Thursday, April 28, 2016

Signs and Symbols

The TV show Ally McBeal began in the fall of 1997. I was 15 years old. I remember watching one of the early episodes with some anticipation, because I'd heard the law office on the show had a unisex bathroom. I found that idea somewhat titillating, I guess. For a 15 year old male, I'm sure the sexual possibilities of such an arrangement were exciting (to the extend that 90's network television allowed). I don't know - it's difficult to intellectually connect with that memory almost two decades later - and I can't remember watching more than one episode, because Ally McBeal is just not all that appealing to a 15 year old kid.

I think about that, though, because of all the bathroom talk this week. I've always considered that notion, that something deeply improper would happen in a unisex bathroom, as the overly-hormonal hopes of a teenage boy. But this week it's dawned on me that this may be more a cultural assumption that was transmitted to me early in life, perhaps translated to all of us, mostly unconsciously.

I don't know if it's a cross over from the locker room. Since locker rooms have bathrooms in them, and locker rooms also have naked people in them, perhaps we're inferring?* In any event, the idea that people of differing genders in one bathroom is inherently dangerous doesn't make actual sense to me. It makes emotional sense - clearly this is something that's been in my brain for 20 years; I'm just not sure it's a good thing.

I mean practically. Yes, for as long as there have been bathrooms, men have dressed up as women to hide in them and take clandestine pictures. Bathrooms have been used for sexual abuse and also for sexual pleasure (I'm sure someone's written a doctoral dissertation on the notion of bathroom sex as a movie trope or a cultural metaphor for excitement - when it's really just gross). Most of this, though, has been because bathrooms are seen as vaguely sexual - and I'm not sure why, other than the fact that people sometimes have their pants down and they're segregated by gender.

I wonder if it's the gender segregation itself that causes the sexualization of the space. You see something similar in say, a sorority house (or a frat house) - someone of the opposite gender being in such a place, where they're not "allowed" creates an atmosphere of the taboo, the forbidden, which, naturally, lends itself to thoughts of other taboo things (and sex has almost always been a cultural taboo, no matter how much we pretend otherwise in the modern day). It seems like the very segregation by gender creates the space for sexualized imagination.

This makes sense when you think about the current hubbub over which bathrooms transgender people use. The real issue for most is fear, but of course the fear isn't of transgender people, but someone pretending to be transgender (even though the sign on a bathroom is not going to help or hinder a predator - shoot, this guy didn't even use it as an excuse for committing crimes AT A TARGET - he missed his opportunity for some real national exposure**).

Predators and perverts aside, ultimately, a trans man, beard and all, is likely far more unsettling to see in a woman's bathroom than a trans women in a dress and heels. This is why these laws skirt# the real issue - with these laws, people are MORE likely to see an out-of-place face in their restroom than without them.

The fear is real, though. That can't be dismissed. I just think the things that people are afraid of and the things they think they're afraid of are different. As I said, the fear is from a criminal, a predator - someone who has no excuse for doing the things they're doing, regardless of the bathroom policy. We should absolutely be having discussions about bathrooms and safety - but the safest thing for everybody is letting trans people use the bathroom they think will be less offensive to people (which is pretty much how it works now).

Even safer, though, is to not segregate bathrooms at all. Part of the reason predators feel bathrooms are a good place to commit crimes (beyond the taboo discussion above), is because they don't expect any men to be in there (and that they can overpower a woman). If you're in a bathroom where anyone might walk in at any moment, the draw becomes less and the danger decreases.

A lot of arguments say open bathrooms give abusers and excuse, but it's only an excuse if someone accepts it - and I just don't know anyone who'd do that. Besides, if a woman in the women's room were leering at people or trying to peek over the stall, they'd be reported. It's the behavior that's offensive and abusive, not the gender.

There is that pesky taboo, though - where people feel uncomfortable in a bathroom with the opposite sex. How do we rid ourselves of taboo? It's integration. In the 1960's bathrooms were beginning to be integrated racially. There were arguments that white people wouldn't feel safe in the bathroom with a black person. Perception and reality are different things. I get that it's different in this case because of gender, but it's not really.

Yes, men and women might feel a little more comfortable doing some things in a bathroom that is absent the opposite sex, but that's not always a good thing. I've got an almost-four-year-old daughter and I hate taking her into a men's room - not because I'm afraid for her safety (unless you count salmonella), it's because they're usually filthy and she's got a penchant to pick things up off the floor in public places.## I'm hopeful a fully integrated bathroom would be both cleaner (because women won't put up with what men generally do) and an overall more pleasant experience.

Of course, the most persuasive argument is the argument from poop itself. Poop is terrible. It smells. We make terrible noises when we're doing it. Most people I know won't even poop in the rare clean public bathroom unless they're the only one there anyway. Me included. It's gross. I'm sure we'd all like some real privacy when pooping. As a man, I can tell you, public urinals are really just a license for men to pee on the floor - they are mighty convenient, but entirely disgusting. Now there is your argument for individual bathrooms - or at least some serious white noise machines and potpourri.

I imagine stores in the future will be built with bathrooms that have sinks and mirrors in one room, with individual locking (and hopefully ventilated) stall doors off of these. In those buildings that have the "old" style bathrooms - let's consider just letting people pee in any of them and work to overcome the cultural conditioning that's ultimately just made us more afraid of each other (and somehow sexualized the place where we poop).

*And, to be fair, I'm fully on board with individual changing stalls for locker rooms - regardless of who's allowed inside. Even in a locker room of 100% heterosexual males, I think we're still all better off changing alone. You'll get no argument from me there.

**Pun intended, although admittedly in bad taste.

#I'm not sure if that one's even a pun, but I'll note it anyway.

##I feel like my daughter would be far more freaked out if she went into a women's bathroom and a trans guy were in there (not to mention the awesome conversation I'd get to have about how that man actually has a vagina and is required by law to creep her out). My daughter is not going to notice the trans women, who looks like every other woman in the bathroom. This same logic responds to the stories of scarred rape victims who've spoken up as well. The face of someone is going to be far more important than their genitalia.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Parable of the Times

Once, Jesus was invited to the home of a church person. He went and sat down to have a beautiful dinner with him and his friends. Although the church people were skeptical of this Jesus guy, it was an honor to have him in their home and word spread quickly. Lots of people gathered outside, hoping for a glimpse. One brave woman found her way in. She brought a jar of expensive perfume and was visibly shaken. Crying, she knelt by Jesus, her tears wetting his feet. She wiped them with her hair and poured perfume on them.

When the "Church people" saw what was happening they began speaking quietly to each other. I thought this guy was a prophet - if he were, he'd know who "she" is and what "she's" got under those robes. We've got a special bathroom for "her."

Jesus turned to the host with a question.

"A man suffered from crushing debt. Early in his life a local benefactor took pity on him and paid the debt, so the young man could live an easy and productive life. Another spent her whole life suffering from such a debt before she had the good fortune to run into that benefactor and experience his generosity. Who will love that benefactor more?"

The host replied, "the one who suffered longest."

Jesus answered, "You have forgotten what it's like to be ridiculed, scared, threatened, or disowned - perhaps you never knew. This woman is grateful for even the most basic human kindness; you chose not even to honor my presence in your home."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Jesus Called, He Wants His Church Back by Ray Johnston

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

The main idea of this book is great - that many people, including most Christians, have not allowed Jesus to actually change who they are and how they live their life. I agree with Johnston that if we allow Jesus to guide our thoughts and lives, we will be taken to unexpected and beautiful places.

I'm less agreeable to some of the way he presents this idea. The book begins with "bad news," a whole three-chapter section talking about all the things wrong with the United States and the Christians who live therein. While his case can certainly be made, I'm not sure it needs to be made in such a guilt-ridden, negative way. Further, he over-makes his case, with generalization and false representations of a number of ideas (and thus people who value them).

It was so troubling, I almost put the book down after chapter three. It's only because I was given the book for free and feel obligated to read the whole thing before reviewing it, that I continued. He talks about Jesus and compassion and service in the right ways, but the details and method are really difficult to get through. As much as Johnston wants to encourage a relationship with Jesus as truth, a lot of times his particular perspective on what that should look like seeps through. Now, this could be a really great example of how we're all human and fall short of Christ's example of grace and humility, but there is some sense of irony that Jesus Calls employs some of the narrow judgmentalism it condemns in delivering its message.

With each new heading titled, "Five Reasons Why _______________" or "Seven Steps to Doing __________________ Better," my shoulders drooped and I let out a long sigh, before summoning the strength to continue reading. The book reads like a conglomeration of all the worst evangelical sermon cliches. Again, Johnston clearly means well and he's been an effective communicator - he's got a congregation with thousands of people and I don't - but this is just as far from my style as one could possibly get.

As effective as this approach might be, it doesn't sit well with me, mostly because, in my experience, its those are the sorts of easy answers that actually keep people from making the difficult sacrifices necessary to see real change. There's a lot of pastor lines and conversations stoppers, Sunday School answers, and over simplifications. The underlying message is strong: this Jesus guy was on to something, check it out - but the narrow, churchy, evangelical box its packaged in is just that: narrow.

There is certainly an audience for this kind of thing and for that reason, I'm glad Jesus Called exists, I am just not part of that audience and neither are the people I've come to care about and feel blessed and burdened to love.

We are not all the same - and while I felt reading this book was a true struggle, with some questionable practices and theology, it might be right up your alley (although perhaps that kind of relativism wouldn't sit so well with the author).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Sorrow of Jubilee

Jubilee is the greatest story in scripture. Well, it's the greatest description in scripture, since Jubilee doesn't appear to have ever been a reality. Jubilee was the call of God's people, every 50 years, to restore all property to its original owners. If people had lost or been forced to sell land over the course of five decades, it would be returned. Essentially, people were only ever leasing the land. Slaves were never really slaves, but indentured servants with contracts that expired at Jubilee.

It's a beautiful idea, an escape from the constant drive to accumulate and hoard. Jubilee provides a great picture of what justice could look like in our world.


I've never really asked myself until recently, why is there a need for jubilee?

Why would this command be included in God's word to God's people? Why would this beautiful image even be something people might strive for (even though we never have seemed to live up to it)? It's really because people weren't taking care of each other. People in difficult circumstances or on wrong side of bad decisions were being left to their own devices. There was no justice and so justice was demanded.

But we really shouldn't need a reset every 50 years, especially not the people of God. We should be a people of compassion and justice at all times. Frankly, there isn't really a reason why people should have to sell their land or themselves to survive. Society never should have even gotten to a point where the call to Jubilee was warranted. We should all be more gracious than that.

Jubilee is great and we shouldn't cease to marvel at its greatness, but we have to remember, it's an accommodation to human society, not some ideal for us to aspire to fulfill. Yes, jubilee would be better than what we've got now, but jubilee is not the Kingdom; it's not the goal. Jubilee is just a marker on the journey, a sign pointing towards eternity and the Kingdom of God. It's a correction to the collective sin of human society and despite our inability to imagine its reality, it's very existence as an idea is an indictment of how we live.

Go ahead and live in whatever consumeristic ways your heart desires, but every 50 years, you have to show a little grace. It's like throwing God a bone. I've always looked at Jubilee as this amazing image, but our faith and life should really have progressed well beyond Jubilee at this point. Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, brings us well passed Jubilee - give to those who ask without expecting anything in return, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. These are notions well beyond Jubilee.

So often it seems we accommodate ourselves to failure. I try to eat just two cupcakes and actually mow down a half dozen. Well, maybe keep it to four next time, right? Jesus doesn't work this way. You can't get this Jubilee thing to happen, well let's just up the ante a bit so you know I'm serious.

We always complain out of our fear, specifically a fear of lack, a fear of suffering. Some of these people deserve to lose what they have, Jesus - me giving them more will just be enabling poor choices. Of course, then we start to sound like those people who tried to stone him when he proclaimed universal grace: release to the prisoner, freedom to the captive, sight to the blind. We're happy to take that grace for ourselves, but we're not sure there's enough of it to go around.

This is why we needed Jubilee - because it only takes an instant for us to look away from suffering and into our own pockets (or pocketbooks), terrified that we won't have enough. Jubilee was supposed to be a reminder that there's enough for all - Jesus takes it one step farther and shows even when there's not enough, it's somehow enough to go around.

I've said for a while now that the greatest tragedy in history is that God's people never practiced Jubilee, but I'm starting to wonder if perhaps the greatest tragedy in history is that we ever needed to be called to it in the first place.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Horror and Insignificance

TIME had a harrowing story this week about the use of rape in war and the trauma of surviving such an attack. I really had to keep my mind from recognizing the stories as real so as not to overload my brain. It's traumatic just reading about the lives of these women and children - and the men in their lives as well. The notion that this is not only reality, but life, for so many people is just incomprehensible to me. It's beyond tears, it's genuinely incomprehensible. I can't manage to get the reality into my head enough to even have an emotional reaction. When I do react, it's predictably selfish - although not entirely so.

I experienced something I first mistook for guilt. It's easy to see how guilt at the relative ease of life in the West compared to rape and hunger and war and abandonment makes sense - but it really wasn't guilt. It was more a sadness - yes, sad for these people, but as I said the emotions didn't really get through - it was a sadness at the realization that my life will provide me with only the narrowest picture of the human experience. Even the most adventurous and well-traveled among us will barely scrape the surface of what it means to be human - for good and for ill.

It's not just the horror of child rape as a weapon of war, but the whole gamut of emotions and experiences that will just never be an option for me. I guess this is sort of like someone staring at the night sky, depressed about their own insignificance. We (or at least me) like to cling to the illusion that I'm a "normal" or "average" person - at the very least "representative." I want to believe that my life is, give or take a few particulars, just about like everyone else's life. That's simply not true.

I wonder if this is why individualism is so attractive, because it makes us completely representative, because there is nothing "real" outside ourselves. We can never be insignificant, unless we choose to be. We can never be below average or strange unless we choose to be. It's a far cry from understanding ourselves as but incomplete portions of the larger whole. As a human, I am barely discernible compared to the grand scheme. Theologically I might argue I'm completely complementary to the whole of creation - there is no such thing as an individual human any more than there is an individual cell. Yes, they can be delineated and even survive on their own, but that existence is nothing, really, compared the the beauty and complexity of the society in which they reside.

I still can't get my head around rape as a weapon of war and the dehumanizing that precedes it. This is one of those horrors that seems beyond comprehension, let along solution. We Christians like to put these most difficult ones on God - "you take care of that, because I just can't deal with it." As real as that inability to deal is, it's also a little cop out.

But the cop out has two sides. In one sense, it helps to preserve the illusion that we matter - again, I'm not saying that individuals don't matter; they do, but not in the way we like to pretend. It makes us think we can solve our own problems, that just maybe if we get some of the smaller ones figured out, we can work up to the real horrors.

On the other hand, it just lets us draw a comfortable line between the possible and the impossible. We can put that line wherever we choose and convince ourselves that there's nothing we can do about it - that the line exists outside ourselves.

I don't know what to do with this. There's no conclusion here. I've just been thinking about it a lot - and hopefully it will change the way I approach hope and the world itself. Ultimately, it help me internalize the notion that we're not in control - human selfishness and greed have set free the kind of pain and horror we cannot easily rewind. To think otherwise is really just fooling ourselves.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Superpowers and Perspective

**Sorry if you clicked on this looking for an in-depth analysis of Deadpool. I just haven't seen it yet. Again, my apologies.**

One of the things that doesn't really come up in this election cycle (outside of soundbytes, anyway) is the rise of China. It's not something I'm super interested in - and maybe that's telling in itself. There are some good article out there recently about the consolidation of power the current Chinese President is working towards within the country and how an emerging middle class and increasingly world responsibility are changing China. I find those interesting, but it seems a lot of people (especially people 15+ years older than me) take much more interest.

Now I have no living memory of a competing super power. I was born in 1981, when the USSR was at the beginning of its slide to irrelevance and certainly I wasn't paying attention to global politics during the 80's. One of my earliest "public" memories is watching the Berlin Wall come down on television and following the "Unified Team" at the 1992 Olympics. Just by virtue of age, I'm going to have a different perspective on China than someone who lived through the Cold War. The notion of a competing super power just isn't part of my intellectual vocabulary. Even though I have a history degree and I'm certain I know a lot more about the Cold War than most people of my generation, the lack of lived experience changes my perspective. Even if my impressions of China are absolutely correct, they're going to be lacking something that I can never recover.

There are arguments to be made that using experience with the USSR hurts one's impressions of China because you might read into this situation something that exists only in ghost memories of the past. It's hard to say if one is better than the other.

That's the real rub - because it's not always about China either. I suspect current, actual, real, up-front discussion of socialism and what extent it plays a part in a functional democracy works on the same spectrum. Those without experience are missing a key part of the puzzle, while those with experience may retain a part of the puzzle that just isn't useful - and there are myriad positions in between.

I'm not sure what to do with that - other than to simply be aware. No one, unless they are some kind of anti-emotional, brain-dysfunctional logic robo-god, is going to discount their own experience and perspective in favor of another. Hopefully - and I think it's probably the most we can expect - is that we'll allow the shared perspective of others to influence how we look at the world and the various situations to which we put our mind. The very existence of someone with a different perspective should shift and change our own.

That's something we don't see much of in our current political climate. We tend to double down on defense, playing a zero-sum game of perspective - wherein we see clearly and everyone else must be tricked or broken or blinded in some way to see things differently. That doesn't mean we agree or even treat every perspective as equally valid or important, but we also can't completely marginalize anyone. Every perspective exists because the people who hold it exist. Our political engagement must be more about listening and inclusion and less about power games and marginalization.

This is perhaps why Donald Trump is bringing such an intense reaction. Yes, he's opportunistic and unpredictable and wildly irresponsible, but it seems more scary to most is his unconscionable willingness to destroy detractors, to insult and demean and bulldoze people who have a different perspective. What people fear far more than losing an argument is not being heard and acknowledged in the process.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

First World Problems

I don't remember what got me thinking about this, but it was surely one of the many "first world problems" that so many of us whine about all the time. Whether it's because we have to make do with 2G service for a few miles between cities or the bakery only has 9 kinds of pies (and you wanted the 10th), we've gotten used to getting our own way. It is the consumer culture that we've become, for good or for ill.

The whole "first world problems" thing actually got started in 1979 (thanks wikipedia), but it took off on Twitter in 2005. It became a convenient way for people to complain, while also recognizing their social station and the relative triviality of the complaint. It's almost a social consciousness. (A similar meme was the incredulous-looking, presumably-impoverished kid who often got attached to every "first world problem," people wanted to mock.

While it does seem like progress for people to recognize the disparity between expectations in the West and those in most of the rest of the world, this sort of meme probably does more harm than good. It stems, likely, from a genuine place. We want to express real frustration, but at the same time feel guilty about the vast distance between "us" and "them." Moreover, there's a real avoidance of that distance because we feel so helpless to bridge it. "First world problems" is a tacit acceptance of injustice in the world.

But it becomes more than that - and does so quickly. While it might emerge from a real recognition of injustice, it also serves as a perpetuation of the same injustice. Having a meme out there to recognize inequality and the difference between the haves and have-nots, we somehow feel justified in making our complaints.

Well, it really stinks that 4 billion people in the world will never know the pain of having to reset their microwave clock due to a power outage, but it really, really stinks that I do. As much as we want to care about real issues, these memes just give us license to ignore them in favor of our own. It's like those commercials - starving children who can be saved for "just pennies a day," so we send off $20 and forget about it. It's permission to be self-centered and continue to benefit from injustice.

It keeps us from asking how that gap could be bridged, what would justice really look like. We're comfortable with "first world problems," because solving third world problems likely would require even more sacrifice than having to go to the Starbucks two streets over that stays open an hour later.

I guess I'm saying, what I never realized, was how the notion of "first world problems" just adds one more.