Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ahmad Ali Could Be Trayvon Martin

By Dawud Walid 
CAIR-MI Executive Director

There is a national discussion going on regarding the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old Black American honor roll student, by 28 year old triggerman George Zimmerman regarding the role of race and demonization and how much rights private citizens have or don’t have in using deadly force for public safety purposes.

Zimmerman, who has a track record of calling the police regarding “suspicious” (meaning Black) males traveling through his neighborhood, pursued Martin for looking “suspicious” (Black wearing a hoodie) and shot him due to him carrying the very dangerous weapon of Skittles.  Ironically, Zimmerman was arrested in 2005 for resisting arrest and committing battery against a law enforcement officer. Now, he has taken on the role of playing a keystone cop in following and questioning “suspicious” looking people.

To be frank, I was appalled when I heard about this murder, but I was not shocked at all.  As a Black male, who was raised in the South, my parents and grandparents warned me, as so many Black boys continued to be warned, that when traveling in certain areas on foot or driving through certain areas, to be extra cautious.  “Don’t walk with your hands in your coat pockets… Don’t be too loud… Don’t argue with White men that provoke confrontation… Don’t look at officers in their eyes too long… Don’t make sudden moves when pulled over by police and keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times…”  There is a long history in America of fatal shootings of Black males based upon racial animus.

At the heart of the discussion regarding the shooting of Martin is the question of how can we curtail the tendency of many to demonize or other-ize people due to bigotry, or as a mechanism, driven by insecurities, of uplifting one’s self over others. Black men have been subjected to such demonization since the days of slavery with overseers, then from officers and “concerned citizens” like the White Citizens Council in post-Reconstruction America.  Now, there are armed militias in the southern border states, who do the same with Latinos under the guise that they are watching for criminals crossing the border, as if the majority of Latinos in those states aren’t documented and don’t abide by the law when in fact this is not the case.

Zimmerman saying that Martin looked “suspicious,” which prompted him to start a confrontation, had me thinking about how young, brown Muslim males are currently seen by many in America as suspicious, just like young Black males, be they Christian or Muslim.  Would Zimmerman have acted the same way if he saw a young Arab-American honor roll student named Ahmad Ali walking down the street wearing a white robe, or if he saw a South Asian class president named Muhammad Hussein walking down the street wearing jeans and a hoodie?  I can’t say for certain that the outcome would have been the same, but the mentality of people like Zimmerman would prompt the same suspicion.

I hope that through Martin’s tragic death, we can have more conversations about getting to know each other, and decrease the tendency of other-izing each other as Americans.  The stakes are too high if we do not.  Just ask Trayvon Martin’s parents.

Dawud Walid is the Exec. Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), and a board member of the Metropolitan Detroit Interfaith Workers’ Rights Committee. A decorated US Navy veteran, Dawud has presented about Islam/interfaith dialogue at over twenty institutions of higher learning, on panels with int'l leaders and academics, and in media outlets including Al-Jazeera, CNN, BBC Radio, FOX, NPR, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Following the Spirit of Occupy

By Becky Garrison
Originally posted 2/19/12 at Geez Magazine

Bishop George Packard and other clergy being arrested at Duarte Square Park. Credit: Becky Garrison

Shortly after activists took over Zuccotti Park (renamed “Liberty Park”) on September 17, progressive faith-based organizations like Tikkun, Sojourners and Faith in Public Life began incorporating Occupy language into their fundraising appeals.

Despite self-identification with the movement, leaders from these religious groups remain largely absent from the Occupy Faith circles that coalesced into a collaborative interfaith network and ongoing prophetic witness. Instead, they treated their infrequent trips to OWS camps with the glee of aging hippies attending a Woodstock-themed reunion. I can easily spot these pseudo-activists as they circle the site in search of an opportunity to yell “mic check” and take the stage. Unlike those who actually inhabit the space, these “leaders” fail to understand the need to yield the floor when others want to share their stories.

Trinity Church Wall Street may extend charity by offering up tangible items including meeting space, restrooms and coffee. But this church, which also functions as one of New York City’s largest real estate developers, drew the line at allowing OWS to use one of their spaces.

Earl Koopercamp, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Manhattanville, is a member of Occupy Faith and one of Trinity Church’s Transformational Fellows (i.e., a recipient of a study grant for social transformation). He reflects on the church’s commitment to transformational justice:
 “In providing hospitality and charity, they’re not really getting involved with the fundamental justice questions. Listening and even saying ‘Occupy Wall Street has the right to its protests’ is excellent. But the question is, how do we transform society so the one percent doesn’t have all the voice and all the say anymore? Hopefully they can make those transactions peacefully and non-violently so that the 99 percent can live much more secure lives.”
Even though Koopercamp, along with retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard and other clergy, got arrested for trying to occupy Trinity-owned Duarte Square, he remains optimistic. “I’ve seen this transformation take place in some of the people I’ve least expected. The reception has just been very positive. Some very wealthy people get that something is wrong. This economic system did not fall down from heaven. It is not divinely ordained. We made it, we can remake it.”

Chuck Cooper, Executive Director of the Institute for Progressive Spirituality in Gresham, Oregon, observes, “Some clergy who are perpetual religio-political activists seeking personal publicity do not seem to understand that this is a new and creative movement born of a new generation who see through opportunists, religious or otherwise.” An organizer of Occupy Catholics adds, “This movement challenges all presumptions to leadership. What we are calling for is not for the leaders to voice their inevitably empty support, but for people in the pews to rise up and take action. That’s what Occupy Catholics is about – not just trying to nudge the priests or some such. Occupy is not a party line, it’s a thing you do.”

Shane Claiborne, a new monastic and a member of The Simple Way community, has responded to the Occupy movement by saying “God loves the 100 percent.” When Geez asked Claiborne if supporting the 100 percent softens his support of the 99 percent, he said “the fact that one percent of the world owns almost half the world’s stuff is one of the most urgent ethical issues of the day,” and the Occupy movement raises many of the same issues Jesus raised. But “God’s justice is good for both the rich and the poor,” and Claiborne doesn’t want to imply that God has abandoned the rich.

As a Christian response to the prophetic call of Occupy, solidarity with the 100 percent is not enough. In the words of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” This is a moment in history that demands table turning and even taking sides. It’s time for progressive Christians to choose solidarity with the poor, not for self-promotion but for the sake of justice. 

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why Are Evangelicals So into Uganda?

Originally posted 3/13/12 at Joshua's website.

In the image to the right, Invisible Children staff pose with weapons and personnel of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, which has also engaged in rape, pillage, and the use of child soldiers.

Anyone who hasn’t been under a social media rock for the past week is aware of the Kony 2012 video and viral marketing campaign started by Invisible Children. The goal is to convince US policymakers to intervene in the ongoing crisis in Central Africa by providing more US military advisers, more military aid to the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF), and more diplomatic pressure on Central African heads of state.

There’s been a wave of criticism since the whole thing began. Among the best critiques I’ve read are Bruce Wilson’s piece at AlterNet and Neil Anderson’s piece at Demand Nothing, both of which highlight Invisible Children’s financial connections with the National Christian Foundation, the Fellowship Foundation—aka, the Family, the International Foundation, the Wilberforce Foundation, C Street, etc—and several other Evangelical Christian groups. (Boing Boing has a nice roundup here, along with a much longer roundup of African voices responding to the Kony 2012 campaign.)

Let’s be clear: Invisible Children has always been an evangelical Christian organization. Its founders and staff are largely evangelicals; its major funders are evangelical foundations; its major partners are evangelical NGOs; and its early marketing was through evangelical college groups. That doesn’t bother me in and of itself. After all, much of my life has involved trying to get religious people more involved in social justice work. But something about Invisible Children rubbed me the wrong way when I first heard about it through evangelical friends back in college, and that feeling redoubled when Kony 2012 blew up.

What’s most inexplicable is Uganda. Set aside the fact that Joseph Kony is not in Uganda. Set aside that the Ugandan military also uses child soldiers, including former child members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s curious how Uganda keeps popping up in relation to evangelical NGOs.
As the Bruce Wilson piece linked to above points out, one of Invisible Children’s largest funders is the National Christian Foundation, who also fund the Fellowship Foundation (aka, the Family), which Jeff Sharlet has written about extensively. As NPR has reported here and here, the Family is also deeply involved in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni and several government ministers have ties to the Family, and they’ve even been accused of setting the scene for Uganda’s now infamous kill-the-gays bill (though members of the Family have disputed that.)

This weekend a friend and I busted out our ninja skills and did some snooping on Invisible Children and related organizations, including the Family. Looking through their 990 forms for 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005, I discovered something shocking—a school in Uganda is almost always their single largest grantee by far, to the tune of millions of dollars. It turns out this school is Cornerstone Development Africa, another explicitly Christian organization.

So, why Uganda? I have absolutely no idea. You might argue that Buddhists tend to be more concerned about Tibet and Burma and Muslims tend to be more concerned about Syria and Palestine, so it’s natural for evangelicals to be more concerned about an evangelical nation. Except that Uganda isn’t an evangelical nation; it’s mostly Catholic and Anglican.

On the other hand, it could be that the president of Uganda—who’s held that office for almost as long as I’ve been alive—is a member of the Family and apparently quite a devout evangelical Christian. On the Family’s end it could also be his willingness to deport dissidents and burn down villages for Western corporate interests—something that’s surely attractive to deep-pocketed evangelical donors.

Those are pretty audacious accusations, and they could be completely wrong. But something just feels off about the thing, and I’ve learned to trust that instinct. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

Joshua Eaton is a writer on Buddhism, politics, and culture and a member of Occupy Boston. His full bio and more of his writings can be found at his website,

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Eucharist as Resistance

By Chris Saxton

For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. + John 5:36

One of the questions that I struggle with as a person on the path to ordination as an Anglican priest is: How do we as Christians in a post-Christendom world become the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a people? How are we called to enact the very work that the Father has “given me to finish.” For much of the past 1,500 years the Church has been inextricably wound up in the fabric of society. The church has been culture. In our post-enlightenment world, the Church of Christ has moved further from the center of culture and in many ways is establishing itself against culture. What does it mean to be a Christian in a post-Christendom, twenty-first century world? There will be times when our devotion to Christ will cause conflict with the world and we will have to take the unpopular way to be true to God. Christianity is a revolutionary idea that actively opposes many of the core values of our modern society … an egocentric society that focus on personal wealth, health and happiness with very little concern for others, or the eternal. For many centuries, my denomination, the Anglican Church has been the embodiment of privilege. We have been the Church of the 1%.

So how today, how do we embody the Gospel? How do we Anglicans today follow in the footsteps of the rebellious rabbi, Jesus?

We have to again make the Church a subversive element in society. To do this, we have to commit acts of worship, in public and in community, and together, commit the revolutionary act of celebrating the Eucharist. My denomination is a sacramental one, and I believe that it is by public practice of the principals learned in the Eucharist that we Christians become the living Church.

The idea that this 21st Century world is post-Christendom is found in Michael Frost’s book, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. Frost writes on a post-Christendom community of faith as needing a new framework to rediscover what it means to re-imagine and rethink the future of the Christian movement. Frost sees that framework as the disciplines of: Dangerous Memories, Dangerous Promises, Dangerous Songs, and Dangerous Critiques. If these dangerous disciplines are to be found anywhere, it is in communities gathering for our Liturgies. We need to be recognizing the power of the church’s regular gathering and worship as an act of revolution against the harmful norms of modern society, and nowhere more so than in the celebration of the Eucharist. It is a dangerous memory.

For Anglicans, when we begin the Eucharist, we launch into a celebration of community that demonstrates that we are not longer in a self-centered universe; we are in a place apart from society. We come in. We come out from the world and enter into a different world. The presider asks a blessing for us. An invitation that “the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be upon us.” And we respond asking that the same Grace be accorded him. This is a subversive thought, a dangerous promise. The entire concept of Grace is antithetical to our linear accountant-based modern culture; the offer of Grace is a dangerous promise. We start the liturgy with this preposterous proposition that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and conversely there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Language shapes us. Marshall Mcluhan posited that the dominant medium of the age uniquely molds the ways that our brains process information. As the brain processes information it in turn shapes our personalities and social systems. This concept reflects linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf's hypothesis that language defines the way that we behave and think. It can be of no surprise that Whorf's interest in language and how it shapes humanity stemmed from his interest in religion. Our rehearsal of the Eucharist as a community literally shapes our brain and reforms us as active agents in the subversion of the society outside the walls of the church. We are communal creatures and can’t create ourselves but are created in the image of a communal, Trinitarian God, and the dangerous promise that we depend on others to be born, to survive, to be buried, and remembered. We live and have our being in community…and this is a dangerous promise.

The insurrection continues. We hear again the dangerous stories of our ancestors. Stories that may challenge us, encourage us, and even alarm us. In these dangerous stories we touch the timeless and eternal. We strive for connection with people who have been touched by the scriptures in the past, share with people who are being touched today, and look to those who will be touched in the future. This connection with what was, is, and shall be is not what we see outside the body of the Church. Our modern society is static with no real connection with the past or the future. In the Liturgy, we understand ourselves as a people that are at once an historic and a living community. We are become a history still unfolding and developing, embodying and passing along a story…through which its people gain their identity and their way of seeing the world. These are dangerous stories.

We reflect on the words we hear. A sermon or homily provides us context and allows for a conversation to develop with the texts we have head. At its best, effective preaching will provide a “springboard for reflection.” It is the preacher who articulates for us our common questions, who provides a theological language for us to better understand our lives in relation to the Eternal. We are invited to reflect on our predecessors (dangerous memories). And we are invited to challenge the surrounding culture by offering dangerous critique, as did that rebellious Rabbi Jesus. Christianity is counter-cultural. God called the church into being as its own culture and as a witness within and through the vicissitudes of history.

We pray. Together, and in community, in song and in word we sing these dangerous songs leaving behind our solitude. Seeking not the isolation that a relationship with the Almighty has come to mean for so many in our Baby-Boom Christianity. We rebel against the twenty-first Century view of Christianity as an individualized, abstracted ethico-religious system and unlike the society surrounding; we offer our concerns in public. As a community we are standing before God as we are and we confess our brokenness, our humanity. We seek all that is good for us and most importantly for others. We offer prayers for those within our community, and for those in the wider world. We prayerfully eavesdrop on the world around us…and offer dangerous critiques.

In our lives we are given many opportunities to develop and stock a storehouse of resentments. So many things in our culture can affect our pocketbooks, our self-esteem, and our overarching ambitions. Thwarted expectations grow like mustard seeds into cedar trees of resentments. We see others as rivals and our culture leads us to believe that we are entitled. But here, in this place that is in many ways against culture, we are asked to share the dangerous promise of peace. We are invited to offer the love of Christ to another, and in doing so we open our hearts to Him, and to each other. This is our answer to God's call to mission. We have asked God to forgive us our sins and here we act out the forgiving of others sins against us, both real and imagined. With these resentments released we have room for the Peace of Christ to inhabit us and to live out the dangerous promises made to us.

Bread and wine are offered by us to be blessed and eaten. Eating in our modern society is so often a solitary and hurried affair, but not here. Here we reenact the dangerous memories of Jesus' feeding of the multitudes. A small amount of food becomes great when it is shared. This is an act of rebellion against our society of greed and status. Here, at this table, we are equal. We consume the Body of Christ and in turn become his visible body on earth. The Gifts of God are given and consumed by the People of God.

We have become, through the Eucharist, His Church incarnate. We are separate from the broader culture. Our ethical language is no longer the language spoken by a twenty-first century, post-Christian society. We are given the mission to shine like stars amid a “crooked and perverse generation.” However beleaguered, however divided, however hateful we may sometimes be, still, as long as we remain the church in the slightest, that witness is our reason for being. This is our act of rebellion in a post Christendom world. We become, in the words of Rodney Clapp, a “peculiar people, a people called to survive by worship rather than by weapons.”

We have been fed at the table of life. We are refreshed and recharged by our prayers, our fellowship, and our worship. We have told dangerous stories, remembered dangerous memories, sung dangerous songs, and offered dangerous critique. Our minds have been re-shaped by the language and actions of the Liturgy. Now comes the separation from the embrace of our loving community and we must return to the world. This worshiping community is a welcoming community of friends looking outward, not a family looking inward. We have acknowledged that we are indeed Christ's disciples. Our eyes have been opened and we have been given a chance to see the world as it truly is, bathed in the light of Christ's presence in us and our fellows. We are beloved and redeemed as creations of the Father. And we are are ready for our mission of healing, of justice, of peace, and of dignity for all.

Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Apple's Dirty Money

Last month, The New York Times ran a devastating exposé on the inhuman conditions faced by workers who make Apple products. While this is not a big surprise, the depth of the horrific environmental impact documented in the article and in other media outlets is truly monstrous. Employees making Apple products work crazy overtime, often without a single day off, and live in crowded "dorms." The paper reported that "under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records." Factory explosions are common and credible investigations have found that at one plant alone, "over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis."

Yet, at a delirious "best of times" shareholders meeting last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook reported that the company has accumulated $100 billion in cash. Nary a peep was heard from the podium about the exploitation of the workforce that provided Apple with this massive surplus, even though one former Apple executive had told the Times, "we've known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they're still going on." Instead of addressing the labor situation, Apple's response to these reports has been to employ an industry-sponsored "Fair Labor Association" to cover its tracks.

Ironically, this grotesque discrepancy — slave-like conditions for the Chinese workers resulting in a $100 billion surplus — occurred at a company often touted as one of the "best places to work." The website Glassdoor, whose motto is, an "inside look at jobs and companies," found Apple to be the tenth-best company to work for in the country in 2012. I guess they did not run the survey in China.
Shouldn't some of this $100 billion go to improve the conditions of the workers who make the products? Apple stock is already at stratospheric levels, so no honest and reasonable shareholder should complain. There also is no legal problem with doing this. But taking seriously its ethical responsibility toward Chinese workers does not seem to be in Apple's frame of reference.
This is perverse responsibility, not personal responsibility.

Maybe Apple is not bothered by this situation because the affected workers are Chinese. Or maybe it is because CEO Cook and corporate co-workers are just different than you and me. A recent study presented at the National Academy of Science, "Higher Social Class Predicts Unethical Behavior," unearthed startlingly clear evidence, gleaned from a variety of studies, that the elite are more likely to cheat and steal than the rest of us. But most likely it is the prevailing mantra that any corporate profit-making activity today is considered ethical by the elite, no matter who or what gets hurt.

Yet, while the One Percent eschews ethical responsibility, members of the 99 Percent are constantly upbraided for their "failures" of personal responsibility — think of the recent attacks on poor homeowners, retired public workers, and practitioners of birth control.

In view of all of this, it is especially galling to think about the historic arc of the personal responsibility argument, which big business has manipulated to its advantage. I have seen this first-hand in the legal arena. During the last few decades, chamber-of-commerce types — working in the pursuit of greater profit and in concert with anti-regulation campaigns — developed a campaign to target parts of the country in which courtroom juries were holding business accountable for misdeeds. Molded by neuropsychologists and vetted by focus groups, lawyers for the One Percent developed a crafty and perverse narrative of personal responsibility to shift legal blame from companies to victims. Hurt due to a defective car tire? You must have been driving too fast. Paralyzed by unsafe medications? You must not have read the warning label. Sexually harassed? You must have asked for it.

These defense lawyers' arguments were often persuasive and successful because they tapped into an honest human vein — most of us want everyone to be responsible for their actions; it is the right thing. It is also true that from time to time all of us fail a "perfection" test of personal responsibility, hurting others or ourselves. So these companies built a clever legal narrative that, combined with high-profile advertising, op-eds, and a laser-like attention to judicial selection, have practically eliminated the ability of working- and middle-class Americans in many parts of the country to receive compensation when they were injured.

To be fair, examination of ethical conduct is complicated, and not just at the corporate level. Most of us try to be good citizens. We don't pick other's pockets or dump our trash in the yard of another. When we realize our conduct is hurting others we try to stop. When someone questions our ethics we earnestly consider their point. And there are still gray areas. I carry an iPhone in my pocket. Since a cell phone is important to me, can I even find one that is not produced in deplorable conditions? Probably not. So I try to do the best I can, working with others who feel the same. For those of us who want an ethical and just society, progress will come from a combination of the personal and the political.

But no matter the complexity, any ethical gaze must contain core matters on which we all agree. The lack of social responsibility ripples through society, complicating all decent conduct. Here, Apple fails. Theirs is a perverse responsibility.

Jay Youngdahl is a lawyer and writer who holds a JD from the University of Texas and MDiv from Harvard University. Currently he is a Fellow at the Initiative for Resonsible Investment at Harvard and writes the "Raising the Bar" column for the East Bay Express in Oakland, CA.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Does God Love Transgender People? A Transgender Atheist Says No, I Respond

By Be Scofield
Originally posted 3/6/12 at Tikkun Daily

Natalie Reed, an atheist who is transgender, has a new article called “God Does Not Love Trans People” over at Free Thought Blogs. It’s a very long post and raises numerous issues, many of which I simply can’t address for the sake of brevity. However, I do want to spend some time on her main assertion: transgender people should not believe in God or participate in religion because these are both harmful and dangerous  and they enable the transphobic oppressive religious institutions. She states, “I honestly believe that religious faith is inherently dangerous and harmful.” Anyone who seeks to redefine God or say that God loves transgender people is thus guilty of strengthening and bolstering a harmful and dangerous institution. She claims:
You spur on religious belief which, more often than not, maintains a climate of bigotry towards LGBTQ individuals. You insulate and protect them. You assent to the foundations of their hate, which they claim as justification. Asserting there is a God, and supporting the human tendency towards religious faith (whatever its form), does nothing but bolster the underlying principles on which the Westboro Baptist Church is based. If we wish to fight these organizations, we can’t do so simply pitting our own intuitive, faith-based assumption of God against theirs. We need to attack the foundation: the idea that faith is…good, or at least harmless…
Reed’s analysis is hard to stomach. She’s claiming that transgender people who believe in God are actually enabling a group that protests the funerals of gay soldiers simply because they believe in God. It’s not enough to face the daily oppression that trans people do, now there is the added blame of creating the culture that oppresses them for simply having faith in God. Queer people who go to church “maintain a climate of bigotry towards LGBTQ individuals.” Following this line of reasoning black people were responsible for maintaining a climate of racism and white supremacy because they participated in a religion that had been used to enslave them. African Americans must “assent to the foundations” of the hate and “bolster the underlying principles” of racism since they have enabled, supported and participated in religious organizations which have been predominantly racist. Women who attend Church on Sunday are responsible for the patriarchy that has defined so much of Christianity…etc. Blaming African Americans for racism or blaming queer people for homophobia merely because they believe in God or participate in religion is, of course, absurd.

The belief that underlies Reed’s thinking is that if we got rid of religion everyone would magically see how wrong white supremacy, transphobia, class oppression, and sexism are. Please. Religion reflects the surrounding culture. That’s why, of course, the queer identified Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco reflects people of the community: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender…etc. It of course offers incredible resources and support for its congregation. Communities like this prove that religion can be reformed and used to resist the worst oppressions in society. Belief in God or participation in religion is not a uniform predictor of one’s politics.

The reason so many religious institutions are oppressive is because so much of society is oppressive. Sexism, racism and homophobia are predominant in U.S. institutions. But an educational institution that is anti-racist and counter-oppressive shouldn’t be blamed for the larger reality that our educational institutions are racist and sexist. Blaming queer friendly religious institutions for the more numerous homophobic religious institutions is like blaming a queer friendly business for a homophobic business simply because they are both businesses. There is zero relationship between a transgender person believing in God in San Francisco and the hateful acts of the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet Reed wants to put the blame at least partially at the feet of transgender people. It’s like positing some kind of correlation or relationship between a conservative Christian and a queer Muslim simply because they both believe in God.

The fundamental flaw in Reed’s argument is that it conflates people like James Cone, who have stridently resisted white supremacist Christianity, with the KKK, who have used Christianity for their own racist agenda. Cone shouldn’t bother writing back against a dominant Christianity and suggest black theology or black images of the divine, according to Reed. Womanist theologians who challenge the patriarchal and white images of God really have nothing to contribute because they themselves are guilty of colluding with the dangerous and harmful institution of religion. There is no meaningful difference between Jerry Falwell and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Reed’s analysis. Rather, they both believed in God and thus are both responsible for anything terrible that has been done in the name of religion. It’s as simple as that.

Rather than wasting time challenging white supremacist theology, critiquing patriarchal religion, and suggesting that African Americans and women have a role to play in religion, Reed thinks they should simply become atheists and pronounce the dangers of believing in God. This will solve their problems. Transgender people shouldn’t bother with religion or God – it only serves to bolster Westboro Baptist Church.

As I’ve mentioned before it is very important not to dismiss religion outright because it has played a role in resisting slavery, racism, and other forms of oppression. It has continued to be used in resisting homophobia, transphobia, racism, and sexism, and provides many useful functions in society. Being liberated from a belief in God is generally the last thing that most people need liberating from. Additionally, religion is a very complex phenomenon that plays numerous roles in the world. Yet Natalie Reed dismisses religion entirely with her statements like, “ALL religion is dangerous…religious faith is inherently dangerous and harmful.”

As I’ve mentioned before (see Reason and Racism in the New Atheist Movement), this is a hypothesis that needs to be examined. Yet, you won’t find any anthropological, sociological, or scientific research that supports Reed’s claim. It is wildly out of touch with reality. It’s like saying that the belief that Elvis still lives is inherently dangerous and harmful. How so? Furthermore, Reed is making truth claims about religions all over the globe that she has never even heard of. Yet, somehow she knows that their religious and cultural practices are harmful (despite never defining harmful or dangerous). Is the answer to impose a Western scientific atheism on indigenous cultures and religions around the world? Such a mindset is the height of cultural imperialism and arrogance, tantamount to saying, "I’ve never even heard of your religion or culture but I’m enlightened by science and I know it is harming you. I know your religion is dangerous because all religion is dangerous. You need to be like me." Please. Let’s not forget that it was because of the Western Colonizers that the Native American Sun Dance was banned in the U.S. until 1978.

I actually think Reed’s argument could very well do more to enable, bolster and support the most oppressive elements in religion. Her strategy of shouting that God doesn’t exist will fall on deaf ears to the vast majority of believers. Repeating the unscientific and false idea that “religious faith is inherently dangerous and harmful” only spreads more ignorance. She’s basically saying that Christianity in the U.S. should just remain in the hands of the dominant group that brought it to America: white, heterosexual men. Queer people, women and people of color should stay away and give up their attempts to change religion because their participation only does more harm. Anyone’s attempt, for that matter, to reform religion means they are guilty, according to Reed. You are either with religion (i.e. homophobia, transphobia, danger, harm…etc.) or against religion (an enlightened, anti-religious atheist.)

The reality is we need more queer and transgender people to become religious leaders. We need more women and people of color to hold significant positions of religious authority. Black liberation theologians, Womanists, and feminist theologians are important voices in the struggle against oppression and domination. But Reed would see a transgender religious leader as a step in the wrong direction. I see it as a necessary corrective to historically narrow-minded institutions.  Their presence doesn’t enable oppression, but rather it works to lessen it by reforming and changing the structures that have defined religion for so long. Being a religious leader is a way of assimilating into the wider culture. Seeing transgender leaders in society is inspiring and empowering for other transgender people.

Religion is one of many institutions in society. People who have been historically marginalized have made great strides in assimilating into these institutions – whether they be government, medical, military, educational, sports or the music industry. I have all kinds of issues with the U.S. military, however I also know what role it played in the process of African Americans becoming more accepted in the U.S., especially during WWII. Sitting on the sideline saying God is dead/ALL religion is harmful while discounting the important ways in which marginalized peoples have used religion to challenge oppression only strengthens the dominant forces that control many of today’s religious institutions.

In conclusion, Reed’s essay represent everything that is wrong with the predominant thrust of New Atheism. Her analysis is severely disembodied i.e. abstract, theoretical and completely out of touch with the reality of how complex religion is. She’s not writing about real religious people, nor does her analysis reflect the struggles that they go through (otherwise she couldn’t claim that ALL religion is harmful). Like many of her counterparts she defines religion as all of the bad stuff associated with religion. She’s obviously not in conversation with any Womanist theologians to find out just why they devote so much time to reforming white supremacy and patriarchy within Christianity. I don’t see any evidence of her reaching out to dialogue with religious people, whether they be people of color or transgender to actually ask them if they are being harmed by a belief in God. She doesn’t need to do this, because like most of the other New Atheists they have all of the answers already. The African-American atheist Sikivu Hutchinson captures this attitude well, “As delineated by many white non-believers the New Atheism preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity.”

Robert James Scofield, "Be," is a San Francisco based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. He writes for Tikkun magazine and his work has appeared on, IntegralWorld and FactNet.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Mary Magdalene to Rush Limbaugh: Your apology is too little, too late

By Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
Originally posted  3/5/12 at The Washington Post

Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio talk show host, attempted to silence women’s voices in the public square through sexual shaming. The early church did the same thing to Mary Magdalene, sexually shaming her in the 6th century, mistakenly calling her a prostitute, and effectively undercutting her spiritual authority.

But today, women are not Mary Magdalene, demeaned by church authority and made into the poster woman for the repentant prostitute. Today, women have fought back against Limbaugh’s sexual shaming and they are winning.

In this image made from Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 video provided by C-SPAN, Sandra Fluke, a third-year Georgetown University law student, testifies to Congress in Washington. AP Photo/C-SPAN) (AP - AP).  

After Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student and articulate spokeswoman for women’s reproductive health care, a “slut” and a “prostitute,” and then worse, a growing firestorm of social media driven protest pushed many of Limbaugh’s advertisers away; Limbaugh has been dropped by at least seven advertisers at last count. A Facebook page has been leading the boycott, and the Twitter hashtag, #StandwithSandra, is increasing in use.
Republican strategists, speaking anonymously out of fear of Rush’s power, have pointed to how his sexual shaming strategies “hurt Republicans.”

Indeed, Republicans are probably losing a generation of young women and men who are appalled by this sexually demeaning attack on women. 

The rapid Internet driven protest, and perhaps even more, the advertisers pulling out, has prompted an “apology” of sorts from Rush Limbaugh. The “apology,” however, included Limbaugh’s insistence that the birth control debate is about “personal sexual recreational activities,” not health care, and he compared contraception to sneakers.

Some advertisers aren’t buying it. Both ProFlowers and Carbonite dropped their advertising on Limbaugh’s program after the apology. Carbonite CEO David Friend posted this message on Facebook:
“No one with daughters the age of Sandra Fluke, and I have two, could possibly abide the insult and abuse heaped upon this courageous and well-intentioned young lady. Mr. Limbaugh, with his highly personal attacks on Miss Fluke, overstepped any reasonable bounds of decency. Even though Mr. Limbaugh has now issued an apology, we have nonetheless decided to withdraw our advertising from his show. We hope that our action, along with the other advertisers who have already withdrawn their ads, will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse.”
Unlike what happened to Mary Magdalene, this time the attacks on women’s authority in the public square through sexual shaming didn’t work. The advent of new media, and especially social media, means women’s voices can retain and even gain authority in the face of attack.

Limbaugh ought to have paid more attention to what modern media like film did for Mary Magdalene. “The Da Vinci Code,” both the book by Dan Brown and the film based on it, has pretty much restored Mary Magdalene’s reputation as a wealthy woman and a leading supporter of Jesus of Nazareth. She was last at the cross and first at the tomb; Jesus appeared to her after his resurrection and she gained Apostolic authority in the years after Jesus’ death that rivaled even Peter. The fictional account by Dan Brown does add some non-biblical innovations, as readers and film-goers know, but the counter-narrative on Mary Magdalene has been effective.

In this Jan. 13, 2009 file photo, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh talks with guests in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Limbaugh apologized Saturday, March 3, 2012, to a Georgetown University law student he had branded a "slut" and "prostitute" after fellow Republicans as well as Democrats criticized him and several advertisers left his program. (Ron Edmonds - AP) 
More seriously, the Gospel of Mary, written in the second century C.E. and discovered in the 19th century, has been given scholarly attention in the 21h century. Karen L. King, in her wonderful work, “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle,” examines this incredible text. This long lost Gospel exposes the lie that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute, and presents a convincing argument for women’s religious leadership in the early church. It is also a “sharp critique” of illegitimate power and a vision for spiritual growth. And all of this is written in the name of a woman.

Mary Magdalene had to wait almost 1500 years for her sexual shaming to be ended by new media, and then by rigorous religious scholarship.

Not now. This time, the end to the sexually demeaning attacks on women’s public authority by the likes of Rush Limbaugh takes only days, not centuries.

Somewhere I have to feel Mary Magdalene still has this message for Rush Limbaugh: Your apology was nowhere near adequate. Stop trying to sexually shame women. We won’t stand for it any more. 
PS: Do read the Gospel of Mary. It’s very illuminating, especially given our times.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Professor of Theology, and President from 1998-2008, at Chicago Theological Seminary. She is the author or editor of 12 books, including two different translations of the Bible.  Her most recent edited book, Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, was just published in January 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan.