Thursday, May 26, 2016

Everything Is What We Make It

Before I could think, I was owned. My parents prayed for me before I was ever conceived to grow into a true believer of God. When I was a baby, I was dedicated to a life of service to God in a rite of passage ceremony at my church. My name was intentionally picked by my father and translates as ‘woman of the Lord’, and I was given a name plaque that hung in my room to always remind me of my true purpose. All of these things were done without malice, but I look back now and see it as the beginning of an all-encompassing campaign for my abject commitment to church doctrine.

When talking with people about my instilled religious experience, I have begun saying that I feel like I grew up in a cult. As Christian Fundamentalists, we had a narrow interpretation of the bible, accepting it as literally true and infallibly accurate, not to mention it being the ONLY true document of God’s words to humanity. All other texts and religions were inferior and could not save a person from the fires of hell. We focused on separating ourselves from ‘the world’ not just through our actions, but physically and ideologically separating from non-believers by creating our own schools which taught only our worldview and refuted any popularly held ideas that contradicted our beliefs, such as evolution and carbon dating. This schooling included college as well, so a person could conceivably go their entire life without ever seriously considering any alternate reality, having been inculcated by the church through the first twenty-some years of existence. Cults understand the power of driving all the narratives.

I don’t think I would have ever left my faith if my mother hadn’t succumbed to cancer when I was twenty-one, freeing me up to leave home and find myself outside of the confines of my church and school. I am certain I would be living out an entirely different life than the one I am consciously choosing for myself now, and this thought floods me with anger. My parents acted from a place of genuine belief and meant me no harm, but my mind was radically brainwashed and my free will was sorely abused nonetheless. Questioning was allowed, but there was only ever one right answer, which may be my biggest complaint about Fundamentalism: it is seriously confining. There is always more than one way to do anything, including relating to God or the Universe or Whatever is Bigger.

I am still working to claim and use my free will, having ‘willingly’ abdicated it to God for so long. It’s hard to explain how crippling being told to look almost exclusively outside of yourself for answers to questions about your own life can be. One can spend a lifetime praying to be told exactly what to do and never actually do anything at all. Trusting myself and my gut intuition has been a challenge, because I was taught that my nature was fallen and untrustworthy, that on my knees before God was my proper posture. These days I think about the parable of the talents and feel I was taught to bury mine in the ground. It becomes incredibly difficult to create anything of depth in this environment, whether it be good art or a fulfilling life, but that’s a whole other post. If I had to pick one word to best sum up the effect of all of this, it would be ‘stunted’ and I would apply it to my intellectual and social development, my creative voice and my ability to act with personal agency.

As violating as these things have been, everything is what we make it and there are some things I count as positives from my indoctrination. In choosing to believe the creation story over evolution, I gained the capacity for audacious belief in the face of overwhelming odds, i.e. all the collective weight of science and popular opinion. That means I now have the ability to believe the impossible is possible and I am learning to harness that power to pursue my dreams and create my own reality.

I believe in something bigger than myself, and that brings a lot of comfort to my reality. I am grateful to my upbringing for making me think about my eternal nature. I see meaning and cause and effect at work rather than randomness in the world, and I believe in the First Law of Thermodynamics which states that energy is neither created nor destroyed, so I choose to believe that there is life after death and as many lives as it takes to become your authentic self, and that doing just that is what living is about. The core beliefs I still hold from my former faith are: love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have done unto you, and that grace and compassion are the face of God made human.  

I believe that whatever is out there that’s bigger cannot even begin to be known in six to ten thousand years. Its truth cannot be contained in a single book that I as a semi finite human can hold in one hand. It would never condemn a single one of us to an eternal hell of suffering and separation because It would allow all the time in eternity for us to choose freely of our own volition to seek out and cultivate relationship, or not. Whatever is out there is so big that it needs the vastness of space and time and petri dishes and atomic particles and subparticles and hundreds of billions of years to be known. Whatever is out there is waiting for us to quit being small and to join it in co-creation.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Androgeny is Next to Godliness

Time to put some skin in the game and explain why I am such a vocal ally of our LGBTQI population.

I came by my male side growing up in an extremely patriarchal worldview. It quickly became apparent that I had been dealt the fuzzy end of the lollipop by being born cock and balless, just a fateful flip of a coin that had everything to do with what I was and wasn’t allowed to be or do, and by the way, this wasn’t the men making it this way, it was the way that God had ordained it. There was quite a bit of smug shrugging and vapid assurances that by embracing my own God given role of submission, I would find some kind of deep fulfillment as a godly woman. I have no beef with submission as a concept, but I do object to its performance being relegated to a particular gender. As a young girl, though, I learned how to be one of the boys and often hung out with groups of boys. I emulated and revered their hardness, physically, emotionally and mentally, and mostly lived in complete denial of my femininity, which is not to say that women cannot embody those traits, it just was not entirely acceptable for them to do so in the world of my youth. Additionally, I was often reminded that it was quite unsafe to be a woman in this world, as the ‘weaker vessel,’ so I learned to downplay my femininity in self-defense, hiding behind billowy clothes, glasses and unkempt hair. I was good at sports though, and that was the first space where I grudgingly made some kind of peace with my female form and found a way to feel physically safer through weight lifting and strength training.

It wasn’t until I fell in love with a man and became sexually active with him that I decided there may also be good things about being a woman. Our relationship was deeply healing to me on the levels of autonomy and self-expression, and while he was a very hard man in many ways (I couldn’t yet tolerate softness in a man), he was also the beginning of my reclaiming myself from years of programming that was untrue to my character. Being sexual with him allowed me to enjoy my womanhood, to feel pleasure in my femininity rather than fear and loathing. My spirit processed the fact that I was ‘living in sin,’ but experiencing wholeness and healing, so I chose to change my beliefs to match my reality; I started, finally, to be me, as well as comfortably female.

I didn’t fully embrace my womanhood though, until I fell in love with a woman. I loved her for many things, and quite a few of them were directly tied to her femininity. She could be a rough and tumble tomboy, but whenever she decided to pull out her woman card, she played it devastatingly well. The things I most hated about my body, my breasts and my hips, I found unspeakably beautiful about her. Loving her body allowed me to love my own in places I never had. Loving her afforded me the opportunity to be soft, unguarded in ways I truly couldn’t be yet with a man. Loving her allowed me to forgive myself for being born female in a world that didn’t appreciate powerful, autonomous women.

In some ways, I had a psychic split that revolved around my gender identity. I can viscerally relate to the feeling of being trapped in the wrong body, because I felt that for a long time. I wasn’t impressed with the roles my womanhood, as defined by my experiences growing up, pitched to me, and the constant sublimated fear of my womanly body’s supposed physical vulnerability also fed those feelings of gender dysphoria. My story has ended in a blissful hybridization of strong male and female traits, but when someone tells me they feel like they are living in the wrong body, I have a healthy and understanding respect for their experience. I accept that they are who they say they are, end of story.

The complaint I hear most from people who really feel strongly about the male/female gender binary dynamic, is that embracing a gender spectrum is unnatural, ungodly and will most likely lead to the destruction of morality and the world as we currently know it. And they are partially correct, the world will indeed change but it need not end entirely or become amoral--a gender spectrum still runs between two mostly fixed poles, after all. Cisgendered heterosexuality remains the mainstream norm, at present, and should not be threatened by less statistically represented expressions of human gender and sexuality. No one expression or experience is more valid or more inherently moral.

I’m here to ask: what is immoral about adaptation and growth? My body is female, by nature, but is also very male, by nurture. My personal experience of this dynamic, although traumatic in origin, is now one of my greatest strengths, and my life is vastly enriched by my gender hybridization. I would argue that the more people who are able to tap into their own androgeny, the more chance there is for mature, balanced and autonomous individuals who are less driven by needs and desires of completion in relationships outside of themselves, which in turn could lead to a more tolerant and stable society. Let’s also not forget, for my sacred text lovers out there, that we are said to be created in the image of God, who is neither male nor female, according to said text. It is in my nature to be both/and.
We exist in a living world that is constantly changing and rearranging. Our language is still alive, new words are added continuously to our lexicons. Our ability to compute and to observe on both the micro and the macro scales is increasing; we know more about our universe and our earth, with all its many organisms, than ever before. Adaptation is the key ingredient to the survival of life on this ever changing planet. It stands to reason that as our world expands and our ability to observe and quantify grows, so too should our definition of ourselves evolve.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How To Make a Martyr

I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which my Fundamentalist upbringing groomed me for martyrdom, both literally and figuratively, and also for warfare in general.

From an early age, I was exposed to graphic images of Christian martyrs from around the globe. There is one set of pictures in particular that has stayed with me, seared into my memory. It came from China, which interestingly enough opened the door to conversation about Communism and all of its inherent evils, most especially its rejection of Christianity. My church was extremely politically motivated and involved. We were often told from the pulpit which way to cast our vote. It was also made clear that part of our Christian duty was to ensure that the laws of our land reflected the Laws of God. We were told that God’s Law trumped man’s, so it became tacitly okay to disobey any law of the land that did not align with scripture, which may explain part of our present issue with Constitutional interpretation. Equally important, we were urged to always support the nation of Israel, as not doing so biblically ensured our nation’s destruction for rejecting God’s Chosen People. This is why we have so many Religious Freedom bills in circulation, as well as anti-LGBTQI and anti-abortion legislation making the rounds, and it is also the reasoning behind an unquestioning support, by some, of the policies of the nation of Israel. All of these measures are simply a means of publicly demonstrating a belief in and service to God, with a real fear that failing to do so might cost a person their soul for eternity.

The first picture of this particular series was of a Chinese Christian man who was to be killed for his abberant belief by being cooked alive in a stove, in a public square in front of a group of people gathered solely to watch it happen. Whether this congregation was voluntary is unknown. The man was standing, bound and subdued beside the oven as they were heating it up. His face was very stoic, revealing no emotion about his situation, and this was attributed by my mentors to his strong and unfailing faith, even as he faced a cruel death. This is how a young child begins to revere martyrdom, and internalizes an ‘us versus them’ mentality. This is also how the seeds of terror get planted in the belly of a child’s imagination and grow into unquestioning fealty to something they perceive as able to keep them safe.

I believe there was also a picture of him being loaded into the oven, horizontally, but the one that truly stuck in my head was of his lifeless body after they brought him back out. He was not exposed to flame, so there were no burns on him. He was literally baked like a pastry and died due to the cooking of his insides. His bloated yet fully intact body had a line of punctures from the top of his chest all the way down his abdomen, like you might do to the top crust of a pie, to allow for the release of heat without causing the insides to burst forth during the baking. His face was grotesquely swollen and became a nightmare that lived on the backs of my eyelids for years afterwards.

I was told that the world was violently opposed to our beliefs, and that I had to prepare myself for the possibility that I too may one day have to die for my faith; I was told to think about that situation, and to imagine how I would react. Would I stand firm and submit to death, thereby warranting eternity with our glorious God, or would I fall prey to my weak human nature and deny my faith and my God to save my pitiful life? I wonder how many hours I spent fantasizing about the possibility? I say ‘fantasizing’ purposely, as it took on an almost pleasurable aspect, after enough time spent there. I was somewhere between the ages of five and seven when I began this practice. This, I believe, is the mechanism that allows someone to put on a suicide vest and set out on a holy mission. Christians aren’t so much on board with that, however, Christians are in full support of our military forces dispensing an infinite amount of death and destruction against the horror of Daesh or anything else that appears to be at odds with the Judeo-Christian worldview. We did not sing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ facetiously.   

Sunday School classes in childhood were full of Old Testament stories about acts of contrition and blood sacrifice performed for the purpose of forgiveness of sins, which people inevitably committed, and also acts of genocide carried out against non-believers by God’s Chosen People with not only His full blessing, but His specific instruction as to how to go about it victoriously. Going to war was sometimes necessary, and could become a holy act. At the time, I found great comfort in these stories, as I believed myself to be in an extremely hostile and threatening world, and these events showed me how to stay on the good side of my All Powerful God, who would wipe out entire nations on my behalf, if need be.

The New Testament was where I met Jesus, the Son of God, who was Himself a martyred God granted a place at the right hand of the Father in Heaven as a reward for willfully laying down His life for the greater good. Jesus was a revolutionary with a message of Love as salvation and an end to blood sacrifice, but that story got heavily obscured under the weight of His crucified form. Fundamentalist tellings of Jesus’ death often play out like some kind of sadomasochistic word porn for ascetics. All of his wounds, and there were many, are described in exacting detail, which serves to solidify the sainthood of the martyr, while simultaneously making it clear how utterly wretched the rest of us fall short. Shame is too often the takeaway of fundamentalist Jesus, and it serves as the tinder for many a righteous conflagration.

Terrorism and fundamentalism go hand in hand because to be Fundamentalist is to live in a constant, sublimated state of absolute terror. Humans are not meant to live in terror, and the natural response to this brutal exposure is a deep and powerful rage paired with a side of nihilism. It is an extremely short trip from rage and nihilism to ‘give me a vest and seventy virgins’ or ‘send me to war, Sarge, and make me a hero.’