Friday, January 23, 2015

"he's just not capable"

It's a lie.

One of the lies I learned, as a kid growing up in the church, is that the people we know, the good people, are just that: simply good. And good people do good things. Good people don't do bad things. They certainly don't do horrible things. They're not capable of such.

Except that it's a lie.

We who are raised on the narrative of Adam and Eve, who walked and talked with the Lord in the cool of evening within the sanctuary of the Garden, doing the very first archetypal horrible thing--how is it that we miss that our faith itself belies this comfortable falsehood?

Perhaps it is simply that it is too brutal a truth to face down every day and still get out of bed and enter the world bravely. Perhaps it is simply that we need this lie in order to function. Perhaps it is simply our habit of dividing the world and the people in it, over and over again, along whatever lines are relevant, into the simple categories of good and bad.

We ought to know better. Over and over again, we hear the stories of the terrible things done by good people in the scriptures. David and Uriah, anyone? The man after God's own heart who committed murder by delegation in order to justify the rape of the murdered man's wife? Who was nonetheless so committed to notions of justice and righteousness that he could get worked up over Nathan the Prophet's made-up story of a stolen pet lamb? And who was really, really sorry after? Yeah, David was a good guy.

And yet he was capable: of lies, of rape, of murder. He was absolutely capable.

What we have got to be able to wrap our minds around is that "he's a great guy" can be absolutely true, and at the same time "he's just not capable" is a lie. Yes, he is. We all are. Because that is being human.

It's the only way to make sense of the fact that there is far less "stranger danger" than risk that your kids will suffer sexual abuse from a family friend or family member. People that you know, and trust, and love, and respect. And the brutal, terrifying truth is that you love and trust and respect those people not because you're an idiot or a neglectful parent, but because you know them and you have solid, actual reasons to love and trust and respect them! They're good people. You know this, because you know them. And you have to trust your personal knowledge of people, because this is simply the basic way we negotiate life--there's no way around it.

And yes, this is terrifying. But we have got to acknowledge the complicated, uncomfortable truth that abusers are simply human beings. They are not monsters. They aren't even bad guys. They're good guys. Good guys that we go to church with, are related to, have known all our lives, are married to--good guys who, like David, are absolutely capable.

And just because "he's not capable" doesn't apply (to anyone!) doesn't negate that yeah, he's a great guy.

I get that it's natural--in fact, necessary!--to rely on your own personal knowledge of others in making judgments. I get that it's difficult to move beyond "he's not capable" when what you're really saying is, "I can't imagine my friend/boyfriend/brother/cousin/uncle/husband doing such a horrible thing." There are reasons why people tend to believe abusers rather than victims, and this is one of them.

The only way to intervene in this is to remind ourselves--not that we can be mistaken--but the harder truth to swallow, which is that we aren't mistaken in our experience of an abuser as a good guy...and that this doesn't mean he isn't an abuser. And that we simply cannot dismiss another person's experience of that good guy with the words, "he's just not capable."

Thursday, October 02, 2014


I don't have many words of my own lately to share. And, lately, I've been finding that I often use words as shields against the silence that might reveal all the things I've been avoiding. So it seems that this season of life is a season of listening. Which makes for a very silent blog.

So here are some words of another that I have returned to lately, to listen and meditate on.

From Paul Tillich (full text here):

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves. We experience the grace of being able to look frankly into the eyes of another, the miraculous grace of reunion of life with life. We experience the grace of understanding each other's words. We understand not merely the literal meaning of the words, but also that which lies behind them, even when they are harsh or angry. For even then there is a longing to break through the walls of separation. We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, and by which we have been accepted. We experience the grace which is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belongs to life.
And in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to ourselves. We experience moments in which we accept ourselves, because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we. If only more such moments were given to us! For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self- complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life. We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say "yes" to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that grace has come upon us.

Friday, May 30, 2014


I was walking down the sidewalk,with a (male) friend just ahead of me when I felt it--a hand on my breast and a quick squeeze. I stopped walking. No one else did. So I shook my head in disbelief, and hurried to catch up. What else was there to do?


I was on  bus with a large group of friends, coming back from a soccer match in Florence. A man across the aisle was staring. As he lined up to exit at his stop he reached out and caressed my cheek: "che bella," he said, and got off the bus.


I was on the C train on the way home; it was late; I'd been volunteering for the NYC Hope Count that night. It was me, a sleeping homeless person, and a group of black guys being rowdy on the other end of the car. As the train neared the stop one came over and said, "You are truly beautiful." He didn't touch me. I don't know whether it was sweet, or creepy.


I was on a train, headed back to the villa. I was alone, and it was late--I was just going to make it back before curfew. An older man and two boys passed by in the corridor, looking in, and then came back and sat down in my compartment. They were chatty--wanted to know if I spoke Italian and where I was from. Pretty soon the conversation turned a bit coarse--they were laughing and using words I didn't know, but the hand gestures were pretty unmistakeable. I stood up to get a book from my pack so I could plausibly ignore them; when I sat down one of the younger ones had his hand in my seat and grabbed my ass. There was a lot of laughter at my reaction, and then some faux chivalry as the younger guys switched seats at the older man's insistence so I could be "safe." It was a long ride to Santa Maria Novella, and I had my pack on at the first sign of drawing into the station, ready to run. But the old man blocked the door. He grabbed me and pulled me in for an embrace and nuzzled my neck. And then, finally, let me go.

I was terrified and grateful that nothing else had happened. Much more could have.

I got back to to villa an hour after curfew. No one had missed me, and I didn't say a word about my train ride.


I dated a good Christian boy who allowed himself far more liberties with me than he'd ever done with anyone else before; this was my fault, because "my mind was impure" due to experiences from relationships in my past.


I sat in a room at Princeton Theological Seminary, listening to a panel discussion on sexism, harassment and abuse. The question was posed to the room at large: "how many women in this room have experienced some form of sexual harrassment?" Every woman in the room raised her hand.


I had just defended my dissertation, and bursting with pride, had ordered a new set of fabulous, unique business cards from an artist friend in Brooklyn for AAR. Handing one to an acquaintance in the hopes of networking for a job, I received this comment: "You are the sexiest woman I've ever seen." Nonplussed, I responded, "Um...yeah, they're really great cards, aren't they."

I was defending a critical, theological argument on a theology blog. I was accused of misunderstanding the point, of not having a modicum of common sense, of being "vaginal retentive," of being a buzzkill. Despite holding a PhD in Theology from a respected institution, I was treated like a child having a temper tantrum because she couldn't possibly understand what the grown-ups were talking about.
#YesAllWomen: Why it's so hard for men to see misogyny

Please understand. I'm not seeking sympathy, apologies, or pity. These things happened, and life went on. But this is what it means: this is life, for #YesAllWomen. This is "normal." This is typical. This is part of what it means to be a female body in the street, on the bus, on the train, in the classroom, at a conference, on the internet.

And part of what it means to be a female body in the church? Is it really all that different?

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Mothers give us life and our first scar. My children stretched it out and made it more beautiful.

Happy Mother's Day, everyone. May it be beautiful.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Saturday, April 26, 2014

the next round

Gearing up for the next round, y'all. But more and more, the question for me, and all the other folks in similar situations, is: how long do you hold out hope of landing that thing known as a "real job," that thing with salary and benefits? That pays enough that you can actually afford to do it, and afford the corollary expenses that come along with doing it, like childcare and takeout and help with the house? With an office you don't have to share with three others who probably wouldn't appreciate staring at those pics of your kids you set up on the desk, so they get put away at the end of your scant office hours? With colleagues? With time to research and write and publish?

I'll be honest. I've thought about alternatives. There are a couple problems with that. One is, my only other marketable skill sets are waitressing and having babies. The other is, I really, really love both my subject, the art of teaching, and the act of writing. I love the classroom--undergrad, grad, philosophy, theology--all of it. And I'd like to write another book.

And let's be honest, too, that putting 7 years into a degree, and then walking away from all that it means to you, is just a difficult thing to do, in terms of your sense of self.

So. Here I am, y'all. Exhibit JTB of the adjunct problem in academia.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Waiting: an out-of-season Advent homily (reflections on World Convention)

And I stood, waiting while the circle completed itself and everyone, in turn and by name, received the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. And in the waiting was a blessing equal to the blessing received in the gift.

In that attentive stillness, it struck me that I was quite simply at peace. I was not in a hurry. I was not thinking about what came next. I was not thinking of what I should do or not do, or what I should be doing while I waited or if people were looking at me while I waited or what they were thinking while they waited. I was quiet inside, an unusual thing for me, and that quiet seemed to have reached in from the outside, where we waited on each other.

In this quiet chapel was a group of people from all over the world, who had spent two days talking, thinking, praying, dreaming and planning together. They had been strangers to me, but in this moment of sharing and waiting in the ritual which brings Christians of all traditions together, I realized that I belonged here in this room.

Born and raised Church of Christ from Cradle Roll to college, there have been many times that I have felt alien in my church. Sometimes it has felt like a wound, but I have learned how to live with it. Don't put pressure on the spot; move carefully; be wise, be cautious, be diplomatic, be circumspect; make sure you take the hits that come somewhere else so they don't hurt too bad, and turn the other cheek. It's become normal, this mode of faithfulness to my church.

But in this room, I belonged. In this room, my wounds were cherished as much as my gifts. In this room I was welcome. In this room, I was waited on.

The Churches of Christ have always been a part of something larger than themselves--all churches are--even if we have worked hard to ignore it, at times. In this room full of people from all over the world, from all the branches of the Restoration movement, celebrating our unity and common history and anticipating a future together, I felt for the first time in a long time that I was glad, deeply glad, to have grown up in this particular expression of Christianity, this peculiar, rational, contentious, deeply faithful bunch of God's people.

So I cried a little bit, and that was okay.

And then it struck me: we were not simply waiting on each other, but God, too is waiting on us. We make space and time to sense it in the celebration of Communion, but it is constant. God is waiting on us--though most often we think we are waiting on God. We say to each other, "those that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint," and it is true; but God, too, waiting and watching and hoping and anticipating as we learn to embrace each other in the unity of the Spirit.

I am so grateful in this moment for the work that the World Convention (Christian-Churches of Christ-Disciples of Christ) has done in the many years since its founding, the work that we are preparing to do in the future, and the gift of belonging that I received so unexpectedly in that Communion with my sisters and brothers from around the world.

Unity is a mysterious gift, rooted in the very life of God: created in the same image, saved by same Savior, gifted with the same Spirit, we are indeed one, in ways that surpass recognition, assent, doctrinal agreement or even volition…and for this I give thanks and praise. Amen.