welcome home

home
a church called home

I love my church. Why? It’s vibrant, energising, and interesting. It has slightly strange “Techno” music which, if it’s not really my preferred style, at least enables me as an old man to pretend I’m young. But mostly I love it because it is welcoming and inclusive.

It just so happens to be the case that my pastor, Sebastian, has two disabilities (well, three, actually, but we probably should label my attendance as an impairment rather than a disability). He doesn’t make a big deal of them, but neither does he hide them. The first is a long-term mental illness and the second is a slight speech impediment – a stutter that probably goes unnoticed by most people (in mentioning it, I hope I haven’t condemned him by bringing it to the surface?)

It is unusual in this day and age for a pastor to admit to a mental illness. This is because leadership is generally understood as “leading from the front” – as modelling the perfection that Christianity is supposed to achieve. Even more challenging, society as a whole, and Christians in particular, are suspicious of people with mental illness. We think of them as unstable and dangerous, and Christians assume they must lack faith. So people living with the illness, and especially leaders, tend to keep their impairment hidden. Sebastien manages his illness by following the medicinal and psychological advice of his psychiatrist, and he is stable and doing well, although as anyone struggling with the mental illness knows, its challenges are never entirely absent, and life has its ups and downs. More to the point, he is entirely open before the congregation about his illness.

As to his stutter, it largely goes unnoticed, mostly because he devotes preparation time to ensuring his communication is free-flowing. Indeed, most people who have heard Sebastien speak would be surprised to hear that he struggles with a stutter, because he is an exceptional communicator. He has a natural stage presence, he is quick-witted and funny, and his messages are well constructed. But I love the fact that he is a great preacher and has a stutter. The best communicators are not robots, but people willing to be authentic.

So why am I telling you this?

For me to say someone has a disability is not to diminish them, but to pay them a compliment. But that is neither here nor there. I love my church, not because of Sebastian’s disabilities, but because he has allowed them to inform the way he relates to his congregation. Gone is the pretence of perfection that too often categorises church leadership. In its place is a radical inclusiveness that allows people to truly be themselves. And if the gospel means anything, it is that God loves people as they are, no strings attached, no perfection expected.

 

 

 

X-Men Apocalypse: a celebration of mutants, freaks, and crips

I’m certainly not the first disabled person to celebrate the X-Men franchise for its positive representation of disability. The central character, Xavier, is a wheelchair free cripple, and while I might wish that they’d used a disabled actor to play the part, I love that the moral centre of the series is a man whose spinal-cord injury fades into the background. We know he is disabled, but he’s never presented as being “trapped” in a wheelchair. And his message? People may think you’re a freak, and treat you like an outcast, but it doesn’t matter what you look like, what others think of you, we will accept you. Your mutation is not a curse but a gift.

I’ll admit that X-Men Apocalypse is not a plot and character driven masterpiece. And this particular film has its absurdities. Not the superpowered mutations; these are the ‘given’ of the X-Men universe that have to be embraced by anyone hoping to enjoy the films. The problem with this offering in the franchise was that whole cities are turned into rubble (and I’m not giving away any spoilers here, because this was apparent in the trailers, which showed our beloved Opera house disintegrating), but there’s not a dead body to be found. I mean, millions upon millions must have been killed as skyscrapers disintegrate and cities are destroyed, but there is nary a visual clue nor a second of dialogue that faces the horror of what slaughter on an unprecedented scale.

But, hey, this is a film about freaks and action, and I for one can look past the silliness to enjoy the visual effects and cheer the symbolism.

Let’s take the language, mutant. Just as “niggas,” “queers,” and “crips” have taken terms of derision and owned them as labels of pride, so does X-Men transform the disabling slanderer of “mutant” into an identity of power. It makes me want to claim the term for myself. Can I be a bad ass mutant too? What’s my superpower, I wonder? Does the ability to run over tossers with my chair count?

Importantly, the film resists the temptation to turn mutants into bland inspirations. There is something profoundly insightful in the fact that the mutants, who have all experienced horrible discrimination (a term too soft to capture what they have endured), respond in a variety of ways. Xavier may be the moral ideal, responding to hate with love, sympathy, and hope, but we understand the rage of Magneto, and can’t be sure that if we were in his place we would not respond as he did. I read a story recently by a paraplegic in New York who, after repeatedly being ignored and abused by taxi drivers who couldn’t be bothered dealing with his wheelchair, got into the habit of using a Swiss Army knife to puncture the tires of the cabbies who mistreated him (in Ruth O’Brien, Voices from the Edge). I’d like to think I’d respond as Xavier (or Jesus) would, but I’m not sure. In X-Men, Mutants and cripples are as strong, weak, moral, flawed, determined, and uncertain as the rest of us.

Finally, X-Men Apocalypse raises questions about gods and their actions, and while it doesn’t dig deep, it did get me thinking. If Apocalypse (the character) is the god of devastating authority and power, is Xavier a Christ figure, an alternate view of divine-like power, capable of knowing and controlling thought, but choosing to limit himself, to respond to evil with love and self-sacrifice, and embraces the outcast? I’m probably trying too hard, looking for metaphor when I should just be enjoying the action.

I think I’m right, though, in my judgement that the message of X-Men Apocalypse (and of all the films in the franchise) is:

be a mutant and be proud, develop your “gift” and use it – hopefully for good.

It’s a reminder worth the price of a ticket.

Inked

Tattoo1

Well, I have capitulated to the trend and gotten myself a tattoo. I know they’re becoming so common as to be passe’, but I enjoyed the process nevertheless.

If you haven’t guessed, it’s a rendering of Mary (the mother). I’m well aware that the image is typically Western, and bears no resemblance to a first century Middle Eastern Jewish woman. But my interest is symbolic. For me, Mary is a potent religious symbol, provided she is not depicted with her eyes downcast in submission (a woman’s traditional religious role), but instead stares proudly at us, eye to eye. As patriarchy and pain in childbirth was the female curse in the Eden, so is it significant that that it is a woman who births the one intended to liberate us from the curse of oppressive power in all its manifestations.

I’m not sure whether men can be feminists, but at the least I am an ally; and feminism (especially feminist theology) has shaped my thinking. Indeed, it’s feminism that asked me to think critically about what it is to be a man, and what it is not. I’ve learned at least that I don’t need to be a stoic warrior, that vulnerability and strength can go hand-in-hand, and that the longing for beauty transcends gender.

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys” is a citation from Song of Songs 2:1. It is the female lover’s self-description that in Christian tradition has, strangely but also strikingly, been taken up as a symbol of Christ. And the dove, obviously, represents the Spirit. So if we allow Mother Mary to point to the Father, the tattoo hints at the Christian Trinity, without the all too common reified masculinity.

None of this explains, though, why I got myself inked. No doubt the answer is the same as it is for anyone; vanity. I am used to being stared at – that goes hand-in-hand with disability and wheelchairs – but since my accident I have fallen in hate with my body. While I had been tall, fit, and healthy (yes, I know, vanity), I’m now a potbellied hunchback with a disobedient lump of meat for a body. So doing something artistic with that lump of meat reaches toward self acceptance. It’s my way of saying, “hey, look at this, there is something on my body that is actually worth staring at.”

My thanks to Jin O at kaleidoscope tattoo for her artistry and friendship.

Why I hate Jojo Moye’s Me Before You

me before you

It’s hard for me to convey how much I hate Jojo Moyes’ supposedly romantic novel Me Before You, and dread the movie that is due out later this year. It is the story of a romance between a wealthy play boy become quadriplegic and his carer, although it’s a romance with a twist.

Spoiler alert: I need to discuss the ending to explain my hatred, so stop now if you (God forbid) want to read it yourself. But I begrudge anyone spending money that might find its way into the author’s pocket.

Okay, where was I. To borrow Moyes own summary, “the book is about a quadriplegic who wants to die.” Actually, the book is about a quadriplegic who wants to die, and at the end of the book chooses to do so – despite the fact that he found love and had a loving and supporting family, and so had an amazing opportunity to live a full and flourishing life. He was, after all, as rich as is a bottle of fine whiskey, and could have afforded any number of compensations to manage life with a disability– unlike most quadriplegics who are poor, but still choose to live.

So let’s not beat around the bush. This is a book celebrating suicide. Worse, it’s a book that presumes that suicide is the only rational response to the experience of living with quadriplegia.

In an interview about the book (available here), Moyes was asked whether she knew a quadriplegic before she wrote the book. She replied:

“not quadriplegics. The thing that really informed it was a member of my family who suffers from a progressive disease. I have been involved in feeding her, taking her out, and that kind of thing. Part of what inspired Me Before You was just questions I had in my head about quality of life.”

Bloody hell. Moyes (when you read that name, say it with venom) writes a book about quadriplegics and she hasn’t met one. Had she done so she would have discovered a community of people that have the courage to choose to live.

Now, before you get on your high horse and remind me that some people do choose to die, and that’s their right, let me say that I understand that quadriplegia is downright hard to live with, and many people have it much harder than I do. And the person that chooses suicide has my compassion and support.

But I’m not going to celebrate that choice. And I’m not going to allow someone who has never met a quadriplegic to continue the myth that those of us with the injury would be better off dead.

Right, breath slowly, relax. I’m feeling a bit worked up.

I guess if you are looking for a tear-jerking romance that will get you thinking, you might enjoy this book. If you do read it, I hope that you notice that it reinforces the stereotype that women need a man to tell them what to do, and that you understand that our play boy hero is really a privileged white guy who just can’t come to terms with the fact that life is fragile and difficult but that if you fight the good fight and persevere it’s worth it in the end.

Grace trumps justice

Elly sent me this video today of a woman tumbling 300 metres down a snowy mountain and (spoiler alert) ending up with no more damage than a sprained finger. By comparison, I fell an innocuous metre and broke my neck. Not that I’m wishing an injury on this woman, but …

It goes to show, if you didn’t know it already, that life isn’t fair.

It’s the injustice of life that, at least for me, makes the concept of grace so compelling. Justice is an ancient concept, a virtue that says that one should give to a person what is her or his due. It’s one of the four cardinal (or linchpin) virtues that is meant to colour the decisions and actions of a good person. This explains why many ancient religions applied the notion of justice to God, assuming that if God was good, then people must get what they deserve; the righteous prosperity and the unrighteous damnation.

The problem, as the psalmists and the author of the book of Job noted, was that the logic didn’t seem to work. Evil people prospered and good people suffered.

Some theologians conclude from this that people do get what they deserve. And what everyone deserves is divine wrath, because we are all depraved and utterly corrupted by sin. That anyone at all is “saved” is grace, which is undeserved favour. The problem with this way of thinking is that it makes grace as unfathomable as injustice.

A larger view of grace, however, recognises it as a gift of God’s love that is evident in the goodness, beauty, and wondrous fragility of creation. Grace is said to be both natural and supernatural, the former because the orientation to the good is in all of us, and the latter because the orientation to evil is also in all of us, so we need God’s help. Grace is God’s favour toward us, most potently experienced by his presence in the darkness that is an inevitable part of life.

That this woman survived her fall is testimony to grace. That I am able to flourish with a disability is thanks to grace. That we discover hope in grief is possible because of grace. That we are loved and accepted as sinners is amazing grace. That we find joy in the love of family and friends, who accept us warts and all, is the power of grace.

Life isn’t fair, but if you didn’t know it already, grace can make it beautiful.

 

Domestic abuse and theologies of control and submission

This week, ABC television screened a two-part documentary by Sarah Ferguson, Hitting Home, available via catch up on ABC I view. The documentary tells the stories – and shows the bruised faces and bodies – of beaten up women, and then takes the viewer along their journey with police and the court system, through to the courageous rebuilding of life after they managed to escape their abusers. The film is difficult but necessary viewing, and it made me angry and sad. Above all,  it was a wake-up call – challenging us to face up to the crisis of domestic abuse.

The magnitude of the problem beggars imagination. According to Ferguson, there are more than 650  domestic violence events every day in Australia, and more than one hundred thousand apprehended violence orders (AVO’s) are taken out annually. And these statistics catalogue only reported instances of abuse, which far too often goes on behind  closed doors.

Usually an unspoken scourge, domestic violence has been at the centre of public conversation in Australia in 2015 after the indomitable Rosie Batty was named as Australian of the year. Batty’s honour followed the death of her son, Luke, at the hands of her husband (so far in 2015,  more than 78 women have lost their life to violent partners), and her subsequent public advocacy in defence of the victims of domestic violence; predominately women and children at the hands (and tongues) of abusive husbands and fathers. In her acceptance speech she declared:

Whilst we celebrate the wonderful country that we live in today, there remains a serious epidemic across our nation. No matter where you live, family violence exists in every pocket of every neighbourhood. It does not discriminate and it is across all sections of our society. Family violence may happen behind closed doors but it needs to be brought out from these shadows and into broad daylight. One in six women has experienced physical or sexual abuse by a current or former partner including some of those celebrating with us today. One in four children and at least one woman a week is killed. …
To the Australian people, look around. Do not ignore what you see and what you know is wrong. Call out sexist attitudes and speak up when violence against women is trivialised.

As Batty asserts, domestic violence has its sustaining power in sexist attitudes and values. In the Hitting Home documentary, Ferguson observes that “what starts as efforts to control a partner’s behaviour and life, leads to the gradual undermining of her self-worth, and then to violence.”

What was especially harrowing was watching abused women judge themselves for the abuse that they suffered.  They struggled  to explain to themselves why they  submitted to the violence for as long as they did. Mostly, they persevered for the sake of the kids, because they didn’t want their children to grow up in a single-parent family. And when, in fear  for their life, they eventually fled, they chastised themselves for not doing so earlier. One woman told the camera, “I’m an idiot. I’m so embarrassed. I’m worthless.”

Ferguson also made the attempt to understand the perspective of the perpetrators, interviewing men who were participating in a 10 week jail program intending to  provide them with strategies to prevent them abusing  in the future. What stood out, though, was that while the victims of abuse chastised themselves, the perpetrators deflected blame,  either denying the abuse altogether, blaming the victims for provoking them, or passing off their own violent behaviour as a mental illness, something out of their control.

But while I despair about these pathetic men, it was also apparent that the women we met on screen were much more than just victims. These were people who had the courage to leave violent men (and leaving is when things really get dangerous), and the determination to start their lives over, often with very little resources, and rebuild a home for themselves and their children.

The film leaves one with the burning question, what can be done – what can I do? And there are no easy answers. There is the obvious need to bring the topic of domestic violence out of the secrecy of the bedroom and into the public conversation, since it only as we face up to the problem that anything will change. Ferguson hopes that if we speak plainly to our children, boys and girls, then the next generation might not suffer the abuse that is too common in contemporary family life.

The overriding argument was that we need to learn a different approach to relationships,  rejecting the all too common idea that masculinity is about power and control, and femininity is about submission.

Here resides the challenge for the church. In Christian tradition and practice, male control is especially connected to theologies of female submission to male authority, to symbols of feminity that idealise a woman’s modesty and passivity, and to liturgical practices that normalise female silence. As Julia Beard reminded us earlier in the  year (see here), the sad fact is that, “Far from ending abuse in the home, organised religion may be legitimising it.”

Domestic violence is grounded in and justified by distorted constructions of masculine power. Abusers are enabled to act as they do because they believe in the abhorrent logic that men have the divine right (nay obligation) to exercise authority over women whose role it is to submit. This attitude is too often reinforced by church teaching. And Christian women are too readily pressured to internalise their own submissive inferiority to authoritative men. The results are as inevitable as they are tragic.

Now I know that complementarian Christians, whose theology  teaches that male authority and its complementary female submission are a part of the natural created order, will feel hard done by at this point. True authority, they will say, is found in servant leadership, and true submission, they will insist, is to men who model their authority on the headship of Christ. From this perspective, domestic abuse is a sinful distortion of ‘true’ complementarity. And no doubt there are a good many men who exercise their headship benevolently.

But that such benevolence is possible doesn’t override the fact that violence has its origin in unequal power, and the solution to violence is not merely a kinder exercise of power, but the overturning of such power. That is precisely what Jesus models when he tells us that he came not to be served, but to serve – and it is what Paul insists on when he requires the church to submit to one another in reverence to Christ- mutual not hierarchical submission, men to women as much as the other way round, so that submission is only ever an appropriate response to love, but never to abuse. The gospel, doesn’t entrench male control, it repudiates it in the strongest fashion, as it does every power imbalance that has justified violence; Jew over Greek (racism), free over slave (hierarchies of class, wealth, and social status), and male over female (sexism) – Galatians 3.26. (And as an aside, I would add able bodied over disabled).

So much for theology. What about church symbols? Consider, for example, the ultimate symbol of female submissiveness, the reification of a demure and perpetually virginal Mary. We paint her in our iconography with eyes downcast, the perfect submissive woman whose purity is most deeply apparent in virginity. But is that Mary as she should be envisioned? What difference might it make if we imagine her with her head raised and eyes staring unbendingly into our own? Here is a strong mother of many children (no virgin, whatever the uniqueness of Jesus’ conception), empowered by The Spirit to participate in the story of human redemption. Far from the ideal submissive woman, Mary should be a symbol of female freedom, equality, and power. But that’s not the story we tell the girls and boys in Sunday school, who learn only of powerful bible men, contrasted with meek, mild and pure submissive women.

the-virgin-at-prayer-il-sassoferrato

And don’t get me started on what we model in our liturgies. Only men can be ordained. Only men can be senior pastors. Only men can preach. Only men can be elders. And so women are silenced in church, and disempowered,  and we’re surprised they don’t feel empowered to speak up about abuse at home. If it wasn’t so damnably horrifying – if it didn’t make the church complicit in the blight of domestic violence – it would be laughable.

I know that abuse has many other causes, and non Christian institutions are equally sexist, and worse. Women are mere props at many sporting events, are often abused in porn, are presumed dumb by fashion designers, are constantly demeaned by a sexist media. But that our churches are not as bad as others is no excuse. In fact, it’s an opportunity for the church to lead the way; to repent of its see no evil here no evil pretense that nothing is wrong; to change its theology and culture; to appoint powerful women models at all levels of leadership, and in numbers sufficient to show that it’s serious about the matter; to establish explicit teaching and policies about the appropriate response to abuse; to say it loud and say it often:

the church won’t tolerate abuse, and women and children should never submit to violent men. Never ever.