Behavior and Spiritual Credibility

To be completely honest, I have struggled with this issue for years. Living, as we do, in an era where a constant procession of spiritual leaders of all stripes have been outed as serial abusers of those in their charge, I don’t see how we can avoid dealing with the issue and asking the question:

At what point does the abusive misbehavior of a spiritual leader render their teachings invalid?

Craig Bergland

Suppose we attempted to construct a spectrum of abuse that started with a spiritual leader having an adulterous affair with someone not involved with his ministry in any way and progressing to whatever the most horrific offenses we might imagine. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s say up front that consensual sex between non-married adults is perfectly fine. What transgressions are redeemable and what transgressions invalidate a person’s spiritual teachings? It may help to establish some categories of offense for sorting purposes.

Can we agree that any sexual activity involving minors should preclude that individual being allowed to teach? Would it render their teachings null and void? Catholic priests involved in the pedophilia crisis would fall into this category, but so would Rumi due to his pederasty. Many of Rumi’s supposed love poems to God weren’t written to God at all but to Shams, his adolescent protege. To be honest, that turns my stomach more than a little.

Can we agree that teachers who engage in sexual relations with their students have crossed a line? Buddhism in particular seems to struggle with teachers who can’t keep their hands to themselves, assaulting female students during spiritual interviews. Others overtly create situations wherein sleeping with the teacher is presented as being spiritually advantageous, even when the student is married. Perhaps the most notorious example of this in Buddhism is Chogyam Trungpa, who established an entire lineage replete with sexual misconduct. Only recently has anything been done or said about this, but it has been an open secret for almost fifty years. Despite that truth, there is no shortage of former students of Trungpa who still speak effusively about his teachings. What are we to make of that? In the interest of candor, for me, Trungpa’s behavior does invalidate his teaching.

What about with colleagues or the parish secretary? We talk about imbalance of power as being an important factor in determining if a relationship is appropriate, but I suspect that power is much more complicated. There is power in hierarchies, but there are all sorts of power structures in social and cultural settings that muddy the waters. When Jim Bakker had an affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn, there were surely multiple psychological factors at play. It’s hard to know who was being manipulated more, but I suspect there was mutual manipulation at work. Then again, since Bakker’s teachings were vacuous at best, perhaps he is a bad example.

Complicating all of this is the truth that nobody is perfect. All of us make mistakes on a regular basis. That being said, abuse is a mistake of a different stripe. I am not concerned about clergy who fall in love with the parish secretary. I would be concerned about clergy who fell in love with every parish secretary they ever had. I wouldn’t necessarily be concerned about a spiritual teacher who once fell in love with a student. I would be very concerned about a teacher who slept with many or most of his students. These issues are important because we all share a responsibility in ensuring those seeking to develop their spiritual life can do so free from harassment. They are also important because they speak to the character of the teacher, which has a direct impact on the teacher’s ministry and teachings.

Our Histories are Cyclic

santayana learn from historyWestern culture tends to believe that history is linear. In truth, at least as far as our personal histories are concerned, it’s more accurate to believe they are circular. We keep returning to the scene of our trauma by recreating it with a new cast of characters and hoping it will turn out differently this time around. Of course it doesn’t and so we recast the play and have another go at it. Because we tend to choose that new cast because it resembles the original cast, the effort is doomed from the start.

Are you a heterosexual woman who finds herself repeatedly in relationships with a certain type of ruggedly good looking, athletic, rather narcissistic man who ends up treating you poorly and at times abusing you? Find the man in your past, likely in your family or very close to it, who fits that description and you will have found the reason you make the same “mistake” over and over. You will never succeed in your efforts because this kind of man is constitutionally incapable of treating you well. The excitement you feel when you meet another one of these guys isn’t attraction, it’s danger – but you have come to conflate the learning_from_historytwo. You have somehow come to associate danger and being treated poorly with being loved, and that simply isn’t true. Ultimately, the answer to “why does this keep happening to me?” lies in the bathroom mirror.

If we take an honest look at our history and discover we keep making the same mistakes, it’s a good time to pause and examine that tendency more deeply. We need to unpack our histories and discover the roots of our unhealthy tendencies so that we can sever the connections and start making better choices. We may well find that there is a part of us that doesn’t believe we deserve to be treated in a kind and loving manner, quite likely because we believe we have a horrific defect. We haven’t yet skeleton closetfigured out that everyone has a defect they believe is horrific but that very few other people would notice if the owner of the defect didn’t keep pointing it out!

In truth, we all have skeletons in our closet. If we examine them and come to terms with them they will stop being problems. If we come to see that everyone has the odd bony inhabitant in their closet, we will stop feeling the need to hide ours. When we stop hiding ours, something decided different than showing them to everyone we meet, we will stop feeling compelled to replay the unsatisfactory parts of our collective past in the hopes that things will turn out differently this time. When that happens, Cowboy Bob won’t seem appealing any more. Imagine!

Becoming Well Informed

Irony of ironies, now that I have more time for social media, I find that I struggle to tolerate it. With people having more time to post, and posting a lot about the current pandemic, their ignorance is coming to the fore. I find this to be especially true about geekmillennials, and it has nothing to do with their intelligence. Whether they are smart as a whip or dumb as a box of rocks, it seems they have little idea of how to think critically. Added to their tendency to isolate from the news cycle, what we are left with is a recipe for disaster.

At least in part, it’s not their fault. Our educational system has become obsessed with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The reason is that corporations say they need more people in these fields, and I believe them. However, in true American fashion, we have exercised little moderation in this effort and so tended to cut what we in the old days would have called a solid liberal arts foundation from our education. This is true not only at the university level, but also in primary and secondary education. We teach to the test, restrict our curricula to so-called common core materials, and teach to the test. To be quite clear, this is the fault not of teachers but of school boards and administrators across the country. What we are left with is technological social misfits who lack common sense.

One result of this is that news is boring, somehow less than important, as so we pay little attention to it. When we do pay attention to it, we don’t go in depth because we don’t find it very important, and so we are easy prey for the misleading headline. When our friends say something it carries as much weight as the New York Times. We “hear” things and pass them along as fact, revealing our ignorance with startling starkness. We don’t stop to think about the impact of passing along what we have “heard” or questionable memes on our friends, as I witnessed on one person’s Facebook page when he passed along a conspiracy meme that was critical of healthcare workers in the corona virus struggle, suggesting they never get sick and so it’s not real. Of course neither assertion is true. He handsome-man-reading-newspaper-street_23-2147694649never considered that one of his friends is a Registered Nurse on the front lines of the battle.

The biggest problem in all of this may well be that it cannot be corrected overnight. You can’t just pick up tomorrow’s paper and become well informed. It takes time, and it takes practice. It starts with learning the difference between credible sources and propaganda mills. It continues with implementing a healthy skepticism to everything you hear or read, taking care to look at the source from which it came. This is important because if you aren’t well informed you can’t be a responsible citizen. You simply cannot go to the polls and cast a vote in your own self-interest if you lack the ability to discern which candidate represents that self-interest. This doesn’t take hours each day. Ten minutes a day reading news from a solid source, or listening to it, is a good start. It takes work, and you have to commit to it, but if you care anything about your life and the lives of the next generation, it isn’t optional. In fact, I can guarantee you will feel better about yourself.

Pedestals, Perfection, and Disappointment

I read an article the other day that reported the late Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche International communities for the cognitively disabled, has been accused by five adult women of sexual misconduct in that he had what they describe as coercive sexual jeanvanierrelationships. Prior to these revelations, he was considered a solid candidate for sainthood. Since the revelations, quite the opposite has happened, with organizations falling over themselves to retract awards and recognition granted him during his life for the work he had done. The author of the article said that Vanier had been a hero to him, but now he had to change his mind about Vanier’s hero status. This raises several questions for me, none of which are new.

The first question I have is, “how shall we define a hero?” I grew up thinking that a hero was someone we admire because of some example they set. If I had to gauge today’s definition of a hero, I would say that a hero is someone who is seen to be perfect, flawless not only in their area of expertise but in all areas. They must never have passed gas in church, had a relationship end badly, not kept a promise even if through no fault of their own. In short, they must be everything we are not. That is impossible for any human being, and so when we define our heroes that way and place them on a pedestal we will eventually have to take them off the pedestal and destroy that pedestal in a very painful public ceremony. I do, not believe such falls from grace serve any of us well.

I am not making excuses for sexual misconduct of any sort. I would just caution us that we all have likely made choices in our dating lives that we later elected not to repeat. I believe the vast majority of males over the age of fifty have said things to prospective partners that were acceptable in their time but by today’s standards are not. We must always err on the side of believing those who report abuse. We must also display compassion toward the accused, especially when the relationships in question did not involve minors. Adults who act out most often have been victims at some point in their lives, and if we run about chopping off heads we will behead victims as well as perpetrators.

The question I keep coming back to is, “why we find it necessary to dismiss every good thing larchesomeone did when we discover they may have done something wrong, too?” I feel that how we treat those who have transgressed depends on the nature and number of their transgressions, and so some people have clearly crossed a line from which their is no return. That being said, if our standard is to be that those we admire must be perfect then the days of admiration are long dead.

We also need to discuss how we are to deal with the work that the accused have done. If someone were to cure cancer or AIDS tomorrow and then next week be accused of some sort of sexual misconduct, would we refuse to use the treatment they discovered? I hope not, but I hold that hope with very little certainty. Surely no reasonable person would argue that the L’Arche organization should be disbanded, especially since Vanier’s alleged transgressions occurred outside that community – but that doesn’t mean some won’t call for precisely that. At what point does someone’s misdeed mean that everything they ever said or did must be discarded? I’m not sure there is a hard and fast answer to that question, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about it.

Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, and Bigotry

Shakira-J.-Lo-Blow-Minds-at-Super-Bowl-Halftime-ShowOh, the outrage! Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have asses! Son of a bitch! What am I going to tell my teenagers – they don’t know about asses! Not only that, they had the audacity to shake their asses! Jennifer Lopez climbed a stripper pole? How do I explain that to my kids? These women were both dancing as if they were from some sort of Hispanic culture – we can’t have that! Where are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers when you need them? We can’t have these brown people running around doing the things they do, or the next thing you know our teenagers will be humping like rabbits (n.b., they already are)!

Patriots Rams Super Bowl FootballThis reminds me of last year when Adam Levine made me uncomfortable by taking off his shirt and moving his hips like a male stripper! Jesus Christ! My kids didn’t know that men had hips! My teenage boys weren’t even sure how they walked, but now I am going to have to explain it to them. Then there was the fact that I went through two Hitachi magic wands trying to get over what I saw!

Okay, ladies, let me help you out. First, there was nothing inappropriate about what either Jennifer Lopez or Shakira were doing. They were dancing, expressing themselves, and just because it wasn’t boring doesn’t mean it was wrong. As for the pole, you can take a class at the local gym or dance studio to learn pole dancing. It’s not reserved for strip clubs any longer, and hasn’t been for some time. Furthermore, if your teenagers have been to homecoming or prom, they jlohumpspolehave already been having sexual contact in the backseat of the family SUV – or have you forgotten your youth?

Here’s the real deal. I have a question for you. Why is it you are fine with your teens playing video games in which they kill other people but are upset with them watching two women old enough to be their mothers shake their asses? I will tell you why. It’s not likely because you are a prude, although your reaction proves you are a prude. It’s because somewhere in your past, in a place you don’t want to look at, you have been sexually traumatized and this is triggering you. The problem is neither Shakira nor JLo, nor both or them all lathered up. The problem is that you need to get yourself to a therapist post haste, and no amount of outrage is going to change that truth.

Pet Rabbits?

man yellingFrom the Huffington Post:

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER RESIGNS AFTER GUILTY PLEA  Duncan Hunter has submitted his resignation, about a month after pleading guilty to federal charges. The Californian Republican and his wife, Margaret Hunter, were indicted for misappropriating $250,000 in campaign donations for personal use, including luxurious family vacations, private school tuition, and airfare for pet rabbits. He also used campaign donations to fund his extramarital affairs.

Pet rabbits? As in more than one pet rabbit? I suppose they do breed like, well, rabbits, and the horse you rode in onbut seriously? This isn’t a guy who is a few bucks short and so skims ten bucks off the fund to get McDonald’s. It’s not even a guy who has always scrimped and slips up and decides to finally take the vacation to Disneyland he never could afford. This is a guy screaming at the top of his lungs at every American taxpayer: “Fuck you!”

This is what happens when wealth becomes your god. You will go to any means necessary to look like you have acquired wealth, because wealth means you are a good person. In this belief system, your behavior doesn’t really matter as long as you end up wealthy – or at least appear to be wealthy. It’s the prosperity gospel writ large and secularized. It is the antithesis of any historic understanding of morality, and it rules the day in contemporary western culture.

food bankYou might be wondering, “whom does it hurt?” It hurts everyone. Perhaps most importantly, it hurts the people who run around frantically doing whatever is necessary to grab on to the appearance of wealth and it hurts their family. It hurts the family because they are the ones who really pay the price in terms of the absence of the wealth worshipers. They are also the ones who will pay the biggest price should the family scammer get caught and do time.

Ultimately, it hurts all of us. It hurts economically, it hurts in terms of the price we pay socially for the fallout from this behavior, and it hurts because it asserts a morality that is profoundly immoral. We will be paying generations from now for the human cost of this behavior. That may be the saddest part of all of this.

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.

You should know…

You should know that you will meet many people who will purport to be your friend for precisely as long as it is to their advantage. The moment you do something they don’t like, they will disappear. They were never a friend. True friendship weathers disagreement.

Holding Hands?

God help me, if you told me years ago that I would ever write anything about Justin Timberlake, I would have been forced to surrender my man card. I’m still coming to terms with it as I write this post. For the sake of this discusison, which is an important one, I am going to lay aside my disdain for the cult of celebrity.

What constitutes intimacy? That’s really the question here, as Justin was seen holding hands with Alisha Wainwright during a night on the town in New Orleans. His wife, Jessica Biel, is understandably upset. The holding hands issue raises a larger question, especially given that in parts of Europe and the Middle East friends hold hands as they stoll along the street and not a second glance is given.

hold handsSuppose we tried to generate an “intimacy scale” that ranked behaviors in degrees of increasing intimacy. I suspect holding hands would be rather low on the scale, while knee rubbing (allegedly Wainwright rubbed Timberlake’s knee under a table at which they were sitting) might rank a bit higher. Where is kissing on that scale? How would we sort out the various sexual acts? Where in the list would an intimate but decidedly non-sexual conversation fit? I would argue that people sharing their most intimate thoughts, feelings, and beliefs may well be an even larger danger to their other romantic relationships than a one night stand.

I worked with a couple many years ago who had engaged in a threesome, and one partner was devastated by the other having kissed the third during the event – nevermind that participants one and three had unrestricted access to each other while numbers two and three, by predetermined ground rule, were to have more limited contact. For this person, kissing was obviously highest on the imtimacy list. I suspect most people who had caught their partner patronizing a prostitute in their car would beg to differ, but it points out that for each of us there is a different intimacy scale at work. I believe that scale may flex a bit from situation to situation.

Then there is the alcohol factor. Timberlake says he had “way too much to drink.” Todrunk evaluate this claim, we need to understand what alcohol does. Alcohol disinhibits us as we drink. The more we drink, the more disinhibited we become, until at some point we are disinhibited and throwing up face down on the floor. It most decidedly does not cause us to do things we would never do if sober. It does make it more likely that we will do things that we might consider doing when sober but decide not to do because we see the consequences more clearly when sober.

Some years ago, Mel Gibson tried to justify one of his drunken, antisemitic, DUI rants by appealing to the alcohol. Sorry, Mel, it doesn’t work that way. Alcohol doesn’t put ideas into our head that otherwise wouldn’t reside there, it tends to lubricate the release of those ideas through word and action. Sober Mel might have had enough sense to keep his vile beliefs to himself, drunken Mel clearly did not. Interestingly, he tried to crucify Jesus to make up for it, and his strategy failed. Let’s hope Justin’s apology will make such drastic action unneccesary.

I believe that it would have a beneficial effect on our relationships to consider what out own intimacy scale might be and discuss it with our partners. Questions such as, “what is the most intimate thing you can imagine?” would not only help us understand each other, and ourselves, more fully, they might give us some good ideas for our next date night. You might be surprised to learn that many things offered in response to that question can be done fully clothed and in public without fear of being arrested – especially if you happen to be male.