Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Doorkins, The Book

Lisa Gutwein with Rowan Ambrose, illustrator, Doorkins the Cathedral Cat (London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017) ISBN 978-1785923579 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the memorial service for the resident cat of Southwark Cathedral, Doorkins Magnificat.

So having seen the movie, what does one do next? Read the book, of course. Our library had it in the Children’s Room, but they let me borrow and read it anyway.

Illustration style of a cat in front of a cathedral

It’s a short book, all of 40 pages. About half of it covers a week in the life of Doorkins—children visiting, posing in selfies, escorting a bride down the aisle, the inevitable meetings, the Queen stopping by, meeting with parishioners, and of course, getting hair on the bishop’s vestments. It’s all told with a fine dose of whimsy and wonderfully illustrated.

The other part of the book is a series of photographs of Doorkins at work around the cathedral. It's a charming series that reminds us of the value of rest. And that brings to my own thoughts, reinforced by Blaze snoozing on my lap, that it's time for a nap. But before I go, a reminder of the saying I quoted before: “she entered and we made her welcome. People concluded that if this little cat is welcome, maybe I am too.”

On this Thanksgiving week here in the States, one that began with Christ the King and the lesson of being kind and helpful to others from Matthew 25, let’s remember that, say deo gratias, and make everyone welcome.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A caste for casts

 A review and reflections on my field: Caste: the origins of our discontents, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Random House, 2020.

It often happens, that those who live at a later time are unable to grasp the point which the great undertakings or actions of this world had their origin…. all things… are at their beginnings so small and faint in outline that one cannot easily convince oneself that from them will grow matters of great moment. -- Matteo Ricci, Historia in Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin, 1985), 267. 

Caste opens with a story that illustrates Ricci’s statement: a 2016 heat wave in Siberia that melted the permafrost and unleashed toxic anthrax in a community. The spores had never died, but laid dormant, awaiting circumstances that would bring them to flourish. Wilkerson likens this to a building with a small defect in a beam that, over the years, imperceptibly weakens the entire structure. In all of these cases, an unnoticed and unintended flaw springs up to cause problems of “great moment.”

That small defect in the beam is caste, a human hierarchy that leaves in its wake social rigidity, power structures, stigma, and dehumanization. Caste facilitates but is not the same as racism, and is also a more inclusive explanation of the phenomena of exclusion, one that reaches beyond race. Often justified through religion and culture, caste becomes an underlying and often unconscious structure in our lives. In this book, Wilkerson examines three caste systems: India, Nazi Germany, and race in the United States.

Race, as I often explored in teaching, is a recent social construct (hey, so is disability—which we’ll come back to). It has no basis in biology, and originated from the transatlantic slave trade. The social construct of racism refers to dislike or disadvantaging a person or group because of the ascribed race. Caste is similar, but creates a hierarchical system of enforcement, one that tends to be impersonal and does not require personal dislike. Caste becomes a routine pattern, with unthinking expectations based on a perception of natural order.

The Indian system is well-known and oldest. The American system developed from the arrival of the first Africans in 1619. With a racial basis, it resulted in laws that defined and enforced distinctions, such as who could be enslaved for life and who could not, who could be Christian or not, or even who was regarded as having a soul or not. In this way, American slavery, which lasted until 1865, was not the same as that of the ancient world. In turn, the justifications behind this led to eugenics, which emerged full-blown in Nazi Germany, with distinctions and definitions derived from American standards.

The eight pillars of caste begin with divine will or order, which leads to inherited status. From this there is a need to control marriage, which guarantees purity within the dominant group. This is enforced through absolute standards, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization, and the use of terror, fear, and psychological degradation to reinforce status. A recent article about a discrimination lawsuit provides a perfect illustration of all of these.

The caste system creates and requires inequality. In turn, that generates dissent, rivalry, distrust and lack of empathy.  An excellent example is the story of Cotton Mather’s slave Onesimus, who in a 1721 epidemic shared an African vaccination against smallpox. Many would not use it, as they assumed nothing from an African slave would work, but it was, after many deaths, proven useful. Sometimes the results are violent, such as the 1921 Tulsa riots where a successful Black area was wiped out (this is one of several incidents graphically described in the book that illustrate the atrocities of the American racial legacy).

There are also sociological implications. Descriptive terms are applied, such as black and white, which are not at all true. I am pink and my neighbor is brown. But gradations are forgotten in caste systems, which pull people apart into categories, label and then reinforce the status consequences of those categories.

cover of Caste

After reading the book, I looked at some reviews. It wasn’t a shock to find a group who thought that it  is nonsense. It was no surprise to find that those reviewers seem to have a place of privilege in the system—and that they don’t seem to have thoroughly read the book. If they had, the story of Albert Einstein fleeing Germany, and his subsequent championing of Marian Anderson, the singer who could not stay in segregated hotels, might have hit home. Einstein stated that as a Jew, he could understand and empathize with how black people feel as the victims of discrimination. Einstein went on to take an active part in NAACP efforts to end lynching and promote civil rights. If you were unaware of that part of Einstein’s life, it’s a good illustration of the need for a full history.

I cannot claim to fully understand what Black people go through, any more than temporarily able-bodied people can claim to fully understand living with a disability. But like Einstein, I do share with other people who live with disabilities an understanding of how discrimination works and how it wastes human potential. We can all empathize and work with others to end that waste. In that regard, this book is not the final word on that needed full history, but it does provide a solid base for further work. 

In my own field, people with disabilities have long felt the described sanctions of caste. Divine authority is shown in claims of a condition being the results of someone’s sin or lack of faith. This leads to calls for submission to healers. There is also control of daily activities, whether from lack of accommodation or inability to pay the high price of suitable transportation. And the phrase “marriage equality” also rings with overtones of control as meager benefits are cut or genetic purity is pursued.

Thinking about those sanctions, Wilkerson brings up two points. First is that we are not personally responsible for what people who look like us did centuries ago—but we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people with us today. Theologically, we are all responsible for treating others as we would like others to treat us. Second, we don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are or are not in pain. We should listen to the cry of those who are suffering.  

Disabled people are also well aware of those who tell us what we need.  These would be the people who organize telethons portraying us as people to be pitied, adorn us with childish terms such as “special needs,” advocate against insurance coverage reform, call us an “inspiration” and urge “overcoming,” and otherwise put us in a system requiring that we are docile and submit to the system and don’t come up with ideas like “nothing about us without us.” Disabled people are also familiar with stratification structures that leave us behind. This book shows an important need not only in race, but for disabilities, and especially for those caught in the intersection of both.

 Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with a promise to return it within three weeks. That promise has been kept. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Doorkins Magnificat: Maybe I am welcome too

From time to time, I have been known to ask "where are the disaster theologians?" This question refers to the assorted preachers and politicians who are quick to interpret hurricanes or similar events as expressing divine judgment on America, usually for betrayal of their favorite non-biblically-based cause. The ability to find significance in such events is all the more curious for their way of overlooking other events, especially of the sort taken as signs and wonders in the books of the prophets.

Therefore, it is suitable that I acknowledge a convergence, and make some theological hay of it. October 29 is National Cat Day, and follows closely National Black Cat Day on 27 October. Hallowe'en with its inclusion of cats is only a couple of days away.

And linked to those is the cycle of creation. Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland is best-known for his chronology, worked out between 1650 and 1654, that set the first day of creation as the evening of 22 October 4004 BC. Although problematic in many respects, it is worth noting that his notion places us on this day in the midst of the arrival of animals and humans seeking companionship. So all of the signs and dates are upon us, even if slightly manufactured.

A cat sits in the aisle of a Gothic cathedral

Doorkins Magnificat, a resident of Southwark Cathedral in London, crossed the Rainbow Bridge on 30 September. Yesterday, she was remembered in a memorial service that celebrated creation, divine love, and, of course, cats and what their lives tell us about life; you can view the service here. I also invite you to read this story of her life and keep this line in mind: “She arrived, she entered and we made her welcome. People concluded that if this little cat is welcome, maybe I am too.” 

Well done, good and faithful follower. Rest in purrfect peace.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"About Us"

About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times, Peter Catapano and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, editors. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2019. 

This book is diverse—as it ought to be, for disabilities are diverse—covering at least physical, neurological, intellectual, auditory, visual, congenital, acquired, and, to borrow a phrase from the (proper) translation of the ancient creed, “seen and unseen.” It collects 60 essays from a New York Times series of personal stories describing various aspects of living with a disability. 

The collection begins with a foreword that discusses eugenics, the pseudoscience that began with Francis Galton, and which, after some preliminaries in the United States, led to Hitler’s atrocities. While eugenics has generally been disavowed around the world, pockets still remain, and more dangerously, an unseen residue still infects many policies and attitudes (including in the United States, where a Supreme Court ruling favoring it still stands). 

Thus a valid claim that while disabled people lead “rich lives,” frequent limitations on work and other activities (which are not always valid, but socially constructed) lead to devaluation. One reason this happens is that one’s experience of living with a disability is very different from outside perceptions—again, “seen and unseen.” This is the reasoning of the familiar saying “nothing about us, without us” which is recalled in the title.

book cover

The diversity of the book makes a summary difficult. But there are several points which resonate with me and conversation partners. The first is the language that is used about conditions. There is less talk today of disability being a curse, tragedy, misfortune, or individual failure, but there is a lack of agreement on what terms to use. Perhaps as a more open body of history becomes part of our culture, and a wider, more diverse community flourishes, we will gain a better sense of cultural place and how to share. 

Among the most stigmatized conditions noted in the book is mental illness. Much of what passes for discussion these days presents a monolith of danger. The truth is that both sanity and mental illness lie on a spectrum, and, most people spend some time at various points on that line. 

Everyone is only an accident away from becoming disabled, and this proximity makes disability scary to most people. But rather than compassionate care, the response is often ableism. Ableism leads to categorization that devalues people. This is especially prevalent in the medical model of dealing with differences, where we become patients needing treatment rather than human beings with differences. 

Thus ableism is an important factor in disability life, and has recently been receiving the attention it deserves. As with racism and sexism (among others), when disability is not considered in planning and design, ableism is at work. When it’s not considered, we end up with haphazard routes, difficult-to-find elevators, inaccessible planning, and other situations that are reminiscent of separate doors for blacks during the Jim Crow era. It’s all in a day’s life for those who live with the ultimate American irony—bootstrapping by refusing to give in to a body that one cannot control, and that medicine offers little help with. It also brings to mind the Nazi T4 program, which preyed on these factors. As my friend Kenny Fries, a scholar of the program states, it brings us to address the value of life, and reaches beyond abstract affirmations to the reality of ableism while ignoring social and design problems. .

This creates a world in which we must be resourceful and adaptable as we await and strive for a world of universal design. The example of OXO is noted here—the company began with hacks of kitchen tools to accommodate arthritis. Will that gain a chapter in history, or be overlooked yet again—or written off to some other origin?

The question of theology is always “where is God in this?” So while this is not a theology book as such, all of the above bears on theological concerns. And there are explicit theological questions and allusions. “People with disabilities are the unexpected made flesh” (53), just as the Gospels portray the irony of an unexpected messiah. There are also, as most of us would expect, references to faith healing and prayer for cures. A good question is raised in many of these accounts—who needs healing, the person with a disability or the attitudes of society? When one reads the healing stories in the Gospels carefully, it is not the disabled person’s faith, but that of the social group gathered around him that brings change. Neither is that change imposed. Bartimaeus was first asked what he wanted, and his answer was listened to – once again, “nothing about us without us.” Yes, there are also stories of messages from God delivered by those who are not involved. As I commented here, God is perfectly capable of sharing her plans with us, leaving us to wonder why it seems that this information is never shared with those who are most directly involved. Is that the ultimate ableism?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Holy envy, Batman!

A review and some thoughts: Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (HarperOne, 2019)

Choose as many answers as you like: If you do that or go to __, you’ll lose your faith:

Science class

That concert

College, especially at a state university

A United Methodist church

Marry that woman


Graduate school

In roughly chronological order, I have heard all of these, and have probably forgotten just as many. Somehow, just like that phrase “yet she persisted,” prevails, πιστις also persists—and may her tribe, including cousin σοφια, increase! 

An education is supposed to, by origin and definition, challenge and bring new horizons (ēdūcō "I lead out/away”). And when that leading out happens in the field of religion, it can be earth-shaking. Religions often describe encounters with the divine as producing so much change that people take on new names and, in the case of Moses, a new face. The prophets of ancient Israel spoke of bringing new hearts, minds, and even a new earth as their contemporaries in India spoke of finding freedom from the burdens of acquisition. A once-obscure Jewish rabbi spoke of bringing new life. Periodic renewal movements call us back to those ideals, removing the accretions of centuries of institutionalization and its power plays.

Although I often also teach history and anthropology, there is a strong element of religion in those fields—as anyone can observe, it has historically been a source of conflict, but it has also inspired some of the world’s great art. This is one reason this book resonated with me. Student and teacher alike finish a course with life turned over. 

Taylor posits three rules for talking about religion, which she derives from Krister Stendahl: ask its adherents about the religion, not its enemies; don’t compare your group's best to their worst; and leave room for holy envy (65).  To this she adds a corollary, derived from Robert Farr Capon’s Hunting the Divine Fox: Images and Mystery in Christian Faith (Seabury, 1974): understand that humans are finite, and that trying to understand God is similar to an oyster in a tide pool trying to understand a prima ballerina dancing on the shore. At best, we see those puzzling reflections that St. Paul wrote about. But humans are not fond of admitting that there are limits to our abilities. Thus, as Taylor puts it, as brilliant as our tide pool theologies may be, the brilliance of the ballerina exceeds them all (77). 

cover of Holy Envy: finding God in the faith of others

There are many other memorable points in this book. One is that very little of our religious talk is actually religious—but then, most Christian teaching is based on the lives of people who were strangers to religion. With so many outsiders in the story, why is “the other” so fearful? Is it because the Bible is too familiar to us, and we no longer read, see, and hear what is on the page? Being a student means learning, continually, not only what is there, but what is not known, especially when it’s about something we’ve been told or want it to say. Scripture has its own voice--sometimes more terrible than wonderful--but it has never failed to reward close attention (as I mention in a previous post). 

Technical and vocational education is absolutely necessary, but they do not lead us to understanding our past and its treasures, which in turn teach us how to lead a responsible and respectful social life. The study of religion (and other liberal arts) opens us to a wider world. We don’t need to fear that learning Spanish will cause us to lose our ability with English, she writes (210). Having taught some classical languages at times, I have found that this is true—understanding another language and the culture that goes with it will deepen your own language. You won't lose your faith, you'll gain a new aspect. You may lose the old box you kept God in, but will gain a new, more complete perspective. 

In the end, we need to ask, what is teaching about?--and one the other side, what is learning about? Teaching is dangerous, which is why authoritarians and dictators have, throughout history, sought to control it. Learning is the art of becoming unsettled and pursuing the truth of the divine enigma to awaken to new possibilities.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and promised to return it within three weeks. I fulfilled that promise. The check-out receipt also informed me that I've saved more than $250 this year by using the library, after deducting my share of taxes. This is a far better, and more informative statement that the nonsense that Kroger puts on our receipts about how much we've saved by shopping there--for one thing, compared to what? As with too many things in life, we spend a lot of time listening to meaningless numbers and too little thinking about what matters. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Searching for the scriptures

 Review and reflection: Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) 

The Bible is generally regarded as the most influential book in the world, and is consistently among the best-sellers. Whether that is for good or ill is less certain—it may sell well, but it doesn’t seem that all of the buyers read it, as this meme reminds us. And when it is read, disputes about how to understand it are nothing new, as church history tells us. Many forget the principle of starting from the larger view and moving on to the details, and get lost in the proverbial forest because of the trees. 

Armstrong takes a larger view in this book, first by including the other scriptures of the world, and linking them to historical developments. This method of surveying of Hebrew, Christian, Greek mythology and philosophy, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Chinese writings produces fascinating insights and parallels. This approach views sacred texts not primarily as instruction manuals, but as prods to seek that which is behind our great questions. In this, she would seem to agree with the classic view that divine matters come to us as an enigma, understanding comes from seeking truth, imbued with a sense of wonder (Plutarch, De E Apud Delphos 384, 385). 

book cover -  Karen Armstrong
This quest to pursue an enigma engages both sides of our mind. Failure to understand this, along with the role of each of the two sides, leads to an imbalance that is literally killing us. It is multiplied when listening to those who cherry-pick completely non-representative passages from scriptures and use them to characterize their prejudices in a way that leads to increasing strife and misunderstanding. 

Regaining the balance of the two sides gets a lot of attention here, and to me, it’s the best part of the book. Neurology tells us that the truth behind Plato’s cave parable (Republic 514a-520a) is reasonably accurate: we don’t have direct contact with the world. What we do have are perspectives gained from our senses, which are only representations of reality. Our mind’s left side senses linear, scientific ideas, while the right side deals with relationships and a desire for justice, as well as unity. The right is also more attuned to “other” and “Other.” Armstrong maintains that the right side is where prophets, speaking poetically, expressed their scriptural insights, and that the prophets have been among the few to integrate that with the practical left side. However, in today’s world, a scientific mindset has upended the balance, and seeks to define (i.e., set limits to) the infinite, thereby containing it. 

Scripture, in all faiths, is a product of civilization, which is also a science (a body of knowledge which requires specialized skills and training), but it is also an art. As a sacred text, often divinely revealed, it is authoritative. But it is also something that lives in the right hemisphere of the brain, the land of music and poetry. It does not “mean” anything as such, but is meaning itself (just as, some theologians state, God is being itself)—and as Armstrong writes, like all religious language, it “must eventually segue into the silence that is an expression of awe, wonder and unknowing” (68). 

The origins of scriptures are not in writing, but in performance—singing, reading, acting, and liturgy, and thus it requires interpretation, the same as a musical score. It is not intended to confirm a stance, but to challenge and call for transformation. A note on writing: as Armstrong notes, while known in the ancient world, writing was unwieldy and used as a memory tool or for records. It was not intended for daily use or, and it was understood that one who studied the stories knew them by memory (Plato, Phaedrus 274c-275b). We can also note that this approach, evidenced by quoting the first lines of a passage, is found in the Gospels and Epistles. 

However, since the Enlightenment, especially in the West, everything, including scripture, is increasingly read with a scientific approach instead of a spirit of wonder and enigma. Its byproduct, the Reformation, celebrated the written word and sought clarity and definition.  Armstrong doesn’t note the irony of the “law of unintended consequences” here—the Reformation spawned not only this attitude, which has befuddled the meaning of scripture, but also set off demands for personal and political freedom which came to haunt religion and the governments that established churches supported. 

Armstrong concentrates on a shift from scripture as a prod to radical change to using it as proof-texts for what becomes an increasingly smaller view of the world. One of the casualties of this search is the insistence of Augustine (among others) that scripture taught only love of neighbor. She notes that the Chinese philosopher Fang Yizhi (1611–71) wrote that this misleading, mechanistic approach created a West that is “detailed in material investigation … [but] deficient in comprehending seminal forces” of the ineffable (390, Fang Yizhen, Wu li xiao, 1.25a, 1.6, 12a). As the doctrinally-centered approaches which this pursuit results in increase, there is a loss of transcendence, which leads to self-serving justifications that are cruel, divisive, and complacent. In this regard, Darby is little different from Qutb or many others today: scripture is read to confirm one’s views rather than to seek transformation. If more people read the scriptures with a seeking attitude, there would be a lot less disability exclusion and a lot more acceptance in a shared, inclusive journey. Scripture is incomplete when, as the United Church of Christ suggests, we place a period where God places a comma. 



Thursday, August 6, 2020

A theology of diversity

A review and reflections on Theodore Hiebert, The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God's Diverse World (Abingdon Press, 2019).

In the wake of the 30th anniversary of the ADA, as well as recent movements for racial justice, we have heard a lot about acceptance, accommodation, and diversity. Engagement of these ideas is more than toleration, and a crucial presumption of disability as well as racial equity. It’s also more than being an ally; it requires inclusion at an equal level for all. It also requires accommodation of difference without discriminating against some ability or trait that reflects a culture, whether ethnic, linguistic, or of a subgroup. And it requires understanding how these factors form identity for individuals and groups.

Often, such acceptance and understanding fails due to being unaware. How often has someone mentioned an access problem and the reply is “I never thought about that”? Although this is not the only cause, many times, generating awareness is a major step toward resolution. Thus, a critical factor is the response to difference when one becomes aware of it: is there acceptance, or is there an effort to impose one’s own norms on another? Does one honor differences, giving others dignity, or deny them, thereby seeking to eradicate, or worse, act as if they do not even exist? 

These are the questions which Hiebert raises in a study of Genesis and Acts. He begins by sharing his own growth in awareness of difference, and then considering how storylines in both books parallel actions of recognizing difference, seeking to understand the difference, and fostering respect for those who are different. The book is, as the title states, an exploration of the growth of identity through cultural factors in Genesis, and then how this growth is repeated in Acts. This, in turn, leads to reflections on how this understanding affects other factors--in our case, principally disabilities.
Cover of book: black with white title and author, and a small color wheel

Beginning with the Babel story, Hiebert follows through with Noah and his descendants, focusing on Abraham’s line. As a story of origins, Genesis is important for this quest, because exclusivist readings and questionable translations have led to misleading interpretations. Although his result is a radically different understanding, it is also a conservative one, for it “seeks to go back and recover the original views and values of biblical text” and to listen to what the writers of Genesis said, and then extend those understandings to today’s world (xxix-xxx).

Hiebert contends that Babel should be read as a story about reconstructing the world after the Flood. The Flood is an interruption of the story of humanity and a new beginning, but the first efforts of humans in this effort are not much different than the first. In response, God creates difference—but not as a punishment. This is often obscured by faulty translations and lexicography: the root problem faced by God is to confound empire building by royal figures who would impose their culture on others. God’s action is to “mix,” as one would ingredients for a cake, rather than “confuse” (20).  

Genesis then proceeds to tell the origin of the world’s family tree in a series of narratives about interaction of different cultures, by which the writer seeks to instruct us in how maintain an identity while also engaging others. Thus Abraham’s family teaches us how to respond to differences. The same plot repeats: conflict arises, rivalry drives a reaction, followed by a response of harm, then a path to survival. Yet while Cain and Abel told us about a failure to engage, we now see responses that bring about separate, diverse cultures. To the attentive reader, these stories also offer a critique of the rigidity of patriarchal structures and tell us of the conflict and consequences of this system, coupled with how an imaginative response of generosity leads to a realistic path forward.

Hiebert then turns to the Pentecost story, where he finds a parallel to Genesis: the first Christians, rooted in Judaism, move from a single culture, language, and place to reaches out for diversity as they go “to the ends of the earth.” But not only do those followers take this message, they adapt it to the receiving cultures. The linguistic diversity of Pentecost illustrates this adaptation as it validates the distinctive identity of other cultures. Then in Acts 10, after some prodding, Peter realizes a call to reach out to other cultures. This outreach offers a charter for the church, a charter which Hiebert calls on us to follow through by celebrating and living with difference. 

An outreach to cultures in general would certainly an outreach to people with disabilities. We can recall that “mixture” is a call for genuine inclusion. In disability and other ministries, this can be summed up in the phrase “ministry with.” This would gather people as partners and equals who would teach everyone with their own gifts. People with disabilities are not simply an unreached group to be objectified (as in the phrase “ministry to”). This approach is true for all: honor the culture, use that honor to respect and learn about God’s gift of diversity, and join as included partners.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and promised to return it in three weeks. The promise was fulfilled.