Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I'm Moving

It's been a while since I started this blog and I've gone through a lot of life changes in the meantime.  It happens to the best of us. Anyway, I've started a new blog, so if you want to keep following me or check out what I've got going on, head over to http://rosesandrevolutionaries.wordpress.com/   Thanks for sticking with me here and I wish you all the best.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Paige Patterson Should Not Be Re-Elected To The Cedarville University Trustee Board

Anyone associated with Cedarville University knows there’s been a shift in leadership in recent months.  Two of the most visible men on campus, the President Dr. Bill Brown and Vice President for Student Life Dr. Carl Ruby, stepped down.  A group of alumni and students speculated that Dr. Ruby’s resignation, coupled with ongoing turmoil in the Bible department, indicated a hard right shift in the University’s ideology.  In a private conversation with a prominent alumnus, the head of the trustee board confirmed that such a shift was, in fact, the intention of himself and others in leadership of the University.

But let’s not be so distracted by the visible, up-front changes that we miss what’s going on behind the scenes.  The trustee board has experienced a turnover as well, with several trustees resigning because they don’t support recent decisions by the board.  Less visibly, a tiny blurb appeared in the Dayton Daily news two days ago announcing three new trustees.  One of the names mentioned is the name Paige Patterson.  Patterson was a Cedarville trustee from 2003-2011 and according to the Dayton Daily News, the Cedarville trustee board has voted to bring him back.  The choice isn’t shocking given that right-wing elements in the leadership are seeking to entrench their position – Patterson is currently the President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a stalwart, vocal conservative evangelical.  He’s been a prime mover in the most conservative faction of the Southern Baptist Convention.  So it seems that those who selected him to serve on Cedarville University’s trustee board at this juncture knew exactly what they were doing, and intended to send a clear message to the more moderate members of the Cedarville community.

However, there are clear reasons why Paige Patterson should not be a trustee of Cedarville University.  No matter your theological convictions, you should be able to agree that his documented failures in leadership should disqualify him from such a position of leadership and trust.

(I do realize, having read many of the threads online, that I’m inviting a great deal of controversy here.  I’m also aware that it’s controversy which has been hashed over time and again in Southern Baptist circles.  In fact, Patterson’s been criticized so often that people actually ask him for advice as to how to deal with “attacks.”  I’m writing this post for the benefit of those in the Cedarville University community who may have no idea who Paige Patterson is).

Cedarville University wants to be known for holding its students, faculty, staff, and trustees to high standards of conduct and integrity.  The University bylaws state (Article III: Standards of Conduct): “We prayerfully seek to serve Christ in an atmosphere free from…unethical and/or immoral conduct…”  Lest anyone protest that this standard is meant only for students and faculty, the facing page assures us, “Trustee [sic] shall annually subscribe unreservedly to the University doctrinal statement and standards of conduct (Articles II and III).”

Let us leave aside Patterson’s vigorous self-aggrandizement.  When one has been called “a modern-day Martin Luther” one may be permitted a little swaggering (Just kidding.  Christian leadership really ought to be marked by humility).

The most widely discussed reason to doubt Patterson’s ethics has been thoroughly documented on another blog, so if you want the primary sources click over there.  I’ll just summarize here.  It’s a familiar story: a male leader in an evangelical community (in this case, Patterson, at the time president of Criswell College) is alerted to allegations of sexual abuse against another man in a ministry position (in this case, Darrell Gilyard, who was a Patterson mentee and whose praises were sung by Patterson, and who in 2008 was finally convicted of sexual molestation charges).  Said male leader (Patterson) is slow to believe the victims, ignores evidence until it’s impossible for him to do so any longer, takes minimum necessary action, and in the end simply “withdraws support” from the abuser instead of issuing any sort of apology for negligence and cover-up.  (If you’ll recall, a very similar scenario played out at ABWE when Michael Loftis, another Cedarville University trustee, was in charge).  Of course, Patterson defends his actions, believing them to be honorable since he did finally take some action once he was thoroughly convinced of Gilyard’s guilt.  In fact, he has claimed that anyone suggesting he acted inappropriately or too slowly, or that he was in any way at fault, is just as reprehensible as a sexual predator.  Meanwhile, those who suffered from abuse may still be waiting to receive any real justice.  I understand of course that Patterson’s views on gender roles prevent Patterson from lending a listening ear to feminists, but he could learn from their advice to believe survivors.  It’s a shame he couldn’t take a cue then from the SBC Confession as affirmed and revised by a committee he appointed a few years later in his position then as SBC President: “We should work to provide for…the needy, the abused…the helpless…We should…contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.”  But, someone might say, you can’t hold Patterson responsible, he wasn’t perpetrating the abuse.  No, but he was in a position of authority, which holds a lot of responsibility especially when abuse allegations come to light.  Patterson seems extremely comfortable taking on positions of authority, but he just doesn’t seem quite at home with some of the less glamorous aspects of the accompanying responsibility.

But let’s say he deserves the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe Patterson’s version of facts is correct and he actually did act as soon as possible and do all that he possibly could do.  Let’s imagine that’s true for an instant, even if we suspect it isn’t.  There’s still another extremely troubling incident which shows his deeply ingrained misogyny, his willingness to sacrifice real people’s well-being to his particular idea of how God’s plan should play out.

For a little background, let’s review evidence of the sort of traditional gender roles that Patterson is passionate about.  On the same day that Patterson was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998, said Convention amended their doctrinal statement to explicitly require wifely submission to husbands.  Patterson stood squarely behind this gender role definition, telling a New York Times reporter that “the amendment was a response to ‘a time of growing crisis in the family.’”  That’s a pretty normal, traditional view for an elderly Southern Baptist leader to espouse.  (In fact, if you want to know just how seriously Southern Baptists take gender roles, notice that of the extra “affirmed statements” in addition to the general doctrinal statement of SWBTS, one is on gender roles. The other is on Biblical inerrancy, Patterson’s favorite battlefield [other than Africa where he hunts wild animals for sport and for tortured salvation analogies]).  However, this vigorous stance on gender roles takes on a sinister cast when we hear, in Patterson’s own words, how he responded to a specific family in “crisis.”

During a conference, Patterson was specifically asked a question about how the doctrine of womanly submission relates to the issue of domestic violence (for the extended audio clip, click here).  He said that in the most extreme cases where there is severe moral, spiritual, and physical danger, he will counsel temporary separation and seeking of help (he didn’t enlighten us as to who decides how much danger the victim is in, but I suspect he himself gets to decide).  However, in “most cases” he counsels women to never forget the power of prayer.  One flinches a bit and hopes he doesn’t actually mean it, that he wouldn’t actually face a battered woman and tell her to go home and pray for God’s intervention.  One would hope that perhaps Patterson might see himself as a means God could use to help intervene in a domestic violence situation, because after all, if God answers prayer it is often through human agency.  One would hope, but one would be wrong.  Patterson launches into a story about a woman he counseled (for the full transcript click here).  He told her to go home and pray, explaining that her husband would likely become even more violent once she started praying for him every night before bed.  She returned with two black eyes, saying “I hope you’re happy.”  But, to hear Patterson tell this story, it all turns out okay in the end.  The husband came to church and repented and according to Patterson is a wonderful husband today.  (Anyone familiar with the psychology of domestic violence might doubt this, especially considering that many abusers are very good at repenting in tears only to engage in the same abusive behavior again).

This whole incident is one more example of a problem I’ve witnessed time and again in conservative evangelical authority figures.  They believe they see the larger spiritual reality and so feel free to overlook the actual suffering in front of them.  Patterson looked at this woman’s two black eyes and chose not to comfort her but rather to exult in the fact that her husband had come to church for the first time.  He believed, very sincerely it seems, that it was right of him to send this woman back to a man who was behaving violently toward her.  He believed his counsel was confirmed as correct by the husband’s eventual change of heart.  Patterson saw himself as being an orchestrator of God’s plan in this couple’s life.  But is it so hard to believe that perhaps God could have brought this husband to repentance even if, in an act of bold obedience, Patterson had chosen to protect this wife from her abuser?  At the very least, this was a devastating betrayal of the position of trust and authority Patterson had in this woman’s life.  And he’s proud of himself for telling her to return to a harmful and abusive situation.

As I’ve been writing this article, reading blogs and articles and comment threads for research, I keep feeling like I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I’m not a Southern Baptist, so I’ll never be in a situation where Paige Patterson’s teachings and ideas and behavior will directly affect me.  I certainly do care, deeply, about abuse that goes on in the church, about ways that harmful situations are perpetuated or ignored, but I don’t have a reason to specifically care about these situations out of all the other ones that are out there.  However, as soon as it reaches my attention that Paige Patterson may have just been appointed to the governing body of my alma mater, I find that these stories begin to trouble me.  

I am troubled to think that someone who talks so much and so often and so passionately about defending the Bible can summon none of the same passion to defend oppressed and abused women, especially considering that the Bible contains all sorts of directives to do so (perhaps even more than the directives to preach the Word).  I am already disturbed at how Cedarville is in many ways not a safe place for survivors or for those currently undergoing abuse, and I’m afraid that Patterson’s presence on the board will only serve to further entrench a culture that values preaching the Word of God but is negligent to do the work of God (or thinks that the work of God lies solely in delimiting the boundaries of a stringent orthodoxy and then winning souls to that particular orthodoxy).  I want to believe that Cedarville University can live up to its goal of being an excellent Christ-centered university, but I believe adding Patterson to the Cedarville community is a drastic step in the wrong direction.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Living on Purpose

I thought long and hard about my first tattoo.  I got it about a year and a half ago, a simple script across my right arm reading “Life is Beautiful.”

I’ve already told most people the story behind the specific phrase.  It’s part of a longer quote penned by a Jewish woman during the Holocaust: “It still all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful…And I want to be there right in the thick of what people call ‘horror’ and still be able to say: life is beautiful.”  Of course, as is true for many others during that time, she died less than a year after writing that.

When I originally read that quotation, it struck me as incredibly wise.  It’s not flippant or unwilling to face facts.  It looks straight into the jaws of the very worst atrocities humankind can commit and dares to assert that life is still beautiful.  A blind faith in the worthwhileness of this life we’ve all been given will never last as long as a belief held with eyes wide open.

But I haven’t told most people the deeper reason.  I haven’t publicly admitted yet why I need the reminder “Life is Beautiful” etched into my skin.

A particularly boring guy tried to hit on me once by reading off my tattoo then asking, “Do you believe that?”  I told him “Yes,” coupled with a dramatic eyeroll that caused him to duck away and avoid me for the rest of the evening.   But the truth is, I don’t always.

To understand who I am today, you have to know the story of this girl:

That’s me when I was about fifteen.  That’s the smile I showed to the few people I interacted with.  But it was at that age that I really began living with a depression that has never fully gone away.

This wasn’t just a “my life kind of sucks” depression, though there certainly was that.  Any fifteen year old who has no friends and is facing major life upheavals in the form of the death of family members and a parent’s dangerous life-or-death surgery will probably suffer from some kind of depression.  But mine went much deeper than external circumstances.  I literally hated myself.  I would have given anything to get out of my own head.  All of that, and a genetic predisposition to depression, made a very bad cocktail for me.

It was at that age that, one cold morning, after struggling with months of depression that felt like a giant black hole in my chest, I woke up and decided that life was not worth it.  I was so depressed, however, that I literally could not move out of bed.  That paralysis forced me to lie under my covers, staring at the ceiling, considering whether or not to kill myself.  If I hadn't had those hours of consideration which just barely came out on the side of "Ok I'll keep living for the present" (mostly because I could not stand the thought of failing, which I knew was likely since the only method I could think of was taking pills), I might not be here today.

But what happened that morning, when I came within a hairs breadth of getting out of bed and walking to the medicine cabinet to attempt suicide instead of walking to the kitchen to make breakfast, has left an indelible scar in my psyche.  Once suicide has been seriously considered, there is always that option.  There is always that out.  There is always that self-destructive impulse that strongly suggests that I do the exact opposite of what I know I should.  When I run into another string of days when it feels absolutely impossible to put one foot in front of the other, there is always the temptation to just end everything for myself.  Just go to sleep forever…

I’ve chosen not to dwell on the negative.  Yes, there’s that little voice in my head that says, “You know you don’t have to do this.  You know life is hard and it’s only going to get worse, so why not just opt out, right now?  I’ll always be here to show you the way when you’re ready…”  But I choose to understand that voice as the voice of an enemy who I’m defeating every day.  Each day that I ignore that urge, that little voice, that self-destructive streak, is a day that I am alive on purpose.  I’m not just here because I was born, I am here because I chose life over death, and because I continue to make that choice.  It’s empowering.  It’s also a lot of responsibility, and I’m pretty sure I am not yet optimizing the opportunities these last eight years have had to offer.

The tattoo, then, is at once a declaration of my choice to live and to believe that life is beautiful and worth the living, even when it doesn’t feel that way, and also a reminder.  My past self is standing with my present self when I need an extra dose of faith (pun intended. You can laugh).  Sometimes I don’t think life is beautiful, but I remember that I’ve been through that darkness before and it will pass, and I will once more find myself believing it so passionately I want to hold onto life forever.  Realistically, I know someday I will die, but when that happens I need everyone to carry on this belief.

I’m choosing to live, in full faith that life is beautiful.  And if you ever lose that faith, let me remind you.  This tattoo is for everybody.

[Endnote: I am not saying that pure will-power is the solution to depression.  I absolutely should have sought counsel as a teenager and if it weren't prohibitively expensive I would probably be seeing a professional even now that I'm doing much better.  Obviously if you're going through depression and suicidal thoughts and deliberate self-destruction you should get help.  That's not a sign of weakness, it is one more way to choose life over death.  It's one more act of faith that life is worth living.]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Questions Are OK

"My version of reality is correct, so my interpretation of your experience is correct.  If you think I should be listening to your story instead of pigeon-holing it into my neat ideas about the universe, that’s just your pride speaking.  You aren’t important at all, except as an actor on the larger stage of this one over-arching story that’s playing out.  By the way do you want me to tell you what that story is?"

That’s what’s going on when someone thinks you’re inviting them to explain the Christian narrative every time you try to tell them about something important in your life.  That’s the subtext.  And if you find it painful and bewildering as an outsider, imagine how impossible it is to even function as a healthy human being  when you grow up with that idea constantly pounded into your impressionable brain.  Your experiences aren’t as true as the things that we’re telling you are The Truth.  Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to figure it out, because we already figured it out for you.  If you disagree with what we think, you are wrong.  For your entire childhood and high school years, if you try to come to a conclusion on your own you are wrong, you are wrong, you are selfish and prideful and sinful.

I am sure that some peoples’ experience of reality has led them to legitimately accept conservative Christianity.  That was not, for them, a wrong choice.  But certain brands of conservative Christianity then become so all-encompassing that it’s impossible for these people to relate to anyone whose experience of life has led them to different conclusions or even to a general “I’m not quite sure” mid-way stage in life.  These conservative Christians think they have arrived, think they have the basic framework of everything figured out, and they have very little patience for people who are still asking honest questions about life and spirituality.  “Why ask questions when I have the answers right here?”

It’s even worse when someone is raised an ultra conservative Christian and then realizes the way they were raised doesn’t square with their experience at all.  When I come to a point where I have more questions than answers, most of the people I grew up with are frustrated with me.  They hand me the same stock arguments I was taught to accept years ago, as though that will solve everything.  Every word they say to me is something I used to believe, something that just doesn’t work for me anymore based on the actual everyday world I’ve encountered.  And I’ll explain, I’ll try to point out some reasons why I am having the question I am having or have reached some conclusion counter to their conclusion, and they will just give me the same conclusion I’m contradicting or questioning.  “You know this, I know you do, so why are you questioning it?  You’ve been raised right.  What’s the matter with you?  You used to believe the truth.”

And that’s a problem which often arises with belief in a knowable, absolute truth: people like to think they’ve discovered it.  Which makes everyone who disagrees with them at best a fool and at worst a stubborn sinner bent on questioning God.

But we’re not handed answers at birth.  There’s no playbook to life.  We can learn from the wisdom of people who have lived on this earth before us, but by virtue of being an individual human being we are each given the responsibility to find our own beliefs.

I have met wiser, more compassionate Christians, who believe that an honest truth-seeker will find the truth.  They still assume there’s a knowable absolute truth, but they don’t think it’s their job to impose it on everyone.  They don’t think people who are asking questions or who are uncertain are sinful.  To these Christians I say thank you for showing me that not all religion is toxic.  And to the exasperated people who don’t like the questions I’m asking or the conclusions I’m honestly arriving at: you believe that God chooses before the beginning of time who is saved and who isn’t.  So relax and have faith that if I’m destined for salvation, he’ll get me there.  Don’t make the process longer by shutting me down every time I try to talk through some of the steps I’m taking on my journey.

Bottom line, whatever you believe or aren’t sure about, it’s your experiences that got you there.  That’s good, that’s how life was meant to work.  But don’t arrogantly assume that the fact you’ve reached your own conclusions gives you power over the experiences of others.  It is my responsibility to interpret my experiences, and I’ll ask for your help if I need it.  You don’t need to think my questions or my conclusions are valid, but you do need to respect me enough to believe I came by them honestly.  Let’s try to do this whole figuring-out-life thing together, and stop playing power games with other people’s personhood, sanity, and destiny.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Nature's Pupil

I am just a walker
Through the wild forests and meadows still left preserved
In places we’ve named
Michigan, Vermont, Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee
But these nature spots I find have names deeper than I know
Names I think I could speak
If I stayed here long enough
And they know me
When I stand on the edge of a hill tangled with scrub-bushes
Looking down to a flat rock like molded dough
With reeds on the edge, watered by a rare trickling stream
When I come around some corner and suddenly see
A shallow spread of March water
Slinking around the roots of trees
When I climb between tall green ferns
Up slumbering boulder’s shoulders
Slithering down drifts of last year’s leaves
All these places say to me
In voices numerous as life itself
“Here you are, at last!
We don’t need you to complete us
We don’t need to be seen by human eyes
We simply are
But you need us
You need the sight of clouds in the pines on the opposite mountaintop
You need the smell of damp earth promising life after winter snow
You need to feel beneath your hand, beneath your foot
Crumbling moss, tree bark, the bones of the earth
You need to taste water at its source, cold to ache your teeth
You need to know what we are, that we are
In order to complete your soul
You need the unartificed disorderly rhythm
The cycles and the bounty and the rarity we are
This is what you live by, and you need to know it
So at last, here you are
Sit by the roots of your sister tree
And learn.”

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Last Piece of Relationship Advice I’ll Ever Need

[Trigger warning]

Recently, a wise woman named Zerlina Maxwell pointed out that guns aren’t going to solve the problem of rape.  She dared to suggest that perhaps the onus should be put on men to not be rapists.  “Don’t put it on me to prevent the rape,” she said.  Maxwell isn’t suggesting that women shouldn’t fight back when they are attacked, but she is saying that the focus of the conversation has been wrong this whole time.

And Maxwell’s not just trying to put responsibility on someone else.  For instance, she’s written this excellent article suggesting ways that men can be taught not to be rapists.  She’s said that a social change needs to happen and she is doing what she can to contribute to that change.  Zerlina Maxwell is, to the best of her ability, being the change she wants to see in the world.

One of the reasons I find Maxwell so inspiring is that my own brief forays into attempting to educate men on the topic of rape have been very frustrating.  Someone I know made a rape/gun-control joke on Twitter and our conversation about it was difficult.  A few long facebook messages back and forth and I felt like I’d accomplished nothing.  He seemed to feel that rape is a topic it’s okay to “agree to disagree” on.  If it’s that hard to change one person’s entrenched ideas on the nature of sexual violence, how gutsy do you have to be to take on our entire nation’s entrenched views on sexual violence?

Sexual violence and gender violence are complex topics, with no one simple fix.  They’re especially complex to explain to people who have no reason to think they’ll ever be victims: strong young heterosexual males.  But I absolutely think the discussion and education Maxwell hopes will take place can take place.  It’s just one piece of the puzzle, but I think it’s an important one.

Jessica Valenti points out that when you say men can’t unlearn sexual/gender violence, you’re really saying that men are inherently violent against women, rather than just socialized that way.  I believe constructive dialogue and education can take place because I know plenty of men who are examples of truly healthy masculinity (or I suppose, truly healthy humanity, as virtue is not a primarily the territory of one gender or another).  Whether it’s because of how they were raised or things they’ve learned through experience, these men interact with women respectfully as equal human beings.  But there are many other men who have a long way to go, whose attitudes and actions are ignorant or consciously misogynist, who contribute to the widespread sexual and gender violence in our society.

There’s a weird mental construct that a lot of people seem to carry around about rape.  The cultural conversation always seems to assume the stranger-jumping-out-of-the-bushes scenario.  At which point, you know, the situation can be solved if the woman pulls a gun or kicks his crotch and runs away.  Easy.  But that’s actually one of the least common rape scenarios, at least here in the U.S.

I knew in my head, of course, that sexual and gender violence often occur in the home, by someone you already know, in a situation where it’s hard to get away or get a weapon with which to protect yourself.  But that knowledge really hit home when I was assaulted in my own house.   A guy wanted to have sex with me, I was nearly asleep and ignoring him, so he started pulling at my clothes and generally trying to get something started without my consent. (Steubenville, guys, should have helped you all realize that being unconscious is not consent, and it’s not a hard leap from there to realize that being nearly asleep is also not consent).  I pushed him away, mumbled sleepily at him “stop it”, he didn’t, he climbed on top of me, and I threw him off, saying, “When I’m not responding to you, it means I don’t want to have sex with you!”  He acted all offended, saying, “You’re so confusing!”  (I’m not sure what’s confusing about saying “no” and “stop it”)  I said, “No, you’re confused about what consent means.”  And then I thought, maybe that’s the truth.  Maybe that’s all he needs, a little education.

I was wrong.  Don’t try to educate a horny guy who just sort of assaulted you, that’s not safe.  I should have told him to leave, but he seemed so nice and so sorry and like he just didn’t know what had been going through my head.  He seemed to think that I (fully clothed and almost asleep and telling him “no”) had somehow wanted to have sex with him.  So I thought, its okay, I will try to talk him through this.  Ladies, if you’re ever in this situation, don’t reason with him, make him leave your house and lock the door behind him and never get alone with him again.  He was confused, but in ways that were dangerous to me.  He didn’t understand that I’m just as much of a person as he is, and that my “no” matters.

When I told him what I’d been thinking, how he had scared me, and I asked, “If I had just laid there and not actually thrown you off of me, what would you have done?  Would you have stopped?”  He didn’t answer because he knew what he would have done: he would have gone through with nonconsensual sex.  He would have raped me.  But when I finally came out and said it, he acted all frustrated, saying, “I would never do that!  I would never force you!”  He started begging.  He started trying to prove what a nice guy he was and how much he wanted me and how that meant I should have sex with him.  I said “no, no, no.” And missed my second opportunity to just throw him out of my house and lock the door behind him and never get alone with him again.  I rolled over, speechless with frustration, unable to believe that any of this was happening.  Thoughts were coming into my brain so fast, I couldn’t think of what to say or what to do next.

He said, “I guess words don’t mean anything” and grabbed me, pinning me against him.  I tried to push away but this guy works out and I don’t; he just flexed his muscles and kept me locked in his arms.  “What are you doing?” I asked.  “Please let me go.”  He said nothing.  He did nothing.  He just held me there.

“Words don’t mean anything.”  Clearly, my words didn’t mean anything to him.  I thought about my options.  There was no one in the house, other than the two of us.  I couldn’t get away.  I could smash my head backward into his face, or…no, I couldn’t hit his balls from this position but I could jam my elbow into his stomach.  But, he had just become so suddenly aggressive that I was terrified of what he might do if I actually hurt him.  I remembered a conversation he and one of his friends had had earlier, bragging about how violent he could get when he drank.  I remembered that he said he’d been a state champion wrestler, and I knew he could do way more damage to me than I could do to him.  I asked him again, “What are you doing?” and three or four more times to let me go.  I pushed against him but he just held on tighter.  The only thing he said was, “Now you know how I feel.”

My head nearly exploded with rage at that point.  Yes, because your violence against me is exactly the same as me refusing to have sex with you.  Yes, because you not getting your way is the same as me being in very real physical danger.  He’d accused me of wanting “control”… Was that what this was?  Did he think being physically in total control of me was going to prove to me that my desire to have my decisions and my body respected was just silly?

I had my phone in my hand and I decided to call my roommate.  I dialed and as soon as she answered, he let go of me.  He faced me, looking all hurt and patronizing.  “You want any relationship advice in the future,” he said, “Any advice about any relationship between a man and a woman, that right there is all you’ll ever need.”  I started crying and yelled at him to get out.  He knew my roommate was coming home, so he left, but he seemed confused as to why I was so upset.

He definitely overestimated his pedagogical skills, because the experience didn’t teach me everything I’d ever need to know about relationships.  But it did teach me to stay away from men who don’t respect me.  There was a lot about gender violence that I merely knew before, and now more fully understood.

I feel like I’ve just discovered the complexity of the nexus between sexual and gender violence.  The complexity of self-defense.  The wisdom of staying out of potentially dangerous situations altogether and of acting on that weird gut feeling you get when something’s not right.

I’m not sure what sort of education would have made him realize that manhandling me was the wrong response to my “No.”  But I think that his sense of arrogant entitlement and his patronizing attitude that he had any sort of “lesson” to teach me was partially a product of our toxic cultural constructs regarding masculinity.  And I know that by the time I knew I needed to protect myself against this man, it was much too late to go grab a gun (if I in fact owned one).

My experience caused me to understand how necessary the education Zerlina Maxwell advocates for is.  Though this guy acted insulted by my attempt to educate him about what was going through my head, about how I had experienced his aggression, he should have realized I was giving him credit.  Sarah Jones wrote in her blog about the backlash against Zerlina Maxwell: “We believe that men…can fully participate in a dialogue about consent and healthy sexual boundaries.”  Even if that conversation is as basic as, “No means no, and unresponsiveness also means no.  Heck, anything short of yes means no.”  And most of the men I know have contributed to the conversation about my experience by saying, “If that creep ever shows his face around here again, he’ll regret it.”

Hopefully some of the things I said will stick with him, even though I should have prioritized protecting myself over clearing up his alleged confusion.  He thought he was a good guy for not actually raping me, but that’s not good enough.  And countering violence with violence on a one-to-one basis isn’t going to be anywhere near enough.  I should be educated about how to protect myself, how to use my brain and my body to keep myself from harm, but he should also be educated.  He should learn that sex involves two people, both of whom have to fully and freely consent.  He should learn the basic lesson that violence is not an okay response when he doesn’t get his way.  He should be taught to value respect and empathy over aggression and power.  He should be taught to value others’ safety before his own desire for momentary pleasure.

I’m sharing my story because part of the education process is breaking down myths.  The myth that sexual and gender violence is a monolithic experience, that the power exerted against women is a simple matter of physical force, that every situation is clear-cut.  I know many women have difficulty speaking about their experiences, and I know that mine is on the lesser end of the spectrum.  I know that I’m lucky to be safe, lucky that this man is someone I’ll never see again, lucky that no real physical harm was done.  But I also know that this is part of the giant jigsaw puzzle of violence against women, and that this story, along with every other, should be told (on the victim’s own terms).  This is just one blogpost about one experience, but it’s a tiny, tiny piece of education and I hope that in that sense, it does a little bit of good in the fight against violence.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Happily Ever After (or: What Story-time with Dumbledore's Army Should Be Like)

It’s not just fairy tales that end “happily ever after.”  The majority of narratives and mythologies espoused by humankind, including religion, have a “happily ever after” built in.  That’s become troubling to humans living in the 20th and 21st centuries, because we realize that, for many people (maybe even most people who’ve ever lived) there is no way their personal stories can be classified into “happily ever after.”  Life is hard work.  Life is a long fight, sometimes to the bitter end.  Life can feel like a desert with all too few oases.  The narrative arc of a person’s life doesn’t flow the way a fairy tale’s does.

But I firmly believe in the importance of continuing to tell narratives with a sort of “happily ever after” ending.  It can be bittersweet.  It can indicate that there are still struggles ahead for our heroes.  But we, as a human race, as a society, need to tell one another stories that inspire.  If we don’t believe that some sort of “happily ever after” can be attained, why would we keep fighting?  We may begin a fight just for the ideal, for the principle, but if we’re going to continue on in a fight, a journey, or a committed task, we must believe that the goal is attainable.  And belief in the outcome stems from the narrative you believe you can live.

Not only do we need to believe justice can win, we need to believe it can win here and now.  It’s no good walling ourselves up in ivory towers, propping our feet up on the grate, and assuring one another that once we die, we’ll go to heaven & the bad guys will go to hell, so really it’s all okay.  That’s escapism at its laziest.  I don’t want to just be told that I’ll have a good afterlife.  I want to know that right here, today, I can shout out loud for justice and truth and someone will hear me and it will make a difference.  It's common to say that all that's necessary for bad people to win is for good people to do nothing.  That's true.  And a promised win in the afterlife is no reason to let evil win here on earth.

Sometimes, I lose faith in that “happily ever after.”  Sometimes, when the chips are down, nothing comes through the way I think it should.  But although I may rant and scream in pure, unproductive frustration for a short time, I need to remember that it’s just a setback.  That I should keep fighting. 

Frodo didn’t give up when he realized he had to take the long way around into Mordor.  Harry didn’t just roll over and die when the Death Eaters took over the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts.  Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie didn’t just throw up their hands in despair when they discovered they were in a garbage compactor.  I could go on, but you understand what I’m saying.  These narratives all end happily despite the appearance of an apparently insurmountable obstacle.  Frodo makes his way into the heart of Mordor and accomplishes his quest (and, by the way, only afterward achieves a peaceful afterlife).  Harry Potter, I’ll admit, ends a little too happily for my taste, a little too abruptly, with too few long-term consequences mentioned.  But the point is, Harry and his friends do finally defeat Voldemort and the Death Eaters.  With some outside help, Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie made it out of the garbage compactor and eventually destroyed the Death Star.  What’s my Black Gate?  My Hogwarts takeover?  My trash compactor?

In the interest of realism and artistic integrity, I’m not discounting narratives that end tragically.  1984, a cautionary tale, ends with our hero having given up his integrity and individuality, being in the end conquered by “Big Brother.”  I love that ending because it is straight-up horror.  We need to see how things are now, and how things could be if we lose our battles for justice and freedom.  I need those alternative, dystopian narratives to provide a contrast.  But I can’t only surround myself with dystopia.  I have to have faith (and shockingly enough, being named “Faith” doesn’t mean I have an automatic supply).

So, when it appears that we’ve lost, or are losing, when injustice is the order of the day, we need to keep on telling one another “happily ever after” narratives.  Not the unadulterated “happily ever after” of fairy tales; we’re too old for that.  We’ve all experienced too much.  We need a believable “happily ever after.”  A “happily ever after” that says, it’s possible for us to win this fight.  There will be casualties.  Our lives will not be the same, we may be irreparably damaged.  But justice can happen, if we continue to fight.  That’s how we’ll strengthen each other, remind each other not to give up.  Remember all those stories.  The hobbits, the Rebel Alliance, and Dumbledore’s Army all won in the end, and so can we.

What's your favorite story when you're tired of working for all the right things and running into brick walls and dead ends?  If you were sitting around a campfire with Dumbledore's Army right now, what tale would you tell?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

Apathy is easy.  Going with the flow is simple.  Accepting the systems and structures and institutions as they stand feels so uncomplicated.  And each of these things will kill us all.

Today, we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., and his nonviolent, passionate work for civil rights and for justice.  Even as he insisted on nonviolent tactics, he insisted that we must act. 

Nonviolence is not the same as passivity.  Nonviolence can cause great tension and great conflict.  Any action against those in authority, against the status quo, is going to be difficult, but committing to nonviolent action is even more difficult. But it is absolutely necessary.  A mere gesture is never enough to cause real change.  Action must be taken, and it must be taken sooner rather than later.

It is because of the brave that we are all freer now than we were sixty years ago.  And it is through continued bravery that freedom and justice will continue to advance.

People give all sorts of reason for inaction.  “You’re just causing trouble!” “You’re just launching hateful attacks for no reason!”  “We have to just trust God and everything will turn out all right!”

For shame. 

Those who engage in nonviolent action, in protest, are not the ones causing trouble.  They are pointing out the trouble that is already there, and mobilizing to end it.  Bringing problems to the forefront is a very uncomfortable, painful process but it is absolutely necessary.  A community that sweeps everything under the rug will eventually be eaten from the inside by corruption, or taken over by those who don’t have its best interests at heart, or it will simply wither and die from so much rottenness.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

 “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

As to allegations of baseless attacks, listen to the evidence first.  Is the protestors’ argument reasonable?  Do their grievances have logic and evidence to back them up?  Maybe you don’t agree with their reasoning but is it at least sound?  I ask you to respectfully consider their claims; do not write them off immediately.  And how many people are involved?  I’m not saying that force of numbers makes everything okay, but I am saying that an organized group of individuals articulating real concerns commands some level of respect, even if you don’t agree with them.

Finally, to those who simply trust God to fix everything: God’s work is done through human agents.  We cannot build a better future without picking up a hammer.  Justice doesn’t just happen.  It is caused, catalyzed, by people acting.  By people working hard.  By people handing out fliers, distributing petitions, asking questions, creatively using common materials like duct tape or clothing or spray paint to bring issues to the forefront and force something to be done.  And when unjustice or underhanded dealings are the order of the day among those in authority, those who hold little authority need to speak up.

In the end, if you have never done anything at all against the way the world is now, you’re saying you’re totally okay with everything that's going on.  It doesn’t take much to contribute to the fight against evil.  Donations, signatures on petitions, raising awareness through social media or through wearing a particular color, is all a little contribution.  Of course it’s better to do more.  Take today to think about how you can take specific action for justice and truth and freedom in the coming year.  Maybe there’s something this week, even, that can be done.  Now, remembering that people going before you have given their lives, go out there and do it.  (& I have been working on an opportunity to fight injustice as well, so I'm not just saying this while sitting back on my couch with my feet up.  More on that in the future).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

On Leadership & PR

In our complex world today, the ability to communicate well with people is essential.  No one can expect to be an effective leader without some type of communication skills.  But real communication skill is not the same thing as being good at public relations.  And when the two are confused, what results is extremely poor leadership.

PR and brand-building is a recent development of a capitalist society, in which everyone is trying to sell something.  I suppose there’s a time and place for that.  But when important and troubling events are going on in a community, it’s no time for PR.  It’s no time to pull out well-worn marketing phrases.  And if your “brand” is built around integrity, honesty, and truth-seeking, that brand will only be destroyed by over-use of PR.

Leaders are not in their positions just to serve people platitudes and clich├ęs.

Leaders are honest.  Leaders take responsibility for the decisions they’ve made, and are not afraid to defend those decisions.  Leaders don’t hide behind canned statements written for them by their marketing departments.  Real leaders don’t do things they’re ashamed of, or if they do, they freely confess their mistake and ask for forgiveness.  Leaders of integrity will communicate openly, honestly, and respectfully with those they’re supposed to be leading.

PR is about presenting an image.  PR is about spinning events to make yourself and your organization look good, sometimes claiming credit for initiatives that you weren’t even a part of.  PR is entirely about perception.  PR is not about what is true, it’s about manipulating what others think.

A real leader understands that it’s better to embrace the consequences of an unpopular decision than to lie & evade those consequences.  A real leader understands that those he or she is leading are adults who deserve to know what’s going on the organization they’ve dedicated so much time, effort, and money to.  A real leader will speak his or her own words, looking those they’re leading square in the eye, and will answer a direct, honest question directly and honestly.

And that’s why a real leader should at times be a nightmare for his or her PR department.  Instead of just sounding like another person selling a product, a leader actually performs important actions, with vision and integrity, and knows how to communicate effectively and truthfully about those actions.

With all of this in mind, think about the leaders of your organization.  Are they just PR people calling themselves leaders, or do they actually have what it takes?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Philosophy and Faith

Cedarville University, a Christian (or as they like to say “Christ-centered”, as institutions cannot technically be Christian) university, is considering the termination of their philosophy program.  I graduated from Cedarville with a philosophy minor (I actually considered being a philosophy major), and I oppose the termination of the philosophy program.

A philosophy program is a program designed specifically to deal with thinking.  With the mind.  With how we as human beings make sense of the world around us.  You might think that a Christ-centered university would be excited to have the opportunity to think about thinking in a uniquely Christian way.  You might think that Christian parents would want their children to have the advantage of engaging with some of the world’s deepest thinkers from a solidly Biblical perspective, taught by professors who are passionately committed to Christ and to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.  You might think that Christian students would want the opportunity to pursue an ever-broadening spectrum of knowledge guided by mature, committed, intelligent Christians, to enhance their learning through a philosophy minor, as I did, or to pursue the full-fledged major, without having to fear that their faith will be torn down along the way.   You might think all of these things, but it appears that some people in positions of authority at Cedarville do not.

The very existence of a Christian university is a declaration that Christianity is fully compatible with critical thinking, with the acquisition of knowledge.  Why back down from that bold declaration, Cedarville?  Why say, “thus far will God’s power take us, into theology, into psychology, into literature, into engineering and nursing and pharmacy, but in the region of philosophy we can no longer trust His Spirit to guide and protect us”?  Is not all truth God’s truth?  Why then should we not pursue this particular field of study that is obsessed with truth?  Is there someone out there who has thought deeper thoughts than God?  Who knows more than God does?  Who can legitimately disprove God?

If there’s a deep, dark part of you that thinks all this God stuff is nonsense, that thinks Christ never rose from the dead, that thinks Christianity isn’t actually true, then you do have a reason to fear people who dare to think.  If your faith is a blind acceptance of what you’ve been told, then you definitely do want to keep other people from opening their eyes and deciding things for themselves.  So if that’s true, Cedarville, if you don’t really believe any of the things you’ve been teaching and proclaiming so proudly for so many years, then go ahead.  Get rid of the philosophers.  But let me tell you this: faith is not lost by the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge and truth.  More often, faith is lost when people see hypocrisy, deceit, and dishonesty in the Christian community.

Are you trying to bolster peoples’ faith, to help them grow in Christ as they acquire a good education?  Then be transparent.  Be honest.  Be open about your failings, be open about your journey, be open about where you’ve been and where you’re headed.  Do everything you can to encourage genuine intellectual inquiry.
I had one class with Dave Mills, and I took basically every class in my philosophy minor from Shawn Graves.  If you want to learn philosophy from Christians, these are the men you want to be learning from.  They are committed to truth, and they are committed to Christ.  And they are committed to academic excellence.  The most challenging classes I took at Cedarville were in the philosophy minor (to be honest, I think I got in over my head when I decided to take metaphysics).  And although I never knew Dr. Mills very well, I got to know Dr. Graves and his wife Marlena and they are the sort of Christian role models every Christian young person hopes to find.  The philosophy professors at Cedarville University have proven that critical thought and faith can not only coexist, they can thrive together and feed off one another.  These aren’t just fancy words to Dr. Mills and Dr. Graves, they are a lived reality which is evident in every class, every interaction with a student, throughout their lives.

If Cedarville University can look at their philosophy program, professors, and students, and say, “You’re just not part of who we want to be anymore,” I am sincerely frightened for Cedarville’s future.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Do What Scares You

Or: I Do Battle With Public Speaking And Make It My Friend

I am standing in front of my freshman speech class.  My breath is short.  My head feels compressed, like the terror of peeking through my tight-shut eyelids and looking down as the roller coaster crawls to the top of that first hill.  My voice is pitched lower than usual, my knees are shaking uncontrollably.  I think only one sentence ahead, I remember nothing I have said.  Afterward, I will only remember the speech in tiny bits and pieces.

So, if I’m that scared of public speaking, why do I, a few months later, decide to major in communications with an emphasis on public speaking and rhetoric?  Okay, so the idea has to do with the fact that some of my friends have chosen majors in the same department.  But as I choose the courses that will make up my degree, I’m intentionally taking classes that will require me to make speeches. Why?

Because it terrifies me.  And because I’m awkward.  And because I’m not shy but yet I still find it impossible to navigate even the simplest social situations.  Good communication is learned and if a kindergartener can learn it, so can I.

There are comfort zones that you don’t need to leave or to stretch.  If something simply does not appeal to you on any level, don’t do it unless you have to.  But if there’s something you want to be good at, don’t worry about the pain it will take to get there.  Get through whatever it is that scares you if it stands in the way of becoming the person you want to be.

Does that sound like inspirational crap?  The sophomore-year speech class, with the same nerves, the same shaking, the same voice that I had to keep firmly in check lest it betray all my terror.  The same high standards set by a professor which I feel are so easy in front of the mirror and so impossible in front of the class.  I get through it.  I get through it because I never allow myself to drop a class, but I also get through it by watching the people who are good at it.  They take possession of the front of the room.  They speak about topics as though they are the most fascinating thing in the world.  They move easily, their voices pitch up and down to emphasize their points.  Every time I manage to shift my leaden limbs, or break my monotone, is one baby step in the direction of making it look that easy.

I can remember my speeches afterward, not fully, but they aren’t as disjointed as traumatic events tend to be.  I do not sit down with a feeling of victory, but neither do I sit down with a feeling of utter humiliation and failure.  Will I ever be as good as those others?  Maybe not, but at least I will finish this major I’ve set my mind to.  I will at least be able to say, I faced my fear over and over and I survived.

So no, it’s not inspirational crap.  It’s a process.  It’s failure again and again until you make that first bit of progress.  It’s thinking, “I can’t do this” and going on anyway.  It’s getting kicked in the face by your lack of skill every day until you muster up the resources and the courage to kick back.  It’s no exaggeration to call this sort of thing a battle.

Junior year, a few presentations, a debate class.  The different formats of speaking make it easier and more fun.  Switch things up a bit.

Senior year, more of the same.  A few presentations.  And I realize something astonishing: when I am teaching people something interesting, I actually enjoy speaking.  I forget that I am standing in front of a room full of people, I get more relaxed and as I get more relaxed, I stress out less about my voice and posture and I can give more of my attention to the material.  And moving around a bit, changing my pitch, starts to seem a little bit more natural.

My senior presentation is high-stress, but for the first time, I spend a half-hour presenting incredibly complex information to people mostly unfamiliar with the work I’ve been doing.  I answer questions coherently.  And I am able to walk away from that speech, given in front of friends, family, and a board of speech professors, with a sense of a job well done.  I am crippled for the rest of the night by a migraine, but I finished the presentation.  And I had not been anxious about the mechanics of the speech at all.

But the final hurdle yet remains: Senior speech class.  “Advanced Public Speaking,” with the most demanding professor in the entire department.  I’d had her as my freshman speech professor, which helps a bit as I already know the sorts of things she looks for.  But my first two speeches are only mediocre.  I am fairly interested in the subject material.  But I simply do not feel in control of the situation.  I spend the entire speech with half of my brain focused on the speech and half on self-doubt.  “This is a stupid topic, nobody’s listening to you, you’re talking weird again, you’re not moving around, well that was just pathetic, you’re going to forget your next point.”

I know I have to make the last speech count.  We are supposed to present an argument most of the audience would be hostile to.  This is a tricky assignment in a place as homogenous as Cedarville, and people often end up arguing for viewpoints they don’t believe in themselves, just to meet the assignment requirements.  That’s a great exercise for the more advanced speaker, but I need something I believe in if I want to really nail this speech.  Thankfully, one of my viewpoints is one that I know nearly every person in the class will be hostile to.  I can argue it effectively.  And I am even fairly passionate on the topic.  I am going to argue that the United States should legalize gay marriage.

Even as I construct my argument, I feel a thrill of excitement.  I knew I have them all exactly where I want them.  My argument is airtight.  The audience will be forced to concede that my viewpoint is right.  Or so I tell myself, as I work on fleshing out my argument, writing up a powerpoint, and practicing in front of the mirror, obsessively.

I start out that morning a little slow, as I always do.  But I feel my excitement building, as I look at their skeptical faces.  What a surprise I have in store for them.  I build from the introduction into the body of my argument.  I establish the importance of the issue.  I draw on my constitutional law knowledge and overwhelm them with legal precedent. Then I move on to my ideological appeal, the equality leg of the argument.  Are some of them actually paying attention now?  I surge forward, my fear left behind, my nerves with me rather than against me.  I feel as though I have every eye in the room as I deliver my carefully-crafted rhetorical finish.  And then, just after I finish, the professor turns and says to the class, “now that was an argument!”  I sit down with the most triumphant sense of victory I’ve ever felt.  I have conquered my fear (and though it may rear its head again, it knows it has lost).  I feel like I could have the whole world for the asking.

Was my speech perfect?  The content may have been but the delivery certainly wasn’t.  I didn’t turn into one of those live-wire performers whose bodies deliver half the speech for them.  I am a little disappointed, reviewing the video later: I’d felt so much excitement, how had so little of it been obvious?  But the important thing is, my whole perspective has changed.  A speech is no longer a frightening, traumatic event.  It’s a bit of a challenge, still, but it’s fun.  It’s something I would look forward to, prepare for without all the anxiety.

Confidence is the game-changer.  And you only truly get it when you do what scares you.  Put something that scares you on your New Years’ Resolution list, and make it stand out from the other items on that list by actually accomplishing it.  Maybe you won’t win against your fear this year, but make a start.  It took four years for my first real victory, but it was worth every bit of panic, terror, hyperventilation, and migraine along the way.