Sunday, June 17, 2012

An Exercise In Recognizing Privilege: "It's the Bi-ble, Not the Straight-ble," and Other Scenarios

Privilege is something many of us with privilege don't think about enough. I include myself in that category. I'm a white male living in the USA who identifies as Christian and lives above the poverty level. Sure, I could be more privileged, but not much more.

We in privilege often don't realize the oppression and ostracism we insert into the hegemony. I've been thinking recently about how we in privilege would feel if that metaphorical shoe were on the sore foot of the oppressed. Here are some of the scenarios I've imagined we would hear.

"It's the Bi-ble, not the Straight-ble."

Why do some people make their points so ineffectively and rudely? If someone wants to support their beliefs with their religion's traditions and holy texts, they should first make sure they are sharing their beliefs, not arguing. Arguments place everyone involved on the defense and nobody wants to listen to the other person or budge an inch. Arguing makes people believe their beliefs even more than before and without justification. 

This scenario basically is politics today. Democratic and republican politicians "argue" in front of a microphone in front of a ton of people who completely agree with them--the politician is one of the leaders of their party's hegemony--not people who oppose them. The arguments are full of pithy statements like the one I created above and simply make everyone involved believe their argument more, often haughtily looking down on the Other. I presume this is the reason we have bumper stickers and political ads that do nothing other than say something like "Change," "Vote Yes/No on Such and Such," and "Pro-life."

Next, it is important for people in privilege to recognize they understand the world from a point of privilege. Perspective necessarily influences (haunts?), well, perspective. If you've never considered what it is like to be someone else, than you've never truly understood anything.

"It was their choice."

You think being part of the GLBTQ community is a choice? I'm not positive if anyone was born straight or not. What I do know is that nobody chooses their genes or the environment that rears them. I never chose to have a Christian background or to become liberal. I was raised Christian, which included that culture leading me towards a point where I thought I was choosing that religion for myself and so I "asked Jesus into my heart" and, later, was baptized. Did I really choose Jesus, though, or did everything in my rearing convince me that I had chosen him? I still identify as "Christian" today, although I know many Christians won't allow me that term today.

And what about being heterosexual? If everyone is born that way and some people choose something other, when do people make that choice to accept their heterosexuality? I at least feigned a choice with religion, but I never made such a choice concerning my sexuality. Unlike many who think sexuality is a choice, I've actually interacted with people in the GLBTQ community and they don't recall making a choice, either. Instead, I hear stories where individuals simply find themselves sexually attracted to certain people. They simply learn/find out about themselves the same way everyone else does. Heterosexuals find out they especially enjoy people of the same gender, gays and lesbians learn they enjoy the same sex, and bisexual people find out they enjoy both. And often times those who identify heterosexual or gay/lesbian find out they even enjoy some situations involving those who don't fit their general, sexual identification. We are sexual beings first, then we are in a specific sexual community (sometimes).

Finally, if sexuality were a choice, then every heterosexual could choose homosexuality. What heterosexual thinks they can make that choice? That choice includes not only enjoying and preferring sex with the same sex, but also preferring the romantic love and companionship of the same sex over against the opposite. Trying to make that choice is a great exercise in understanding privilege.

"Look at that straight couple holding hands. What they do in the privacy of their bedroom is their own business, but do they have to flaunt it in front of everyone's face?"

What anyone does sexually is their own business, as long as they don't hurt anyone (physically, emotionally, or developmentally), the latter point being why rape and pedophilia are unacceptable. But if one group of lovers can constantly engage in PDA, why not the others? Heterosexual couples are everywhere. They walk down the street and no one looks twice. They're in advertisements and products like condoms and lubricants are even advertised in a way catered to these people's sex life during the day time. Most movies have a heterosexual couple or two prominently featured and anytime a guy sings a song, the person about whom he is singing is assumed to be a woman.

Heterosexuality is everywhere. The GLBTQ community should be able to engage in PDA without people thinking it is "in their face."

"That waitress is so straight. I'm a pretty good straight-tective."

"Gaydar," really? I hope the person who coined that term never felt proud of it. In fact, in the USA today, no one should think they can tell who is GLBTQ by the person's mannerisms or other characteristics and forms of self-expression. Granted, we all make inductive inferences. Stereotypes exist for a reason and, yes, there are certain characteristics that we currently see more often from a gay man than a straight man or a lesbian in comparison to a straight woman. However, even if we haven't personally met people who defy this stereotype, the world, even the media, is ripe with examples of people who destroy this type of induction.

My favorite example is Capt. Stephen Hill. You may remember him from the Republican debate back in September 2011.

This guy fits no GLBTQ stereotype. Just because you correctly infer someone's sexuality a few times or multiple times doesn't mean you have gaydar or, more so, that the GLBTQ community can be correctly stereotyped. At least, no more than any other community. Inductive reasoning's downfall is counterexample.

I would also like to point out that Santorum says sex has no place in the military. That statement is exactly like the previous scenario I imagined, because heterosexuality is in the military everywhere. The men and women in the military can talk about their heterosexual loves all the time. The GLBTQ service members deserve the same freedom. I don't currently believe the military is engaged in fighting for our freedom, but they are available and ready to do so. If people of the GLBTQ community will fight physically for my freedom, then it is our duty to fight for theirs politically.

"I had a straight/white/Christian roommate in college once. It was pretty weird."

As a Student Affairs professional, I feel comfortable saying that the roommate experience is a weird one, regardless of the identification process of your roommate(s). If your roommate is the same gender as you, but part of the GLBTQ community, you should not assume that roommate will want to have sex with you. And even if he or she does, that doesn't mean they are going to act on it or constantly desire it. Lots of heterosexual men have female friends with whom they would have sex or about whom they occasionally fantasize. That's simply how some men are (N.B.: not all men are as horny as many believe they are). However, they don't act on it or necessarily even want it in reality. GLBTQ people are humans, too, and they know when relationships shouldn't involve sex and romance.

I hear a lot of people talk negatively and awkwardly about living with other races and religions, too. Or sometimes they talk about it as if it is the quintessential diversity experience. When someone tells me they had a Muslim friend or roommate, I feel like I'm supposed to be in awe that they managed to navigate living with someone who worships a "different God." Living with a person of color or a person of another religion is really no different than living with a person of the same race, ethnicity, or religion.


Many other things exist to be said about recognizing our privilege and being more sensitive about it. What statements do you hear a lot that display ignorance of a person's or your own privileged status?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Community of Acts 4:32-35: An Inspiration for Equality Today

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
--Xenophanes (c.570 - c. 475 BCE), in H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker.
If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.
--Voltaire (1694-1778), Notebooks

Thousands of years ago Xenophanes recognized Greek religion was humanity writ large. Greek gods were often criticized for being less moral than humanity, which is likely why Xenophanes made his comment, although we don't have the context, since his only extant writings are quoted by others.

Hundreds of years ago Voltaire criticized more modern religions, specifically Christianity for the same reason. When we're honest, we see Hebrew and Christian scriptures reflect their culture and authors just as much as the Greek poetry creating their gods.

The authors of the Bible were most likely men living in an age where patriarchy and misogyny were the norm. There's no hiding that a lot of misogyny permeates through the Bible. People certainly try to hide it, but it is only hidden by those who don't want to see it.

Fortunately, the Bible also houses a lot that uplifts women, placing them on equal footing with men. Unfortunately, many people fail to see these parts. Some of them are hard to miss and others are hard to find.

Acts 2 and 4 both carry short descriptions of an early group that Acts describes as people who believed. It would be anachronistic for us to call these people "Christians," since Christianity as we know it today was not extant. These descriptions are a brief snapshot into gender equality in the Bible. 

Acts 4:32-35

At the very end of Acts 4, the storyteller tells us "the whole group of those who believed" were a community in a way sounding almost like socialism (v. 32). According to these verses, an echo of 2:42-47, none of those who believed--it would be anachronistic to call these people "Christians"--"claimed private ownership" (4:32). Instead, each individual or family unit thought mi casa es su casa, to introduce another anachronism. But it wasn't just their homes, it was also their fields and the crops therein. Since crops involve labor and care, one person's time was another person's time. To add to the oddness of this group, they managed to eradicate poverty in their numbers by selling any excess they had and giving the money to the apostles. (I assume this passage is the basis for the idea of a benevolent fund in today's churches.)

This sort of community stands against its own scriptures. They were Hebrews, but the concept of ownership is decently clear in Hebrew scripture. Even the "big ten" gives an implicit concept of ownership, specifically ownership of one's wife. Exodus 20:17 considers a wife a piece of property that should not be coveted, in the same ranks as another man's ox, servant, or even his ass (although, we're not talking about homosexuality ... yet). And the Ten Commandments aren't the only place making this implicit statement in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

In Acts, the Israelite believers claim no "private ownership of any possession." "Of any possession" would include a house, wife, servant, ox, ass, or anything else. Personally, I doubt wives were shared with the entire community. Rather, giving up private ownership means wives are no longer possessions. They aren't something you own to complement or balance you in the home or in raising children, rather they are partners and equals--"of one heart and soul," like everyone else in the community (v. 32).

Deciding on Egalitarianism

These verses are simply examples of the contrasting view of the genders in the Bible, views that reflect the individual communities and constructed to be divinely right. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures experience this contrast within themselves. Both display misogyny that many prefer to construe as complementarianism, the idea that men and women are inherently different in their societal roles, but are best when together in heterosexual marriage (Rachel Held Evans rightly calls it "soft patriarchy" 

The Hebrew and Christian traditions and scriptures are also filled with examples of women who are powerful, holy, and independent of men. Since the scriptures display many sides within the spectrum, any "biblical" theology of manhood and womanhood is a delicate balancing act of what you want to believe. Just as the community described in Acts decided men and women are equal, we, too, must decide. When it comes to religious communities today, the impetus to decide what is godly, just, and right remains with us.

And when we look at the world around us--including the world throughout history--and the world within us, I can't see how our decision could be anything but equality. Women and men everywhere are equals in virtue, leadership, business, art, entrepreneurship, religion, politics, and more, unfortunately including mistakes. The only area in which men and women are complementary is reproduction and balancing prospectives on life that are connected to one's sex. Men cannot fully understand life in relation to the menstrual cycle, child birth, and breast feeding--a perspective one might deem gynocentric or at least largely gyno-influenced--just as women cannot understand a man's necessarily phallocentric or phallo-influenced view on life. Men and women can balance each other and, indeed, need each other, but no more than white people need people of other races to balance them, Christians need people of other religions to balance them, and heterosexual people need the LGBTQ community to balance them. That is how we should understand complementarianism.

In making this decision towards equality, it cannot simply stop at sex and gender either. The community of believers in Acts took a dangerous leap of faith when they banished the concept of ownership from their midst, a decision that is very marginal  even today, especially when it comes to what we consider the continuation of those believers (viz., the Church). We, too, whether people of faith or not, need to take a similarly dangerous leap of faith by continually speaking out for equality of all humanity--equality of sex, gender, religion, race, nationality, gender expression and identity, and sexuality. And we need to work--not fight--for this equality in our personal lives, religious communities, and political communities.

When we make this decision for true egalitarianism--one that includes and goes beyond men and women--then we are honoring and living in the spirit of this community in Acts 4.