Category Archives: human rights

It’s Still Mainly Medical, Not Moral

“If we are going to debate abortion in every state, given how fractured and angry America is today, we need caution and epistemic humility to guide our approach.” — Peter Wehner in The Atlantic

I showed up for one of the many Bans Off Our Bodies rallies across the country on May 14. It was the least I could do. It wasn’t enough. I’m not sure what will be.

Some Black folks on Twitter were shaking their heads at the stupidity of people who officially signed up to go to these things, wore recognizable T-shirts, shared photos, and in general made themselves obvious. They knew from bitter experience that being identifiable at a protest can lead to unpleasant consequences. In Albuquerque, going to an event like this is a pretty mainstream thing to do, and my old white lady self had little to worry about, but that was a wake-up call. I know it’s not so easy everywhere or for everyone.

Why is it always framed only as a women’s issue?

The closest thing to a threat I noticed was a tall, heavyset guy, a rather imposing figure, wearing a shirt that bore a childishly offensive message intended to incense Democrats, yelling anti-abortion insults nonstop through a megaphone. He was the only visible representative of his side, and he certainly did nothing to help their cause.  He was also failing to get the attention he apparently wanted.  Everyone was ignoring him.

“It’s not what people want.”

The other day one of my patients, a lady in her late 60s, told me that her husband is extremely angry about Justice Samuel Alito’s draft that shows the court plans to overturn Roe v Wade and throw the country further into red/blue chaos. She is not angry herself, she said, because, as she stated with total confidence, “It’s not going to happen.” I asked her why she would say that. “It’s not what people want,” she replied.
 Her pronouncement was like an incantation. It felt incontrovertibly true and immediately real. Perhaps, since about ¾ of Americans do think Roe should remain, she will be proven correct. After a lot of pain, death, and waste, I fear.

It must be stated firmly that no one is “pro-abortion.” That is not at all what people mean when they express the importance of keeping abortion available. This morning I read a local news story that referred to a pro-abortion student group. What terrible reporting, and worse messaging. It feeds into the false narrative that Democrats want to allow abortion up till the moment of birth. It intensifies polarization and makes rational communication all the harder.

Most Americans express middle-of-the-road, nuanced, pragmatic, compassionate views on abortion. They know it’s complicated and that every situation is unique. They want it to remain legal, but they are comfortable with a certain degree of restriction. That’s what poll after poll tells us. The ‘90s mantra of “safe, legal, and rare” seems to describe the mainstream attitude well.

No one wants to find themselves in the position of needing an abortion. No one hopes or plans that someday they will terminate a pregnancy. The very fact that someone is looking to do that means that something, somehow has gone wrong. Maybe horrifyingly wrong.

Even in a perfect world in which every pregnancy was wanted and celebrated, in which rape and incest did not exist, in which every family was confident that they could support every child who came along, there would still be cases in which abortion was needed for medical reasons. More of them than you might expect. That could happen, has happened, to people who desperately wanted that child to grow and be born. It could happen, has happened, to people who believed abortion was wrong and never in a million years expected to need one. Nature doesn’t care about our religious beliefs or political attitudes, or our desires or our convenience. Nature follows her own laws.

This is the point I want to drive home today, that abortion is medical care and that it must remain available to save lives and prevent great harm. It was over 10 years ago that I wrote the post I’ve copied below, “It’s Mainly Medical, Not Moral.” At the time, the big war was over coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Note this well: despite Justice Alito’s assurances that the Supremes are only talking about abortion, not contraception, LGBTQ rights, or anything else, the right wing has been fighting against access to contraception all this time. It absolutely is a target and they will come after it.

As an LGBTQ person, I’m very nervous about where this is going. As a woman, I’m anxious, even though I’ve been out of the reproductive game for decades. As a health care professional, I’m afraid for all the doctors and other providers who have to care for their patients while trying not to run afoul of laws that make no sense. And as a person who wants democracy to be a reality in the United States, I’m terrified.

A couple of days ago I was spinning down into a maelstrom of fear and depression. Then I realized what should have been obvious: They want me to be afraid. They want us all to be paralyzed by fear and unable to get ourselves together to oppose them. Let’s not give them that.

Catch-22s all over

One would think that since effective contraception leads to far fewer abortions, anti-abortion folk would be much in favor of it. And one would be wrong, at least in the case of the more extreme elements of their movement. This is what I find most incomprehensible of all. There is a clear path to reducing the number of abortions: reduce unwanted pregnancies. Yet the same states that want to outlaw abortion also refuse to expand Medicaid, and work in every other way they can to limit access to birth control. Under this regimen, people can’t prevent pregnancy, can’t terminate it, can’t afford to get prenatal care or give birth, can’t afford care for the baby while they go to work, and can’t afford to stay home to do child care themselves. Especially for the poor, it’s hard to see what the option is supposed to be. (Breed babies for the rich to adopt, perhaps? That’s what Justice Coney Barrett’s flippant and heartless rhetoric suggests.)

It’s been pointed out that if we as a country really cared about babies, we’d do more to provide health care, child care, decent wages, and so forth, and obviously we don’t do that. There are some fervently anti-choice organizations that do try to support pregnant women in distress and those with newborns. I personally know two families that have taken young, financially stressed pregnant women into their homes and literally supported them. However, these efforts are far from state policy and are not remotely adequate to handle the thousands of individuals and families in difficult situations as a result of pregnancies.

A world in which abortion is criminalized means that some women will be arrested and jailed after having miscarriages or stillbirths. That’s been going on in El Salvador for many years, and despite a push to free women who have been imprisoned under such circumstances, it has just happened again. A woman who had an obstetric emergency and sought care at a hospital, as any of us would have done, was convicted of homicide after losing the baby. She has already been in pretrial detention for two years.
https://www.vice.com/en/article/k7wd9n/a-woman-just-got-30-years-for-homicide-after-losing-her-baby
https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/el-salvador-woman-accused-abortion-30-years-prison-84630286

But this is not just something that happens in faraway lands— it has already been happening here, for quite a while, even with Roe still in place. And not only do women risk arrest if their pregnancy goes awry, they may be unable to get medications that are commonly used to treat miscarriages, because those can be associated with abortion. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/05/10/1097734167/in-texas-abortion-laws-inhibit-care-for-miscarriages

A miscarriage is medically indistinguishable from a medication abortion, so anyone who has had one is potentially vulnerable to prosecution under such draconian laws. This means that the totally normal, sensible act of going to a hospital can put a person in grave danger. And of course when one is bleeding heavily, avoiding going to a hospital is not a very safe choice either.

This is not what most people want our country to be like. We know that a strong majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, want Roe v Wade to stand. We know that most Americans want to see, at the very least, exceptions for rape and incest, exceptions that the farthest-right state legislatures no longer wish to allow. It’s astonishing that a policy so widely opposed by people all across the political and social spectrum can even be considered as law.

Welcome to the age of minority rule.

Should we rage?

The forces arrayed against reproductive rights have had passion and long-term commitment on their side. Those wanting to keep abortion and contraception available have been more complacent— for so long, there seemed to be little reason to scream about rights that everyone, even certain Supreme Court nominees, recognized as “settled law.” (What patsies we were.)

So now we are beginning a “Summer of Rage,” in which protests will be loud and persistent. I don’t know whether this is the best course. We can’t be complacent anymore, and this is a genuine emergency that deserves every effort to hammer it into the public consciousness. Would we be better off with a more rational, conversational approach? That would be my way of doing things, but I can’t say that it’s worked particularly well so far, so maybe hot pink rage really is the ticket right now.

Medical hazards and crises

At any rate, in this post I would like to speak to the typical person and bypass extreme rhetoric. I want to again point out some of the dire medical reasons a pregnancy may need to be terminated, no matter what the ideology of the mother, the health care personnel, the state, or anyone else. There are many more that I won’t get around to here.

First, the likelihood, or should I say certainty, of young girls being impregnated by relatives or others. Incest is far more common than we like to think. All too often this happens to a child who is too young and small to safely carry a baby to term and give birth. Beyond the sheer cruelty of putting a child through this— how can anyone justify sacrificing one child to save another, especially another who was unlikely to survive to begin with? There have been famous cases like this in countries where abortion was totally banned. There are guaranteed to be more.

Even before the current era of extreme state laws, some states commanded that minors would have to have permission from their parents to get abortions. Right-wing forces tend to hold a rosy picture of caring parents in nurturing families in which a confused teenager might be lovingly guided to make good choices, but obviously that is not always the reality. What if, in fact, the parent is the perpetrator? Are we really going to require girls to give birth to their siblings? Does that make either medical or legal sense?

Pregnancy and birth are not only dangerous for the youngest girls, though; they’re hazardous for everyone with a uterus. You probably already know that the US has an embarrassing level of postpartum deaths, and that the rate is worst for Black women. (Poorer women get worse care in general, but even wealthy Black women face increased risks.) The people most impacted by draconian laws against abortion are also the ones who are less likely to get through pregnancy and birth safely.

In addition to the fundamental, “normal” risks of pregnancy and childbirth, there are the many unforeseen tragedies that can befall a fetus during gestation and that can threaten the mother’s health and/or life. Laws that purport to make exception for saving the life of the mother but are written without medical understanding, and without details about what is actually allowed, tie the hands of doctors in emergencies and lead to unnecessary deaths. When this happened to Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, the country responded to the outrageous situation by changing its laws. The same kind of deaths will no doubt occur here. It’s just a matter of time.
https://www.irishcentral.com/opinion/niallodowd/savita-halappanavar-abortion

In fact, last week I read about a woman who had a similar problem to Ms. Halappanavar’s— her water broke, it was too early for the fetus to survive outside the womb, sepsis was likely. And she lived in Texas. Because the mother’s life wasn’t in danger at that very moment, even though it probably would have been in the very near future, the doctors felt unable to terminate the doomed pregnancy— as they would have before the new law kicked in. The mother ended up being driven about 8 hours by ambulance to a neighboring state, a stressful, dangerous, expensive, and totally unnecessary trip. This is craziness.

Don’t understand why doctors would be prevented by law from saving a woman in such circumstances? Let a real OB-GYN explain how incredibly fraught and confusing an emergency can become:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjB5Jakytyc

We have to remember that suicide is also a major risk to the life of a distressed pregnant person. Here is an anecdote from another OB-GYN:
“During medical school in Florida, my first experience with abortion was with a 19-year-old woman who had been gang raped and was now pregnant; she was suicidal and placed in the behavioral unit. Our team saw she was devastated; she did not want to continue the pregnancy. It was simple; this traumatic, unforgivable experience would ruin her life. I was disappointed to see the reluctance to offer the care she needed. Only one physician, a newly graduated physician who trained in LA, immediately offered her care. His care could change her future and offer her some peace of mind for her mental and physical turmoil. I wanted to become the physician that would not back down, would show up and would be present for a patient in her time of need. When I applied to residency, I knew I wanted a program that offers training in abortion care.”
https://abq.news/2021/09/op-ed-we-stand-with-texas-patients-against-the-sb8-abortion-ban/

It’s not my purpose here to try to list every kind of medical crisis that could occur during a pregnancy and make termination the best or only choice. There are so many heartbreaking things that can happen to either the mother or the fetus, and each one requires its own unique response. Things that go horribly wrong often do so late in pregnancy, well after the 6 weeks Texas allows and even after the or 15 or 20 some other states have wrangled over. (Savita Halappanavar developed sepsis at 17 weeks.) Pregnant people, their families, and their doctors need the flexibility to make the right decisions in the moment, often with very little time available. Legislators making rigid, blanket pronouncements cannot possibly cover all the contingencies that have to be dealt with in the complex reality of reproductive health care.

Ten Years Ago— Plus Ça Change

When I wrote “It’s Mainly Medical, Not Moral” on 2/20/12, the big battle was over the Affordable Care Act’s provision to cover birth control. We have only gone backwards since. Here is the text of that post.
https://elenedom.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/its-mainly-medical-not-moral/

It’s Mainly Medical, Not Moral

You’re probably sick of hearing about the war over insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act, but I think I have a few useful points to make that haven’t been brought up elsewhere.

For those of you who live elsewhere, let me catch you up on this only-in-America craziness.  The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as the health care reform law, mandates that contraception must be covered by insurers without co-pays (direct costs at the time of service) to the patient, and that employee health plans must provide this coverage.  While there is an exception for employees of churches and other places of worship, hospitals, universities, and other institutions owned by religious sects are included in this mandate.  A number of right-wing forces have complained that this tramples upon religious freedom.  After being thoroughly raked over the coals, the President and his advisors worked out a compromise: the religious groups would not have to pay for the coverage, and it would be provided directly by the insurance companies, so that those who object could keep their sense of purity.  Insurers have agreed to this because providing contraception saves them money (and is expected to save money for the entire health-care system as well as for individual families).  The war is still raging as I write this, with the self-styled guardians of freedom insisting that the government is still overstepping its bounds.

On the front lines of this trumped-up battle, we find none other than the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the same fine folks who protected us from the evil, dangerous practice of Reiki by banning it in all Catholic hospitals and other institutions.  (See my post “Attack of the Bishops.”)  Need I state the obvious?  These ideas are being promulgated largely by partnerless elderly men.  These are not people who have any need to prevent pregnancy or any understanding of what that issue is like for those who do, including the 98% of Catholic women who use birth control at some point in their lives.  This outrage is compounded by the fact that Viagra is covered and the bishops have no problem with that.

A letter I wrote about this recently was published in the Albuquerque Journal on Sunday 2/12/12, before the President backpedaled, and before Rep. Darrell Issa convened a panel of ALL MALE religious leaders, Catholic and otherwise, to testify before Congress.  Issa and his Religious Right cohorts have managed to make it crystal clear that their agenda has little or nothing to do with religious freedom, and is really about a) attacking the president and killing the Affordable Care Act any way they can, and b) controlling women.  They’ve abundantly shown that they want to get rid of not only abortion but all forms of contraception.  And while wailing about the government infringing upon their freedom, they’ve shown that they have no problem with curtailing the freedom of others– especially if those others happen to have pairs of X chromosomes.

Here’s my letter:

“In all the indignation-filled rants I’ve heard about the Obama administration requiring religious institutions to include contraception in employees’ health insurance coverage, there has been one glaring omission:  No one has mentioned the fact that quite often, hormonal contraceptives (the Pill, patches, or implants) are used for medical reasons that have nothing to do with birth control.    Many women take the Pill, etc. for conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome or severely painful periods.  Many of those women are not even sexually active, or not sexually active with men.  I’ve seen this quite a bit with my own patients.  Whatever one thinks about contraception, it’s hard to imagine even the staunchest Catholic objecting to legitimate medical treatment for such conditions.

“I’d just as soon see women use natural alternatives, but in many cases hormonal birth control really changes their lives for the better.  The costs of these medications can be quite substantial, however, and that can put them out of reach for students and low-paid workers.  The costs of the conditions they treat can be substantial, too, as when a woman must miss work because of debilitating pain.  We would not ask an employee to forgo painkillers for arthritis or inhalers for asthma.  How is this different?

“The President may have lost some votes with this decision, but there are quite a few of us who are relieved to see him standing up for women and for what makes medical sense.  Try as I might, I can’t see this as primarily an issue of religious freedom or of morality.  Women who object to contraceptives are still free not to use them.  Morality means doing the best we can for everyone in our society, and that includes medical care, which includes birth control.”

I didn’t want to get all confessional in the newspaper, and I wanted to focus on a single point for impact, without bringing in other aspects of the situation, but I have a personal story that I think sheds particular light on the complexity of this issue and the reasons a total ban by religious “authorities” is not only ludicrous but cruel.

When I was about 25, I developed severe cervical dysplasia, well on the way toward cancer.  This was treated with cryosurgery to remove the diseased cells, which was a standard treatment back then; no one realized at the time that cryosurgery would only mask the problem, which would resurface later on.  My primary care doctor told me I should have a hysterectomy, which showed a remarkable ignorance on his part, it seemed to me, as the precancerous cells were not invasive and might never be.  I had not yet had a child, and was determined to be able to do so.  After I healed from the cryosurgery, I did get pregnant, and my daughter was born when I was 27.  Over the next couple of years I became allergic to or unable to tolerate most forms of birth control, and so, with my husband and my very small daughter in agreement (Lenore’s opinion was “We have enough babies around”), I had a tubal ligation.  Which was covered by insurance, by the way, because my husband is one of those awful, greedy public employees, a teacher that is, and he gets all those totally undeserved benefits.

That was not the end of the medical story.  I had a number of years of clear Pap smears, then skipped a year, because it didn’t seem critical to have one at that point.  The next Pap showed carcinoma in situ.  The tissue underneath the layer affected by the cryosurgery had been stealthily developing toward cancer the whole time, and it had simply taken that long to show up on the surface.  By that time, most of my cervix consisted of abnormal cells, and I was noticeably ill.  To deal with this, my OB-GYN did a cone biopsy to remove all that– they use the word “biopsy,” since it does have a diagnostic aspect, but it’s a far larger matter than the word suggests.

The hospital personnel wanted to do a pregnancy test.  I explained that I’d had my tubes tied.  They impressed on me repeatedly that after this procedure my cervix could not support a pregnancy, and that I needed to be OK with that.  I reassured them again, and the surgery was done.  The pathologist found that there were still diseased cells around the edges of the cone, so a few months later I went through the whole thing again, nearly bleeding to death afterward, and ending up with even less of a cervix.  I emerged from the process weakened but cancer-free.

I often thought about what would happen if a woman in this condition did get pregnant.  Surely it has happened many times.  An embryo would start to grow, everything going fine, and at some point it would lose its moorings in its mother’s womb and essentially fall to its death.  I wondered how far developed the poor creature would be when that happened.  It seems horribly sad, doesn’t it?  The child would be doomed from the start.  The mother would suffer both mentally and physically for nothing.  And all of that could be prevented with the use of reliable contraception, or with my chosen option, sterilization.  If it could not be prevented for some reason, it seems very clear to me that abortion would be a far kinder choice than allowing the baby to keep growing until its inevitable demise, possibly till it could begin to feel something, and certainly exposing the mother to greater risks and discomforts.

I have always wondered how very observant Catholics would find their way through this dilemma, since there would be no way to avoid pain and tragedy, only to minimize it.*  The Church’s official stance, I suppose, would be simply “Don’t have sex.”  Ever again, or at least not until menopause, so that such a tragic pregnancy could never get started.

And of course there are also medical situations where pregnancy would be life-threatening or seriously health-threatening for the mother.  These women need their contraception to be as effective as possible, and depriving them of it verges on criminality, I would say.  Birth control advocates tend to mean hormonal drugs when they speak of “effective” contraception, and that has been the focus of much of the fighting.  I certainly think women should have access to these medications, but I don’t want to come across as a wholehearted fan of the Pill and its cousins.  The Pill, patch, and implant can be problematic for many women, and they can have dangerous side effects, especially as women age.

A friend of mine who cannot use these drugs was put in a ludicrous position by our local Presbyterian Health Plan, on purely ideological rather than medical grounds.  Having been unable to tolerate the type of IUD that releases hormones into the body, she and her doctor decided that she should try the old-fashioned, non-hormonal IUD.  Presbyterian refused to cover that, saying that it’s an abortifacient rather than a contraceptive, and therefore not morally acceptable.**  They were happy to cover the hormonal IUD, which they insisted my friend should use despite the fact that it was already proven to be unsuitable and harmful for her.  The patient’s medical needs meant absolutely nothing.  Let me repeat that, because this is how our system works, and we need to be clear about it:  The patient’s medical needs meant absolutely nothing.  Her own beliefs and moral convictions also meant absolutely nothing.  Fortunately, although she was a college student doing low-paid restaurant work, this young woman was able to get the money together to pay for the IUD herself.

And that is what we face when religion, and only some people’s religion at that, is allowed to determine our medical care.  If the bills currently being proposed by certain members of Congress were to become law, any employer could refuse to cover any type of treatment for any reason.  I don’t think that will come to pass, but stranger things have happened, and we need to stay on top of this situation.  I can only hope that American women will continue to get more and more engaged and will work to hold the ground we’ve gained– and that men have gained along with us– over the past few decades.

I promise to get back to more spiritual matters in my next post.

*Despite 12 years of Catholic school and being good friends with a nun, I still can’t answer this.  Odd situations like this never came up in the typical anti-abortion rhetoric.  And by the way, I don’t remember Catholics railing against birth control back in the ’70s the way it’s happening now.  Maybe I just didn’t notice.
**The common scientific view is that pregnancy begins with implantation, not with conception.  The IUD prevents implantation.

For some other current perspectives:
http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2012/02/13/hervotes-americas-supposed-war-on-religion-and-the-actual-war-on-birth-control/

http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2012/02/14/conservative-war-on-contraception-is-nothing-new/

A Few More Things to Consider

“I am not pro-abortion.

“Like nearly all pro-choice human beings, I never rejoice over or celebrate these decisions, because I know that they are ones reached after arduous deliberation and great pain; that they are often born out of emotional trauma, physical assault, or dire medical news.
“I know that abortions are not chosen impulsively or without careful or prayer wrestling.
I believe in education and in birth control and in doing everything possible not to create an unwanted pregnancy. All pro-choice people I know believe these things.

“…There is a sad irony at play when I realize that a pro-life woman arguing with a pro-choice man like myself,  is essentially relinquishing control over her destiny to other men and I am saying she deserves better.” — Pastor John Pavlovitz
https://johnpavlovitz.com/2022/05/11/a-pro-choice-man-grieving-pro-life-women/

“[George H.W.] Bush would remain a staunch advocate of reproductive freedom for women until political considerations during the 1980 presidential elections, when he was on the ticket with Ronald Reagan, accounted for one of the most dramatic and cynical public policy reversals in modern American politics.”

“Reagan had supported California’s liberal policies on contraception and abortion as governor, and Bush as Richard Nixon’s Ambassador to the United Nations had helped shape the UN’s population programs. But Republican operatives in 1980 saw a potential fissure in the traditional New Deal coalition among Catholics uncomfortable with the new legitimacy given to abortion after Roe v. Wade and white southern Christians being lured away from the Democrats around the issue of affirmative action and other racial preferences. Opposition to abortion instantly became a GOP litmus test, and both presidential hopefuls officially changed stripes.”
https://msmagazine.com/2012/02/14/conservative-war-on-contraception-is-nothing-new/

Faced with the lowest and slimiest of Twitter trolls, one woman retorted, “I’ll ask my rapist nicely to wear a condom.”

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Filed under health and healing, history, human rights, politics, sexuality

Ukraine; Advice for Would-Be Emperors

The Great Gate of Kiev by Victor Hartmann, the painting Mussorgsky had in mind

 

I started this on March 1— Chopin’s birthday, by the way— with a lot of thoughts about the war in Ukraine that have since been expressed ad nauseam in a range of publications, like the parallels with the Iraq war. You’ve heard all that already, so I’ll move on.

As I sit here with a yellow flower for Ukraine pinned to my shirt, worrying, I’m also wondering what’s happening in the other war zones in the world. Has there been any improvement in getting aid to starving kids in Yemen? Are things any better with the horrors in Ethiopia? How are people managing in Syria, since we’ve turned our attention away from there? And Afghanistan— we know how bad that is. Perhaps our witnessing of the destruction in Ukraine, in real time on the screens we carry with us, will help us remember the suffering going on elsewhere. And maybe do something about it.

I’m not Ukrainian, but I’m kind of a cousin and neighbor. My mother’s family came from far eastern Slovakia, just west of the border with Ukraine. It’s quite possible that I have relatives who actually live and/or work in Ukraine right now. The woman I have apparent memories of from the 19th century, Delfina Potocka, was born in Podolia, which then was part of Poland but now is in Ukraine.

I am hyper-aware of the long history of Russia taking over these regions and even declaring that independent countries no longer exist, as it did with Poland a couple of centuries ago. Vladimir Putin appears to be driven by a vision of recreating that old imperial Russia, and I feel that my Slovak relatives, along with the Poles and the Hungarians and the Lithuanians and the Azerbaijanis and the rest, all have targets on their backs. I feel almost that I have a target on my own back— even more so knowing that Putin will try to crush the LGBTQ+ community. There is no reason to expect that he will stop at any other border if he is allowed to take Ukraine.

The situation is changing by the hour, and by the time you read this, lord only knows where we will all be. 


There has been a lot of discussion of Putin’s mental health. I referred to him as a madman the other day and got some pushback. Let me explain, though. I didn’t mean that his behavior was necessarily irrational, though people who knew him when he first came to power say he is very different now and may not be all there anymore. Taking the premises he started with into account, his current path is logical and part of a very long-range plan, even though right now it’s clear that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. 

However, I submit that the whole idea of invading a country one wants to control with such brutal tactics, destroying human lives, infrastructure, farmlands, everything in the process, is intrinsically insane. It’s the old saw about “destroying the village to save it.” I’ve never understood how these despots think. Assad is perhaps the ultimate example— he wants to remain the ruler of Syria, but he’s left so little of the country intact, what is there to rule? Wouldn’t it have been better to leave the people alive, with their homes and factories and farms, and rule over a prosperous and proud nation? What has he gained?

Putin seems to be going in a similar direction, with his own country as well as the coveted one being brought to its knees economically and perhaps morally. He may well be able to hang on to his position, but he could have had so much more.  Compared to his long, insidious, cunning takeover of Russia, this venture has been shockingly ill-conceived.  Only a leader isolated from reality and surrounded by nothing by yes-men could have expected that Ukrainians would immediately capitulate and even welcome his troops with flowers.  I can’t help but think of George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner.

I mean, that is insanity.

 

My advice to these would-be emperors is very simple, sure-fire, and unlike war, not particularly expensive. It’s also something they would never consider.


It is this: Be nice.

Think about it. Say you’re a dictator with a big country of your own, but you are feeling threatened by nations a bit off to the west of your border. You want a buffer between you and them, and the nice big juicy country next door looks awfully tempting. You could try beating them into submission, but suddenly you realize that you don’t have to.

The neighbors share a similar culture with yours, and some of them even speak your language, so it’s easy to get started. You’re kind of ticked that they split off from your empire a few decades ago, but you decide to be magnanimous and look past that. “Brothers and sisters,” you proclaim, “let us begin a new era of friendship and cooperation!”

They’re a little skeptical, but they like the new trade deal you propose. You start a big cultural exchange program, too, and send your best musicians and dancers to tour the place. Your soccer teams play each other. You go on like this for quite a while, flattering, ingratiating, and investing. At every moment you make it clear that you have the greatest possible respect for their majestic nation and history, and that you would never, never do anything to threaten their sovereignty and self-determination, so that they don’t get interested in rebelling. All the while you’re pursuing joint ventures that make their smaller economy more and more dependent on yours.

You wanted their land, their stuff, and their loyalty. You get access to all of that without firing a shot.

In a few years, the neighbors are every bit as entwined with your side of the border as they had been when they were part of your empire. They have no reason to join other alliances against you, since associating with you has brought so many advantages. Your people enjoy the fruits of both country’s labors, and you do very nicely with what you skim off the top. War would have drained your coffers, but instead you’ve made a profit. You settle into your cushy palace and name yourself President for Life, and nobody minds. You have all the power you could possibly want. Someone could still put poison in your tea, but you’re relatively insulated because wealth and influence are spread around, and those who have them have good reasons to leave your regime in place.

I’m serious. I bet this would work, and unless you truly enjoy blowing things up and massacring families, it would be a lot more fun and a lot less stress. I’m pretty sure that something like it has even been done at times, though I can’t remember where it might have been. It would be completely reasonable, even to someone who cares only about himself, completely compatible with self-interest.

It’s just not how human minds work, at least not the power-hungry ones.


Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk played with the New Mexico Philharmonic on February 26. The planned program included Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto #2, but it was changed at the last minute to Prokofiev’s first piano concerto, Prokofiev having been born in the Donetsk region of what is now Ukraine.

Maestro Roberto Minczuk introduced the program along with Gavrylyuk. Although Minczuk is from Brazil, he has distant family in Ukraine, so he is feeling deeply connected with the horrors there. The two gave a heartfelt talk about the situation and the program they had chosen. They mentioned that there had been a cancellation at Carnegie Hall and Gavrylyuk had been asked to play there, but he had said, “No, I’m playing with the New Mexico Philharmonic that day.” So now I love him all the more.

The audience went berserk. We whooped and hollered, and someone in the back of the hall yelled “VIVA UKRAINE.” The orchestra members were wearing blue and yellow ribbons. It was A Happening.

The concert began in an unusual way, with a set of piano solos. Gavrylyuk started with Kocsis’ complex and difficult arrangement of Rachmaninov’s haunting “Vocalise.” Then he played the end of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” with an incredibly powerful rendition of the “Great Gate of Kiev” theme that I swear they must have heard in Moscow. Not that it was so terribly loud, but every molecule in his body was totally focused on producing this resounding effect, and the hundreds of people in the hall seemed to be one organism all concentrated on the stage.

Here’s a little bit of the flavor of the Mussorgsky. It’s nothing like the experience that blew me away in my seat in the second row, but you’ll get the idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyMiIAwUHcU “The Great Gate of Kiev” is getting a lot of play these days.

As far as I could tell, the whole audience stayed fired up throughout the rest of the concert. But then, as I was walking out, I heard a woman ask her companion how she’d liked the show. “I thought it was long and boring,” replied the other woman. “I kept falling asleep.” I could not imagine that.

The fantastic Steinway that Gavrylyuk played, the best I’ve ever heard, was picked out just a few months ago by the Russian expat pianist Olga Kern, who has adopted Albuquerque and located her piano competition here. She has a special relationship with Rachmaninov, and I’ve been practicing some of his work myself lately. It’s complicated.

By the way, there is no actual Great Gate of Kiev. It was only a painting of a proposed structure that was never built, and was intended to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt in 1866.  The Russian eagle tops the cupola.  Like I said, it’s complicated.

VIVA UKRAINE.

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In Which Medicare Covers, but Also Does Not Cover, Acupuncture

Executive summary: Medicare sort of covers acupuncture for low back pain, but coverage is so limited as to be meaningless for most patients unless they have certain Medicare Advantage plans.

Every year, the fine folk at Medicare send out a thick book about coverage to all beneficiaries. The 2021 book contained extremely misleading wording about coverage for acupuncture. A person who didn’t know better would come away with the impression that they could get at least 12 covered sessions of acupuncture for chronic low back pain.

Except that’s not really the case.

Quite understandably, lots of people have called acupuncture offices trying to set up treatment and expecting to pay only small copays. Sometimes, when the office staff explain that we can’t make that happen, they get really upset. Sometimes they call Medicare, get further wrong information, and come back even more upset. A colleague in another state reported recently that a patient became loud and violent in her waiting room, abusing the staff and insisting that the acupuncturist had fraudulently taken his money when she treated him.

I think we can all agree that having violent tantrums in health care offices is generally not OK. It’s also not OK for a major government agency to give people totally wrong information, and I don’t blame anyone for being annoyed at that.

This mistake is likely not intentional, though. The regulation is written in such a mystifyingly nonsensical way that the people promulgating the information may have honestly failed to understand it. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt to a certain extent.

Here’s what’s really going on:

In early 2020, a decision was made by the Powers That Be at Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to add Medicare coverage for acupuncture for one well-studied condition, chronic low back pain. I don’t know precisely what the tipping point was that made this happen, but over many years there had been agitation from our profession and popular demand from patients, numerous positive studies, and recommendations from other government entities such as NIH to promote the use of non-opioid treatments for pain. Whatever it was, Medicare finally budged, and it even specified that those wielding the needles had to be licensed to do acupuncture. That is, such providers as physical therapists doing dry needling would not be included.

Here is the CMS decision memo describing the new coverage and the reasons it was chosen:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1hoSyfCBMSXrjbIQRNA29S1NQmfFuLEzP/view

I must say that it’s a carefully and clearly written document. Some of the conclusions in it are astonishing, however, such as the contention that there is no convincing evidence for the use of acupuncture for osteoarthritis.

The trouble is that acupuncturists are not Medicare providers. We are essentially invisible to the Medicare system. There is no pathway for us to sign up to be providers, so we cannot bill for our services. In order to do this supposedly covered low back pain treatment, we must be supervised by a Medicare provider such as an MD or NP, with our treatment being “incident to” their care, and we must have billing done under that person’s name and get reimbursed through them.

This means that only acupuncturists who work in hospitals or mainstream medical clinics have any chance of this actually getting coverage to happen. It means, therefore, that there are hardly any acupuncturists who can provide treatment under Medicare. And I hear it’s been very difficult for even those few to ever collect payment.

This is an insane and completely unsustainable situation, but while we’ve been focused on the pandemic, it has gone on for nearly two years without any improvement that I know of. (And Medicare members who need help for something other than low back pain are out in the cold entirely.) Acupuncturists cannot become Medicare providers without Congress changing the law, something our profession has been trying to get them to do for a couple of decades now. So that is where our efforts are directed, but it does nothing to help patients in the near term.

Insurance companies have responded in some cases by adding similar coverage that allows patients to go to regular acupuncture offices. Different plans use different strategies, so if this includes your insurer, I can’t tell you anything about your specific plan. I can tell you that in central New Mexico, Presbyterian Senior Care has long covered acupuncture (though a limited number of sessions per year and with low reimbursement) for most if not all conditions, and Blue Cross Blue Shield and United also have some plans with reasonable or even quite good coverage. Presbyterian also now covers 12 sessions for dual eligibles, people with both Medicare and Medicaid, who are among the most vulnerable in our population. In most cases Medicaid gives no coverage at all for acupuncture— mostly because the lack of Medicare coverage means no federal dollars are available— so this is a small but significant step forward.

Despite its severe limitations, that CMS decision early last year was a sea change, much more than the baby step it has been in practical terms. Only a few years earlier, there was a petition to the federal government asking for Medicare coverage of acupuncture, which gained over 100,000 signatures and thus required a response. The response CMS gave was utterly dismissive, stating that acupuncture was not necessary or effective for any condition. This came from a milieu in which the government itself was sponsoring research on acupuncture and our work was becoming more and more common, accepted, and proven, so it felt like a painful and bizarre slap in our faces. And it made the sudden reversal at the beginning of 2020 all the more stunning.

(In contrast, the VA not only covers acupuncture but employs acupuncturists in its facilities, so you can see how far behind CMS is.)

Here is a memo from CMS to providers. This document doesn’t make it clear that acupuncturists cannot be Medicare providers, so it seems to me that it adds still more confusion. I suppose the providers to whom it is directed already understand this, though.
https://www.cms.gov/files/document/mm11755-national-coverage-determination-ncd-3033-acupuncture-chronic-low-back-pain-clbp.pdf

And here is a benefits summary for 2022 for a group of Presbyterian plans, which a number of my patients have:
https://contentserver.destinationrx.com/ContentServer/DRxProductContent/PDFs/177_0/2022%20Senior%20Care%20HMO%20Plans%20Summary%20of%20Benefits.pdf

You can see that there is a listing for “Medicare covered” acupuncture as separate from “Routine” acupuncture, but zero explanation of what that means or how many visits are allowed under that section. I assume that members receive a more complete description of their coverage as well, but this almost guarantees that they will be confused.

(You can also see that there are two tiers for chiropractic treatment. This, too, reflects what is covered by Medicare and what is not, but the typical reader would never know that from the way it’s worded.) 

I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that we Doctors of Oriental Medicine were never told that Presbyterian was allowing any extra “Medicare covered” sessions— or even that the allowed “Routine” sessions had been increased from 20 to 25. A patient of mine found out about it quite recently and let me know. For those with severe, chronic problems, 25 treatments a year may not be enough, so this could be a real help.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of acupuncture access, but when people talk about Medicare for All, I advocate for Something Better than Medicare, for All.

You can help acupuncturists to become Medicare providers by learning about HR 4803, the Acupuncture for Our Seniors Act, and contacting your representative. Much more will be going on with this in the coming year.

https://www.asacu.org/wp-content/uploads/Medicare-Recognition-H.R.-4803.pdf

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“White wealth surges; black wealth stagnates”

While working on this post, I found myself struggling to explain to an elderly white friend that a certain young black right-wing icon is either an idiot or a con artist, and that she really did say that systemic racism doesn’t exist, and that it actually does. (She also says that global warming doesn’t exist.) He wasn’t having any of the facts I put in front of him. The conversation was quite a shock, as he is educated and intelligent, and I had not heard this sort of thing from him before. I wonder if he is consuming questionable news sources that he didn’t in the past.

Old white people, and everyone else, systemic racism is just not in question. It’s not abstract and it’s not theoretical. It’s right there in front of your face if you would only dare to look. And if you think only the South is the problem, I have two words for you: sundown towns.*

Americans are tragically ignorant about history. And if it’s history that makes us uncomfortable or asks us to do something differently, forget it. I mean we literally forget it.

I am asking you to remember a few things.

A very daunting recent article explained that the wealth disparity between white and black American families has not gotten any better over the course of more than 40 years. Not any better. We all know that economic inequality has gotten worse in our country, but we white folks may not realize how much harder our black neighbors have been hit. I hope the paywall doesn’t make it impossible for you to see it, because its 14 charts will hit you square between the eyes.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/04/economic-divide-black-households/

Here is what I particularly want you to look at:
 “In 1968, a typical middle-class black household had $6,674 in wealth compared with $70,786 for the typical middle-class white household, according to data from the historical Survey of Consumer Finances that has been adjusted for inflation. In 2016, the typical middle-class black household had $13,024 in wealth versus $149,703 for the median white household, an even larger gap in percentage terms.”

My own family’s economic path

You can skip this next section and all its details if you like. I’m going to outline how things have gone for my own family’s finances over the past century. My point is that we have had the benefit of some built-in advantages as well as a good deal of dumb luck and a few smart decisions. Many of these advantages have been denied to black families.

My mother was born in 1924. Her parents were both immigrants from Slovakia with little education. My grandfather worked in a Pennsylvania coal mine. After his death, during the Depression, my grandmother worked as a live-in domestic, leaving her eldest daughter to take care of the other children. They didn’t have much. Most people didn’t.

My mother was the valedictorian of her high school class. To the best of my knowledge, her siblings did not finish high school. Her brother, like many teenage boys at the time, left home to wander and find work, so that he would not be a burden on the family. He ended up as a Navy pilot.

During WWII, my mother got a job at US Steel in the Youngstown, Ohio area. Due to a severe allergic reaction to the tiny bits of steel that flew around in the air in the mill, she was moved into an office job. This was a lucky fluke that let her keep her job when the men returned from the war and most of the women were laid off.

At that time, it was common to find a good middle-class job with benefits with no more than a high school education. My mother became an accountant, training on the job, and worked in that capacity at US Steel for 37 years, until the mid-1970s when the plant closed. She had enough years in to retire early with a pension, something that is no longer common. It wasn’t very much, but it made a huge difference to the rest of her life.

For many years, US Steel routinely paid women less than men for similar jobs, but the union negotiated equal pay, which as the sole breadwinner my mother needed badly.  The union also provided a scholarship which covered almost all of my bachelor’s degree.

As a single mother, she needed child care. My grandmother moved in with us, which was another crucial factor for our survival. Gram was not particularly warm and fuzzy, but she did take her job of caring for me seriously, and I was kept safe and well fed. Working a reasonable schedule and having this help, my mother was able to pay attention to reading to me and taking me on outings and trips.

In 1962 or thereabouts, my mother bought a house for about $10,000. That house went for only $13,000 when she sold it in 1987, the area was so depressed, but that gave her a little something to work with when she moved to Albuquerque to be near my husband and me and our soon-to-be-born daughter. She eventually bought a house here. Through some rather complex circumstances, I inherited it, and the tenant who lived there at the time of her death is still there. He can’t pay the full market rate, but the house is paid off and it works out.

You see where I’m going with this— the sums of money are small, but they accumulate and build financial stability and family wealth.

My husband’s parents were also second-generation Americans whose parents had a similar background to my mother’s. My father-in-law worked in the mill, and my mother-in-law had worked at a china factory for a while. Most people we knew were like that, working in manufacturing, usually at the same company for decades, ending up with decent pensions.

Now, to the next generation. Despite two degrees, I never had a reasonable income till I was in my 40s and had established my acupuncture practice; before that, I was a starving teacher of private music lessons. My husband taught school most of his working life. At first he was a band director, but the music programs kept being cut, and he ended up doing special ed. We were lower middle class for the majority of that time, I would say.

We left the extremely depressed Youngstown area, where my husband first band director job had been destroyed by cuts to school budgets, and moved to Albuquerque in 1984. We had almost nothing, but we were both able to get low-paid jobs in a music store and that got us started. That company went out of business due to extremely poor investment decisions on the part of the owner, again leaving us bereft. By that time we had enough private students and gigs to tide us over. Eventually my husband was able to get another job as a band director.

These jobs remained shaky. When our daughter was born in 1988, my husband had only a half-time position. We were trying to buy the house we had been renting, and the owners were willing, but the bank that held the underlying mortgage wouldn’t even return our phone calls, and loans were not easy to come by. Parents to the rescue! My in-laws, who had long since paid off their own modest house, gave us the $18,000 needed to pay off that mortgage so that the owners could then take back a real-estate contract and sell the house to us. That $18,000 doesn’t sound like much today, but back then it was a fortune equal to a year of our gross income. And it was another absolutely crucial step.

We lived in that house till 2002, at which time we moved into our present house, with my mother following a few months later. We rented our old house out, and she sold hers to a friend, also on an REC. That deal came to a bad end, and as I said, I inherited the house.

Late last year the tenants at our old house had to move— the same tenants all that time, who we were so fortunate to have— and we sold the house this spring. We put a lot into it over the years, but still came out well ahead.

Another stroke of good fortune was that my mother never needed to go into a long-term care facility. My husband was retired by the time she began to need serious care, and he was a wonderful help to her until she passed in early 2017. She had told us that she didn’t have much in the way of assets, but somehow, amazingly, she had managed to save about 4 times the annual sum of her meager pension and Social Security. (She had done some part-time accounting work into her late 70s, so had a bit of extra income, but even so, this was quite impressive.) I think she expected to need that money for medical costs and/or a nursing home, so she didn’t count it as disposable and was careful not to touch it. Between Medicare and the health insurance she still had after all those years from her US Steel job, most everything was covered, and we had no financial worries in wrapping up her estate.

The result of all this, thus far, is that although none of us ever had high incomes, we are living in a state of relative wealth and financial stability and are able to help others a bit. A major illness or other disaster could change all that, but we do have a cushion. 

In contrast, we’re all told that the majority of American families could not cover a $400 emergency expense. There are all sorts of factors that could be involved, but let’s think about some specific things that might have happened to a black family over time that would prevent them from accumulating wealth.

Social Security

Did you know that the Social Security program left out huge swaths of the population when it was originally designed? Social Security was not extended to some of the people who needed it the most, domestic and agricultural workers. It has often been written that this was intentionally done to exclude people of color.
https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1409&context=csd_research

https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v70n4/v70n4p49.html
This second article argues that the decision to exclude such workers was not racially motivated, since self-employed and government workers, as well as employees of churches and nonprofits, were also excluded. Perhaps, but whatever was in the minds of the designers, the effect was still to deny this income to a great many black and brown families, while most white families could receive it.

Domestic and agricultural workers are now covered, at least in theory, but for decades their families were further impoverished by the exclusion, over and above the fact that their incomes were low to begin with.

Home ownership

Home ownership is the main way families in the US build wealth. Black families have been consistently and systematically hampered in their ability to buy and keep houses and to choose where they want to live.

In case you are not convinced of that, here is a quick summary of the history of redlining, predatory loans and other ways African-Americans have been prevented from getting in on that vaunted American Dream:
https://www.zillow.com/blog/zillow-group-report/african-americans-homeownership/
The report states, “If white wealth remained stagnant, it would still take black families 228 years and Latino families 84 years to gain parity.”

https://www.epi.org/press/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission-black-americans-are-not-economically-equal/
“‘Black Americans have clearly put a tremendous amount of personal effort into improving their social and economic standing, but that effort only goes so far when you’re working within structures that were never intended to give equal outcomes,’ said economist Valerie Rawlston Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.”

But what if, against the odds, you did build up some wealth? Say you’ve managed to put together a nice place to live, along with your family and friends. Then someone comes and simply tears it all down.
https://timeline.com/black-village-destroyed-central-park-6356723113fa

Or, as happened in the Tulsa massacre we’ve been reminded of this week, white people who resent your success can come and kill you and burn everything.

This is long enough already, so for now I’ll leave out other factors like health disparities, mass incarceration, and the effects of the so-called War on Drugs, which has been more like a war on poor people.

In many ways the ladder to success in this country has gotten slipperier and tougher to scale, and some of the rungs that used to exist have been broken. Insane health care costs, unaffordable higher education, the gig economy, and jobs without benefits, predictable schedules or sufficient hours to get by— all that hurts everyone except those at the very top (and if they thought more about it they’d realize it’s not great for them either). It’s not like any racial or ethnic group has it easy these days. It’s just that anything that whacks the population as a whole, like COVID-19, tends to whack black Americans harder.

We’re so used to this that it all seems normal and inevitable. It’s not, and it never was. If you can step outside your unconscious expectations for a moment, maybe you can begin to see the craziness. Imagine that you are visiting from Alpha Centauri, planning to have a look at the Grand Canyon. Someone tells you that an Earth person’s chances of living a decent life in many parts of the planet depend on the amount of pigment in the outer covering of their body. You say, “Get outta here! You’re kidding, right?” You can’t imagine that happening on your own planet (where everything sensibly depends on the number of tentacles on one’s head). You make a mental note to avoid this bizarre place for future vacations.

Humans take any excuse to look down on other humans. It seems to be ingrained. I suppose that at some time very, very long ago it was good for our survival and so the trait stuck. It is exceedingly bad for our survival now. We’ve got to stop it, and we’ve got to do that first within ourselves. But even while we’re struggling with that challenge, we can create systems that are more equitable and increase opportunity.

 

*And one more word: Levittown.
 “As well as a symbol of the American Dream, Levittown would also become a symbol of racial segregation in the United States, due to Clause 25 of the standard lease agreement signed by the first residents of Levittown, who had an option to buy their homes. This “restrictive covenant” stated in capital letters and bold type that the house could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”[10]

“Such discriminatory housing standards were consistent with government policies of the time.[11] The Federal Housing Administration allowed developers to justify segregation within public housing. The FHA only offered mortgages to non-mixed developments which discouraged developers from creating racially integrated housing.[12] Before the sale of Levittown homes began, the sales agents were aware that no applications from black families would be accepted. As a result, American veterans who wished to purchase a home in Levittown were unable to do so if they were black.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levittown,_New_York

 

More resources:

2017: https://www.zillow.com/blog/millennials-diversity-housing-209688/

2018: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/get-there/wp/2018/04/05/black-homeownership-is-as-low-as-it-was-when-housing-discrimination-was-legal/

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Taking the Hill for Human Rights

At their immature levels, religions can be obsessed with the differences that make them better or more right than others. Pope Francis insists that mercy is at the very top of the Christian hierarchy of great truths*, and everything falls apart whenever mercy is displaced by anything else or anything less. —Fr Richard Rohr

 

Pastor John Pavlovitz wrote in a recent post: “Whatever hill is worth dying on for you in this life, take it now.”
https://johnpavlovitz.com/2018/07/03/pick-a-hill-worth-dying-on-america/

I realized right away that I knew which “hill” that was for me. Despite the progress of the past decade, the ability of LGBTQ+ people to work, to buy ordinary products and services, to adopt children, to live in a particular building or neighborhood, even just to live at all has been under heavy attack of late.

A couple of weeks ago I watched Hannah Gadsby’s high-impact one-woman show Nanette, which you absolutely should check out. In her native Tasmania, homosexuality was illegal until 1997!!!! I was 37 then, for freak’s sake! That was a sobering reminder of how fragile our situation is. In my relatively open community, it’s easy to forget how difficult things can be in so many parts of the world.

And of course that includes much of the US. The vice-president, may he soon be enlightened, is trying to establish a “religious liberty” office to make sure that anyone whose religion tells them to discriminate against those who are different in their sexual or gender identity can do so with complete freedom, the Constitution and legal precedent be damned. As Cornel West has said, “The fundamentalist Christians want to be fundamental about everything except Love Thy Neighbor!”

I often find myself imagining something like this:

Incredibly, because Americans insist on continuing to use the death penalty and it seemed to be under threat, last fall the US voted AGAINST a UN “resolution condemning the use of the death penalty as punishment for consensual gay relations.” The resolution passed anyway, but the US had sided with a group of countries known for human-rights abuses and against all of Europe and almost all of the rest of the Americas. We could have abstained. We did not.
https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/05/opinions/un-death-penalty-resolution-usa-lgbt-ghitis-opinion/index.html

This feels more and more like a crisis, one building inexorably, one that can’t be ignored. “If you aren’t finding your voice right now, don’t bother worrying about it again,” Pavlovitz wrote. “You won’t have one much longer.” So I am continuing to make whatever sounds I can.

The event that got me started thinking about writing this post was the death of Jeremy Reynalds, who founded the local help for the homeless organization Joy Junction. Friends commented about something I had forgotten: that Reynalds not only forbade LGBTQ+ folk from staying at his shelter, but even refused to take donations from such people. Wow. I wasn’t good enough for him to help me if I needed it, and even my money wasn’t good enough for him. I had a seriously hard time with this. It bugged me for days. It even contributed to some physical symptoms.

But later, I read that Reynalds had changed, which is a great relief and source of hope.  ‘“I’m much less judgmental than I used to be, and that’s made me a much happier person,” Reynalds said in 2016. “My mantra for the last eight or nine years is ‘Let God do the judging, and I will do the loving.’”
https://www.abqjournal.com/1197802/reynalds-leaves-legacy-of-helping-the-less-fortunate.html

Understanding why certain religious people are so set in their anti-LGBTQ stance runs one directly down the infinitely dark rabbit hole of biblical literalism. In researching background for this post, I came across the word “bibliolatry,” which refers to worshiping the written word above all else including real, living people and even the living traditions of one’s faith– not to mention the living Christ in whom one supposedly believes. To that, another kind of Christian might reply:

I understand that we all cherry-pick whatever agrees with our preconceived notions. However— something that has been said so many times, but it bears repeating since they Just Don’t Seem to Get It— if these people are going to insist that same-sex relationships are sinful because of their interpretation of a few words in Leviticus, why is it that they feel free to eat shellfish and wear polyester/cotton clothing and trim their beards?

I haven’t had any recent opportunities to ask this directly of an evangelical. Typical answers might be that this was written a very long time ago and that society has changed a great deal, and/or that Jesus superseded the Old Testament laws with the greater law of “Love one another.” One article, in explaining why we no longer execute disobedient children, simply stated, “The Old Testament Law is not in force today.”** Well, that was easy, wasn’t it.  Except that they’re saying it is.

In addition to this convenient inconsistency, they seem to have decided that the way God constructed nature and humanity is not OK, because they insist that biology is something quite different from what it really is. It probably won’t help to tell a person who believes the Earth is only 6000 years old to objectively observe the natural world, but even a cursory survey would quickly show that sexuality and gender are not binary, but exist along continua. Now, for religious people to question nature and find it lacking is to question and criticize the workings of the mind of God. Isn’t that blasphemy? How can that be acceptable to them?

Well, that’s why it’s so crucial for them to believe that sexual orientation is a choice. If homosexuality does NOT inherently exist in nature, but rather is invented by depraved or confused human minds, then there is no conflict with their chosen biblical interpretation. Likewise, if there is no such thing as an intersex or transgender child and the kids are only imagining it all, there is no need to revise rigidly prescribed gender roles. There are powerful incentives for them to wish reality away.

Somehow I have felt compelled to follow the rabbit downward and better understand the origins of this way of thinking. I hadn’t realized how recent a phenomenon biblical literalism is. Fundamentalists might like to think of themselves as part of an ancient tradition, part of the bedrock of Christianity, as the name implies, but this is not the case. Certainly it is not how most of us brought up in mainstream forms of Christianity were taught to think about the bible. We were taught in Catholic school that biblical stories such as the Adam and Eve myth were to be understood as allegories, and there is nothing at all modern or “liberal” about such an attitude. Very early authorities such as Philo of Alexandria and Origen*** wrote about just that way of understanding scripture, and their teaching was accepted for most of the past two millennia.

Dr. Kevin Lewis went so far as to describe literalism as heresy: ’The heresy of literalism as such is a modern, post-scientific phenomenon. Its beginnings can be traced in seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy, but it bloomed with twentieth-century Fundamentalism, when the modern world fully embraced the dynamic power of natural science. Scientific method crucially altered the Western mind. After Descartes we became principled skeptics, doubting in order to find out the truth. The notion stole into the religious mind that biblical narratives make proposals that only appear to compete with testable scientific findings (to test our faith) while ultimately, if miraculously, conforming to scientific truth.’

‘So rose up in history a reactionary Christian mind, panicked and defensive, straining to assert scientific proof (thereby establishing absolute certainty) for its Scripture and the articles of belief it wished to communicate. Thus did literalism teach the “letter” to drive out the “spirit” of the biblical writings, effectively misusing the text in order to promote a corrupted theological agenda. The effect is a rigid constriction of the inspiring Word.’
http://people.cas.sc.edu/lewiske/heresy.html

I have often said that if someone wishes to take scripture literally, they had better be able to read and write the ancient languages involved, fluently, and understand exactly how the words were used at the time those passages were written. Only then can they expect to have any idea what it is that they are taking literally. Some scholars try to do that.

A rather arcane article, “The Secret History of Leviticus” by Idan Dershowitz, showed up in the New York Times, interestingly enough. Dershowitz analyzed the text in detail to elucidate likely changes over the long period of time that probably elapsed as the book was rewritten into its present form. He points out that there were generally no known prohibitions against sex between men in earlier times, and that the prohibitions appear to have been absent in the earliest version of Leviticus as well, and to have been added later in the book’s history. 
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/21/opinion/sunday/bible-prohibit-gay-sex.html?action=click&module=Trending&pgtype=Article&region=Footer&contentCollection=Trending

An interesting case is a website written by Rick Brentlinger, who identifies himself as a gay Christian and an independent Baptist preacher. (I’m a little sorry to identify him by name, since I am about to harshly criticize him.)  I found it while looking for the meaning of the passages about homosexuality in the original languages. He has a rather different take on Leviticus, and on Paul, asserting that in both cases the prohibition is really against temple prostitution rather than same-sex relations in general. I can’t say whether or not he is accurate in his analysis, but it is an interesting perspective. One statement of his with which I wholeheartedly agree: ”Scripture cannot mean NOW/ What it did not mean THEN.”

Unfortunately, Brentlinger goes on to toe the literalist line, even stating in so many words that Adam was a real man and the first human. He rails against common practices like contemplative prayer and meditation, saying that only reading or hearing scripture is acceptable prayer. (It amazes me— how is one supposed to listen to God with all those words chattering in one’s mind all the time?) Yet he even slams Lectio Divina, in which one reads scripture in a mystical manner, intending to let its meaning manifest in a nonverbal awareness. Even the way other people read the Bible is not good enough for him! It seems to me that he is playing along with the game plan of the very people who oppress him and his. I can empathize a little, though. Otherwise he would have to separate entirely from his faith community and his home culture, I suppose, and that might be too much to contemplate. It seems that he is finding a way to be part of the groupthink and be himself at the same time.

At any rate, there is nothing at all that literalists can quote from Jesus’ preaching on homosexuality or other matters of sexual orientation or gender identity, because nothing is there, neither prohibitions nor permissions. There is that one story that can be interpreted as being tolerant of same-sex relationships, the one about the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant/companion and shows absolute faith that he can do it. Brentlinger does interpret it that way.

I wonder what the literalists think about the apocryphal books such as the Gospel of Thomas, and how they deal with the idea that some gospels were written through divine inspiration and some weren’t, when it is clear that ordinary humans chose which books to include in the canon. Some of those books were of inferior quality, but others were discarded because they didn’t fit the political power needs of the men who were in charge. And they were all men, of course. In the early days of Christianity, many individuals were preaching and transmitting their own revelations and insights, and some of the most famous were women. The powers that were felt the need to squelch all that, making us all poorer in the process. Some of the early writings have come to light in the past century, of course, and now we have a broader perspective that makes biblical literalism appear all the more ludicrous.

It was decided by some of those august Church Fathers, trying to hold their young organization together, that revelation had stopped at the death of the last apostle, and no one else was going to hear anything worthwhile from God! This connects with the suspicious attitude toward contemplative prayer and meditation— one must simply accept what has already been written, and heaven forbid that one might connect with the divine on one’s own. (Everything there is authoritarian at its core. And that, dear reader, has a lot to do with the love of fundamentalists for our current administration.)

I’ll end by bringing you back to John Pavlovitz, who had to broaden his thinking when he was exposed to people who were different from those he’d been brought up with— and then his brother came out as gay. ‘”It was a gradual deconstruction of my faith,” he says. “You look at one isolated area of the Bible, for example, then realize, Well, if that doesn’t mean what I was taught it meant, what other areas of my spiritual journey was I taking for granted? So you start digging into it, and you find yourself exploring all areas of your belief system.”’

And he claims some of that personal revelation, which doesn’t go over well with the kind of church he moved away from:
‘Some simply know in their gut, he says, that a religion of in-groups and out-groups isn’t what Jesus was preaching.’
https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/how-raleighs-john-pavlovitz-went-from-fired-megachurch-pastor-to-rising-star-of-the-religious-left/Content?oid=9664688

You know, if you’ve been reading my stuff, where I stand with regard to personal revelation. And so here I am, on my hill, where I intend to stay until it’s no longer necessary.

 

*Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 36-37.
http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html

**https://www.gotquestions.org/stone-rebellious-children.html

*** https://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/rescuing-the-bible-from-literalism

This article also takes up archeological questions about the origin of the people of Israel, the supposed conquest of Canaan, and the exodus from Egypt. These are fascinating matters which also feed into our current political situation, but I’ll take them up at another time.

 

 

 

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New Beatitudes for a Hurting World

Sometimes social media, for all the trouble it causes and all the time it sucks, can bring real inspiration and even be a transmitter of grace. I am grateful to have encountered Nadia Bolz-Weber, an extraordinary Lutheran minister and founding pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints church, in a video on Facebook. I hope it’s OK with her that I transcribed her stunning distillation of Christianity:

Blessed are the agnostics.
Blessed are they who doubt,
those who aren’t sure,
those who can still be surprised.
Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones,
for whom tears could fill an ocean.
Blessed are they who have loved enough
to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury
of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart,
because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are those who still aren’t over it yet.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are those who no one else notices,
the kids who sit alone at middle school lunch tables,
the laundry guys at the hospital, the sex workers,
and the night-shift street sweepers.
Blessed are the forgotten,
blessed are the closeted,
blessed are the unemployed,
the unimpressive,
the underrepresented.
Blessed are the wrongly accused,
the ones who never catch a break,
the ones for whom life is hard,
for Jesus chose to surround himself
with people like them.
Blessed are those without documentation.
Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.
Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions
for the sake of people.
Blessed are the burned-out social workers
and the overworked teachers
and the pro-bono case takers.
Blessed are the kindhearted NFL players
and the fundraising trophy wives.
And blessed are the kids who step
between the bullies and the weak.
Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me
when I didn’t deserve it.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they totally get it.
You are of heaven, and Jesus blesses you.

(Line breaks and punctuation are my best guesses.)

After the tears ran their course and I could see again, I looked at the comments on her presentation. (You know what a bad idea that usually is.) And yes, there were those who had to let everyone know how much more theological knowledge and biblical scholarship they had at their disposal than this trained and ordained minister, who they instantly labeled as a heretic. There was even a heated argument about some translations of the Bible being valid and others being heretical. Way to totally miss the point, folks.

What I found particularly shocking— even though I rather expected it to come up— was the view that God will not forgive everyone, only some who deserve it. I’ve seen it before, but I’ve never gotten used to it. A God who withholds love is a very weird God for a religion whose adherents like to say “God is love.”

Some even said that it’s incorrect to say that we are not supposed to judge others, that indeed we should and it’s biblical to do so. But one doesn’t need to have a great deal of scriptural knowledge to remember “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

It surprises me to realize that the rather stodgy and ordinary Catholic parish I belonged to as a child somehow didn’t infect me with the controlling, judgmental spirit exhibited by so many folks who claim to be Christians. I might have expected Catholicism to be far to the more rigid side of the spectrum of denominations, but it often seems to be relatively open. Not always, but often. At any rate, I don’t think it’s only in recent years that I got the idea that Jesus’ teaching is more like Pastrix (her term) Nadia’s words and less like judgment and shaming and inflexible rules that no one can really follow.

The Jesus that Nadia allies herself with seems like the one I’ve met, the one you heard about here if you were around to read this a year ago: https://elenedom.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/you-know-my-heart/
Maybe that’s the Jesus you know too. The one who championed the poor and marginalized while criticizing the rich and self-satisfied. How can inclusion and forgiveness be heretical for Christians?

I wrote in that post: “Perhaps the people I am complaining about have tapped into a pervasive field of fear and judgment, just as I connected with a field of love and acceptance. I would suppose that it is absolutely real to them. I know where I would rather live, and I know which is more likely to generate a world that is better for all of us.”

And now I have to go and work on tolerance myself:

Blessed are those who sincerely read their holy books
even when they ignore the parts they don’t like,
for they are trying to make sense of a crazy world.
Blessed are all of us with our preconceived notions.
Blessed are those who hurt so much inside,
believing themselves to be flawed,
that they must constantly point out the flaws of others.
Blessed are the judgmental,
who find themselves to be unworthy.
Blessed are the spiritually immature,
who rely on being told what to think,
for they will grow up eventually.
Blessed are they who see evil everywhere,
because in their way they are trying to be good.

And blessed are all those who love anyway,
no matter what, without question, without ceasing.

 

The Sarcastic Lutheran blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/
http://www.nadiabolzweber.com/
She writes books, too. I just preordered her next one, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation.

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The Authoritarian Personality and the National Divide

‘In talking to right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) — in any situation — the first and greatest challenge is to reduce the level of fear and increase the level of trust. They cannot hear or see you at all until this happens.’ — Sara Robinson

I think it’s fair to say that a majority of Americans are completely boggled that so many of our fellow citizens are willing to believe so much crazy crap that is so utterly disconnected from reality. Just saying that they’re nuts is not helpful. Strangely enough, there is actual research to help explain why and how they are able to continue living in their alternative reality and steadfastly fend off any facts that might attempt to intrude. And it’s been around since before the last period of far-right fantasy hegemony.

I came across a very useful set of posts by Sara Robinson, who was raised fundamentalist and closed-minded but was able to transcend her upbringing, and who has a lot of understanding about how to communicate with those who are still inside the “Wall” of insulated post-factual unreality. So much became clearer for me. (Scroll down for links.)

Robinson was summarizing the work of John Dean— yes, that John Dean, from Watergate— who wrote Conservatives Without Conscience, which is based on the work of social psychologist Robert Altemeyer.  Although Robinson’s posts pertain to right-wing Americans, certain evangelical Christians in particular, the dynamics of authoritarianism are the same across cultures and religions.

“Research into ‘authoritarian personalities’ began in the aftermath of WWII, as scientists tried to figure out how otherwise civilized people succumbed to the charisma of Hitler and Mussolini and allowed themselves to be willingly led into committing notorious atrocities. The inquiry continued through Milgram’s famous experiments at Stanford in the early 60s; later, some of it became subsumed in the work of The Fundamentalism Project convened by Martin Marty at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s. Long story short: there is now over 50 years of good data on these people coming from every corner of the social sciences; but since almost none of this has been common knowledge outside the academy, nobody on the progressive side has really been putting it to use.”

The bully leads

The description of authoritarians who are on the leader side of the equation sounds eerily familiar in our present environment:
“High-SDO [social dominance orientation] people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:
“Typically men
Intimidating and bullying
Faintly hedonistic
Vengeful
Pitiless
Exploitative
Manipulative
Dishonest
Cheat to win
Highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
Mean-spirited
Militant
Nationalistic
Tells others what they want to hear
Takes advantage of ‘suckers’
Specializes in creating false images to sell self
May or may not be religious
Usually politically and economically conservative/Republican”

“Dean notes: ‘Although these collations of characteristics…are not attractive portraits, they are nonetheless traits that authoritarians themselves acknowledge.’ In other words, these guys know what they are, and are often quite unabashedly proud of it.”

But these leaders wouldn’t get very far unless there were legions of authoritarian personalities on the follower side, and unfortunately there are. It seems that there are all too many people who want to be told what to think and what to do.  Robinson postulates that while the bullying leader types may be beyond the possibility of redemption, a lot of followers may have some openness to communicating across the divide.

I can easily sympathize with the desire to be given simple answers and clear directions. The world is so overwhelmingly complex nowadays, and our path forward seems so uncertain. Sadly, I expect that fundamentalism and authoritarianism will continue their ascent in the near future as climate change and population growth create even more conflict and pressures for water and other resources. They may even provide some sort of genuine protection against chaos, at least temporarily and in limited areas. However, this kind of mindset works against the innovative drive and mental agility that is needed most under fast-changing and stressful conditions.

Dedicated to the cause


“RWAs are sadly accustomed to subordinating their own needs to those of their superiors; in fact, one of the struggles we often see in recovering fundies is a complete inability to even acknowledge that they have needs of their own, let alone identify them, let alone act to meet them. They simply don’t know where to begin. Also, because their own authorities use guilt and shame to control them, they’ve seldom been allowed to see themselves as truly good and moral people.
“Giving an RWA permission to recognize, give voice to, and take action to satisfy his or her own needs is a powerful act. In affirming that they are not just allowed, but entitled (in the name of fairness) to feel their own emotions, own their own goodness, indulge a few harmless appetites, enjoy themselves, assert their boundaries, or stand up and say ‘no’ to overweening authority, you are being an enlightened witness to their true self — something many of them have seldom if ever had. In the process, you are also giving them a direct view over the wall. Often, it’s a view that they never forget, and will keep coming back to until they’re persuaded to go over it for good.”

Red Family, Blue Family

“The best writing on this I’ve seen comes from Unitarian writer Doug Muder, who has taken George Lakoff’s model of ‘strict father’ versus ‘nurturant parent’ politics one step further, and uses it to explain precisely how the right wing came to believe this preposterous notion…. Muder asserts that, while Lakoff’s right that family models are the right frame, the real dialectic is between families of ‘inherited obligation’ versus those based on ‘negotiated commitment.’ Go read the article, then come on back. We’ll be here.”

Here’s the article: “Red Family, Blue Family” https://www.gurus.org/dougdeb/politics/209.html
I strongly recommend that you read this. In fact, I implore you to read it. Lights will go on for you. For example:
 “The Inherited Obligation model, on the other hand, is ambivalent about the social safety net. On the one hand, it is good that people don’t just die when they have no one to take care of them. But on the other hand, the safety net weakens the network of familial obligations. A young adult who moves to the big city to seek his fortune doesn’t come home when he fails, he draws unemployment. Social Security and Medicare may provide an excuse not to take care of aging parents.
“…The Inherited Obligation model is likewise ambivalent about freedom. Freedom to fulfill your obligations according to your best judgment is a good thing. But the kind of freedom that releases people from their obligations is not. In the Negotiated Commitment model, a life without commitments is empty, and there can be no commitment without freedom.”
“Their demonic liberal is a person with no moral depth or seriousness. Convenience is his only true value. Words that we revere, such as freedom and choice, rebound against us: We like these words because we want to be free of our obligations and choose the easy way out.
“Just as married people sometimes imagine the single life as far more licentious and libidinous than it ever actually is, so people born into life-defining obligations imagine a life free from such obligations. The truth about liberals – that we more often than not choose to commit ourselves to marriage, children, church, and most of the other things conservatives feel obligated to, and that we stick by those commitments every bit as faithfully, if not more so – easily gets lost.”

Sometimes those on the left are accused of attempting to control and tyrannize others in the same way that the right does. That isn’t really characteristic of liberals, with their tendency toward fluidity and emphasis on choice:
  “As a final point: Dean’s book puts to rest once and for all the right-wing shibboleth of ‘liberal fundamentalists’ and ‘liberal authoritarians.’ Altemeyer and his colleagues have found, through decades of research, that authoritarians almost universally skew toward the far reactionary right on the political scale. This very much includes Stalinists and other ‘left-wing’ totalitarians: though these men used socialist rhetoric to create ‘Communist’ political orders, they’re classic examples of high-SDO leaders taking control by whatever means they had at hand, and using them to create archetypal far-right authoritarian states. Dean and Altemeyer make it clear that authoritarianism is, by long-accepted definition, overwhelmingly a right-wing personality trait.
“Dean is also emphatic that authoritarianism, in all its forms, is completely antithetical to both classical conservatism (he still considers himself a Goldwater conservative), and to the founding ideals of America. We must be clear: when right-wingers threaten liberals, they are directly threatening the seminal political impulse that created our nation. An operative democracy depends on having a populace that is open to new ideas, able to think for itself, confident in its abilities, willing to take risks, and capable of mutual trust. America was founded as the world’s first radically liberal state. History has shown us that the nation’s best moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong liberal orientation.”

(Note that standing up strongly for principles, such as equality of opportunity in jobs and housing, does not constitute tyranny.)

“Alt” authoritarians

Then there are those who reject established authority but believe in “alt” authorities without question. It’s easy and seductive to see oneself as part of a persecuted minority, a group that’s in the know and smarter than all those “sheeple.” Robinson’s “A Short Detour” section is about them:
“I’ve known way more than my share of these guys, since Silicon Valley is one of their primary native habitats. And my take is that they’re at least as driven by their burning desire to fit in as any other RWA. In fact, their feelings of victimization may be rooted in the belief that they were promised an acceptance in liberal intellectual circles that they intensely wanted but never really found. The most extreme ones were frighteningly bright and well-read, and usually also from very religious family backgrounds. Those two qualities alone guaranteed that it was going to be hard to find a niche among the better-rounded, more secular big city liberals. So they decided that, if they were going to be outcasts anyway, they could at least claim moral superiority. I may be a nerd, but I am RIGHT — the possessor of Ultimate Truth! — and that’s what really matters in the end.”

Why so many of them?

I’ve wondered why the authoritarian-follower trait has been so persistent in the human population, being that it involves so much unwillingness to face facts and thus to deal with real and immediate threats. There must be some advantage, or it wouldn’t exist. Authoritarians do know how to organize and come to agreement, for good or ill, and perhaps that confers an ability to respond more quickly to danger than a dithering, contentious group could, despite their propensity to live inside their imaginary constructions. (Even more than the rest of us, I mean.) Black and white thinking is faster and easier than taking all the grey into account. Perhaps group cohesion has been historically favored over innovation under adverse circumstances?

(Since to be a Christian is to see everyone as your neighbor, and to love your neighbor as yourself, it’s particularly perplexing to me to see that right-wing fundamentalists are so invested in being part of an in-group and demonizing everyone else.)

The most depressing thing about all of this is that Robinson wrote it back in 2006, so hopefully, but nothing seems to have changed, except to get worse. At least, that’s how it looks. I would love to see evidence to the contrary. Please tell me if you’ve got some.

 

Sara Robinson’s posts:

Cracks In The Wall, Part I: Defining the Authoritarian Personality
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-i-defining.html

Cracks In The Wall, Part II: Listening to the Leavers
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-ii-listening-to.html

Cracks in the Wall, Part III: Escape Ladders
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-iii-escape-ladders.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part I: Divide and Conquer
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-i-divide-and.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part II: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-ii-nothing-to.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part III: A Bigger World
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-iii-bigger.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part IV: Landing Zones
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/09/tunnels-and-bridges-part-iv-landing.html

Tunnels and Bridges: A Short Detour
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/09/tunnels-and-bridges-short-detour.html

 

 

 

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“You know my heart.”

About a week ago I heard that the pastor of one of our local megachurches, Steve Smothermon, had referred to my city councilor as a “militant homosexual.” The exact quote was: “Pat Davis, I think that’s his name, City Councilor Davis on the city council, he come out and said it’s the greatest thing, ‘cause he’s a militant homosexual.”

It kept popping back up in my mind, especially since I have friends who go to that church, and they wouldn’t say such a thing. The issue, if I understand it, was that Councilor Davis was trying to defend LGBTQ kids against some school board members who were trying to remove protections that had previously been put in place.

I must be more sheltered than I think, because I didn’t realize that the term “militant homosexual” is used all the time by a faction of religious extremists who believe that gay people are trying to destroy Christianity, indoctrinate their children, and take over the whole country and perhaps the world. As I write this, the image that is running in my mind is that of my kind, gentle lesbian colleagues and their wives, doing their gardening and puttering around the house. It’s pretty hard to square with the fire-breathing monsters these folks are warning everyone against.

This same pastor has gotten notoriously entangled in politics a number of times. He spoke out against Gov. Susana Martinez a few years ago when she appointed an openly gay man to the PRC. ‘Smothermon told NMPolitics.net last month that Martinez “looked me in the eye personally and said she’s socially conservative… she wouldn’t espouse the homosexual agenda.” He said Howe’s appointment “goes against that.”’ http://nmpolitics.net/index/2012/02/pastors-comments-spark-protest-online-debate/

Ah, now we are on familiar ground— “the homosexual agenda.” Hiring the most qualified candidate, who happens to be gay, is “espousing the homosexual agenda.” Because apparently gay people shouldn’t be allowed to work and therefore have food and a place to live. Or maybe they just shouldn’t be paid with tax dollars? The pastor continued: ‘”These aren’t the people we voted for you to appoint. We voted for you to appoint people who think like we do,” he said, adding that he is “not against the human being, but the lifestyle and the political power that the homosexual agenda has today, as a lobbying agenda, that’s what I begin to come against.”’

“We voted for you to appoint people who think like we do.” Separation of church and state does not seem to mean much to such pastors (and indeed, I have heard a few voices on the right say that it should not exist).

If wanting to avoid being killed or beaten in the street, wanting to be able to work and survive economically, and expecting the fundamental respect accorded to any other member of society— just wanting to live— makes us “militant,” I will be happy to count myself as militant and stand up for that “agenda.” In fact, this crap is making me feel more militant by the day. I fly under my bisexual cloak of invisibility most of the time, for good or ill, so these guys don’t see me. If they did take notice of me, though, they would probably be just as happy to attack me as they would my gay friends. I am taking all this extremely personally.

I could go on with a lot more obvious points, such as the propensity of so many religious folk to harp on their favorite few lines taken out of context, and in translation, from the huge literary tradition that constitutes the Bible. But you know all that. I do want to add a word from someone who comments at liberal pastor John Pavlovitz’ blog, a religious person herself, who stated this at least as well as I could: “If we believe God doesn’t make mistakes and that God it is love and that God made humanity in God’s image, then it stands to reason that if God created someone to be homosexual, then it must have been because it delighted God to do so.”

I will not even engage with the contention that people “choose” to be gay. Everyone should know better by now.

And I should know better than to give all this garbage any space in my brain, but it’s amazing what can worm in there and take up residence. I’m going to tell you about an experience I had nearly three years ago and wrote about then but never dared to share with you because it seems an order of magnitude farther out than anything else I’ve posted. It isn’t, really— that’s probably just my inner insecurity talking. As intense spiritual experiences go, it may even be fairly mainstream. Anyway, it changed everything for me. Here goes:

 

*************************************************************************
Events of 9/30/14

A friend told me with great excitement about a channeler she had discovered, who was giving messages from Jesus, as many do. She felt that his work was what she had been trying to find for a very long time, and said that she had at last discovered real peace. The messages she described sounded very much like what I had heard from Hania Stromberg’s channeling [see my old post “An Appointment with Jesus”] and what I had picked up myself, a real antidote to the controlling, limiting, shaming version of Christianity my friend and so many of us had grown up with.

I went to the channeler’s website to find out more. There were a number of messages that seemed worthwhile and helpful. I was a little put off by the fact that the channeler had been associated with the I AM Movement, which has a number of problematic aspects and was founded by questionable and deceptive leaders. He still uses much of their terminology. But I don’t care about the channeler’s background so much as the content of the messages themselves.

I scanned the sidebar of the home page for subjects. One entry was “Teachings on Homosexuality.” My heart sank. “Oh, crap,” I thought. “Here it comes.” I had a pretty good idea what I was going to find— and what I found was even worse than I expected. Not only was it judgmental in the most insidious and damaging manner I had ever seen, it was couched in language that insisted the speaker wasn’t being judgmental at all. The effect was, “I would never judge anyone, but you’re horrible beyond redemption.” It also came off as “I’m only telling you this for your own good.” I will not repeat what I saw there, because it doesn’t need to be given any validation, and my readers don’t need the trauma. The sanctimoniousness was thick and sticky, and so very familiar.

If this had been written by any typical yahoo wingnut preacher, I would have shaken my head sadly, closed the page, and moved on. But my friend’s reaction to the channeler, and her typical level of depth and thoughtfulness, gave it far more impact in my mind. I felt deeply ill, sick to my stomach. The idea that people, especially young people, would read this and let it get into their systems was horrifying. I knew this wasn’t the Jesus I had met, not remotely, but I couldn’t just leave it alone.

This was one of my piano lesson/lunch and writing/walk on the ditchbank days, and as I strolled under the cottonwoods that afternoon, I quizzed myself very rigorously, just in case, on whether I might be rejecting an actual truth because it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. (That sounds silly now, that I could consider accepting anything so insane even for a nanosecond.) No. Every molecule of my being told me it was utterly, evilly wrong. I sent out distress calls. Normally I don’t have conversations with Him, and don’t have a clear “phone connection,” but I hoped to get a reply. After all, he had told me years earlier that I could always come to him for comfort if I needed to.

A little later, when I got home, I felt his presence. As soon as the contact began, I knew there was really nothing I needed to ask. The answers were in the presence itself. A fountain of love and acceptance rushed down through the top of my head and filled me everywhere. Being me, though, I had to ask for clarification in words.

He did not say that he had nothing to do with this man or that the messages were wrong; he said that the channeler was getting only the surface of what he was trying to say. He showed me a view of an ocean full of creatures, and explained that while there were a great many fish living in the water, this man saw only the few fish that swam toward him and presented themselves to his vision. This image formed clearly in my mind, one fish after another swimming forward, turning, and moving away into the darkness beyond. It was an odd metaphor, it seemed to me, but the meaning was easy to understand.

At the end of that sequence, I heard, “I am the ocean.”

I realized that the reason I had been so upset by the channeler’s presentations was that some part of me believed he might be right. “I need reassurance,” I went on, chattering nervously, along these lines: “I, and people I know, do feel in a way that we are broken or unbalanced or wrong. I don’t really think it’s true, but I feel it. You know that I feel something’s wrong with me because I fall in love too much. I guess you probably think that’s silly, and it is, but I feel it. Anyway, I need a hug!” I was getting seriously teary by this time.

I’d been getting a lovely cosmic hug the whole time already. He said something that surprised me: “You know my heart.” Yes, I did. “And I know yours,” he continued. I was both feeling much better about everything and dissolving further into weepy, overwhelmed jelly.

And then he said something even less expected, something so large that it doesn’t fit in these words: “My heart is yours.”

I felt the meaning, far beyond the words. He had told me Tat tvam asi, Thou art that. We are one. I already partake of Christ Consciousness and I am in my rightful place in the universe of humanity. I am not unacceptable, not wrong, not broken. I am loved, and I always will be. (You are too.)

 

In the weeks that followed this experience, my friend kept sending me more material from that website. None of it was particularly problematic or offensive. I wondered if she had even seen the part that had upset me so, and was afraid to ask. She wanted to know my reaction to what she sent, and I couldn’t figure out how to talk about any of it without bringing up what I saw as a central issue that invalidated the whole body of work. At last I couldn’t avoid it any longer, and I found a way to discuss it with her. She didn’t like that section any better than I did, but she wasn’t worried about the validity of the channeling overall. She reminded me that even the channeler himself had written about the difficulties of getting messages through without having them colored by our own biases and expectations. That was good enough for her. It wasn’t for me.

I was left feeling that I would rather listen to Source Itself than to what anyone else says. To whatever small extent my antennae can receive it, that is. All I can tell you, as usual, is, “This is what I heard. Make of it what you will.”

So what’s the difference between me and others, like the wingnut preachers or this channeler, who claim they know what Jesus is saying? Maybe not much. But I can truthfully state that I am not trying to get any power over others.
****************************************************************

Perhaps the people I am complaining about have tapped into a pervasive field of fear and judgment, just as I connected with a field of love and acceptance. I would suppose that it is absolutely real to them. I know where I would rather live, and I know which is more likely to generate a world that is better for all of us.

More recently, I found myself in a lengthy and eye-opening discussion with a Catholic priest who reminded me that a traditionally religious viewpoint does not necessarily require a narrow, judgmental attitude. I think I’ll save that story for another day.

 

While looking for background about Pastor Smothermon’s comments, I found a couple of other articles of interest:

http://www.paulholtministries.com/2012/02/10/homosexuality-steve-smotherman-and-the-torah-observant-jesus/
This is an argument against those who point out that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality one way or another. Holt writes that Jesus didn’t need to say anything about matters that were already covered in the Torah because he was an observant Jew and so must have agreed with everything in it. Pastor Holt apparently believes that not only does he understand everything Jesus said, he understands everything Jesus did not say as well.


http://nmpolitics.net/index/2012/02/forgiving-smothermon-praying-for-those-his-words-affect/

“Pastor Smothermon does not need to apologize. I have already forgiven him. I pray for him, but more importantly I pray for those his words affect.
“The kids that are bullied on the playground because Pastor Smothermon says being gay is wrong. The individual that continues to seek God’s love but can’t find it because Pastor Smothermon says there is no love, and in essence gays should not hold any job.”

For some perspective on the centrality of the fight against “militant homosexuals” among members of the religious right, check this out:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Gf4jN1xoSo
“True Origins of the Religious Right”
  The emphasis on homosexuality and abortion, issues not brought up in the gospels, turns out to be surprisingly recent. In contrast, although the gospels say that Jesus did speak against divorce, repeatedly, most evangelicals seem happy to let divorce go on. They would like to keep it available for themselves, so it’s perfectly fine. It’s those other people who are doing all the evil.

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Another Human Being’s Identity Is Not Yours to Dictate

(Rant Advisory! I am as upset about this as if it pertained to my own child, or to me.)

So very often I am reminded of the old song that goes “None of us are free if one of us is chained.” It adds, “And if we don’t say it’s wrong then that says it’s right.”

Sometimes the chains are kept locked by those who think of themselves as far beyond bigotry or intolerance.

In the past week I have encountered two attacks against transgender people that appeared on the surface to have some higher intention. Both were warmed-over versions of old arguments.  One came in the form of a supposedly spiritual look at gender identity through the lens of reincarnation, and the other purported to be a principled defense of the rights of women by a feminist group.

GIVE. ME. A. BREAK.

I could call out the “spiritual” thinker by name, but I’m not going to, because his presentation is not just his own but represents a turn of thought that is all too common. It’s been used against gay people, too. The idea is that if you are not comfortable twisting yourself to fit into a gender-binary, heteronormative life, it’s because you were a different gender in a previous life, and either through confusion or through willful stubbornness, you are still clinging to identification with that gender. If you persist, you are stupid and bad. You should just get over it and move on, and then you’ll be fine.

This is the exact same paternalistic crap promulgated by religious groups who insist that God made you either male or female and that’s that. God doesn’t make mistakes, and so if you don’t feel right in your body, you are going against God, and therefore you are sinful and bad.

I’ll get to the so-called feminists later. First, I want to take a look at exactly what God/nature/biology did make. Because we do have some actual facts to work with.

While it would be nice to have human reproductive biology all wrapped up in a neat, understandable package, the more we learn, the more we see that things are complex and fuzzy. “Male” and “female” are not definite categories with hard edges. I’m sorry if someone dislikes this, but it’s reality. Some easily accessible sources of information follow.

http://www.isna.org/faq/ten_myths/rare
According to this, about 1 in 2000 humans are intersex. Another source estimated 1.7% of births. That’s a lot of people. Some may never realize they are anything but typical male or female, or may only find out late in life. One person I’ve read about was a seemingly ordinary middle-aged man with a bunch of kids, who had an abdominal surgery and was found to have a uterus in addition to his full set of male reproductive parts.

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001669.htm
There are a variety of possible intersex conditions, with varying appearances and health considerations, briefly summarized in this article.

If that’s not enough, take a look at the fascinating case of the guevedoces. A few weeks ago I learned about them in an excellent PBS program, Nine Months that Made You. In the Dominican Republic, about one in 90 boys have this condition, which has also been found in Papua New Guinea. They have XY genotypes like “regular” boys, but they lack an enzyme that is needed to develop male genitalia in the womb, so their parents think they are girls and raise them that way. At puberty, they have the usual surge in testosterone and become obviously male all of a sudden. Of course, they were biologically male all along.
http://www.pbs.org/show/9-months-made-you/
http://www.newsweek.com/rare-condition-causes-girls-become-boys-puberty-374934

So are we clear now that external genital configuration does not equal gender? Likely we’re not clear at all and I’m still going to get a big argument from those who insist on a binary world, but in that case, they’re going to have to register their objections with God, because this is the way nature is put together. A religious and/or spiritual viewpoint, it seems to me, would have to say that there must be a good reason for things to be this way. A purely materialist viewpoint would say the same— that nature has shaped human bodies and brains in a dazzlingly diverse variety because it’s been helpful to our survival.

Some might then point out that transgender people are not the same as intersex people, and that most probably have clear male or female genotypes or phenotypes. But there appear to be differences from cisgender folk in those cases too, albeit subtler ones. As far as we can tell, transgender people have brains that function more like the gender they say they are rather than the one indicated by their genital apparatus— though this too is complex and a bit fuzzy.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-there-something-unique-about-the-transgender-brain/

Here is a link to another useful PBS program.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/growing-up-trans/
What struck me most about it was that the kids decidedly look like the gender they say they are. That’s not a hard scientific fact, but to me, it reinforces the concept that there is a physical basis for being transgender.

I don’t pretend to understand much about these aspects of our biology, nor how they fit with how we become who we become when we enter a new life on this planet, or what choices we have or don’t have about our embodiment. My conjecture is that gender exists as a spectrum so that we can experience every permutation of it, but that’s not fact. What I know for sure is that it makes no sense to tell others how they feel inside themselves— either how they do feel or how they should feel. It’s illogical and it’s just plain mean. And when it’s coupled with a holier-than-thou or more-enlightened-than-thou message, it’s positively sickening.

Now, to the lawsuit filed by the Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF. It’s the bathroom thing again, same as the extreme right’s fearmongering, strangely enough. They are insisting that “men” in women’s restrooms are a threat to women’s safety. I’m not going to rehash the reasons why trans women are no threat to cis women in this context (or anywhere else, really). You can find those all over. I’m only going to point out that trans women are not men. In their brains, the part of the human body that matters most, they are women. So denying ordinary human rights to those women cannot be feminism. Not in any way I can recognize it.

The latest post on WoLF’s Facebook page, in reference to the rule allowing kids to use school facilities consistent with their gender, states: “Girls’ rights to personal privacy and freedom from male sexual harassment, forced exposure to male nudity, and voyeurism have been eliminated with the stroke of a pen.” This makes my stomach churn. I am of course not a trans girl trying to navigate high school (which is hard enough for the rest of us), but reading this, I can viscerally relate to what they experience. It is terrifying. To be just a kid and know that others assume you are a sexual predator, when all you want to do is attend PE class and not get beaten up… to be hated and censured by “righteous” people one has never met… it boggles the mind and even more the heart. Imagine being, say, a second grader, too young even to have a concept of voyeurism or anything like it, having no idea why people are saying these terrible things about you.

(Please note that I don’t mean to ignore trans boys.  It’s just that WoLF seems to be targeting trans girls and women specifically.)

WoLF’s lawsuit clearly contradicts two of their main stated goals, and they seem to have no clue that this is the case. The home page of their website says: “WoLF is a radical feminist organization dedicated to the total liberation of women. We fight to end male violence, regain reproductive sovereignty, and ultimately dismantle the gender-caste system.” The total liberation of women has to include ALL women, not just the ones who look a certain way. Dismantling the gender-caste system (a laudable goal) has to mean completely dismantling, so that no gender is discriminated against.

Why should we settle for anything less?

 

It’s a great song:
http://www.altheaknight.com/None-of-us-is-free-if-one-of-us-is-chained
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC2mmeA9CA8

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Wibbly-Wobbly Sexy-Wexy

don't existA few months ago I wrote a post entitled “Identity and the True Self,” in which I alluded to the concept that none of us truly exists.  The “not existing” referred to in this meme is something else– it’s a deliberate attempt to erase or marginalize someone, in this case someone who identifies as bisexual and thereby makes someone else uncomfortable.

I was halfway through another planned post about being treated as if I don’t exist because my entire profession is considered by some to be nonexistent, to deal in the unreal.  Then it came to my attention that this is Bisexual Awareness Week, and that today, September 23, is “Celebrate Bisexuality Day (often abbreviated CBD), an international awareness day that is also referred to as Bi Visibility Day and Bisexual Pride Day. Three bisexual advocates– Wendy Curry, Michael Page and Gigi Raven Wilbur– conceived of the event as a way to combat bisexual invisibility. CBD, which began in 1999, is celebrated with events around the world celebrating bisexual culture, community and history. In 2013, the White House held its first bisexual community issues roundtable on Celebrate Bisexuality Day.”  http://www.bisexualweek.com/about/

We have a day?  We have a whole week?  We have White House roundtables?  How did I not know this?  Until last year, I didn’t know we had a flag, either.  (It’s what you see behind the words in the meme above.)  I’m honestly not sure why none of this came to my attention, especially since I’m very much interested in gender politics and I follow gay and transgender rights issues assiduously.  Is my ignorance simply my own, or could it be in part a measure of that erasure and invisibility?

What also had not come to my attention until the past year or so was the fact that people who identify as bisexual are often seen as untrustworthy, disease-ridden, greedy, sexually voracious, shallow, unable to commit, confused, actually gay but afraid to say so, actually straight but looking for attention, and/or basically lying cheating creeps.  In addition to not really existing, that is.  We sure have a lot of awful qualities considering that we’re not supposed to exist.

I must admit that I’ve lead a rather sheltered life in some ways.  I’ve been with my husband for 36 years, since I was 19.  I never really was part of the dating market and I am blissfully ignorant of its workings.  I have not been much pursued by members of any gender, and those I would have liked to pursue have tended to run the other way.  So I can’t claim to have a complete picture of what’s going on out there.

I’ve also been extremely lucky in not being given much guff about my 360-degree sexual orientation.  Some guff, but relatively little.  As a teenager, I knew other people who had attractions to both males and females, so I felt, if not normal, not too terribly outré.  My husband has always been fine with me being me.  I haven’t remotely experienced the oppression that a great many people have.  (There was that one woman I had a youthful crush on for years, who, when I told her how I felt, looked at me as if I’d crawled out from under a rock and refused to ever speak to me again.  That was the worst of it.)  The straight world has been pretty gentle to me for the most part.  The gay world has been too, in terms of my interactions with individuals.  I didn’t know that there was a deep prejudice about people like me.  Here’s someone’s take on it, which may or may not reflect what any specific person thinks:

oppressed

Well.  Perhaps people would have had more of a problem with me if I were trying to date them?  Then I’d be rejected by all sides?  I decided to ask some trusted gay friends for their point of view and what they were hearing out in the world.  I’m not going to quote them directly, because I want to preserve their privacy, but what I was told was eye-opening, to say the least.  In one case it was positively vicious.  Even the more compassionate statements concerned why the person would never want to get into a relationship with a bisexual.  I was taken aback.  No wonder a lot of people like me want to use some other label.

If it’s necessary to use a label at all, that is.  I hear that the young whippersnappers increasingly are saying what I’ve always said, that they are interested in the person, not the plumbing, that sexuality is fluid, and that labels are too limiting and they don’t want them.  Maybe at some point all of this distinction-making will seem quaint and outdated, and people will just be who they are and feel how they feel.  That day isn’t quite here yet, but there’s hope.

I do “pass” and that has probably been a benefit to me– a degree of “bisexual privilege” for real.  I’m not trying to pass, though, and don’t particularly want to.  I’m still using the old-school label bisexual, understanding its limits*, because it is what I’ve always called myself, what I’ve known myself to be ever since I was aware of having any sexuality at all.  But now I’m beginning to think of myself as:

wibbly-wobbly

*“Pansexual” might be better but doesn’t feel quite right.  And I haven’t come up with a word for someone who is in love with a person who has been dead since 1849, or who is almost exclusively attracted to musicians, or who thinks pianos are a turn-on.  “Sapiosexual” is a great word and fits me well– someone who is attracted to intelligence.  Mary Oishi expanded this to “sapiocardiosexual”– attracted to a fine brain and a good heart.  Far more important than the organs lower down.


Whovians may very well have a word for those of us who think the Tenth Doctor was seriously hot.  He’s the one who explained that time is not linear, but instead is more like “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.” 

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