How Do I Justify My Presence?

I came across a very interesting thread on Facebook over the weekend, and really feel compelled to respond to it in a longer form than is possible in a Facebook discussion. Here is the product!

To paraphrase the question raised, “how does a transgender man preaching in conservative Indiana justify his presence in the pulpit using the Gospel?” My answer: he shouldn’t try.

You see, to the extent that we continue to try to justify our very existence, no matter the reason anyone might call our existence or presence into question, we legitimize an illegitimate question. Can you see that? If someone says to me, “you have no right to be here,” and I respond to that nonsense then I make the very question of my right to be here seem legitimate. If someone said to you, “I see you have three arms,” and you started arguing that you only had two arms, you would be giving the question of how many arms you have credence. Rather than argue our arm count, most of us would either walk away or call the local mental health crisis line.

The world is full of diversity, and that diversity has threatened people since humans first crawled out of the primordial sludge. We are psychologically programmed to be suspicious of the different, to interpret it as a threat until we learn otherwise, as a basic survival instinct. Those of us who have learned to use more than our reptilian brain have learned to use reasoning to overcome those instincts when they are faulty. Our friend Bob might be profoundly unattractive, but we learn that doesn’t make him a danger. Despite this knowledge, we tend to want to keep crawling back into the sludge in the hopes that the reptilians among us will come to see that we are okay and admit that truth out loud. Guess what? It ain’t gonna happen, so it’s time to move on.

 

Sex Secret

I don’t think women do this, but I could be wrong. Women hardly ever invite me to eavesdrop on their conversations about sex. Dammit. Some men do this, however, and it’s them I would like to discuss today. You women can listen in, I don’t mind.

two men whisperingThere are two versions of this practice that break down along sexual orientation lines. Gay and bisexual men will tend to tell stories about straight, or at least publicly straight, men who tried to have sex with them, but they declined. Straight men will claim that they had sex with a woman known to those present for discussion. Perhaps Dice Clay parodied this nonsense best when he joked, “Mother Goose? I fucked her!”

Whether any of these claims are true, and I suspect most of them are not, doesn’t make adice clay bit of difference. The very fact that the claims are made reveals quite a bit about the claimant, and the revelation is not flattering. There is no healthy, mature motivation for one person to share stories of sexual conquest or continence with another. It’s even worse when the story telling occurs in a group context.

In a day in which American sexual understanding and ethics have never been worse, and it seems there is no shortage of people looking to blow up the reputations of select others on rumor alone (e.g. Rep. Katie Hill), we need to see those who recklessly share self serving accounts of their own sexual behavior for the irresponsible, immature people they are. We also need to steer clear lest we become the subject of their next set of fictions.

Spiritual Hierarchies

One of the very just criticisms of institutional religion is that it has become profoundly hierarchical, and hierarchies become self-serving, top heavy, and potentially corrupt. Human nature being what it is, we tend to run headlong to the other end of the spectrum in search of an answer. In Protestant Christianity this resulted in the rise of the non-denominational church. No hierarchy, but also little to no supervision. That means no way to check misconduct or hold people accountable. Within the institution you have misconduct followed by coverup. Outside the institution you have the likes of Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and the late Jerry Falwell amassing fortunes without the need for coverup or even shame, because they are accountable to nobody.

In Buddhism and Hinduism it isn’t much different. Sex scandals, Rolls Royce collections, and worldwide organizations staffed almost entirely by volunteers loyal to the guru means the often massive donations that flow in end up largely in the guru’s pockets (or wherever you keep your money while wearing a robe). Across the board egos run amok and people are worshiped as if they were God, or at least gods.

As Lord Acton reminds us, “absolutely power corrupts absolutely.” Whether at or near the head of a hierarchy or in a system without accountability, corruption waits at the door, an almost ceaseless temptation. Nevertheless, when organizations grow beyond a certain size, some sort of hierarchy is necessary to provide a level of organization to keep things running. The proper balance can be difficult to find. While a collection of independent communities coming together on an ad-hoc basis works for smaller issues, if we want to run a number of homeless shelters in area communities, somebody will need to do the accounting and make management decisions on an ongoing basis.

I honestly believe that the only way to solve these serious issues is through the use of shared power and responsibility. Do spiritual bodies need spiritual teachers and/or leaders? Absolutely. Are those teachers and leaders necessarily the best people to be performing administrative function? Most often they are not. The areas of administration and spiritual leadership require two very different sets of skills. It has been to the detriment of the Christian Church in all its forms that pastors have become administrators, rendering them less available for pastoral duties because they are making business decisions – decisions their spiritual education does not prepare them to make.

In the end, however, this is not a complete solution. Spiritual groups of all kinds absolutely need a board comprised of, for lack of a better term, lay leadership. It also needs to be a board that has rotating membership. If a board does not have regular inclusion of new members with fresh perspectives, it can become entrenched, encrusted, odiferous in places, and part of the hierarchy – subject to the same temptation to corruption and coverup.

Finally, a clear and enforceable code of ethics needs to be in place that addresses leadership at all levels. This code of ethics should clearly delineate acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the consequences for violations of these expectations. The code of ethics should also be subject to review and amendment as necessary, because as circumstances change so does the nature potential problems.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the changes we need to implement, but it is is decent beginning. We must abandon the flawed notion that our leaders and teachers are beyond question or beyond supervision. None of us are perfect, and so all of us should be willing to receive appropriate questions and explain the rationale behind out decisions. None of these actions decrease the credibility, in fact quite the opposite. Transparency serves us all very well, and should be welcomed with open arms rather than avoided.

Thanksgiving Thoughts: Screw Your Fussy Food

To tell the truth, I have had more than enough of moderately well off white people telling the rest of the world what it needs to eat. This is made even worse because all of those proponents of specialized diets that may or may not actually be healthier for people don’t realize how much privilege is involved in being able to eat that rather odd-looking, tasteless mess and slapping it on the Internet for all to see.

I think it’s great if you want to run off to the organic grocery store, take your purchases home, and concoct something that I couldn’t even begin to identify but that makes you ecstatic. Good for you! Before you turn on your computer and start telling the rest of the world how they need to shop at Whole Paycheck and search for alternate protein sources for their vegan diet, or only eat raw foods, please consider that the majority of people in this country and the vast majority of people in the world simply can’t afford to eat that way. In fact, a great chunk of the world struggles to find enough to eat, period.

The same social conscience that leads you to elect not to eat meat for the sake of animals is often quite blind to the truth that there are children who go to school hungry every day in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet. Only you can decide if it is more ethical for you to overspend on your exotic diet in light of those hungry children, or if perhaps some of your resources would be better served helping them eat better. Maybe you are one of the very lucky few who can do both! How wonderful!

I’m just saying that before you start waving the flag of privilege you might want to consider how it looks from the outside.

What We Are Missing

It seems to me that we have lost sight of a basic ethical principal. I would state that principal as follows: An action is right or wrong independent of the impact of that actionBurning-House on me. Stated another, perhaps less gentle, way no one of us is the center of the ethical universe. Indulge me as I offer some examples.

If it is wrong to set fire to my neighbor’s house, it is wrong even if he offers to share the insurance money with me. My personal profit is irrelevant in making decisions about right or wrong. Similarly, telling someone at the bar that I am personal friends with Brad Pitt is wrong (unless of course I am), even if telling them that makes it far more likely they might go home with me. It’s wrong to lie, even if it means I stand a better chance of getting laid. This is the same principal at work as in setting fire to my neighbor’s house: My personal profit is irrelevant. Taking this to the employment environment, it’s wrong to lie on my resume or CV even if I think doing so offers a better chance of me getting hired. Again, same principal.

I am afraid that we have come to conflate and confuse several related topics. We have decided that lying by a politician isn’t lying, it’s just “playing politics.” As Shakespeare said, “A rose (or in this case a turd) by any other name is still a rose (turd).” There is nothing about our goal in lying to people that makes lying a moral virtue or even morally neutral. Politics and integrity should walk together, not be opposed to one another. When that’s not the case, the result wide ends snlis what we have today in both parties: a highly corrupt system.

The idea that the ends justify the means may have valid applications, but we have pushed it too far and find ourselves left with, in practice, a system in which some believe that if the ends are of value then any means to achieve them are valid. That is absurd. If my wife asks me if a particular dress makes her ass look big and I want to stay married, a nuanced my answer may be justified. If I can make more money by lying about the environmental impact my actions will have, an impact that endangers countless lives, no level of nuance is acceptable. Nuance is okay if it saves marriages and avoids being needlessly cruel, but it’s not okay if someone becomes sick or dies. That should be as plain as the nose on our faces, but we’ve lost sight of it. We desperately need to correct our vision!

Separating Person and Behavior

Many of us have a problem – maybe even most of us have this problem. We confuse the value of a person with their behavior. For example, we know that someone plays for the Chicago Bears football team, and we cannot even begin to understand the abysmally bad judgment that would lead anyone to consider, even for the briefest moment, playing for the Chicago Bears. We decide, therefore, that anyone who plays for the Chicago Bears must be an awful person with whom we could never be friends – and likely never even bring ourselves to be kind towards. This is a classic, if someone silly, example of confusing person and behavior.

Step it up a notch or ten, and consider someone you meet who is a member of the other political party. Now it’s a bit more serious, although as a Green Bay Packers fan I might argue that my first example is much more serious. We could certainly never be friends with a person who belongs to that party. Anyone who belongs to that party must have serious character flaws, and they probably eat babies for breakfast. Maybe a person has a different ethnic background, or went to a different school, or once committed a crime, and we find that we can no longer fairly evaluate their humanity. If this is the the case, the problem is inside us and not in the other person.

If we are going to live anything even remotely resembling an ethical and/or spiritual life, we have to believe that all people have inherent value. In fact, every major religious tradition teaches precisely that. There is nothing any one of us can do to erase that inherent value, though many of us do a pretty good job of covering it up with our poor choices. The task of a spiritual life is to uncover that inherent value by stripping away the detritus we have splattered on it. Going about declaring others to be of no value does nothing but pile more obscurations on our own inherent value. In truth it does nothing to the other person.

Today, before you set out to round up a posse to hunt down the imagined unacceptable other, you would do well to find a mirror and look into it. If you are honest, you will realize you have some work to do in your own house. We all do.

The “Potential” Movement

Whenever I receive an email that asks, “do you want to grow, to flourish, to be the best possible version of yourself?” I do two things. First, I check to see that my wallet is still in my pocket. The second is that I delete the email.

Why delete the email? I delete the email because I reject the notion that some person who (1) has never met me, (2) is looking to turn a quick profit, and (3) believes that a preformed, one size fits all program to maximize human potential is either possible or desirable, has anything to offer me.

Determining for any person what will maximize their potential requires establishing a relationship with them over time and thereby coming to really understand their history and their circumstances. It simply isn’t a cost effective way to run a business, so businesses offering to maximize your potential are forced to cut corners to maximize their profits. That’s why you are much better meeting with a spiritual guide or companion to investigate your humanity than a spiritual snake oil salesman.

Some thoughts on going to a concert

I have heard people complain that they can’t go to a movie anymore because there always seems to be someone nearby who is carrying on a conversation with someone, taking a phone call, has seen the movie too many times and so speaks the lines with or before the actors do, or any number of obnoxious behaviors that might be appropriate in your living room but certainly aren’t appropriate in a theater.

I am coming to think that concerts aren’t much better. Of course, if you are at a Metallica concert you probably wouldn’t even notice any of these behaviors because you would be far too busy thinking about how much they suck and wondering why you spent your money on these outrageously priced tickets, but I digress. Here’s my list of things not to do at a concert.

  1. Unless the artist has specifically invited you to sing along, don’t. The reason is that william hung american idolyou can’t sing – not even a little bit. I so want to break this to you delicately. If you auditioned for American Idol, your audition would be one of those they show for people to laugh at. Even if you sing in your church choir, screaming descants at the top of your soprano lungs, you still don’t sing as well as the artist you paid to see and hear. How do I know? I know this because you are in a seat, not on stage. If you are still convinced that you are good enough to sing along, sell all your shit, move to Nashville, and spend the rest of your life waiting tables while you wait for your big break, which isn’t likely to come. If I end up being wrong about you and you do make it in Nashville, let me know and I will send you a written apology. Until then, please shut up at concerts.
  2. I don’t care how much you love God and really want to tickle his ass, leave hands_raisedyour arms down. The reason is that while you are waving your arms about reaching for God’s butt, the people behind you can’t see the artist they paid a lot of money to see. You are being obnoxious. Obnoxious people really irritate the shit out of Jesus, and he will slap you silly when and if you manage to get to heaven – which isn’t too likely, given that you are so selfish that you raise your arms at concerts. If you aren’t trying to tickle God’s testes, why in the world are your arms up? Are you being mugged? Call 911, but put your arms down.
  3. Don’t try to carry on a conversation with the artist or scream out that you love 9_creepiest_stories_of_celebrity_stalkersthem. They aren’t your friend, even if they are nice to you. Lots of people are present to hear the artist sing, or tell jokes, or whatever they do. They have not purchased tickets to eavesdrop on your private conversation with the artist, no matter how fascinating you think it might be. If you feel compelled to shout, “I love you,” don’t. Seek help from a qualified mental health professional immediately before you get arrested, you budding stalker. Your love is unrequited. In fact, you are scaring everyone around you. The artist does not love you and never will. In fact, if you keep screaming stuff at their concerts, they may very well come to despise you. Just stop.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. Shape up, or stop going to concerts. It’s just that simple.

Perspective

I have been discouraged for some time now that we have become unwilling to forgive the minor indiscretions of youth that, at the time, weren’t seen as terribly problematic (such as the wearing of blackface in a college skirt or at a party). At the same time, we are unwilling to address serious transgressions that have never been acceptable, like rape.

That unwillingness is a lot of things, none of them especially attractive, includng cowardice, attention seeking, a distorted relationship with reality, narcissues, obfuscation, and self-deception. What it isn’t is a serviceable morality.

Truth

pinocchio-970x545Truth is not a matter of opinion. Truth is fact, and it remains the same even if someone pays you to lie and pretend that your lie is the truth. Lobbyists are liars. Spokespeople who try to spin reality to make the companies or causes they work for look better are liars. Being a liar comes at a cost. Lying isn’t going to make you go to hell or any other such nonsense. The cost is that a liar is personally diminished each time they lie. Their character suffers and their souls – in the Jungian sense of the word soul – are diminished. When we lie we become less. We may deceive ourselves and think that others can’t tell we are lying, but they can. Do you really think that Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders will ever enjoy credibility again? Of course they won’t, any more than the name Benedict Arnold will come to be associated with someone you can trust.

The truth is that what we say and what we do matters. Our words and actions can either build us and other up or they can tear humanity down. The way these diminishments are caused may not be visible, but that doesn’t make them any less real.