God Doesn’t Give A Fuck About Your Respectability Politics

This was initially written as a weekly reflection paper for a course on Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Parables. The book referenced here is “Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation” by Clarence Jordan, ed. Bill Lane Doulos. 

In public discussion of social movements for justice and civil rights it is common – distressingly so – to hear comment on the presentation and behavior of whomever is active in the movement. Sometimes it is journalistic shock over protesters in Hong Kong cleaning up after their rallies, sometimes it is praise of peaceful tactics, but far more often it is criticism. Loudly and publicly we are told that to be taken seriously, to have our movements treated as legitimate by the powers that be, we must behave according to certain standards. We have to play the game. Flamboyance at gay pride events is condemned, visible anger and deviation from conventional beauty norms among women are slammed, young Black men are told that they wouldn’t suffer such violence if only they would pull up their pants and turn down their music. The message is: be respectable, fit in to the norms of a white heteropatriarchal society and maybe – maybe – you will stop deserving the violence you face in our society. Become well adjusted to a sick society and perhaps it will kill you less quickly.
I do not get the sense that respectability politics have ever actually lead to respect. It is common in these conversations for people to point to images of Dr. King and other Civil Rights protesters marching in suits and dresses. “See,” they want to say, “they wore suits so they were respectable and people listened to them.” Besides being wildly ahistorical – anyone who has taken more than a cursory glance at history should be aware that that particular fight for civil rights was not won by means of well tailored clothing – that message suggests something with which I am deeply uncomfortable: that justice consists of convincing those in power to let you in to power. I have very little use for this and, beyond that, it is increasingly my sense that God doesn’t have any use for it either.
Near the beginning of the chapter on Disturbing the Peace we are asked “Is there any recklessness that we can muster, or have we become too civilized for membership in God’s family? Have we made ourselves at home with the “peace” of this world?” (71) While I see much of this chapter as an argument against the sort of don’t-rock-the-boat incrementalism that is so common among the comfortable, it also strikes me as being in direct conflict with the respectability politics that insist that we behave politely and in line with society’s existent values in order to be deserving of even crumbs of human decency. “If Jesus has indeed come to cast fire upon the earth, it will not be kindled by modest and polite women and men.” (78) As I read, the refrain in my head was this: God doesn’t give a fuck about your respectability politics.
Since parables are about stories, and my approach to explanation also tends to be about telling stories (and since I rarely think about swearing in class or in a paper without thinking about this), it seems appropriate to end these thoughts with a story. In the fall of 2012 I was traveling around the country visiting some of the seminaries I had applied to. While visiting Iliff School of Theology in Denver I had the opportunity to sit in on a class on social ethics with Dr. Miguel De La Torre. I cannot remember the particular topic of that day’s discussion, but one moment in particular has stood out in my mind since then. The discussion had gotten passionate and a student said something to the effect of “that doesn’t make any damn sense” and then immediately began apologizing for her language. Not knowing the culture of the school, and with propriety high on my list of concerns about entering the ministry, I found myself very anxious to hear the response. “I would rather ministers who swear like sailors and tell the truth,” Dr. De La Torre said to a room full of rather surprised looking faces, “than pious ministers who never say anything real.” I would much rather flamboyant queers, angry and “unfeminine” women, and young Black men with loud hip hop and sagging jeans telling the truth than the entire world’s supply of polite and perfectly dressed people unwilling to really challenge the social order. I think God would too.

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On “In-Between-Ness”

I think I was fifteen when I first really realized that I was queer. I guess before then there were flickers of it, but mine isn’t a story of being a small child who “knew” or had any kind of “obvious giveaways” (whatever those even are). I was fifteen and my life-long best friend was telling me about one of her friends from school. She said, “she’s bisexual” and I said. “wait, what? That’s an option?”

I usually stop that story there, mentioning something about how the label has changed since then but, yeah, totally, once I realized you didn’t have to be exclusively heterosexual or homosexual I was golden. I don’t think any story that wraps up that neatly is ever entirely true.

One of the complications of having an “in between” sexuality is being told over and over that you must choose. Worse, having your whole sexuality defined by the apparent gender of your current partner. Or by how many times you’ve had sex with men at all. I think you get good at defending your in-between-ness, at forcing there to be grey where the world only wants to see black and white. It’s not exactly a skill that’s fun to learn; it’s painful to fear rejection for being queer at all and then also face erasure and rejection in the queer communities you thought were there for you. Increasingly though, I think it’s a skill that is useful far beyond its necessity.

It seems that learning to make space in a supposedly clear dichotomy has made it easier for me to sit with other types of “in-between”. Most clearly, it has opened up for me the option of a spirituality and theological location that itself feels very in between. These experiences share much in common. I’ve been repeatedly asked to choose: “Do you believe in God or not?” And I’m constantly being read as whatever I’ve most recently been closest to. It’s strange to find myself both too theistic for atheists and not theistic enough for theists. I think it’s a particularly queer approach to the Divine, and one that has given me greater freedom and comfort than trying to squeeze myself into boxes that were quite simply the wrong shape. I get to say yes. I get to say both/and. I also get to say “no”, and “yes, but…”.

Very few things are clearly yes or no, this or that, and I think that in our constant struggle to be easily definable we lose some of the beautiful mess of reality and the Divine. In ways that I never expected, realizing that in between was an option has opened up the world to me and shown me beauty and love well beyond measure. I wonder what else we’ve been missing? What other as yet unseen freedoms and insights live in the in between?

Holy Silence

There is something very special about being able to be quiet with someone else. Settling in and being able to be just present to life with them. Not feeling like you have to fill all your time with chatter, not feeling like something is wrong if for a while you don’t talk.

I get it. In a society so heavy with admonishments to always be doing something – or, at very least, consuming something – it’s easy to become uncomfortable without constant stimulation. For most of us, being quiet with ourselves is a nigh on unaccomplishable feat, let alone attempting quiet with other people. If we’re not constantly interacting physically or verbally, how will we avoid being boring? How will we keep the other person from thinking we’re bored of them? Even many spaces where silence is valued are focused almost solely on being silent with yourself. While that sort of silence is also really valuable, comfortable silence between two people is a particularly beautiful thing.

There is a closeness in comfortable silence between people, a feeling of being linked together in a way that is both before and beyond words. This silence is holy. It is the experience of existing with another person and feeling connected to them on a level that is inaccessible with only words. Among the more obvious examples of this are the moments just before sleep and just upon waking up, laying in bed with a lover and dreamily sensing one another, seeing one another as whole, beautiful beings. However, I think it is foolish to suggest that people must share a bed or, really, even a sexual relationship in order to have this type of intimacy.

As a culture we’re very used to thinking of intimacy as the sole province of romantic – or at very least, sexual – relationships. By extension, even when we reorient ourselves to view intimacy of that nature as holy, we do not always extend that view to the multitude of ways in which people are non-romantically/sexually intimate with one another. This I believe is a serious mistake. Of course it is necessary and important for us to move toward affirming a wide variety of sexual and romantic relationships, and of course we should make note of the holiness of physical, sexual intimacy, but can we really say that this is enough? What of those who are never partnered and those who have no desire to be? How does this framing fit with those who have more than one partner? Further, what damage might we do if we proclaim the importance and holiness of romantic and sexual relationships without being sure to note the divinity of friendship and genuine human care.

When we are able to be silent together I think we are more readily able to feel the Divine in one another. I know that that is true for me. I have felt the Divine – the feeling I know that I can call God – in the sleepy lulls of late night conversations and in moments of tear-stained silence in cars, living rooms, and counseling offices alike. I’ve felt it as I tip-toed around my sleeping friends, and while laying on a hill in the sun listening to music together. These moments are intimate, and they are holy. I would do a disservice to them, myself, and the Divine if I were to say otherwise.

 

Confession

This feels like confession.

 

I don’t love my body.

 

Not always, at least. Not always and rarely for very long.

 

This feels like confession.

 

I, advocate of fat acceptance. I, badass fat chick. I, encouraging others to love themselves. I, loving those other selves in all their various shapes, sizes,  configurations.

 

I don’t love my body.

 

The particulars are unimportant. What I don’t love is unimportant.  I only needed to say it. To recognize that it is true.

 

I don’t love my body. But I could. I could try. I could start.

 

This feels like confession and if this is what confession feels like I am starting to understand the appeal. There’s something to be said for letting go of this. For not holding on to it or burying it. There’s something to be said for putting the stuff that most painfully gnaws at the corners of our minds out in to the world. At least out there you can look it in the face.

 

You can look it in the face and you can say no to it.

 

You can say “I see you. I see you and you will not win.”

 

I see you. You will not win.

 

What’s Sex Positivity Anyway?

The continued adventures of work done for my “Sources of Sex Positive Spirituality” class. 

My first sense of “sex positivity” was, in retrospect, pretty problematic. Coming out of a culture both obsessed with and terrified of sex, my concept of liberation was focused on having a lot of sex or at least talking about it constantly. I had been taught pretty explicitly in high school that my desires were bad, and that talking about them was worse than just having them. A visit to the online journal I kept in high school would show you comments left by people ostensibly my friends saying that not only did they think my being sexually active was going to send me to hell, but that my lack of crippling shame about it made them concerned that people would think they were “like that”. It’s probably not a surprise that I spent much of my college career cultivating a persona of talking loudly and explicitly about sex. I won’t say that it didn’t feel powerful. I won’t say that there wasn’t something very freeing about not only talking about sex but often being applauded for doing so. I won’t say that there wasn’t something especially fun about talking about having sex while occupying a body that isn’t culturally read as sexual. I also won’t say that it wasn’t pretty fucked up.

At no point during that did I take seriously that my behavior made people legitimately uncomfortable. I didn’t even take in to account that it made me uncomfortable sometimes. Whenever I felt uncomfortable about my behavior I got mad at myself for not being “grown up” or “free” enough. I was sure that if my younger experience of repression had been so painful, then the way past the pain was to be as much the opposite as possible. This didn’t work. It still hurt. Beyond that, I not only made a few people in my social circles uncomfortable, I totally ignored the reality of multiple existences. I didn’t know that asexuality existed, I hadn’t considered how many women of color (black women in particular) are considered hypersexual regardless of their actual lives, I didn’t think about the stigma faced by sex workers, there was so much I didn’t know. I thought I was being sex positive. I was treating sex like it was good instead of bad, and a lot of the messaging I got from mainstream feminism was that that was all it would take. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

So, what’s sex positivity anyway? And is it a good thing? Obviously I don’t think we should proceed as I began, but when the reality is that mainstream sex positivity ignores much of the intersectionality that is so inherent in people’s lives I have to question the extent to which it is a useful label or frame for me. There is a way forward, a way where we respect our desire and treat sex like the positive experience it can be without ignoring nuance, where we’re free for real instead of shoved in to some other conception of acceptable sexuality. I’m just not sure that we’re doing that.

What Diets Taught Me

[TW: Eating Disorders, Diets, Body Hate]

I think I was 9 when I went on a diet for the first time. If I’m honest, I don’t think I can remember a time before I knew I was fat and that fat was one of the worst things you could be. I can remember the DJs on the radio station my Mom listened to in the car hawking diet pills, and my Mom eventually buying some of them. I remember that in my mind, being allowed to eat full fat pudding and drink juice or regular soda meant that you were somehow better. I think I still know what all the artificial sweeteners popular before about 2008 taste like. I remember South Beach and Atkins and several instances of Weight Watchers. Slim Fast and Smart Ones and that Curves diet with the really gross protein shakes and something called ShapeUp. All of those before I even got out of High School. I remember presents offered if I could “just lose 10-20 lbs” and dance costumes “earned” by means of countless sit-ups. I remember the first time I tried to make myself throw up, and the last. And the time when I involuntarily vomited on a salad because I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days but had taken adderall.

This is not a means of placing blame. This is not to garner sympathy. I grew up in a culture that did this. Does this.

I want to tell you what I learned.

I learned that my body was not to be trusted. In fact, bodies in general were suspect. Dieting culture requires that you become as divorced from your body as possible. Over years of life you’re told from all angles all of the ways in which you and people with bodies like yours are wrong. A carefully crafted series of images is pumped through all the media you ever touch, it tells you that to be beautiful – to be loved, to be special, to matter as a woman – you must aim for a literally impossible version of beauty. Except, you don’t know that. Or at least I didn’t. And neither did anyone else in my life, as far as I was aware. Even once you know, it’s hard to see those images repeatedly and not internalize that construct of beauty. If it’s gotten to your family as well – and it probably has – there’s nowhere to find any real push back against those messages. Even if your family tells you you’re beautiful, you still hear their complaints about their own bodies, bodies that may well look an awful lot like yours. You learn to think of your body as the enemy.

Entire industries ride on this reality. Billions of dollars of of our economy live in the diet industry alone, not to mention all the myriad other bullshit we’re sold by means of self-hatred.

Even with years of concerted effort I can’t get that messaging all the way out of my head. That’s real for a vast majority of the people I’ve ever spoken to who ever went on a diet or “struggled with their weight”. Even if you’re trying really hard, the message that whoever you are is the wrong person to be stays stuck in your head. And I fear things are only getting worse for fat kids. At least when I was a child one of the FLOTUS’s main priorities wasn’t fighting against the existence of kids who looked like me. I only had to handle that from every kid and most adults I ever met.

Not only was my body not to be trusted, my mind wasn’t to be considered trustworthy either.  You’re told that since your body is in whatever way non-ideal that means that it is OUT OF CONTROL and you – the assumed controller, a thing somehow separate from your body – are insufficiently skilled in keeping that bullshit in check. Not only is your body wrong, but your body is wrong and *it is your fault*. So you listen to someone else. You eat what they say, when they say. Then you fail – honestly, when there’s so much money to be made by encouraging a state of perpetual self hatred is it a surprise that diets don’t work? – and that too is your fault. Everything about you is untrustworthy. This is how you wind up a 16 year old who asks her boyfriend to ration cheese cubes to her. This is how you wind up 18 and sure that it’s easier to not fuck up if you just avoid eating at all.

I suppose you could argue that not everyone who diets develops an eating disorder. I disagree, but I won’t push back on that here. What I know is that dieting in particular – and the entire culture that surrounds it – broke my relationship with my body from a very young age, and that I am not alone in that experience. Regardless of what else may be true about diets, they teach us to treat our bodies as objects to fight and to view our natural inclination towards food as a source of pleasure as well as a source of nourishment as sinful. Years of thinking of ourselves and our desires as bad, sinful, can only serve to divorce us from ourselves, to keep us away from the truth about our own value. Whatever other problems I have with dieting – and there are many – this will always be key: Attempting to hate your body into submission can only ever result in hating yourself.

Sometimes on good days I meditate when I eat. I consider my food as I eat it, paying attention to what I see and feel and taste, feeling myself swallow. I think about the food turning itself into energy with which I get to move, talk, think, dance, pet cats, and write, and I am thankful and in awe. Diets taught me a lot of things, but today I’m unlearning them.

The god of impossible things.

I wrote this as the first of a series of blog posts required for a class I’m in about “sex positive spirituality”. I am very happy with it, if terrified of sharing it with you. 

When I was a senior in High School, I almost got kicked out of a Catholic school dance for being too “provocative”. It wasn’t my school, and I managed to get away with only having been reprimanded, but the experience stayed with me. I think about it sometimes when I dance in public, when I wonder about the distance between how I feel and how I’m seen.

I dance with my hips. I sway, dip, shake. If I am lucky – and I am so often lucky – I get lost. I find myself inside the music, moving with it. In it. In these moments I am whole in a way the world has so tried to force me not to be. In these moments the ruptures between soul and body heal. I sweat out the pain caused by years of hate poured in to me. I am my body, and I am beyond my body. Here and also everywhere.

I guess that it is dirty. That’s what I’ve been told. I was told that my dancing – an expression of youthful sexuality only just beginning to figure itself out – was dirty, and that if I ever wanted for bodily pleasure that was probably bad too. I was taught, though less explicitly than some, not to trust this soft flesh I walk around in. Not to hear what my body said. Not to do what it moved me to do.

I guess that my dancing is dirty, but that’s ok, for mine is the god of dirt. Mine is the god of music and pleasure, of art and of dance. Dirty or not, my soul sings when I dance. Some dance just to get lost, I lose myself in dance to get found. I meet god on the dance floor. In tiny bars, and big clubs, and in my bedroom, and in my kitchen as I do the dishes. Maybe this isn’t how it is “supposed” to be. Maybe god isn’t supposed to show up in color field painting or Hip Hop or abstraction or dance or Funk or sex. But that is my god. The god of impossible things. Of people who weren’t supposed to be what they are. Of blades of grass, growing through the concrete.