Archive for the ‘be the change’ Category

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”

January 19, 2009

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. 

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.

Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies–or else? The chain reaction of evil–hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars–must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. 

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

The art of acceptance is the art of making someone who has just done you a small favor wish that he might have done you a greater one. 

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood. 

To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing. 

Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”


“Our destructive love of stuff”

December 5, 2008

[by Leonard Pitts Jr.–Ladies and gents, he’s done it again. Email him here.]

I like stuff as much as the next guy. My closet is stuffed with stuff, my shelves groan with stuff, boxes full of stuff jam my garage. I like stuff just fine.

But I would not kill for it.

Last week, a 34-year-old man was trampled to death by a mob rushing into a Wal-Mart to buy stuff. Jdimytai Damour was a seasonal worker manning the door of a store in Valley Stream, N.Y., as shoppers eager for so-called ”Black Friday” bargains massed outside. The store was scheduled to open at 5 a.m., but that was not early enough for the 2,000 would-be shoppers. At five minutes before the hour, they were banging their fists and pressing their weight against the glass doors, which bowed and then broke in a shower of glass. The mob stormed in.

Four people, including a pregnant woman, were injured. And Damour was killed as people stomped over him, looking for good prices on DVDs, winter coats and PlayStations. Nor was the mob sobered by his death. As authorities sought to clear the store, some defiantly kept shopping; others complained that they had been on line since the night before.

And here, it seems appropriate to observe the obvious irony: Black Friday is the traditional beginning of the Christmas shopping season, Christmas being the holiday when, Christians believe, hope was born into the world in the form of a baby who became a man who preached a gospel of service to, and compassion for, our fellow human beings.

It is hard to see evidence of either in the mob’s treatment of Jdimytai Damour, and if your inclination is to heap scorn upon them, I don’t blame you. But I would caution against regarding them as freaks or aberrations whose callous madness would never be seen in sane and normal people like ourselves. That would be false comfort.

You may think I’m talking about mob psychology and to a degree, I am. From soccer riots to the Holocaust itself, human beings have always had a tendency to lose individual identity and accountability when gathered in groups. You will do things as part of a crowd that you never would as an individual. Theoretically, anyone who lacked a strong-enough moral center and sense of self could have been part of that mob in Valley Stream.

But it’s not just our common vulnerability to mob psychology that ties the rest of us to last week’s tragedy. It is also our common love of stuff. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a starker illustration of our true priorities. Oh, we pay lip service to other things. We say children are a priority, but when did people ever press against the door for Parents’ Night at school? We say education is a priority, but when did people ever bang against the windows of the library? We say faith is a priority, but when did people ever surge into a temple of worship as eagerly as they do a temple of commerce?

No, sale prices on iPods, that’s our true priority. Jdimytai Damour died because too many of us have bought, heart and soul, into the great lie of American consumerism: acquiring stuff will make you whole. ”You, Happier,” is how a sign at my local Best Buy puts it. As if owning a Jonas Brothers CD, an Iron Man DVD, a Sony HDTV, will elevate you to a level of joy otherwise impossible to attain. Hey, you may be a total loser, may not have a friend, may not have an education, may not have a job, may not have a clue, but it will all be OK as soon as you get that new Canon digital camera, especially if you get it for 50 percent off.

It would be nice to think — I will not hold my breath — that Damour’s death would lead at least some of us to finally see that for the obscene lie it is, to realize that seeking wholeness in consumer goods is an act of emptiness, not joy.

You, Happier? No.

Just you, with more stuff.

Having trouble Thanksgiving/Christmas/Hanukkah/whatever shopping?

November 23, 2008

Here’s some neat things. :] All of these sites are either Fair Trade, organic or vegan–many are more than one of these.<3

The Fair Trade Federation has an enormous amount of categories you can browse, including but not limited to Africa, Asia, children, chocolate, coffee, custom orders, fabric, Latin America/Caribbean, organic, pottery, toys, woman-owned business, wood, worldwide, yarn and yoga.

The Hunger Site is offering tons of gifty items for sale, such as Peruvian sheepskin slippers, recycled rice tote bags, Afghan Pakol hats, Guatemalan coffee, handmade journals, and nativity scenes from around the world.

Fair World Gallery sells some really unique and fun things. Like gift bags and cards made out of elephant dung (I’m not kidding. There’s also a company called The Great Elephant Poo Poo Paper–they donate a portion of their profits to elephant welfare and conservation programs), AMAZING musical instruments from places like Peru, Kenya and Chile (*jealous*), really beautiful toys and games and yes, they sell Putumayo cds! 

Mercado Global has some gorgeous jewelry and scarves and…

Taraluna has all sorts of things: winter sets, Christmas ornaments (apparently featured in Good Housekeeping), teething toys, Hairy and the Xeko Eco-Pals, really beautiful shawls and scarves, children’s clothing and furniture, picnic supplies, organic pet toys..

Perfectly Natural has eco-apparel, safe toys, sippy cups..

Organic Fair Trade has everything: food, decor, clothing, jewelry, teething toys, organic supplements. My favorite items here: African girl doll from Uganda, “my worries” notepad, animal puppets from Brazil, “don’t worry” dolls :], organic veggie toys in a wooden crate, haha, and CIVIO, the civil rights card game.

The Groovy Mind hurts my eyes a little bit but they do have some fun things. They’ve got Kenyan finger puppets, a loooovely scarf/hood (“In the Hoodie”), bags made from recycled tire inner tubes and trash bags, license-plates-turned-purses-and-cd-holders, and gift boxes full of themed goodies.

And of course, everybody’s favorite coop: Frontier! Basically you can buy anything here. You can buy all the food you want. You can buy clothes, shopping bags, Glad Rags, makeup, gift baskets, cds of chanting monks. :]

Tea: Stash Tea, Art of Tea, Ambassador Organics, Equal Exchange, Mountain Rose HerbsFriends of the Third World, Spotted Leopard Teas,  Coffee-Tea-Etc., Harney & Sons, Sacred GroundsChina Mist, Cafe Moto, Enchanted Teas, SerendipiTea,  Arbor Teas, Honest Tea, Steaz, Octavia Tea, NumiSympathy for the Kettle, The Groovy Mind, TaralunaThe Republic of Tea, and oh my lord, Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, which I must with my totally unbiased opinion proclaim as The Best. But okay, I like Stash and Steaz and Republic of Tea too. But oh my heavens. Zhena’s!

Chocolate and cocoa: check out Theo Chocolate, Equal Exchange, Dean’s Beans, Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates, Ithaca Fine Chocolates, Sojourn, The Groovy MindNspired Natural Foods, La Siembra/Cocoa Camino, Omanhene, Yachana Gourmet, Divine Chocolate, Fair World Gallery, Nirvana Chocolates, Shaman Chocolates, Taraluna.

Coffee: check out Global Exchange, Equal Exchange, Cafe Campesino, Peace Coffee, Dean’s Beans, Larry’s Beans, Higher Grounds Trading CompanyCafe Moto, Cafe Mam, Just Coffee, American Joe, Higher Ground Roasters, Thanksgiving Coffee Company, Grounds for Change, Fair Trade Coffee Co., Intelligent Nutrients, Cafe Canopy, Morning Glory Coffee and Tea, Pura Vida Coffee, Coffee-Tea-Etc., Nectar of Life, Fair World Gallery, The Groovy Mind.

Beauty products: check out Ecco Bella, Wild Earth, Taraluna, Refreshingly Free, The Organic Makeup CompanyGlobal Exchange, Perfectly Natural, ONEwithEarth, Mmmm…Handmade Soaps and Lotions, Origins, Mineral Fusion, Hard Candy, VeganStore, Different Daisy, Saffron Rouge, Afterglow CosmeticsAll Natural CosmeticsPink Quartz Minerals, Lavera.

Other socially conscious gift ideas: Bead For Life sells beautiful jewelry made by Ugandan women–when you support them, you’re supporting entire villages. Sojourners offers beautiful handmade cards crafted by orphans in Rwanda, handbags made from recycled materials by women who used to live on the world’s largest garbage dump, and journals made by men and women in a fair trade co-op in northern India, supporting remote villages and empowering women. And here‘s a grand list of other companies that support social justice.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAND here’s some lovely coupons for you. :] Good deals for EO, Spirit Beauty Lounge, The New Green Company, Nimli, The One Eyed Turtle, Sweet Organics & Naturals, Hip and Zen, Bring Your Own Bag, Udderly Kid, Green Nest, Eco Lips, Imagiplay and more.

What an interesting concept, to LIKE church.

November 20, 2008

Since I’m attending an Assemblies of God [but borderline non-denom, apparently] church now, I figured I should probably do some research on what exactly the denomination as a whole believes. Thus far I’m pretty impressed. It’s a heck of a lot better than the garbage my ex-denom was handing out. I won’t say I agree 100% with all of their positions [for example, I think I’m a preternist] but for the most part, I’m excited with what I’m finding out:

Women are welcomed into leadership positions and encouraged to lead and fill various roles. Including “pastor”. The rich history of female leaders [Deborah, Esther, Phoebe, Junia, etc] is celebrated as it should be. :]

“The Assemblies of God strongly opposes abuse and the many tragic forms of dysfunction now plaguing our world. It must grieve the heart of God, who cares greatly for the downtrodden, to see one human being abuse another. It must also grieve the heart of God too if His children observe abuse and sit idly by, allowing the evil to continue.”

Political endorsements from a church are recognized for what they are: divisive and destructive.

In times of war, people are encouraged to follow their own consciences and to listen for God to speak to them personally about participating as a combatant or noncombatant or choosing not to participate as a conscientious objector.

A strong, honest work ethic is important to all societies.

Giving to and caring for the poor is a top priority.

The need for a holistic Sabbath is recognized.

Opinion on capital punishment it mixed, because it’s such a complex issue.

Creation care is recognized as an important responsibility of human beings.

They encourage teaching children healthy views of various holidays [teaching, for instance, that Christmas is more about giving than getting] while still enjoying and celebrating them.

Racism in any form is absolutely rejected, but acknowledged as a still-serious issue that continues to confront society, including the church.

Honesty and integrity are highly valued. [Although I wouldn’t be willing to literally endanger someone’s life or something equally serious. You know what would royally suck? Being a runaway slave, for example, or a Jew hidden in someone’s attic–only to find that if someone happened to knock on their door, they weren’t prepared to cover for you.]

Abraham Lincoln to his stepbrother, John D. Johnston

November 16, 2008

December 24, 1848

Dear Johnston:

Your request for eighty dollars I do not think it best to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me, “We can get along very well now,” but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct. What that defect is, I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler. I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work, in any one day. You do not very much dislike to work; and still you do not work too much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of needlessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should break this habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it, easier than they can get out after they are in.

You are now in need of some money; and what I propose is, that you shall go to work, “tooth and nails,” for somebody who will give you money for it. Let father and your boys take charge of things at home–prepare for a crop, and make the crop; and you go to work for the best money wages, or in discharge of any debt you owe, that you can get. And to secure you a fair reward for your labor, I now promise you that for every dollar you will, between this and the first of next May, get for your own labor, either in money, or on your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar. By this, if you hire yourself at ten dollars a month, from me you will get ten more, making twenty dollars a month for your work. In this, I do not mean you shall go off to St. Louis, or the lead mines, or the gold mines in California, but I [mean for you to go at it for the best wages you] can get close to home in Coles County. Now if you will do this, you will soon be out of debt, and what is better, you will have a habit that will keep you from getting in debt again. But if I should now clear you out, next year you would be just as deep in as ever. You say you would almost give your place in Heaven for $70 or $80. Then you value your place in Heaven very cheaply, for I am sure you can with the offer I make you get the seventy or eighty dollars for four or five months work. You say if I furnish you the money you will deed me the land, and, if you don’t pay the money back, you will deliver possession. Nonsense! If you can’t now live with the land, how will you then live without it? You have always been [kind] to me, and I do not now mean to be unkind to you. On the contrary, if you will but follow my advice, you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.

Affectionately your brother,
A. Lincoln

[I wish there were programs like this going today, both to give “lazy” people an incentive to work for themselves and to help out-of-luck workers get back on their feet. God knows we need it, the hole we’ve dug ourselves into now.]

Father, mother, sister, brother.

June 21, 2008

I just ran across an interview of the feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson in US Catholic magazine about the use of gender-specific words [“Father”, “King”, “Lord”..] referring to God. Again, I’m not Catholic, but most of this article applies to other kinds of Christ-followers as well. She explains to the editors why she believes viewing God as a male personality is damaging, among other things:

Honor Your Father and Mother: Stale images of God aren’t working for today’s seekers, says feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. New ones are emerging from the experiences of all God’s people–male and female.

When you whispered a prayer this morning while sipping your coffee and eating your toast, to whom exactly did you pray? An old man with a beard somewhere beyond the clouds? Sophia, otherwise known as Holy Wisdom? The Holy Spirit? Jesus?

Elizabeth Johnson wants to know. In her new book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007), she examines how Christians the world over have experienced the presence of God in new ways since the last half of the 20th century. Theologians agree, she says, that we’re in a “golden age of discovery.”

Even before her groundbreaking 1992 book, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad), Johnson has been fascinated by how believers view God. “This might sound a little archaic,” she told Fordham Online, “but I take my cue from Thomas Acquinas–the study of God and all things in the light of God. That articulates for me what theology is about.”

A sister in the Congregation of St. Joseph who hails from Brooklyn, Johnson has been president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society. Winner of the U.S. Catholic Award in 1994, she served as a member of the national Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, a consultant to the Catholic biships’ Committee on Women in Church and Society, a theologian on the Vatican-sponsored dialogue between science and religion, and on the Vatican-sponsored study of Christ and the world religions.

Q. We’re hearing a lot from atheists today who want to persuade us that God doesn’t exist. What do you as a theologian think about that?
A. Atheists are rejecting the old images of God that don’t really work that well even for Christians anymore. Just who is the God in whom Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin), doesn’t believe? I found a great quote from a review of his book, in which the reviewer said that Dawkins envisions God “if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized.” This is not the Christian God.

Also a lot of the atheists writing today are scientists who just want to clear the deck of God so they can do their science. They’re primarily opposed to the fundamentalist approach.

Q. You’ve said that Christians today have many “stale, worn-out images of God that no longer satisfy.” What are they?
A. We might be a bit beyond Michelangelo’s image from the Sistine Chapel of the old man with the beard, but nonetheless, God is too often still a “chap.” It’s just assumed that God is this single individual with more power than anyone else, who intervenes now and then to get certain things done, and whom you need to satisfy on a number of levels. Again, this isn’t the God of Christian revelation. When you hear talk radio or people in the press, this is the God they’re talking about. This image is so unworthy of us.

My daily bread is teaching college students and graduate students, and I find among them that this image just doesn’t work. Especially as they rebel against their parents, which one tends to do at that stage, it’s even less attractive to have the super-parent idea of God. Both in this and other countries, I see a terrific hunger for a mature faith, but that’s not being fed by much of the preaching that people hear, most of which also uses this stale idea of God.

Q. Where did this image come from?
A. In the Middle Ages, or even at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, ideas about God were drawn mainly from scripture and sacramental practice and from people’s spirituality. Once the Enlightenment started in the 17th century, as Western philosophers began to throw off authority and to sort out ideas on their own, theologians adapted that method as well. They began to reason toward the fact of God’s existence on the basis of natural phenomena, and they came up with the idea of a superior being at the apex of the pyramid of being. We call it the God of theism.

What is forgotten in this image is that this God became incarnate, that God is everywhere present in the Spirit, that God is filled with compassion. It became a much more distant God, while at the same time ironically not distant enough because God became just a more powerful player than we are.

This theistic God is also in competition with the world. It’s a zero-sum game: more of God, less of me; more of God, less of the natural world; more of God, less of my own freedom. That is an aberration from the Christian understanding of God, which is that God set the world up in its own integrity and gives us our own freedom. The more we have of God, the freer we are. All of this got lost after the Enlightenment.

Q. Before the Enlightenment, were biblical images more alive in the church?
A. I don’t want to paint any age as the golden era, including our own, although I think we’re in a renaissance right now. If you look at the Middle Ages, You see God spoken of as “The fountain fullness overflowing.” Richard of St. Victor speaks of the deep relationality that is at the heart of God.

Theologians in the Middle Ages wrote tomes on these ideas. We didn’t have anyone doing that during the Enlightenment, with the exception of Cardinal John Henry Newman in England, but he went back and read the Fathers of the church, which caused the whole God question to open up for him again.

The Enlightenment didn’t touch the East in the same way. Even today if you read Christian Orthodox theologians, you get a much different sense of the fullness of God’s trinitarian life, inviting the world into communion. It’s so different from this monarchical, solitary ruler God that we have, the God about who we ask questions like, “Why is God letting this illness happen to me? What did I do that’s wrong?”

Q. What is attractive about this idea of God?
A. This all-powerful God can bless you or curse you; therefore you better please him to get the blessing and not the curse. That’s a pattern of relationship that people have with their parents. It’s familiar. It brings a certain measure of familiarity. Also many people don’t know any other God. They haven’t been exposed to any other understandings.

There are some exceptions: You see some wonderful renewed parishes, for example, where people are living a more biblical approach to God. And this image of God is not widespread in the Hispanic community, where people have the sense of God walking with them. Their home altars and other expressions of their popular religion all indicate the closeness of God, a whole different sort of relationship.

Hispanic theologians today say that their community did not go through the Enlightenment. Conquistadors brought with them to the Americas late midieval Catholicism, which blended with indigenous religion. While Europe went through the Enlightenment, the believers in the Americas did not.

But in general I think the image of the theistic God is very widespread in our country. You hear it in sermonds. And it’s not just me saying this: The U.S. bishops have said that preaching in our country is in a very bad way in terms of the Catholic tradition. The late German theologian Karl Rahner, S.J. was saying the same thing back in the 1950s and ’60s. He said that the words of the preacher fall powerlessly from the pulpit “like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky.” I sit and listen to some sermons and I think, “Come on, think of all the wonderful things you could say with this text.”

Q. What does God look like in the U.S. Hispanic community? Is it different from God as envisioned by the people of Latin America?
A. The difference is in the local setting. In this country we don’t have civil wars, we don’t have the extreme difference between the wealthy and the poor that gave rise to liberation theology (although we’re getting there). We also have democratic processes, and Hispanic people have made it into the upper echelons of government.

The history of the Hispanic people in the U.S. is that they encountered and then became swallowed up in a Protestant, European culture, where even their language was under pressure.

Hispanic theologians in this country will say: “We’re not doing liberation theology.” They think liberation theology did not give enough credence to popular religion, that it neglected daily life in the family that shows itself in fiesta, and in what Hispanics call flor y canto, flower and song, a metaphor for beauty.

At a fiesta, the clergy and nuns are welcome, but they are not necessary. The people will have the fiesta anyway, which has a deep religious component. God accompanies the people, sustaining and strengthening them. Their love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Good Friday processions, Posadas before Christmas, all speak of a God who understands the struggles and joys of human existance.

The sense of God’s closeness can be such a benefit to non-Hispanics like myself who don’t have that religious ambiance around us in our daily lives. All these new theologies can teach us something, especially this one.

Q. How does one’s theology of God affect one’s everyday life and faith?
A. If you’re a believing person, you draw your deepest values from that. How you make moral decisions and vocational decisions, how you treat other people–it all flows from how you see God working.

None of the newer theologies of God are innocent in terms of politics. Every one of the ideas I explore in my book has political implications. They are concerned with power and who uses it and the powerless and how they are affected. So if you let any one of those theologies get into your understanding, you’re going to vote differently, you’re going to volunteer differently, you’re going to use your money differently. Theology, I think, can be very powerful as a tool. It’s my conviction that we all have a theology, so how it shapes your life depends on what it is.

Q. What are some of the theologies of God that you’ve been investigating?
A. They include images from feminist theology, from Latin America and from Latinos in the United States, as well as the God who emerges from encounters with religious pluralism. Also God as envisioned in Europe after the Holocaust, God as seen through the African American experience, and several others.

Each of the new images of God I studied has biblical grounding, each refers in some way to the Trinity, each of them is oriented in some way to religious practice. All of them support the idea that God is deeply involved, deeply concerned with what happens in the world. If you love God, then your heart needs to be conformed and configured to God’s heart. You have to feel that way toward the world. There will certainly be differences of opinion about how to do that.

Q. You mentioned the Trinity. This solo God of the Enlightenment doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Trinity.
A. The Trinity has been just about lost forever in the West. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the Vatican, says the Holy Spirit is the Cinderella of theology in the West, in the kitchen doing all the work while the other two get to go to the ball.

The view of God in classical theism also does not see God through the lens of Jesus Christ, which is basic to the Christian understanding of God. Therefore it leaves out everything that is beautiful and attractive and that makes people want to be Christian. Jesus and his life, death, and Resurrection just don’t factor in.

The new theologies from Africa and Latin America, on the other hand, are examples of a new kind of trinitarian theology. They don’t let Christ and the Spirit drop away. They’re rooted in an understanding of God related to the world. These understandings are so basic to Christian faith and tradition, I call them a gift to all the rest of us.

Q. You frequently use the term “the living God.” What does that mean?
A. It’s a term found all through the Bible. I love it. The living God is always ahead of us, always surprising, always calling us to come ahead. Wherever “the living God” is used, it indicates a life of fullness, of flowing water, new reality, new justice, new peace. The different theologies I studied use different words for it: getting back to the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of life.

Q. These new theologies of God start with human experience. What’s the significance of that?
A. When I was writing She Who Is, it dawned on me that our original approach to God, where God first reaches us, is through our experience–and that’s the Spirit. The Spirit is present in nature, in our human interactions, in the depths of our own soul, at the end of our reaching out in love.

Take the Catholics of Latin America. Where did they get the idea of God as liberator? They didn’t just say one day, “Let’s have a new idea of God.” It started in the struggle for justice, for a well that had clean water so babies wouldn’t die before their first birthday. In that work, and in their prayer and reflection over that work, people said, “This is what God wants us to do.” Then when they read the Book of Exodus, they read it with new eyes because of their new experience.

In every single one of these theologies, it is experience that opens the door, that leads the way in. Then theologians come along and think about it, but they couldn’t do that without the experience of the Christian people first. We believe, as St. Anselm said a thousand years ago, that theology is faith seeking understanding. You have the church–the community–and theologians reflect on what the community’s faith means. The experience is there as a primary source.

Q. What is revelation then?
A. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, revelation became highly intellectualized. It came down to doctrine: We knew certain truths, certain beliefs. You’re a Christian if you believe this. I would say Vatican II’s Dei Verbu, the Constitution on Divine Revelation, changed all that. Its opening sentence says, “In his goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will.” In the gift of God’s own self comes understanding something of who God is, so revelation becomes much more experiential right from the start. That experience is then articulated in words and finally it is written down. We call it revelation.

I always regret that word, revelation. It sounds like an object, but it’s a relational dynamic that has brought to birth wisdom in the Christian community about God and fidelity in the way people live.

What we are called to believe is actually a mystery, God’s own giving self. Rahner uses the image of the horizon: You see it, but you never get there. You can’t control it or comprehend it, because then it wouldn’t be God.

Q. How can different images of God all work together and still be Catholic?
A. There can be many theologies among people who still believe in one Creed.

Theology is simply an articulation of what faith means in this time and place for this people, so that will change over time. The Creed is a point of unity. We come together over the heart of the confession of faith and the reception of the Eucharist that unites the community.

Q. Isn’t there the potential for so many different theologies to get out of control?
A. Yes, but whose control, exactly? Certain theologians who wrote in every one of these theologies have been criticized by Rome. This approach can be threatening to a hierarchical power structure, because it says that truth also resides among the baptized, that those who are filled with the Spirit have a wisdom.

I don’t mean to knock the institutional church. Rahner wrote that the church has its charisms and its offices, and that often there’s tension between the two. Theology is a charism, and the office is often in tension with that. The good function of the church office is unity; it keeps everybody from losing the heart and soul of what we believe, from falling into fads and trends and that sort of thing. I would never not want to have a central authority that functions as a uniting factor.

Q. Let’s talk about “God acting womanish,” as you call it. Where does this theology stand today?
A. There are many major images of God in a female form in scripture and in our mystical tradition especially. Maternity is the main one, but the wisdom texts about Sophia are another. Some theologians make the case, too, that the Spirit has a female name in Hebrew and acts in feminine ways.

Then come the questions of why aren’t we using those images of God in our liturgies, why aren’t we teaching young people that this is an approach to God that can be used as well? The three major words for God are still Father, King, and Lord in Christian hymns, prayer, and liturgy. What that sets up unconsciously, whether you want it to or not, is the assumption that men have more in common with divinity than women do. Those three particular images also are very patriarchal because they refer not just to a male but to a ruling male, somebody who is dominating or being father in a patriarchal sense. Now that isn’t of course, what scripture means or what Jesus meant when he called God Abba.

If you combine Father, Lord, and King with the God of theism, then you’ve got a problem. That’s one of those static ideas that does not feed the souls of a lot of people, men as well as women.

Q. Why?
A. It’s very simple. Women are no longer relating to men in their lives as lord and king, and father no longer has that sense of control and domination that it had in a previous era. Women are no longer relating to their own fathers that way, let alone marrying men who act as fathers that way. Look at the partnership concept in marriage. Fathering is much more nurturing than it used to be.

There’s little that women then can bring into a relationship with God who is going to be their lord and king or their father. It goes blank, and not only that, but women are very uncomfortable with it. It’s not just neutral, it’s negative. Women think, “I don’t want a dominating man: Go away until you grow up and learn how to treat me like a human being.” When that comes into the religious life of women, it becomes the heart of this crisis. You can have all the dictums in the world, but the old images just don’t work anymore.

Q. What does it mean that we call God by male terms?
A. I have this sentence that I quote over and over again: The symbol of God functions. The male symbol of God functions to privilege a certain way of male rule in the world and to undercut women’s spiritual power, women’s own sense of themselves as made in the image of God.

We women have to abstract ourselves from our bodies to see ourselves in the image of God if God is always depicted as male. It has serious ramifications for spirituality and for the identity of believers and for the community.

Q. Why is there so much resistance to using feminine images of God?
A. I think the rejection of the inclusive language lectionary, which the U.S. bishops applied for in 1992 and which was rejected by the Vatican, was a clear recognition that once you start making room for even nonsexist language about humanity, let alone feminine images of God, there’s a fear that women will want to move in socially and politically, and then you’ve got a challenge to church structure as we know it. I think there’s a great deal of fear of women’s power.

Q. Can you imagine a church that took female images of God to heart?
A. Let me say, I think women and men are equal in sin and grace. I don’t think women are going to be the salvation of the church or of this country. I think we can all get on power trips. I’m convinced of it, maybe because I’ve been in a women’s religious community, and I have six sisters. I am disabused of this romantic notion of women’s greatness as compared to men.

At this moment in history, women have figured out what’s wrong with the current pattern and how their experiences have led to different ways of relating, organizing, and running things. Given the chance, they would bring that pattern into the church and let it play off and see what develops.

Q. How do you imagine God when you pray?
A. Writing She Who Is was a deeply spiritual experience for me. By the time I had finished, I had migrated out of the patriarchal church and the patriarchal notion of God. I have never been able to pray that way again. The notion of God as the one who embraces us, in whom we live and move and have our being, is so much more my sense of God than the grand old man in the sky. Even when I’m at liturgy and I hear male language in prayers, I experience it differently.

Q. You don’t revert back?
A. I had a very good friend who died five years ago of a brain hemorrhage, and I was the health care proxy for him. During the days in the hospital when he was unconscious and we faced a decision about removing the breathing tube, I was absolutely conscious of Sophia embracing him and me in this crisis. He was moving toward death, and I was guarding his death like a lion against the doctors who wanted to do a million procedures.

That to me was the moment I realized I could never go back. In a moment of crisis, you often revert to your childhood image of God. What I reverted to was this cosmic sense of the Spirit of God in even our dying, summoning us, walking with us.

*raises her hand* I do!

June 17, 2008

The winter I got engaged, a college friend was using some of my essays as course material for a Rhetoric 101 class she was teaching at a large Midwestern university. She couldn’t wait to alert her students to my impending marriage. “They all think you’re a lesbian,” she told me. “One of them even asked if you hate men.” I was blown away by the cliche of it all–how had we come to the end of the twentieth century with such ridiculous, outmoded notions even partially intact? But I was, at least, pleased that my friend was able to use my story to banish the stereotype one and (I hoped) for all in the minds of 30 corn-fed first-years. “To a man?” they reportedly gasped when told the news.

I’d been married less than a year when a customer at the bookstore where my husband works approached the counter to buy a copy of the feminist magazine I edit. “You know,” a staffer told her while ringing up the purchase, “the woman who does this magazine is married to a guy who works here.” The customer, supposedly a longtime reader, was outraged at the news–I believe the phrase “betrayal of feminism” was uttered–and vowed never to buy the magazine again.

These two incidents may be extreme, but they are nonetheless indicative. Although we are far from rare, young married feminists are still, for some, something of a novelty–like a dressed-up dog. We can cause a surprised “Oh, would you look at that” or a disappointed “Take that damned hat off the dog, it’s just not right.”

Let’s take the disappointment first. Marriage’s bad reputation among feminists is certainly not without reason. We all know the institution’s tarnished history: women as property passed from father to husband; monogamy as the simplest way to assure paternity and thus produce “legitimate” children; a husband’s legal entitlement to his wife’s domestic and sexual services. With marriage rates falling and social sanctions against cohabitation falling away, why would a feminist choose to take part in such a retro, potentially oppressive, bigotedly exclusive institution?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, actually. Foremost are the emotional ones: love, companionship, the pure joy that meeting your match brings with it. But, because I’m wary of the kind of muddled romanticizing that has ill-served women in their heterosexual dealings for most of recorded history, I have plenty of other reasons. To reject marriage simply because of its history is to give in to that history; to argue against marriage by saying that a wife’s identity is necessarily subsumed by her husband’s is to do nothing more than second the notion.

And it wasn’t feminists who fought so hard to procure the basic rights that used to be obliterated by marriage? Because of the women’s rights movement, we can maintain our own bank accounts; we can make our own health care choices; we can refuse sex with our husbands and prosecute them if they don’t comply. In the feminist imagination, “wife” can still conjure up images of cookie-baking, cookie-cutter Donna Reeds whose own desires have been forced to take a backseat to their stultifying helpmate duties. But it’s neither 1750 nor 1950, and Donna Reed was a mythical figure even in her own time. Marriage, now, is potentially what we make it.

Which brings me to the “surprise” portion of our program. As long as the yeti of the antifeminist world–the hairy-legged man-hater (everyone claims to have seen her but actual evidence is sparse)–roams the earth, we need to counteract her image. And as long as wives are assumed–by anyone–to be obedient little women with no lives of their own, those of us who give the lie to this straw bride need to make ourselves as conspicuous as possible.

I want to take the good from marriage and leave the rest. I know it’s not for everyone, but the “for as long as we both shall live” love and supporting thang really works for me. Sure, I didn’t need the wedding to get that love and support, but neither does the fact of marriage automatically consign me and my man to traditional man-and-wife roles. Like so many relationships, married and un-, ours is a complex weave of support, independence, and sex. We achieve this privately–from the mundatities of you-have-to-cook-tonight-because-I-have-this-deadline-tomorrow to sleepy late-night discussions on more profound matters, like the meaning of life or how many steps it takes to link Kevin Bacon to John Gielgud by way of at least one vampire movie. But also publicly–with our name change, for example (explaining to folks like the Social Security Administration and whoever hands out passports that, yes, we both need new papers, because we each have added the other’s name was, and I mean this quite seriously, a thrill). And it’s this public nature of marriage that appeals. It’s what allows me to take a stab at all this change I’ve been yammering about.

I won’t pretend I meet with success all the time. Disrupting other people’s expectations is hard, and sometimes it’s neither possible nor desirable to wear the workings of one’s relationship on one’s sleeve. An appropriate cocktail party introduction is not, “This is my husband, Christopher, who knows how to truss a turkey, which I don’t, and who, by the way, doesn’t mind at all that I make more money than him. Oh, and did I mention that the last time our toilet got scrubbed, it wasn’t by me?”

Plus, some people’s perceptions can only change so much. My 90-year-old grandfather, who has been nothing but open-minded and incredibly supportive of my feminist work, persists in asking what my husband is going to do for food whenever I leave town on my own. Each time, I say the same thing. “Christopher knows perfectly well how to feed himself. In fact, he’s cooking dinner for me right now.” And then my grandfather gives a little surprised chuckle: those crazy kids, what will they think of next? And my accountant, who’s been doing my taxes for years and knows my husband only as a Social Security number, automatically assigned Christopher the status of “taxpayer” and put me down as “spouse” on our first joint return. Yeah, it was a tad annoying, but so far it’s the sum total of the eclipse of my identity by his. Not so bad, really.

By and large I do believe that we’re culturally ready to accept changes in the way marriages are viewed. Increasing rates of cohabitation and the growing visibility of long-term same-sex partnerships are changing popular notions of relationhips. Even trash TV holds promise: Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? debacle laid bare many ugly things about American capitalism and media spectace, but there was one fairly unexpected result. The show was presented as a display, however crass, of old-fashioned marital values–a trade of youth, beauty, and fecundity for wealth, security, and caretaking, complete with the groom’s friends and family on hand for that lovely arranged-marriage feel. But it turned out to be nothing of the kind. The bride, as it happened, just wanted the lark of a free trip to Vegas, and the groom, a boost to his moribund show-biz career. That the concept saw the outside of a Fox conference room proves that modern marriage is in dire need of feminist attention. But the widely expressed outrage and disgust that followed the show are evidence that the general public is more than ready to discard the notion that a woman’s ultimate goal is the altar.

It’s true that the most important parts, the actual warp and weft of Christopher’s and my relationhip, could be achieved without a legal marriage (and I could have kept my third-wave street cred). In the end, though, the decision to marry or not to marry is–no matter how political the personal–an emotional one. I wanted to link my life to Christopher’s, and, yes, I admit to taking advantage of the universally understood straight-shot-to-relationship-legitimacy that marriage offers. But it is a testament to the feminists who came before me, who offered up all those arguments about marriage’s oppressive roots and worked tirelessly to ensure that my husband owns neither my body nor my paycheck, that I can indulge my emotion without fear of being caught in those roots. Instead, I can carry on their struggle and help forge a new vision of what marriage is.

[Lisa Miya-Jervis is the editor of “Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture” and coeditor of “Young Wives’ Tales,” an anthology of feminist writings on partnership. Originally posted in an archived edition of Ms. Magazine.]