social status

Slavery, Boundaries and Marriage

I have been reading Jennifer Glancy’s book Slavery in Early Christianity.  In one passage, Glancy discusses writing by St. Augustine.  Something was happening in North Africa that concerned him. It was not that there was slavery, Augustine acknowledged the scriptural tradition that slaves should honor their masters, it was that there was a growing trend of enslavement of free persons.  Glancy wrote:

…the instability of the slave body attracted attention throughout antiquity.  How to account for the fact that under some circumstances– say, in the aftermath of war– free persons could be enslaved, or that in other circumstances a formerly enslaved body could walk free?  Particular circumstances, such as the sale of slaves, the flight of slaves and the freeing of slaves, forced attention to these borderline cases, instances where the demarcation was blurred between the well-defined bodies of free persons and the defenseless bodies of slaves.  If the boundaries of the slave body were unstable, not only could enslaved bodies metamorphose into free persons, but free persons could be thrust into a nightmare condition of servitude.  On this view– the view of Augustine and perhaps the universal view of the Roman World– the horror was not slavery.  This was not the expression of abolitionist nor antislavery sentiment.  The horror was that free persons would not be able to protect the boundaries of their own bodies and that they would be treated as surrogate bodies for others to use as they chose, with no legal or culturally sanctioned means of self-protection.

If the boundaries of slave and non-slave were unstable, what was to stop the free person from having to endure what the slave did?

This ancient question of boundaries also drives the opposition to same sex marriage.  Why do people who are against gay marriage speak with such a sense of threat and danger?

This, I believe, is the mindset: If the boundary of social respectability that separates me (as a straight person) from you (a gay person) becomes cloudy or disappears, how can I be sure that I will not fall into a disgraced state?  How can I be sure that I will continue to be in the good graces of society?  If heterosexual/homosexual is not the dividing line, what might it be, and which side will I find myself on?

The horror, in this way of thinking, is not that there are people being treated as less than full members of society– the horror is that we won’t be able to tell which people those should be.  The horror is that the people who were once deemed beyond reproach might not be.  If you are not the outcast, maybe I could be.  I don’t like to think about that.  So let’s keep things as they are.

Should We Let Outsiders Into the Club?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been doing a bit of genealogical research lately.  I discovered that one branch of my family tree descends from the Schwenkfelders, followers of a self-taught Protestant theologian named Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig.  His main theological premise was that the Bible without the inner work of the Holy Spirit was just a dead text.  He clashed with the Lutherans on some points of doctrine about baptism and the last supper and as a result Schwenfelders were persecuted in Germany and many of them fled to Pennsylvania.

I never knew that this group existed, and so I’ve been digging up everything I can about them.  There is a Schwenkfelder Library, which has a Word Press blog.  One of the articles says:

The oldest records of the concerns of the Schwenkfelder community in Pennsylvania can be found in the minutes of the Schwenkfelder General Conference. General Conference minutes are a historical record of the discussions and concerns within the church such as: monetary distributions out of the Schwenkfelder church charity fund, interactions with the 19th century Schwenkfelder historian Oswald Kadelbach, questions arising as to whether or not an “outsider” can become a member of the society, and many rules and regulations about marriage and dress.

Isn’t this always the big question for a religious group?  What are the requirements to be considered part of the in-group?  Should we let outsiders join in?  If we do, how much do they have to conform to our ways?  Which of our traditions and habits are essential to be “us” and which can we dispense with?

As I also mentioned in my posts, I’ve been reading the letters of St. Paul in the New Testament and he wrestles with exactly the same issues.  Can gentiles join in?  If they do, do they have to follow our dietary laws and be circumcised?  If we say they do not, does that mean we have changed what it means to be “us?”

It is the question behind my post yesterday about a church firing a musician because he was gay.  This is “not us.”  Being “us” means not being gay.

I came across it in a review of my novel.  The character of Ian, who is alienated from the church, starts to learn more about Christianity when he is hired to be a custodian at a church.  The reviewer did not approve of non-Christians working in a Christian church, even as a custodian.

What are the boundaries?  Who is allowed in?  What do you have to do to be an insider?

It’s just the nature of things.  Any kind of group has to define some sort of definition of what it is and is not to have any kind of meaning.  Arguments over who is an insider and who is an outsider are part of the territory.

Poverty and Purity Codes

This is a graphic that has been going around Facebook.  It shows the results of a Florida program that requires welfare recipients to pass a drug screening in order to qualify for benefits.  According to the graphic, 98% of those tested passed.  The program cost taxpayers $ 178 million.  The big tax savings to the state of throwing the drug users off welfare was $60,000.

The graphic made me wonder: If we were to require drug testing of wealthy people in order to qualify for oil subsidies, or a lower tax rate on capital gains than earned income, what would the graphic look like?  What percentage would fail the test and what would the savings look like?  Is it possible that a larger percentage of capital gains beneficiaries might be using drugs (cocaine on their yachts) than single mothers with minimum wage jobs do?  Is is possible that because of the amount of income involved that the tax savings might actually outweigh the program cost?

I was recently reading the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg.  Borg spoke about the purity code that operated in Jesus’s time (which Jesus violated and protested by eating with tax collectors and the unclean).  The purity code went beyond a few rituals.  It provided an entire social and political system based on the notion of pure and impure, clean and unclean.

According to one purity map of the time, priests and Levites (both hereditary classes) come first, followed by “Israelites,” followed by “converts” (Jewish persons who were not Jewish by birth). Further down the list are “bastards,” followed by those with damaged testicles and those without a penis. Women who were made unclean monthly were low on the social scale. Behavior also played a role and certain occupations, such as tax collecting, made one an outcast.

So by now you’re probably wondering what all of this ancient history has to do with Florida drug testing.  It is this.  To quote Borg:

“The purity contrast also was associated with economic class. To be sure, being rich did not automatically put one on the pure side (and first-century Judaism could speak of rich people who were wicked), but being abjectly poor almost certainly made one impure.”

When I read this line it occurred to me that our society still operates on this type of a purity code.  Being wealthy does not automatically make a person “pure” but it gives the person the assumption of purity.  A rich person is assumed to be clean, well mannered, smart and moral until proven otherwise. A poor person, on the other hand, lives with the assumption of “impurity.”  His is assumed to be unintelligent, less capable, unclean and less moral until proven otherwise.

So why doesn’t anyone suggest drug testing in order to qualify for oil subsidies?  How far would such an idea go if someone proposed it?  What types of government funding and services should you have to prove you are moral and ethical to get?

(Reposted from my non-fiction blog Broke is Beautiful)

What is Your Spiritual Orientation?

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to talk with Bishop Craig Berland on the Christ Enlight Podcast.  We spoke quite a bit about the various social roles we play in society.  We talked about how people try to define and label their sexual orientation, their economic class and how their stories are crafted in obituaries.

There was one area of social labeling that we didn’t directly touch on.  I was reminded of it by a post on Rev. Thomas Perchlik’s blog.  He describes an interfaith book reading group and one of the books they read.  It was written by Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright.  Perchik quoted the following passage:

“Just as many who were brought up to think of God as a bearded old gentleman sitting on a cloud decided that when they stopped believing in such a being they had therefore stopped believing in God, so many who were taught to think of hell as a literal underground location full of worms and fire…decided that when they stopped believing in that, so they stopped believing in hell. The first group decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of God, they must be atheists. The second decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of hell, they must be universalists.”
— N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)

Universalists, Athiests, Fundamentalists, Agnostics, Evangelicals, Pagans, Muslims… What is your spiritual orientation? What label do you place on it?  (According to the Belief-o-Matic on Beliefnet, I am a “liberal Quaker.”)

We choose our labels through church shopping or book reading or by an accident of being born into a certain faith.  Yet what we most fundamentally believe and perceive about the nature of the divine, the transcendent, the universe and how to get along with people on earth is fluid.  It changes throughout a life and as our personal situations change.  The wisdom a person needs to deal with loss is different from the wisdom a person needs to deal with happiness.

But once we have given a label to what we find most sacred, we feel a pressure to be consistent to that label.  As we try to make our feelings conform to all that we think these spiritual labels mean, we voluntarily limit our mental options.  “I’m a Universalist, I don’t believe in Hell, so I can’t read Blake.”  (I’ve never actually heard anyone say this, but you get the idea.)

There are, of course, benefits to labels or we wouldn’t be so keen on them.  They are a shorthand that allow us to build a community of reasonably like minded people without having to spend months with each individual trying to sort out just what each one actually believes and values on a whole host of topics.  No one has time for that, and as much as we would like to love all of humanity in an abstract sense, the number of people with whom we can actually maintain that level of intimacy is finite because we are mortal and finite.

Still, it is useful to ask from time to time how much of what we think we believe based on our own free will and rationality is really a way of reinforcing our self-definitions.  How many of our conflicts with others derive not from real differences of opinion, but the desire to defend our labels? 

Angel Excerpt of the Day: Obituaries

As Stuart talked about his thoughts for the service, Paul thought about obituaries. When a person you love dies, the obituary takes on an outsized importance. It is the community record that this person lived; she was here; her life did not pass without notice. Yet obituaries are also almost always flat and disappointing. They consist of a dry list of job titles and accomplishments and official connections. But what about the unofficial connections we have in life? Where are the teachers who changed our whole perspective; the mistresses; the dear, dear friends; the ones who worshiped us with unrequited love? What about the ones who got away? The ones we pined for who never returned our affections? Where do they fit?

Obituaries are written in shorthand, sketching out a biography but leaving out all of the context that creates a full life. Marital status is a shorthand, but a misleading one. You can be a devoted spouse or a disinterested spouse, an abusive spouse or a supportive spouse. You might have married for love or social status. It is all marriage. Career titles are a shorthand. The deceased held a job, but was it his main sense of pride and identity, or something he dragged himself to every day to pay the bills? You will never know from a death notice.

Even seemingly straightforward words like “mother,” “father,” “daughter,” and “son” are shorthand. Was your brother “like a brother” to you, or were you distant or rivals? Was your father the constant presence who taught you to play baseball and took you to Cub Scouts, or was he the man who had sex with your mother and disappeared? Was your relationship with your mother loving or strained and difficult?

The shorthand of obituaries is meaningful to those already in the know—but then, they don’t really need the biography. Our obituaries, and our biographies in general, are a show for those who know us the least. Paul thought he had stumbled onto the very definition of what it means to be intimate, to know someone well. It is to understand the meaning of those shorthand words for a particular individual, to understand the ambiguities of a life, the parts that do not fit neatly into boxes.

-Excerpt from the novel Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press, release date September 27, 2011

Bert and Ernie I’m Awfully Fond of You (Woo Woo Be Do)

I have to admit that the whole “Should Ernie and Bert marry?” nonsense has managed to capture my imagination.  In case you have more serious reading habits than I, here is the story: an online petition asking the Sesame Street Workshop to “allow” the muppet roomies to come out of the closet and get married got so much attention that the Sesame Workshop was forced to issue a statement about it.

I like their response, which does a good job walking the tightrope of saying Ernie and Bert are not gay without implying that there would be anything wrong with it if they were:

Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.

I am not among those advocating for a Bert and Ernie wedding.  The whole thing, however, got me reflecting on how differently we discuss and think about same sex and opposite sex unions. 

It is, of course, not true that puppets (or fictional children’s characters in general) do not have sexual orientation. 

Miss Piggy, not a Sesame Street character but still a puppet and a muppet, was a huge flirt who made no bones about her attraction to Kermit the Frog.  The puppet couple even had a wedding in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Miss Piggy is, in fact, one of the few female muppets and just about the only well-known female muppet.  I can only think of that hippie chick from the Dr. Tooth band and a fairly unmemorable blonde haired puppet from Sesame Street episodes when I was a child.  (Was her name Prarie Dawn?)

Giving my hero Jim Henson the benefit of the doubt, I will assume the lack of female puppets was due largely to the fact that the puppeteers were men and found it more convincing to voice “male” monsters and frogs and dogs and… whatever Gonzo is.  (By the way, didn’t Gonzo have a romantic relationship with a chicken?)

The fact remains that the main character trait of the only famous female muppet is a romantic one.  As with a great deal of children’s entertainment there are people (males) and then there are love interests (females).

(In 1992 Sesame Street added Zoe to increase the number of female muppets and again in 2006 Sesame Street added a female fairy to its mix for the same reason.)

Some of the comments on the many Ernie and Bert stories were from people who argued that the whole topic of sexual orientation was inappropriate for pre-schoolers.  One commenter noted that the original petition mentioned the prevention LGBT teen suicides as a reason that the puppets should come out of the closet.  She wanted to know, and I am paraphrasing from memory, what teen suicides had to do with a pre-school program.

Teenagers who take their lives because they believe they will have to exist as social outcasts do so because of messages they assimilated throughout childhood about what is normal and accepted in our culture.

Far from steering away from sexual orientation, children’s entertainment thrives on it— when it is heterosexual.  There are all those princes seeking their beautiful princesses.  The stories end in lavish dream weddings.  Romantic attraction and attainment of marriage is the primary story we tell to little girls.  That is the great drama and what life is about.

Sesame Street has, to a large extent, steered away from that.  Yet it does have, among its human population, a number of married characters. 

We do not see opposite sex married characters in children’s entertainment as being examples of “heterosexual orientation.”  They are examples of family. 

We are perfectly able to recognize the beauty of innocent romance and to offer it up to kids in the form of Micky and Minnie Mouse, or Pepe Le Pew mistakenly chasing after a cat, or Miss Piggy and her mostly unrequited love for Kermit. 

When the subject is a marriage between two male children’s characters, however,  we stop imagining innocent romance and family.  “Marriage” becomes a question of sex.

One commenter (whose post I agreed with overall) said that Ernie and Bert were an example of friendship and a world where people who are different from each other love and respect one another.  She went on to say that making them a married gay couple would “demean their friendship.”

Have you ever heard anyone say that it would demean the friendship of a man and a woman if they were to marry?  Probably not. Instead, we see marriage as the highest expression of a relationship.  It is a sexual union.  We understand that, but that is not our focus.

I hope that some time in the not too distant future that all of this will change.  We will be able to see same sex marriages with the same kind of innocent romance as the opposite sex kind.  Committed couples, gay or straight, will represent not “sex” but “family.”  It may well begin with the stories we tell our children.

So why don’t I think Ernie and Bert should get married? 

Maybe a child growing up in a home with two daddies would interpret them as a couple, and that is fine. There is nothing to say they cannot be understood that way.  The married human couples on Sesame Street don’t go around all the time saying, “Hey, we’re married” and kissing and holding hands.  Their relationship is inferred and understood.

Yet Ernie and Bert represent something more important.  They are roomies and best friends.  Soon enough boys start to get the message that there is something “unmanly” about being too close to another male.  They will pick up that they can play sports and punch each other, but that sharing warm affection with each other is a bit weird.  Society will start to tell them that they can have a roommate in college but their closest emotional bonds better be with women by the time they’re, say, 25.  Girls can talk about their “girlfriends” and cry on each other’s shoulders and take vacation trips together as friends.  Boys have to be careful. 

Wouldn’t it be a much better place if guys could be more like Ernie and Bert?  I hope that the Sesame Street Workshop will not be tempted to downplay Ernie and Bert’s love for each other in an attempt to quell gay rumors.  There are few things in life more beautiful than true friendship.