even among humans, some cultures have a view of marriage and childbearing that's closer to "domestic bliss" and some closer to "he-man." Both are ESSes, so factors like environment and culture determine which one ends up spreading in a given population.

So basically that's how it works. If you can screw over other animals and get away with it, then you get away with it and have more offspring which will also cruelly screw over other animals. The only way to put a stop to it is for other animals to develop better strategies to protect themselves. There's no higher authority that judges and punishes cruelty. Nope. If cruelty works, then the cruel animals win, and that's that.

I mean, that just sucks, right? Many people have said this book is depressing, and yeah, it is. (However, Dawkins says that humans should not just be selfish, that we have the power to go against what our genes want us to do. He's not saying this is how morality should be, but that this is how natural selection works. And the second-to-last chapter, about the iterated prisoner's dilemma, is much more optimistic.)

"The Selfish Gene" is about biology, but I see the same depressing reality in recent human history. White Europeans came to America and killed most of the native people, and got away with it. And modern white Americans (including me) benefit from that. And the history books I read in school didn't really emphasize how bad and wrong it was. History is written by the winners, right?

Same thing with the Black Lives Matter movement. Ever since the days of Jim Crow, there have been murders of black people, and the murderers were never brought to justice. They got away with it, and white Americans can ignore it and get away with perpetuating the same racist system. There's no "higher authority" who's completely good and moral, who will listen to the evidence and judge with no bias. No, instead we have flawed people with subconscious biases at all levels of government. Just because you have innocence and truth on your side doesn't mean you're going to win. Power is what wins. (Related: I don't believe God answers prayer. Inequality is built into every part of our society. You think a world where God answers prayer would look like this?)

Man, that sucks.

As a Christian, I believe in resurrection. Someday God will right the wrongs. There will be justice. The world won't be like this forever. But still, there's this question: Why would God create a world where cruelty can succeed like that? Why would God create a world where the heartless process of natural selection is what led to the existence of humans? All of us exist only because our ancestors were good at protecting their own genes and screwing over other people. What good is it to say that innocent victims will be resurrected one day, if those innocent victims only existed in the first place because of the cruelty of natural selection? There can never be resurrection great enough to undo all the evil of natural selection, because our own bodies are the results of that evil. (The wheat and the tares grow up together, impossible to separate, amirite?) All those genes- the genes that are good at surviving, no matter the harm they cause to others- live in our bodies and make us who we are. If humans are made in the image of God, then what does that say about God?

I don't have an answer to that, and honestly, this is the problem that evolution presents for Christians. It really doesn't matter to me if the bible says God made the universe in 6 days but science says that's ridiculous- okay, yeah, then the bible was wrong about that. (Or rather, I believe that the biblical writers didn't actually mean it that way; it was in the genre of creation myths, not something that should be taken as a scientific truth.) I don't see that as a problem at all. I accept evolution as true. But that means that our entire existence and identity is built on the dead bodies of those who were taken advantage of, those who were too weak to protect themselves, the victims. How could God make a world like that? I don't know. It sucks.

One more thing I'd like to say: This book is about natural selection and evolution, but there was nothing in there that would come as a challenge for young-earth creationists (or at least, no challenge for the young-earth creationist who believes what Answers in Genesis has to say, as I did when I was a creationist). All of the examples in "The Selfish Gene" are what creationists would call "microevolution," which means there were some small changes in the species, but come on, those kind of changes could never create a completely new species. When the book does talk about "macroevolution"-type concepts, such as the question of how sexual reproduction came about in the first place, Dawkins presents some possibilites, worded in a very vague and generalized way, and makes it clear that we don't have any definite answers. Young-earth creationists love that.

In fact, young-earth creationists could make this claim: In the Garden of Eden, animals (or genes) did not behave selfishly. They were all nice to each other just because it was the right thing to do. (Indeed, Answers in Genesis claims that, before the Fall, all animals were vegetarians.) But after the Fall, when Adam and Eve sinned and screwed up the entire world, mutant "selfish" genes began to appear, and unfortunately, those genes are successful. That's when male animals began abandoning their offspring and lions began killing their step-children. It wasn't like that originally; no, God created everything good. But those genes spread, and now animals are cruel and selfish and all of nature has been going downhill since then. The "selfish gene" concept fits perfectly with young-earth creationism's belief that we live in a sinful world. No challenge there at all.

"The Selfish Gene" can be said to be depressing, but I don't think it has to be that way. It describes the world of biology as it is, but that doesn't mean we need to agree that it should be that way. We are capable of being more than our genes. We can work together, we can sacrifice to help others. Even though are genes only think its beneficial to help close relatives or those who can pay us back, we know better than that.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Honest Lent: What was the younger son's sin, exactly?

Painting of the younger son returning to his father. Image source.
For Honest Lent, let's look at Luke 15:11-32.

It's the story usually referred to as "The Prodigal Son." And I have a question: What was the younger son's sin, exactly?

Back when I was a good evangelical, I would have answered this way: His sin was leaving his father- running away and going to live on his own. He was supposed to stay there at the father's house. Because the father represents God, and the most important thing EVER is to have a relationship with God. You can't go out on your own. You can't act like you don't need God. If you try, you'll fail- just like the younger son failed.

But I don't hold that view of God anymore. So now I'm wondering if this was his sin: Initially, he had a relationship with his father, but he didn't care. He treated his father like a walking bag of money. Give me your money, you owe it to me because it's my inheritance.

After all he'd done for the son, the father finds out his son doesn't care about any of it. He just wants as much money as he's entitled to, and then he's happy to leave his father behind, cut him out of his life completely.

That's gotta hurt.

It wasn't "the son was supposed to live at his father's house, but then he left, but then he came back so in the end the situation was back to how it was supposed to be." Maybe actually, his disrespect and cruelty to his father caused incredible pain, and there's no way to make up for it. That's why it's so amazing that his father accepted him when he came back. It's not "okay great, now things are back to the correct way." Maybe it's "after what you did, things can never be the same"- but the amazing part is that the father forgave him.

Not so much "you are not living in the correct way" but "after all I've done for you, you just want to use me for my money." Well, technically, back when I was a good evangelical, I believed both. I believed that God had given so much to everyone, and by not believing in [the correct version of] God, people were actively disrespecting that God day in and day out, not caring about having a relationship with that God, just enjoying what God had given them. And that it made God so incredibly hurt and sad- it was like a punch in the gut, every single day that a non-Christian just lived their normal life and didn't believe the "correct" things about Jesus.

But I don't believe that anymore.

I now believe in a Christianity that's not so much about agreeing or disagreeing with certain statements of fact, but about relationships between people. Treating people right. So in the "prodigal son" story, it wasn't about choosing to leave home when his father expected him to stay- it was about how badly he treated his father, how he didn't appreciate all that the father did, and just wanted his money.

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Related: Speaking of "the prodigal son," here's a rather bizarre article from John Piper answering the question of whether parents should financially support their "prodigal" children. I call it "bizarre" because it never actually defines what a "prodigal" child is. Based on my own experience in evangelical culture, I would say that people seem to use that word as if it means "living in a different way than their parents want them to" and it can mean anything from drug addiction to shady illegal behavior, to dating a non-Christian, to coming out as LGBTQIA, to living with a romantic partner, to rejecting Christianity, to not regularly attending church, to wearing fairly modest clothes that their fundie church calls immodest, to dating without parental approval, to believing in a different form of Christianity than their parents do, and so on. Most of these things are totally fine [as I see it], but Christians believe it's their job to make rules for other people's lives and then use "hate the sin, love the sinner" to force people to follow those rules.

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Related post: Mind-Blowing Interpretions for 2 Familiar Bible Stories

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Blogaround

Ash Wednesday church bulletin which says, "Remember that you are butt dust and into dust you shall return." Image source.
1. Privilege and Pandering (posted March 1) "The Doctor regenerates. The Doctor can look like anyone. And yet, repeatedly, we get a slender British white guy whose only real variations are height and age (even his style is broadly similar from incarnation to incarnation)."

2. #AroAceJugheadOrBust: An Ace/Aro Jughead in Riverdale (posted March 1) "Asexual and aromantic erasure is the norm, not the exception. ... Most asexual and aromantic people don’t even know that there are words for how they identify and often consider themselves – and are still often considered by others – “broken” despite nothing being wrong with them."

3. The Pearly Gates are never, ever closed (posted February 27) "First off, there’s not just the one gate with St. Peter sitting there at a receptionist’s desk. There are 12 gates."

4. Jeff Sessions Gump Cold Open - SNL (posted March 5)

5. No More Task Force Rogue Ones: A Tactical Analysis of the Raid on Scarif (posted February 27) [spoilers for Rogue One] "As it was, Task Force Rogue One met only five out of the ten performance measures that the U.S. Army uses to evaluate a successful raid."

6. What You Should Know If You Laughed at This Viral Photo of Me (posted February 15) "The reason I am sharing this is because people think it is funny to laugh at people with disabilities."

7. The Gaze of Dead Children Follows Me Today. (posted March 4) [content note: child death, child abuse] "The idea that nobody owns anybody is a completely foreign one to them. It’s not something they can relate to. They think it’s a liberal lie spawned by Satan to trick people."

8. Building Reality on Ancient Cosmology (posted March 7) "Rather than accept that the Ancient Israelites had a different cosmology than we do today, one that is not in line with a verifiable scientific understanding of the world, many young earth creationists have taken this ancient cosmology and built it into their understanding of the world. The result is a strange mish-mash of modern science (the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun) and ancient cosmology (there was a canopy of water around the earth which fell to the earth during the flood)."

9. Teach girls bravery, not perfection (February 2016)

10. Voting for Trump with Jesus in the Room (posted March 8) "Could you tear apart immigrant families with Jesus in the room?"

Monday, March 6, 2017

Honest Lent: Your Body's Needs

Diagram of organs of the human body.
The next Honest Lent reading is Galations 5:16-26.

So it's about "the flesh" and "the Spirit." There is a list of "the acts of the flesh" and another list of "the fruit of the Spirit." What's surprising to me is that "the acts of the flesh" are, for the most part, very obviously immoral things. Which isn't at all what I think of when Christians talk about "the flesh."

In my experience in evangelical culture, "the flesh" meant our natural bodies and everything that comes with being an incarnate person in a body- and "the flesh" was evil. Anything our bodies needed or desired was suspect. It was "selfish" to pursue our bodies' needs and desires- it was only okay if it could be justified as obedience to God. For example, it's not okay to say "I want to sleep because I want to sleep." (Because hey, you are being lazy- if you were really devoted to God, you would wake up early and read the bible. How selfish and wrong to put your desire for sleep before God.) It has to be spiritualized, like "God commanded us to rest, God designed us to need sleep, sleep is a way of showing that we trust God and we realize we're not so important that the world can't survive without us for several hours a night."

I believed "God is all I need." And it was a sign of devotion to God to push my body, to sacrifice, to ignore my body's needs. Wake up early instead of sleep. Attend tons of Christian groups and bible studies even though I naturally need more "alone time." Don't buy nice things for myself- that money should be donated to poor people on the other side of the world. Pray and pray and pray when I feel lonely, squash down my romantic attraction.

(Someday I'll write about how purity culture is the reason I've never gotten a massage. Well, also I don't want to because I don't like random people touching me- but yeah, in purity culture, the idea of purposely spending time touching and pleasuring your body is just HORRIFYING.)

In short, I pretended I didn't have a body that had needs. "The flesh" was evil. "The flesh" was a source of temptation. There's this idea in Christianity that the self- the soul- is a totally separate thing from the body. That your body doesn't have anything to do with who you really are. It's just a "temporary vessel."

I don't believe that anymore. I believe I am a body, subject to the laws of biology. (Also there's consciousness, which is a real thing and seems like more than just a biological phenomenon, but I'm not sure exactly.) Eating, sleeping, emotions, pleasure. (Go ahead and put sex on the list if you want, though I wouldn't know about that.) When I get angry, my body feels shaky and I have a really hard time with fine muscle movements. When I get nervous, my stomach feels sick. Emotions aren't just abstract things; they have actual effects I can feel in my body, and noticing those reactions is very important in terms of health. Mental health is an important part of health.

And what's more, your body is REALLY COOL! All these natural processes going on without you even knowing. Really complicated, important science stuff.

So don't "war against the flesh." Pay attention to your body. Your needs matter. Your desires matter. Your health matters.

One more thing I'd like to mention: In this passage, "the flesh" and "the Spirit" are presented as totally separate, binary, like there's nothing in between. When I read passages with "vice lists" like this, my instinctual reaction is to be like "okay, those are all really bad, that's not me, so I'm okay." The writer says, "I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." As if all people can be neatly classified into two groups. As if these things are all so incredibly bad, and therefore the punishment is incredibly bad, there's no spectrum of gradually increasing degress of badness. As if, if you find that you have any of these faults listed here, you're officially the wrong type of person and that's that.

What if, instead, we say immorality is incompatible with the kingdom of God? So to the extent you behave immorally, you will be unable to participate in the kingdom of God- not as an externally-enforced punishment, but just because by definition your immoral behavior creates a situation that is not good and therefore not part of the kingdom of God.

I'm not a fan of this dichotomy between "the flesh" and "the Spirit", as if they are two completely separate, opposite forces at war in our lives. Especially because it leads to the teaching that our bodies are inherently bad, and that it's inherently good and godly to ignore our bodies' needs and desires.

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