Thursday, April 28, 2016

Language and preconceptions.


I finished my thesis last Thursday!  And it was approved by my advisor! So I'm that much closer to my second master's degree.

For today, something that isn't my thesis.

Yesterday after Ulpan Hebrew, one of my classmates asked me if the Ten Commandments were given in Aramaic.  And I shrugged my shoulders and said, well, they're written in Hebrew, and that's the only form we have them in.

But more important, I think, is the question or assumptions behind her question.  She's a scholar, I think she has a PhD, and she's leaving Sunday to travel around Europe giving talks on Ladino, the Hebrew/Spanish/Latinate creole of Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula (similar to the Hebrew/Germanic/Slavic Yiddish of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe).  So her specialty is Medieval, not ancient Jews.

There's this long assumption, and because of its history, it's the one in popular culture/non-specialist academics, that Hebrew was mostly a written language and Aramaic was the spoken one.

There are two problems with this assumption.  One, Aramaic and Hebrew are different languages.  And it's not like Latin to French, it's more like Spanish to French.  Both are Western Semitic languages which developed in parallel, not one from the other.

The second is that Hebrew must have functioned like Latin in the late Medieval church, because even though the Mishnah and the early Midrashim are written in Hebrew, it's a different Hebrew from the Bible, so it must be a corrupted version, like Medieval Latin was to Classical Latin, and the rabbis were obviously speaking Aramaic.  This assumption, I shouldn't have to point out, comes from Christian scholars in the 19th century.  I usually do have to point out, however, that these Christian scholars were by and large either straight-up anti-Semitic, or more casually anti-Jewish.  Underlying either stance is the unquestioned assumption that Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple was a dead religion, dry and legalistic, with no spirituality, non-life-giving, and abandoned by its God.  It's also worth pointing out that many Jews from the 19th and early 20th centuries who trained in European, and therefore Gentile, Christian universities adopted and perpetuated some of these assumptions because they were the accepted scholarly opinions of the day.

In 1947, the caves at Qumran were discovered, and eventually the thousands of manuscript fragments there gave quite a different picture.  Most of them are written in Hebrew, and it is a Hebrew that is obviously a spoken, living language, one that is used for letters, scriptural commentary, poem and prayer composition, and speculative theology.  Also discovered in wadis in the Dead Sea area were the Bar Kokhba letters and the Babatha Archive.  While the Babatha Archive is mostly in Greek, the Bar Kokhba letters are in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, and these are not religious but political documents.  Together with the scrolls from the Qumran sect, these documents show the Hebrew was, in fact, a living, spoken language, well into the second century CE, and that Mishnaic Hebrew, far from being a corrupted memory of a dead "liturgical" language, was instead probably the language the rabbis were actually speaking when they composed their texts.

It is true that eventually, later in the third and fourth centuries, Aramaic did apparently become the main language, as the later Midrashim and the Yerushalmi (Palestinian/Jerusalem Talmud) are written in Palestinian Aramaic, not Hebrew.  But there doesn't appear to be any historical evidence backing up the old assumption that by the Second Temple period, Hebrew had already faded into a barely remembered "liturgical" language.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Graduation approaches


Hebrew started this week, so I think blog posts (assuming I remember to write them) are moving to Thursday.

As the title says, graduation doth approach, which means I am starting to feel kind of stressed out about my thesis.  Since I am, I'll write about that today.  It turns out that I did indeed decide to build my thesis on top of my good paper from last semester.  I'm just adjusting it slightly so that it's not a paper about 4QMMT anymore, but about a sociological analysis of Second Temple Jewish groups.

It's generally accepted now that during the Second Temple period, Judaism was moderately diverse and divided into different groups or sects and even to speak of "Judaisms."  Most analysis of these follows standard sociological constructs, in the vein of Max Weber or and Ernst Troeltsch. These scholars both built generally applicable sociological models to explain groups or sects in any human society.

One aspect of the Second Temple sects that I think has been overlooked is the importance that halakhah played in these groups' various self-definitions and also as a cause for sect formation in the first place.  I am using "halakhah" (הלכה) to refer not to the Torah itself, but to its interpretation and specifically practical interpretation.  The discovery of the documents known as 4QMMT at Qumran and the apparent attestation to a halakhic debate that also appears in the Mishnah invigorated study of the Qumran sect and their possible provenance, but I still think even Jewish scholars overlooked the importance of halakhah itself.

I am arguing that halakhah was in some cases the cause of group/sect formation (as in the case of 4QMMT) and definitely one of the primary characteristics of self-definition.  Josephus tries to explain the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes to his Gentile audience by making them look like Greek philosophical schools, but he cannot hide that many of the disagreements between the groups were halakhic in nature.  Even, I am arguing, the Jesus movement cared about halakhah, recorded their group's halakhic decisions, and cast Jesus as their group's halakhic authority.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

What crisis in theology?


It is common to say that the Holocaust caused a crisis in theology.  What kind of god would allow the systematic and mechanized murder of millions of human beings?  But it also caused a deep crisis for many Christians who had to stare at the rhetoric of the church's history and its use by the abhorrent Deutsche Christen of the Nazis as well as the general acquiescence to anti-Semitism by European and white American Christians.  Not only God, but the church itself had to undergo redefinition.

Earlier this week, I was reading a very insightful article on Donald Trump.  The author argues cogently
Barack Obama is many things, but conservative rhetoric aside, he’s no radical.

We can’t say the same for Obama as a political symbol, however. In a nation shaped and defined by a rigid racial hierarchy, his election was very much a radical event, in which a man from one of the nation’s lowest castes ascended to the summit of its political landscape.  ...

For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism, however, Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. And with talk of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he presaged a time when their votes—which had elected George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan—would no longer matter. More than simply “change,” Obama’s election felt like an inversion. (emphasis original)
This "shock" is the loss of white power and loss of the white perspective as normative.  And I think this is the same shock that Christian theology is undergoing in the century after the Holocaust.  It is not so much that Christianity was wrong as it was centuries of white male theology culminated in something so horrific.  That the "historical-critical method" could be brought to bear on the wholesale slaughter of human beings.

However, for anyone who was paying attention, this should not be surprising.  Many of the scholars who pioneered the historical-critical method were openly anti-Semitic, because the Christian church had been for centuries.  From the constant expulsions and denial of citizenship to the slaughter of Jews during Passion Week to the forced conversions of the Inquisition to the pogroms of eastern Europe, the church had been arguing, in many of its myriad Roman Catholic and Protestant forms, that Jews were members of a decadent, dead religion, abandoned by their God, and deserving of death.  The famous documentary hypothesis of Welhausen rests implicitly on these assumptions (e.g. P must be late, because the Law was a corruption of God's original religion).

And so, with a weekend's reflection, I am going to say that there should be no crisis of theology or faith for Christians because of the Holocaust, but only a crisis of unexamined, un-self-conscious assumption of white supremacy.  White Europeans are not special, and have no more intellectual capacity and insight than anyone else, and the Holocaust proves they can sometimes get it catastrophically, barbarously wrong.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Same sex marriage and category errors.


I've been on here before stating that many of the arguments against same sex marriage fail because they attribute characteristics to different sex marriage that don't exist or are historically implausible.  Today I'm going to attack another: the idea that if we legitimize any "alternative" to 1-male-1-female marriage, we open the door to all of them.

This stance is not only very common, but is unfortunately helped by the "love is love" argument, which I have made here myself.  I'm going to call that a category error because marriage is not 100% about whom you are attracted to.  The similarities between two people of the same sex getting married are far greater to two people of different sexes than they are to any of the ridiculously suggested "slippery slopes" like human-animal, child, or incestuous marriages.

Validating same sex marriage is not validating any and all variants of human sexual attraction.  This is the argument, and it is false.  Two men or women who wish to commit their lives to each other and form a household as consenting adults are pretty much equivalent to a man and a woman who wish to do the same thing.  They are adults.  They are both capable of fully informed consent.  Both couples are capable of raising and providing for children which will not, from the conception, be genetically disadvantaged.  All of these things are impossible for the "alternative" marriages described above.

The other question that comes up, especially in regards to child marriage, is one of cultural norms.  If, as was common throughout human history, children or young adolescents entering marriage is a cultural norm, shouldn't we tolerate it?  In this case, I think the answer is still no, because we have decided that, generally, children and young adolescents are not capable of making those kinds of decisions.  The frontal cortex is not fully formed until the late teens or twenties, and this development has significant impacts on a person's decision-making capabilities.  The other factor is that child marriage is much more often the girl or young woman being married to a much older man. which initiates not only an impressive power imbalance, but also pairs someone who may or may not be capable of consent with someone who is able to force a decision.  In this case, the woman is undervalued from the start, and this is simply not what we should be striving for.

I've avoided the word "biblical" several times here because there are examples in the Bible of all kinds of marriages, including ones today we would find abhorrent (e.g. children, rape, slaves).  However, what is described in the biblical text and what God has established as ideal for God's people are not the same thing.  I think the biblical text is pretty clear that the ideal marriage in God's kingdom is monogamous and equal and based on love.  These characteristics are easily matched by both same and different sex marriages.  They are not by any other "scary" alternative.




Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Can we please stop using "lady" for just about anything?


I am so sick of reading about anything "lady." "Lady parts." "Lady talk." Anything prefixed with "lady."  Also, calling women "ladies."  It's irritating in its faux sarcasm and irony.  It's also ridiculously infantilizing, especially when referring to genitals, but generally, because God forbid we should use the word "women."  Honestly, "girl" is better because at least it doesn't come with the smarm of look-at-me-I'm-so-ironic. 

What really bugs me is when I see it used with self-conscious cuteness by otherwise feminist writers.  As if there's something special and different when "ladies" do something opposed to men or mixed company.  It still has the effect of othering women and women's experiences.

Just stop.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The shortsightedness of commoditizing the mind.


I live in Silicon Valley now.  I miss the east coast, and specifically New York.  But certain things seem sharper here.

"Everyone should learn to code!"

The United States government is planning to invest four billion dollars in teaching American students to learn to code.

Obviously, a lot of smart people are convinced that computer science is the way of the future and that it's becoming a necessary skill to generally be a competent adult.  Which is to say, get a job.

There's a problem with this, however.  Well actually, there's a lot of problems.  The first is that to teach someone computer science and coding, you need to choose a language to teach them.  And that language is either a) written for the express purpose of teaching someone to code, which will turn out lots of people who know that specific language but not much else or b) trendy at the moment you are teaching them, but will go out of fashion in a few years.

The underlying problem here is treating education as if it is job training.  Neither of the products of a) or b) above will be able to "hit the ground running" when hired for a job, which is more or less the stated goal of teaching people computer science in the first place.  The education system in this country, public school up to university, is treating students, that is human minds, as if they are commodities to be pumped out the door into corporations.  And those corporations are and have been complaining that this system is producing substandard products.

I am and have been, as you might guess, a liberal arts student.  But I can code.  And I wasn't a bad coder.  I can't get a job coding because I haven't done it since 2007, so I appear as if I am out of fashion.  The thing is, because I'm a liberal arts student, I know how to think.  And computer science requires a shitload of good logic.  Philosophy teaches logic.  Give me a book and a week and I can learn a programming language (I can say this because that's precisely how I learned Python).  I can do this because I've studied philosophy and logic and languages and all programming languages do basically the same thing, you just need to learn the specifics of how that particular language handles it.  It's even easier than learning human languages (Ancient Semitic languages, for example, don't have verb tenses.  There is no past or future.  It makes translating... fun).  But I can also do lots of other things besides code.

And this is the problem.  Four billion dollars would be a lot better spent teaching people logic and philosophy and then tacking a basic comp sci course at the end.  But people want instant results and when a human being is just another commodity, it's a lot easier not to worry about the future of that human being.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

State churches, ecclesiology, and history.


The news in part of the Christian world this week that is being quite talked about is the "suspension" of the Episcopal Church in the USA by the Anglican Communion.  Unfortunately, the mainstream press has gotten a lot of it wrong, and made outrageous statements about it.  I've been following it because for several years now I have been circling around the Episcopal Church and considering pursuing ordination in that denomination.

This is a ridiculous and illogical article.  The author complains that the Anglican Communion has "disciplined" the Episcopal Church in the USA for changing their rites to allow full gay marriage "while unambiguous sins of other leaders have gone unaddressed."  And those sins are supporting repressive and punitive anti-LGBT legislation in their own home countries.

It is completely illogical because the people who voted to discipline the Episcopal Church are the very same ones engaged in supporting anti-LGBT legislation.  Of course they are not going to chastise themselves for their sins; they think they are right!  It is not hypocritical at all, what it is is unidirectional bias and consistent thinking.

This is one of the things that, unfortunately, makes me lukewarm about the Episcopal Church.  I am not sure I want to be associated with an organization that has such virulent anti-gay attitudes. 

But there's another, deeper problem here for me, theologically.  The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion in general, are descended from the Church of England.  And the Church of England is an established state church.  We don't have those in this country, so I think Americans often miss the theological dangers of state church traditions (Americans in general have pretty wide ignorance about state churches and their history.  I once read a journalist reporting on the German parliament ask indignantly what happened to the separation of church and state.  Newsflash: it doesn't exist in Germany).

Besides the inhumanity of anti-LGBT legislation, the African primates are not only within their rights to affirm such legislation, but the history of state churches encourages them to get involved in the legislative process.  Until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was baptism in the state church that granted citizenship (this also, by the way, opens a huge window that most people ignore when discussing European anti-semitism and the Holocaust).  It was the state church that made marriages and therefore inheritance legal.  Bishops in England still officially have seats in Parliament.  And this has led to a certain theology of church and society, one where the "wheat and tares" of Jesus' parable refers to the general population as a whole, who are all baptized as infants and then don't make good on the Christian baptismal commission.

I was raised in an amalgam of Anabaptist traditions, and I do think they have a better ecclesiology.  The church is made of those who have joined it voluntarily, it does not look for power in the world, and it operates separated from the world's structures.  For an Anabaptist, love is the guiding principal, and political legislation is irrelevant to the church's practises.  Even were a Mennonite bishop anti-LGBT, he or she would never endorse legislation criminalizing their lives.  It was, in fact, the huge population of German Anabaptists in Philadelphia (from whom I'm partially descended), as well as William Penn's Quakers, who made it possible for the framers of our Constitution to consider the possibility of no state church at all.

So the other reason I get a little leery of the Episcopal Church is its state church history.  It was the state church of Virginia and many of the southern colonies until the Constitution, and many Episcopalians unconsciously associate their church with social and political power.  When I look at the history of the church global, especially the first few centuries after Jesus left it, I don't see a church that was formed for power.  I see one that was formed in social and political weakness and extended love to those on the edges and margins of society.  Any Christian claim to political power is, I feel, not a Christian claim at all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Winter break.

My plan was to update this blog at least every Wednesday. But now it's Wednesday and I'm sort of having trouble thinking of something to write. I should probably mention that it's also the middle of the winter break - no classes for 6 weeks, whee! - so I'm a little braindead generally.

 I am also supposed to be coming up with a topic for my MA thesis. I'm not having much luck with that either. I proposed one very badly-considered idea to my advisor and he never responded, which was not entirely unexpected, but I hoped he would have some alternate suggestions. On the other hand, the last time I tried that, it resulted in one of the worst papers I've ever written, so maybe he learned we're quite different people.

Here we go. I shall post the abstract of the paper I wrote for my Dead Sea Scrolls class last semester.

4QMMT, Halakhah, and Second Temple Sects

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran opened the study of the history of the Second Temple period wider than it had been before. The historical reconstruction of Jewish belief and practice, especially in the field of halakhah, or Jewish law, has been greatly enhanced by the legal texts found among the Scrolls. But questions about how to read and where to place these texts still linger. E. P. Sanders has convinced many scholars that “covenental nomism” was the common religious ground in the period; other scholars believe that the only common ground was diversity itself. The Qumran legal texts seem to provide evidence that many of the post-Destruction rabbis’ concerns do indeed have roots in the Second Temple intra-Jewish debates, but the question is how to read this evidence and how it illuminates the reconstruction of the Qumran sect, the picture of diversity in Second Temple Judaism(s), and the development of the rabbis.

The discovery and publication of 4QMMT in particular opened the floodgates of debate on halakhah in the Second Temple Period. It reinvigorated two areas of study around the Qumran sect: the first of the identity of the sect, as the text indicated some very intriguing possibilities, and the second of the historicity of Jewish halakhah, especially as it is recorded in the earliest rabbinic texts. 4QMMT witnesses that as today and as among the talmudic rabbis, halakhah was one of the sociological determining characteristics in Jewish culture even before the destruction of the Second Temple. The text not only provides us with a window into this debate, but it also enriches what we know both about the earliest Jesus-followers as they are recorded in the New Testament and the rabbinic traditions which claim to be from the first century either before or just after the Destruction in 70 CE. One of the more interesting angles to be investigated is the depiction of halakhah in the New Testament, and a possible interpretation of Jesus being depicted in some instances in the Gospels as a halakhic authority.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Hello again.

In honour of joining Twitter, I'm re-opening this blog.  And since it's the feast of the Epiphany, I'm posting a sermon I never posted here because I never preached it.

It was an assignment for a class about the embeddedness of anti-Judaism in Christian theology and preaching.  It is so habitual and, quite frankly, lazy of Christian preachers to use "Jews" or Jewish characters in the Bible as examples of the other, the non-Christian, the culture and worldview that Jesus fought against or left behind.  This is, of course, sociologically impossible.  As a Jew, Jesus was just as Jewish as his Jewish audience, and shared with them the same culture and worldview.  This has become the focus of my research (maybe I'll post an excerpt or abstract of a paper later), but this sermon was the first place where I was really challenged to tackle it in a non-academic context consciously.  I do naturally, as a Jewish Christian, avoid explicit anti-Judaism and supersessionism when I preach, but those habits of thinking and theologizing hover in the background, even for me.

So here is the sermon.  The text is Matthew 2:1-12.  The particular anti-Jewish tendency in preaching this text is to vilify Herod and the Jerusalem Jews as those who got it wrong while praising the Gentile Magi as those who got it right.  It's hugely easy, and presents a challenge for the preacher to break out of that pattern.

The sermon was written as if it was to be preached to the church where I was a pastoral intern at the time, a moderately conservative Episcopal church.

The Epiphany

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, also known as the twelfth day of Christmas.  You will be glad to know we have dispensed with the lords-a-leaping and maids-a-milking.  And we couldn’t fit five gold rings for everyone into the church budget.  But today is the day Christians traditionally celebrate the arrival of the magi, and it may have been where the whole gift-giving thing started.  So, this church festival might be the root of the consumerism of Christmas.

And this is really both a shame and very ironic, because it obscures what Epiphany is about.  An “epiphany” is a revelation - and sometimes the word is still used in that sense in language today.  You might have an epiphany after spending all day on a problem at work, then finally coming home and going to bed.  Neuroscientists tell us that our sleeping brains often re-order data so that when we wake up, the problem is solved.   But according to our gospel passage today, there are other ways to receive epiphanies.

The magi saw a star in the east.  The language is imprecise here, and there are disagreements regarding exactly who the magi were, but there are two conclusions that seem to be pretty accurate: 1) the magi were astrologers, because they saw the star and drew meaning from it, and 2) they were Gentiles, both because they came “from the east” and because God’s Law outlawed astrology and other forms of predicting the future.  But nevertheless, they received an epiphany, a revelation, in God’s creation as they watched and tried to read the stars.

Isn’t that funny?  God uses astrology, something he has outlawed, as a way to get a hold of their attention.  But you might notice the star does not lead them straight to Jesus.  No, they know the “king of the Jews” has been born, but they are not sure where.  So once they get to Judea, they go to the current king, Herod, and ask about this new king.

And Herod - well - Herod gets a little freaked out.  This is not too surprising.  For one, Herod is not a legitimate king.  He doesn’t come from the historic royal line, and he isn’t really a Jew; he comes from an area to the east called Idumea, which was conquered and forcibly converted to Judaism about a hundred and fifty years before.  And we also know that Herod became paranoid in his old age, even going so far as to kill two of his sons and his favorite wife because he suspected they were plotting against him.  The third reason Herod is not entirely a legitimate king was because he held onto his power by being backed by the Romans.  The Jewish people hated the Romans and thought of them as Gentile oppressors, mostly because they were.  Roman justice in its provinces was notoriously violent, and Roman leaders had on more than one occasion tried to force the Jewish people to worship their gods.

So Herod is not happy at all to hear there is another king of the Jews.  For one, it means a threat to his own personal power.  And for another, this new king might become a rallying point and cause a rebellion against Rome, a rebellion that Herod knows will be put down brutally and violently.  And Herod also knows who the true king of the Jews is.  Remember what the text said: when Herod called together all the chief priests and scribes, he asks them where the Messiah was to be born.  The true, legitimate king of the Jews, one whose birth would be heralded by God with a star, is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed one.

How did Herod know that?  Well, Herod obviously knew some of his Bible. 

“The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the LORD.”

Do you know who said that? 

David said it after he had crept up behind King Saul and cut off a corner of his cloak.  You see, the LORD’s anointed, the messiah, is the king.  Even though David had already been anointed as the next king by that time, he still respected the status of Saul as the LORD’s anointed. 

So Herod had paid attention enough to that part of his Bible. By this time, the Messiah had taken on a special meaning, that of another king like David who would be the anointed one to drive the Gentiles out and save God’s people.  Maybe Herod concentrated on the bits about kings and ignored the rest of it, so he had to ask where the Messiah would be born.  We’re all a little guilty of that, aren’t we?  We listen to the readings that are interesting to us and don’t really pay attention to the other ones.  So Herod turns to the experts: the chief priests and scribes, people who study the Bible for a living.  And they tell him where the Messiah is to be born as it is written in the prophets, in this case, in the prophet Micah. 

We did read from the prophet Isaiah today as well, but he comes in later.  You see, this little passage from Matthew is crammed to the brim with allusions to, and quotes from, Israel’s scripture, what we call the Old Testament.  Since there was no New Testament yet, this was the only Bible that existed.  And here is another way to experience an epiphany: through the Bible.  The magi saw the star, but they needed more.  They needed the Bible as well, the written record of God’s interaction with God’s people, especially through the prophets.

So, back to Herod.  Remember, Herod is a paranoid old man, but he’s also a savvy politician.  So after talking to his experts, he secretly sends for the magi to find out precisely when the star appeared.  By talking to the magi secretly, he can find out for himself, and only for himself, how old this “king of the Jews” is, and how realistic the political threat is.  If word gets out that the Messiah is here now, maybe a grown man already anointed by a priest somewhere, then there is a serious issue on Herod’s hands.  There is a very good possibility that an armed revolt will take place.  Several, in fact, already had.

Herod finds out from the magi that this “king of the Jews” is likely just a baby.  This is alright.  No one who is ready now  to pick up their sword and try to fight Rome is going to follow a baby into battle.  There’s time.  So Herod sends the magi on and says, hey, once you find this king of the Jews, come back at tell me exactly where he is so I can go pay him homage too.  And the magi go off.

And they find the house, and the baby and Mary his mother, and they fall down and pay homage.  This, by the way, is an old fashioned word which means to reverence and declare loyalty to a king.  And after the magi have acknowledged the baby as a king, they give him gifts worthy of a king. 

Especially at this Christmas season, we like to think about “the baby Jesus.”  As the song “away in a manger” says, “The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.”  We have a cute manger scene with the adoring parents, shepherds, and the magi of today’s story, all crowded around the perfect little baby Jesus. 

But this story of Matthew does not depict a peaceful manger scene.  The birth of this baby excites the paranoia of a violent tyrant.  The “little Lord Jesus” is a threat to the most powerful man in the land.  It does not take much imagination to guess that Mary was startled by the appearance of these foreign astrologers who declared that her son was a king and gave him gifts, but I wonder, was she afraid too?  Herod’s reputation was known.  If her baby was a king, then he was also a danger, a threat to the established power order.  Mary might have seen the armed revolt coming the same as Herod did.  

We should not forget that “the little Lord Jesus” is the Lord Jesus.  He is king, he is ruler.  He is threatening and carries with him shadows of violence.  Herod, the representative king of Rome is threatened by his birth, and it will be Rome that eventually orders Jesus’ death and executes him.

I once worked with a pastor named Rob who was given the topic “God is all-powerful” to preach on in December, during Advent.  He focused his sermon on Jesus on the cross, because he felt that there was the place that God’s power was really shown.  You should have seen the comment cards that were dropped in the offering after that morning.  People complained that Rob had ruined their Christmas by preaching about Jesus’ death.  They said how horrible to bring up death when we want to hear about the baby Jesus!

You know what?  These people were all good, sincere Christians, but they had missed the last place of the epiphany of the magi.  The epiphany was complete in the presence of Jesus himself: the magi declared that he was a king, that he was worthy of ruling and of having power and wealth.  You cannot talk about Jesus’s birth without talking about his kingship.  Luke’s narrative is just as political, if not even more so, than Matthew’s. 

And you cannot really talk about Jesus being a king without talking about his death.  This story of the magi is the last time Jesus is ever treated like a king until the Roman soldiers mock him with a purple cloak and a crown of thorns and cry “Hail, king of the Jews!”  Some scholars believe that this birth narrative in the gospel of Matthew is purposely foreshadowing Jesus’ death.  Jesus was not a king who lived in luxury and who dripped gold like Herod, nor was he a king who had incense burned in his honor, like Caesar.  He was not a king who even had somewhere to lay his head. 

And if anything, that makes Jesus more threatening.  Because he insists that this is what a king looks like.  It looks like a man beaten raw, mocked, spit on, and nailed to a cross. 

Matthew’s gospel contains the Sermon on the Mount, which I once heard summarized as “you’re dead, and you don’t count, and everyone else is more important than you.”

Can you live like that? 

I don’t know about you, but I can’t. 

This is the amazing epiphany: that Jesus is a king and that his way of being king is one of self-emptying and service.  The epiphany of Jesus tears down our own self-importance and our own power-hungry selfishness.  And it forces us to look for the magi in our world; for the ones who are doing everything wrong and yet, against all our expectations, they find the king, and maybe they lead us to him. 

I do challenge you today, and I challenge me too: who is getting it all wrong?  Who is threatening our self-importance?  Who is threatening the careful balance of power we have collected for ourselves?

On this day, the feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, first and foremost, Jesus is.  But Jesus may have sent magi into your life and into my life who are offering us epiphanies as well.  May we see the epiphany of the Lord Jesus wherever he may appear: in his presence, in scripture, and in the one who is getting everything wrong.

Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Overt Sexism vs. Structural Sexism


Gender roles are a big source of arguments in the church today.  What women can do and how to deal with them (us) has caused deep hurt, acrimonious debates, and split churches.  As you might guess from this blog, I come down strictly on the side of full mutuality/egalitarianism.  As a woman, I have preached, taught, led a community, baptized people, served communion, and "celebrated" it, or done the initial explanation and prayer.  I have performed all these things in equal partnership with men, although I have been fairly isolated as a woman in this role because there weren't any, or only very few others.  Sometimes I feel like emailing the men I worked with in the more conservative and evangelical community and asking if anyone ever objected to me as a woman but I haven't yet and quite frankly, I don't know if they would even tell me.

It's that latter point that I'm going to explore here.  White males not telling females or non-white people that someone has objected to their role because of the lack of male-ness or white-ness is structural sexism or racism, not overt.  They think they are protecting the person.  They themselves never receive criticism because they do not fit into these socially constructed categories that have been determined to be appropriate for leadership, authority, and power.  These "protectors" are not overtly racist or sexist.  But in hiding criticism from those people who are, they are leaving their partners in work in ignorance, which increases their power over them.  They are structurally sexist or racist.  And they would never think of themselves in those terms.

A good example of structural sexism is going on in the tech world right now.  This story, if largely true as told (do note that GitHub has so far refused to comment), is not an example of much overt sexism.  But it is full of structural sexism.  What it more is, however, is the story of immature people in circumstances they can't deal with, and boundless egos.  Both of these things, by the way, are very common in "the startup culture."

My husband said I should blog about it because he didn't see any sexism at all in the story until I pointed it out to him.  So I am. And I'm putting it on this blog because a lot of the same structural sexism in the GitHub story is replicated in the church.

First let's point out the only overtly sexist action in the story: the rockstar programmer refusing to be romantically rejected and the company not calling him out on it.  His sexual ego has been hurt and he punishes the woman who hurt him, and the other men don't really see a problem with this.

This, by the way, is one of the key assumptions of "rape culture."  If you are attracted to someone, there is this expectation that this objectified person has some kind of obligation to attempt to reciprocate the attraction or allow you to gratify it.  They do not.  If attraction is not mutual, then it just isn't.  Rejection hurts, go have a beer with a good friend and cry on their shoulder (this advice is for both you men and women), talk it over with your therapist, and deal.  There is no obligation put on the object of your attraction, except maybe to be polite in rejection and acknowledge the pain they are causing.

Anyway.  First point of structural sexism:  wife of founder has a role in the company, but it is undefined and she is not formally employed by the company.  This ought to sound familiar to anyone who has ever run into "the pastor's wife."  This is sexism, pure and simple.  Because of her relationship and gender, she is excluded from a formal role in her husband's company, but is still expected to "support" him.  It's also the decision of a bad manager:  never, ever allow someone to have an undefined and unofficial role in your company.

Second point:  the unofficial wife (ok, that's not quite what I meant :) is sent to deal with the unhappy female employee over drinks.  Would the founder have sent his wife to deal with a male employee over drinks?  I'm going to guess there's a 95% chance that he wouldn't, not even if the male employee was gay (although he might have.  There's a reason discussion about women often overlaps with discussions about queer people).  But he sends a woman to deal with a woman.  This is structural sexism because it treats women differently from men based on assumptions about gender stereotypes. 

This is a big point in the story.  The female programmer is treated the way she is partly because the people involved obviously have no idea how to handle any kind of internal dispute, and partly because of her gender.  Assumptions about how to manager her are being dictated by gender, not by her or anyone else's role in the company.  When I pointed this out to my husband, he said now he could see the sexism.  He had not seen anything but bad management and a clash of egos until I pointed these aspects out to him.

But he's right, it's also a tale of egos.  This programmer thought she could "fix GitHub."  That has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with ego.  Her ego is identical to the men's egos in this story and they are clashing.  In a culture that rewards the biggest ego, the best self-seller, the loudest voice, situations like this are inevitable.  The sexism is in how this programmer specifically was dealt with.

It's wrong to say this is a story about sexism only.  But it's equally wrong to say she was not treated in a sexist manner simply because there is barely any overt sexism.  Structural discrimination is just as damaging as overt discrimination, and it's made even worse because it's invisible to the people it benefits even when they disagree and would never condone overt discrimination.