Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Eve Was Framed

Artist Unknown
This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, October 7, 2018 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

There’s a joke I’ve always loved, but always have to look up to make sure I get it right.  When I looked it up (again) this week I discovered that in a 2005 poll in the UK it had been voted the funniest religious joke:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don't do it."

"Why shouldn't I?" he asked.

"Well, there's so much to live for!"

"Like what?"

"Are you religious?"

He said: "Yes."

I said: "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"


"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"


"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"


"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

There’s one thing everybody seems to be united on these days, and that’s the fact that we’re so divided.  Whether we’re talking about the country, a local community, our families … it seems that everybody’s taking “sides:”  Liberal and Conservative.  Women and Men.  Old and Young.  Pro-Kavanaugh and Anti-Kavanaugh. Laurel and Yanni.  (People who get that joke and people who don’t.)

It seems that we humans have always been tribal by nature, have always dichotomized “us” and “them.”  After all, we humans are social animals by nature, and we’re decidedly ill-quipped for living in isolation – ill-equipped both physically and by temperament.  We need one another.  By living in groups, with others, our ancestors were able to share resources, and were better able to protect themselves from threats.  And because we evolved in small groups, there was an adaptive advantage to being able to discern who is in you group and who isn’t.  “Us” and “Them” isn’t a new phenomenon.  At one point our survival depended on it, so much so that it’s as if it’s been encoded in our DNA.

And many people think that “religion” – writ large – is one of the most effective ways we humans have ever devised for perpetuating the perennial problem of partitioning the “saved” from the “damned.”  Look at all the religious wars that have ever been fought – that are still being fought – and you can see all the proof, if proof you’re looking for, that “religion” is dangerously divisive. Some say that it’s really religion’s only purpose. 

Last week I threw out my planned reflections because I couldn’t imagine not speaking to the blatant display of our culture’s misogyny that was taking place in those Senate hearings.  Coincidentally (or not) for more than a month it had been my plan to reflect this morning on the roots of sexism and misogyny in the Judeo-Christian traditions that can arguably be said to be the foundation of Western culture(s).  This week I read something that provides a clear bridge between these two explorations.  In defending Kavanaugh, and, more to the point, attacking Dr. Ford, someone tweeted, “What did you expect?  Women have been nothing but trouble for men ever since Eve gave that apple to Adam!”

There’s no question that the Jewish and Christian scriptures have been used in some grossly damaging ways.  The apostle Paulwrote to the fledgling church in Corinth, for instance: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”  That’s just one example of what the Biblical Scholar Dr. Phyllis Trible described as “texts of terror.”  (Which is also the name of her important 1984 book.)  To take another example, this time from the Gospels, there’s a story told in the Bookof Matthew about a Canaanite woman who desperately pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter.  Jesus is recorded as saying, essentially, that he’d come to save the Jewish people and that he wouldn’t waste a healing on a non-Jew.  (The text actually reads, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”)

And then, of course, you have Eve.  Most people know at least the broad strokes of the myth.  Adam and Eve were living in the literal, actual “Garden of Eden.” The character of God tells them that they can do anything they want, enjoy everything they see, but that the one thing they absolutely must not do is to eat any of the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, the tree known as “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”  Well, wouldn’t you know it, the Devil, in the form of a snake, convinces Eve (silly woman that she is) that it’s perfectly okay to eat that fruit, which, of course, she does.  And then she tempts Adam, so that he also breaks God’s one and only limit.  And for this, the two are unceremoniously evicted from the Garden, and we’ve been locked out ever since.

As if to overly reinforce Eve’s role in all of this – her responsibility for all of this – Biblical commentators have, over the centuries, said that Eve "tempted, beguiled, lured, corrupted, persuaded, […] urged, used wicked persuasion, led into wrongdoing, proved herself an enemy, used guile and cozening, tears and lamentations, to prevail upon Adam."  So, what do you expect?  Women have been causing trouble for men ever since Eve gave Adam that apple!

It's passages like these that have led many to argue – even many UUs to argue, even some UUs here to argue –  that religion is irredeemable, since it is forged in, and reinforces, patriarchy (among other things).  And it’s not just the Jewish and Christian traditions!  Even Buddhism, in its sutras, describes the signs of a Buddha – hair in a certain pattern, skin of a certain color, a particular type of genitals.  In other words, men only need apply.

I would argue that these are a perversion of religion’s truest, deepest message.  I love verse 49 of the Holy Qur’an, which says, “O humankind!  We have […] made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that you may despise each other).”  We’re different, yes, but we’re different in order to learn from one another.  Built into the fabric of the Muslim faith – and I’d argue the fabric of every faith – there is this sense that we are, as I’ve put it, “one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.”

Dr. Trible’s book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives is not just a litany of texts that have been used to oppress and subjugate, particularly, women.  It’s also an offering of ways to reclaim what she believes, as do I and many others, the underlying message of unity and equality, the real, foundational message of faith.

In literary studies there’s something called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.”  It says, essentially, to pay close attention to what a text doesn’t say.  So that passage from Paul in which he tells women to sit down and be quiet?  She’d say that it actually provides proof that in the early Christian church women were vocal leaders – why else would you need to tell them to sit?  And Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman in which he calls her a “dog”?  It continues with the woman responding that even dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table.  The story then says that Jesus stopped in his tracks, praised her faith (and, no doubt, determination and powerful sense of self) as being greater than any he had seen among his own people, and heals her daughter. Actually, he says that her faith healed her daughter.  The story can be read not as one of a man disparaging a woman (although that’s certainly in there).  The story really is about a strong woman changing Jesus’ awareness and the course of his teachings, because the author of Matthew records that from that time forward Jesus never again talks about his mission as being to one group only, but, rather, to the whole world.  Tribalism was replaced by a recognition of our common humanity.

What Eve?  That story can be read as showing women to be God’s ultimate creation, since she was created after Adam, just as he was created after the animals and was describes as superior to them.  Additionally, the text says nothing about Eve “tempting” Adam.  Instead, it says simply that “she gave some to her husband and he ate.”  Some say that like most parents, God knew that the prohibition against eating the fruit of that tree was the best way to guarantee that they would do so; that it was actually part of the plan, because “the knowledge of good and evil” is part of what makes us human.  We have the ability to discern right action from behaviors that hurt and harm, and with that knowledge we can consciously choose which to do.

There’s one thing everybody seems to be united on these days, and that’s the fact that we’re so divided.  And while that may have been an evolutionary benefit in the early days of our specie’s development, it is a danger to us today.  We are fundamentally social animals, and if we evolved in small groups, today we absolutely must recognize that we live on a very small planet, and that continuing to divide humanity into “us” and “them” will not keep us safe, it will guarantee our demise.

What will save us?  What the story I read earlier was all about – kindness.  One of our hymns has the line, “kindness can heal us,” and it may, in truth, be the only thing that can – whether on the interpersonal level or the level of nations.  “Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world.” Ms. Albert said to her class.  “Each kindness […] makes the whole world a little bit better.”

Divisiveness may be encoded in our DNA, but thanks to the mythical Eve we can choose to continue to follow patterns that no longer serve to keep us safe and to, instead, embrace our common humanity.  We must learn that we are all of the same tribe.  And we must learn to be kind to one another.

Pax tecum,


Monday, October 01, 2018

A Reason to Hope

This is the text of the reflections I offered on September 30, 2018 at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve in Charlottesville, VA

TV writer Aaron Fullerton photoshopped an image from inside the room in the U.S. Capitol,
next to a dystopian government meeting in the show on Twitter
As I listened on Thursday to the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, I knew that what I’d planned to reflect on this morning had to be set aside.  This happens to preachers from time to time.  I’ve had it happen as late as while I was stepping into the pulpit.  I know someone who says that there’ve been a time or two when they finished composing their sermon when they sat down after delivering it.  I at least had a few days, which was time enough to pass a draft by other eyes and hearts.  I’m glad I did, because they saved me from my worst inclinations – to fill this time with statistics, and analysis, politics.  To avoid, in other words, literally the heart of the matter.  The statistics are staggering, yet it’s the stories and the women who tell them that really matters.
Before I go any further, though, I do want to say that while I won’t be talking in any kind of explicit detail, I understand that any discussion of the way(s) our patriarchal, misogynist society degrades and dehumanizes women might be a rough sermon for some people.  If you find these reflections bringing up painful things for you, please listen to your body and your heart; reach out to others for support.  Rev. Alex is available to listen, as am I, Leia, Chris, and members of our lay Pastoral Visitors.  Your Covenant Group might be a safe space.  Perhaps a close friend or a member of your family.  What I’m getting at is that if your feelings are too large to hold, and if it is all possible, please don’t try to hold them alone.
I also want to say, here at the outset, that I recognize the last thing some of you may want is another straight, white, gender-conforming man pontificating about something that he – that I – really can’t know much about.  That’s not quite right.  I can know, but I can’t really fully understand, can’t fully comprehend, because I’m a straight, white, gender-conforming man who grew up in this country during the last half century.  I know that the anger I’ve felt these past few weeks, the disgust, is nothing compared to the anger, the pain, sometimes the shame, the grief, the fear, the exhaustion so many women have had to carry for their whole lives … which many of you have had to carry.
Over the past year, since the #MeToo movement began, a number of women I’ve known have used Facebook and other social media platforms to tell the story of their experience of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.  All too often it was their stories, in the plural, because so many had more than one.  These women courageously, defiantly, wrote about their experience — some for the first time. They wrote of being harassed, attacked, abused, and assaulted by strangers, friends, and family.  One friend of mine from high school had a list that began with harassment in elementary school and continued throughout her life.
None of this should have been surprising.  I know the statistics — most of you probably do too —they are … alarming (to say the least).  Yet I was surprised, and shocked, deeply saddened, and really, really angry that women I’ve known have had to suffer in silence for so long.  Have had to suffer with this at all.  That’s how oblivious I’ve been able to be — I’ve been able to see, yet not see.  The dominant misogynist, white supremacist, classist, heterosexist culture in which we live does such a good job of putting a clean and polished veneer on everything, and is expert at deflecting attention:
Don’t look too hard at those young black men being shot in the streets.  Call it an anomaly, a few bad apples — don’t see the systems this violence stems from and supports.
Don’t look too hard at the staggering — and increasing — wealth gap between those with the most and those with the least — don’t see the structures that guarantee this disparity.
Don’t look too hard at the mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, aunts, grandmothers, co-workers, teachers — all those women who have been … and are being … assaulted at a rate that’s equivalent to one act of sexual violence against a woman every 98 seconds.  Oh no, don’t look too hard at any of that, and especially don’t look at all the many, many ways ways large and small that women are harassed and abused on a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment basis.  These things won’t make the evening news, yet they work together to create the cultural context from within which some men can believe they have the right to treat women as less-than-human, and other men are able (even if unconsciously) to see the truth that’s right in front of their eyes.
In this room there are women who have stories they could tell, many of whom have no doubt never told anyone except, perhaps, a therapist or a very close friend.  I imagine that some of these women have lit Candles over the years.  These stories are most certainly among those things that have “gone unsaid,” for which we light that last candle each week.  So let me say what shouldn’t need to be said but might:  these stories — your stories — have a place in the sanctuary of our hearts.  To the extent it is possible, we see you, we hear you, and we believe you, even if you never say a word.
“Women” is not a monolithic category, any more than any other group is of one mind at all times.  The past few weeks have been hard in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons.  And the last few days?  The papers are saying that the nation was “captivated,” “riveted,” by the scene that played out in the Senate.  “Captivated?”  “Riveted”?  Those are words we use to describe action movies and thrillers.  “Sitting on the edge of your seat.”  Yet this wasn’t a performance.  This was just about as clear a distillation of our country’s dominant misogynist culture as anyone could want.  It was infuriating, nauseating, forehead slapping how-can-anyone-not-see-what’s-going-on – ing.  It was surprising and horrifying for those who’ve been able to avoid the truth of the way women are, and have been, treated in our society.  It was wearingly predictable for those who live that truth.
A week or two ago a member of the congregation stood during Joys & Sorrows to share that she had been remembering roughly 25 years ago, during the hearings concerning the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court when he was accused of sexual harassment by Dr. Anita Hill, she and her friends talked about how their generation was going to change things – they were going to raise their sons to reject the patriarchal/misogynist culture that was on such clear display in those hearings, and they would choose partners who already had.  That was in 1991, and here we are again.  It can feel – it does feel for many – that nothing has changed and that nothing is ever really going to change.  And that can lead some women (and some feminist men) to a kind of hopelessness, a demoralization born from decades upon decades of denigration and dehumanization.
There’s a school of thought which says that all sermons must end on a note of hope.  A preacher should send the congregation back into the world with inspiration.  I’m not sure that I believe that as strongly as some do, yet there is some truth in that.  And despite the way things seem right now, many of my female friends have told me that they take hop in the fact that “here” is not exactly the same as it was back then.  From the Women’s March, to the #MeToo Movement, to the predicted – hoped for –  “blue wave” (which shows every sign of being led by women , and especially women of color), there seems to be a wider and growing awareness today of what has for too long, by too many, been too ignored.  And there is a greater willingness to call things as they are or, perhaps, a refusal to let that truth continue to be ignored.
On Thursday the world witnessed a petulant poster-child for patriarchy bluster his was around the thing being unsaid:  that straight, white, gender-conforming men (and especially straight, white, gender-conforming men of means) are entitled to use and abuse women in any way that they like just as they are entitled to everything else in life.  Kavanaugh – and those male Senators who sat in judgement looking for all the world like the tribunal of Commanders in the Handmaid’s Tale – was a personification of the problem.
And there was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who came forward to tell her story knowing the vilification that would be hurled at her like so much excrement.  She came forward – in front of the cameras, in front of the world – to speak clearly and courageously about the egregious harm that had been done to her, not only by this man, but also by the society which gave this man permission and which demanded of her acquiescence.
I asked one of my friends who’d shared her story online, sharing parts of it for the first time if she was okay, after sharing so publicly something that had until then been entirely private.  She said, simply, that she was ready to share.  And whether it’s in a Senate hearing on national television, on a person’s Facebook page, or with a hashtag at the end of a tweet, more and more women are finding themselves “ready to share.”  In numbers that would have been inconceivable not all that long ago, women are bravely telling the truth of this culture, the truth that so many just don’t want to acknowledge, and seems as though more people are willing, and able, to listen.  In that I pray we can all find some hope.

Pax tecum,