Friday, September 25, 2009

Faith =/= Fauxgressive

Or, "Spirituality and/or Religion Don't Have to Be At Odds with Feminism!"

As much trouble as I sometimes have in reconciling my Pagan identity with my Christian one, sometimes it's even harder to reconcile the both of them with the fact that I am also a feminist. This is not so much because of anything that I believe or act on, but because of the unflattering light in which many other feminists tend to view those of us who have some kind of religious inclinations—especially Christian ones. I get that people have used Christianity in many horrible ways over the centuries, and that it's still being used as a cross-shaped bludgeon to beat down some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I get that having even a partially Christian identity is to have at least some Christian privilege and therefore one should be ready to examine that privilege at a moment's notice, especially after you've done something particularly boneheaded and offensive in the name of the Divine.

What I don't understand is why it's OK for members of a progressive movement to talk about Christianity like all members of all denominations believe ALL the same things, like it's perfectly right to condemn all of us—and yes, because of the "Christo" in "Christo-Pagan", I do think I have the right to say us here—for the terrible things that members of various Christian groups have done in the past, are doing in the present and will probably do in the future. To talk about all Christians (or even just most Christians) like we all hide behind the Cross as a "get out of Hell free" card without introspection, compassion or acknowledging it when we've screwed up and doing our best not to screw up in the same way again.

Do I think that there are people who do this? Yes, without a doubt. When I was growing up, I knew a few people who thought that it was enough to go to Confession and say a few prayers in penance for whatever it was they'd done to (or not done for) somebody else. I suspect that there are some in the congregation at my church who think that the weekly prayer for forgiveness ("Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed...") that's part of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Anglican Church means that whatever we've done during the week, it's OK now because we've told God we're sorry, even if we haven't done anything to make things better for the people we've hurt. But I don't think that all Christians are this hypocritical. I don't think all of us think that we've got the only moral way to live, the only valid spiritual preference, the One True Right and Only Way. To say that we're all that way would be a mistake that's every bit as harmful as the one that some Christians make when they say that all atheists and all non-Christians are evil and immoral people.

Even so, I do understand the reasons behind some of those ideas. I would never have left the Roman Catholic faith if I didn't understand them to some degree. I got tired of hearing that women couldn't be part of the priesthood. I got tired of hearing nonsense about people going to Hell because of their sexual orientation. I got tired of the self-congratulatory tone of a lot of the charitable work that was done in my (very Catholic) school—remember, I was in my early teen years when I consciously left the Catholic faith. I was tired of the narrow-mindedness of so many of Jesus' followers, and I admit that I lost sight of the fact that Jesus himself was far from being narrow-minded and hateful. So many people take his message of love and turn it into an elitist message of condemnation for anyone who isn't Christian and part of their own particular denomination, which is (Surprise! Surprise!) the One True Right and Only Way. I won't lie, there's a certain amount of that in the Anglican Church, too, but in my experiences with this denomination, I've found that it's not quite as front-and-centre as it was in the denomination into which I was baptized.

I'm aware that a lot of the history of the various denominations of Christianity has been full of hatred and malicious behaviour. As a person qualified to teach History, I can't ignore that—and even more so because I'm a person of (dual) faith. I've seen it from both sides. When I was a child, I saw through prejudiced eyes because I simply hadn't been taught any better, and I didn't have the resources to learn on my own until I'd reached my teens. And since then, I've had to conceal the true nature of my spirituality from some of the people who I love the most because I know that they would not accept my Pentacle or my Elven Star—I know for a fact that my dad would outright hate me for them, and I doubt that most of the people in my church choir would understand why I'm drawn to them, and to what they symbolize, as much as I'm drawn to the Anglican Church.

Even as I understand the anger and ambivalence (or at least antipathy) that I often see directed at Christianity—I embraced them once myself, after all, not much more than a decade ago—it does bother me when, not stopping at enumerating their reasons for disliking Christianity, and often other religions as well, people go on to cast insults at those who do follow that path. People who pray are dismissed as "talking to themselves". Belief in the Divine is scoffed at as a childish superstition. I know that there are people whose idea of the Christian faith as a whole has been soured by the unacceptable actions of some of its members, from the Bible-thumping proselytizers who've made it their life's work to shove their beliefs down everyone else's throats, to the genocidal missionaries who used smallpox as a weapon against the inhabitants of the "New World" (an ugly Eurocentric phrase if I ever saw one), to the bloodthirsty minds behind the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, and that the closed-mindedness of so many of this religion's current followers has, quite frankly, given the rest of us a pretty bad name. It's insulting to tell an atheist that you'll pray for them. But it's equally insulting for that atheist to tell a person of any religion or spirituality that their beliefs are bullshit. Christians may be the privileged ones in this discussion, so it's easier (and sometimes much more valid) to take shots at them, but let's just remember: every person has their own truth, and it's not for anyone else to say they're wrong unless that person is likely to cause harm to others through acting on their beliefs.

Bottom line: I'll respect your choice not to believe, and your reasons for doing so—but it is only fair that you give my beliefs the same respect as I give your choices. It's not about privilege or who's really right. It's about a principle that I've always believed in, but that I've never heard expressed any better than it's heard in one of my very favourite films:

Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes!

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I slept through my alarm this morning.

That sort of thing is completely uncharacteristic of me; not only do I usually wake up well before any alarm I set can go off, but on the rare occasion when I don't wake up before it goes off, when it does go off I immediately wake up. This morning, though, I must've either turned it off in my sleep, unless I set it for 8:15 PM instead of 8:15 AM last night. (In that case, I'd better turn it off or I'll have a rude interruption during my usual meditation this evening!) So I woke up at 10:05 this morning—five minutes after I was supposed to actually be at my church—and managed to pull a brush through my hair (which is rather long) and pull on some clean clothes and get in the car to drive to church within five minutes. The drive, which is normally about 20 minutes, took closer to 15, thanks to the fact that most of the lights which are usually red when I get to them turned out to be green today. I got there just in time to run to the rehearsal room, jump into my cassock and surplice and grab my music. Everyone else was heading into place for the opening procession, though once I got into my usual place, we still ended up waiting at least five minutes to go in. Good thing I'd taken some of my music home to look at after last practice, because I didn't get to practice it with everyone else this morning!

I took a fair amount of good-natured ribbing from everyone else in the choir about that. It's the first time that most of them had ever seen me be late for anything, after all. :)

Even accounting for the fact that I hate to be late for anything, and even though there were a couple of Sundays this summer when I didn't go to church at all (the first of which being the one that prompted my initial blog post here), I don't think I realized how dedicated I had become to this choir, to this church, before my late awakening this morning threw me into a such a hurry to get where I knew I already should've been.

On reflection, my life has been an awful lot like that in the past three years. In my mind, I know that I should be living on my own, working for a living and paying my own bills. I'll be 27 in November, after all. Yet, for all my attempts to be that productive person I know that I should be, I've been hit with a few curveballs—illness, depression, the need to help my mom take care of herself and even the decision to turn down a job offer at a place where I knew I'd be miserable, even if the pay was half-decent, just to name a few. I know what my life should be like at my age. But I can't help feeling that right now, I am precisely where I need to be, even though to some degree I'm still rushing to be in that place where societal standards tell me that I should be.

To put it shortly, although I don't feel I can complain too much about my life, the fact that I'm a 26-year-old unemployed teacher worries and scares me a bit—I'm terrified that I'm screwing myself over really badly, even though I know that helping my mother as I am now is the right thing to do. There's just nobody else who's in a position to support her in the way that she needs it right now.

Yet, if I don't take time to enjoy the journey now, who knows what kind of opportunities I'll miss? If I'd done what my mind tells me I should've done—take a minimum-wage job at a call centre, which would mean I'd have to take abuse from a lot of impatient and angry customers for eight hours a day—instead of taking time to work through my depression and take courses which could mean that I still have a shot at getting hired by a school board as a teacher someday, therefore letting me be part of the profession that I feel I was made for, I know that I wouldn't have had time for the community choir whose members have helped me to stay sane in the last few years, and I certainly wouldn't have been able to join my church choir, either. I'd have missed out on meeting so many people, doing so many things and having so many experiences that have helped to make my life a better and more worthwhile thing. Maybe my life would have been miserable, or maybe it wouldn't have been. All I know for sure is that for all my present difficulties, I'm not doing too badly and I'm working on doing even better in all aspects of my maybe it isn't that bad after all.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Racial Type of Original Sin

I've often heard it said that white people are incurably and innately racist. The idea is that no matter how hard individuals may try to not be racist, the very skin we were born with makes us racist because white-dominated Western cultures give us un-earned advantages that people of other races just don't get. We are tainted from birth and nothing can change that.

I find that idea to be deeply hurtful even as I understand its source. From our history, you'd think that white people are the real root of all evil, that the love of money doesn't even begin to enter into it. It often seems like we've created practically everything that's wrong with the world today. Other races may not be perfect—after all, we're all human and therefore likely to make mistakes of varying degrees of severity—but because of the dominance that white people have had over the world for so long, we've been in the position to do the most evil for the greatest amount of time. And yet, every time I hear this assertion, it hurts me. I have friends who are people of colour. Some of my cousins are half-Ojibwe. One of my mother's friends, a woman who I grew up thinking of as an aunt, was chief of a Cree reserve for several years. These are people I love, and the thought that I'm oppressing them just by being white is painful to me. After all, who likes to think that they're hurting any of people they love simply by existing?

In many ways, the idea of white people as being born incurably racist reminds me of the concept of original sin. It's not anything that any baby, even a white one, asks for or does anything to cultivate. It's something that they inherit from their ancestors and it's something that no amount of good works can save them from. But unlike original sin, which is traditionally done away with by the sacrament of baptism, there can be no absolution from this sin. Even the best white ally of POCs is, at the end of the day, still white and therefore The Enemy.

Initially, I became a Neo-Pagan because I wanted to distance myself from the Roman Catholic Church because of the more oppressive aspects of its past and present. I wanted more power to do good in the world than the severely restricted role of women in the Catholic Church would let me do. I wanted to understand the natural world better. I wanted to feel its energies. I wanted to do more to help it than hurt it. When I felt a pull to my Catholic past, I resisted because I didn't want to go back to something that I perceived as being innately negative. You don't have to look any further than the Pope's stance against contraception, the pedophile priest scandals, the excommunication of women who were ordained as priests (and the bishops who ordained them) and the Spanish Inquisition to see my reasons for that perception. I didn't want to be one of Them anymore. Acknowledging my remaining Christian leanings was very painful to me at first, and as things like the Rosary and prayers to various saints crept back into my spiritual life, I increasingly became alarmed with myself. It wasn't until I realized that it didn't have to be a one-or-the-other choice that I really made peace between what I had been and what I had become. I changed, and my somewhat unconventional spiritual life has been incresingly rewarding even in its difficulties ever since.

I can't do that with my race. I could dye my auburn hair and my pasty skin (I don't tan very well—I burn after more than 15 minutes in strong sunlight). I could have surgery to change my facial features and I could wear dark contact lenses to change the apparent colour of my blue-green eyes. I could learn other languages and totally immerse myself in a non-white culture. With a lot of work, I might even start to blend in, kind of like Archie Belaney when he became Grey Owl. But underneath all the artifice, I would still be white. I would still have grown up with a modicum of white privilege. (Until I reached high school it was curtailed to some degree because although most of my classmates were white, they were also mostly of Italian descent. I am not, and I learned very early on what a "mangiacake" is and why that's not a very complimentary term.) I would still assume that I had the right to basic decency from white people, even though I might not actually present as one anymore and even though as a white person I've sometimes been on the receiving end of white people's vitriol for Existing While Fat and/or Existing While Female—and even just for Existing, period. I may not have been born with these things, may not have been born with a concept of whiteness, but in the nearly 27 years I've been alive, I've absorbed it. I don't like it—but I don't have to like it to be part of it or to benefit from it. I just have to be. No amount of protest or work or attempts to even out the playing field will ever change that.

Obviously, it's an issue with which I have a lot of conflict. Any space that includes me is by default not a safe space for anyone who isn't white, perhaps not so much for my whiteness as for the way I struggle with it. Sure, there are things about me that I don't like, but at the most basic level I see myself as being a decent person. I was raised to think of racism as an evil thing and to think of racists as evil people. So perhaps it's not a big surprise that when I first heard someone say that white people are all incurable racists from the day we're born, it immediately felt like a heavy blow to the solar plexus with a spiky iron glove. I couldn't deny the history. I couldn't deny that racism still existed at the time and I certainly couldn't deny the damage that it was still doing, just as I still can't deny it, or the ways in which systemic racism still benefit me today, whether or not I like it. And you know, I don't want to believe that simply Existing While White makes me a racist any more than being bisexual makes me a closeted lesbian who wants to hold on to straight privilege. That would mean that just by being alive, I'm an instrument of evil who's hurting some of the people I love the most, and that the white people who are among the kindest humans I've ever known are also intrinsically evil. We're in a pretty unique situation, because we do not have to explicitly embrace the evil of racism to be part of it or to benefit from it.

There's got to be a middle ground. There's got to be a way to acknowledge and yet neutralize white privilege without condemning every last person who has it. Can you benefit from racism, whether or not you like or ask for it, without actually being a racist yourself? Can a white person totally eschew white privilege? Is being a racist more than holding racist opinions and acting in racist ways? Is it possible for someone who's a racist in every way it's possible to be a racist to change?

I want to believe that there's hope of some kind for people of my race. Otherwise, it means that we're all really just worthless, and that all other races would be perfectly justified in throwing us all into modern-day equivalents of the Nazi death camps. And because of my belief in an ultimately loving and forgiving Goddess and God (even if They frequently have to be stern with us), and my belief that there's some good in nearly everyone, I find that I can't quite give up on the idea that maybe someday we white folks can redeem ourselves, and that at heart, most of us are neither better nor worse than people of any other race.