Sunday Smörgåsbord: May 31, 2015

This was my last week of teaching for the spring and I cried a lot. The students I’ve had for three years are moving on to another teacher, and that is always a tough transition for me. I felt a lot of feels, and I channeled that into some aggressive pieces about which I also felt a lot of feels.

I wrote a set of three pieces triggered by the most recent case of sexual abuse in a high-profile American Christian media family. While these posts are applicable to this case, they have broader implications because the same themes emerge every time this happens: empty calls to forgive the abuser,  and attempts to maintain the power and authority structures that facilitate this kind of abuse in the first place. And all of it is disturbingly centered on the abuser while the victims/survivors are almost entirely ignored.

And, because I needed a light in that dark tunnel, on #FitFriday I wrote about my grammy, body positivity, and threw in a video of her exercising at 93 years old.

Be well this week. Stand on the side of the marginalized. And if you’re feeling down, watch my grammy exercise. The best bit is when she realizes she’s being recorded. ♥

Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

This is my third piece triggered by and simultaneously about and not about the most current sexual abuse scandal in the news. This topic grieves me and angers me. Even though I am not from the same faith tradition as the current focus du jour, I have seen this play out across Christian denominations. I have friends who have been abused and friends who have been sexually assaulted, and well meaning church people who have handled the information in ways that perpetuate abusive thinking and center the abuser rather than the victim.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

In Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t, I added

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the conversations surrounding it, is in the same vein as the forgiveness post. But I was so troubled by it I needed to write a whole separate essay and take a few extra days to process.

“A sin is a sin is a sin.”

I am not going to get into a theological discussion about the nature of sin, or why the Catholic tradition has mortal sins and venal sins, or the irony/hypocrisy of the evangelical church putting so much emphasis on sexual sins and purity as though fornication is the ultimate sin until one of their own men is in the spotlight for just that.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

This is not just a conversation about sin and the church. This has implications beyond our physical church walls, or the arbitrary boundaries between denominations. Molesting children is against the law. Delicate language recasting it as a mistake, a misstep, an indiscretion, a sin is carefully dodging the consequences of acknowledging the criminal nature of sexual abuse.

My pastor is the executive director of a year-long, faith-based recovery home for women. The vast majority of the women who enter the program have broken the law, often multiple times. I have witnessed these women walk out incredible transformations in their lives. When they give their testimonies at the end of their program, they pull no punches as they share their old lives of addiction and pain. They don’t use soft language or try to dodge consequences. In fact, even as they acknowledge their forgiveness, part of their program is to fulfill all consequences, restitution, etc., that is part of their criminal sentences. But as they name it, they do so because it takes away the shame of secrecy, and establishes a habit of accepting the consequences of their actions.

By dismissing the serious, violating nature of sexual abuse by quipping, “A sin is a sin is a sin,” in a misguided invocation of forgiveness, bloggers and supporters of the perpetrator uphold the code of secrecy that allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their crimes. And completely ignoring the victims.

“Let he among us without sin be the first to cast a stone.”

I read a really awful blog post, based on a really awful tweet, all based on a gross misuse of that concept. All hash-tagged with support to forgive the perpetrator.

I wrote on Thursday: it is not for any of us, the general public to forgive him. We were not wronged, molested, or abused by him. If we repeatedly avoid hard conversations about abuse, assault, and the systems that facilitate the molestation of children–all under the misguided call for “forgiveness”–these crimes will continue unabated and the bodies and lives of children and women will continue to be attacked.

Now, let me tell you what it can be like to be a female victim of a sexual crime in the church. Elizabeth Smart speaks about her captivity, and the lessons she learned about sex a la the “chewed gum” analogy  significantly impacted her perception of herself as a rape victim/survivor. When I attended church camp in middle school and high I went to a small-group lesson on boundaries in dating. We signed True Love Waits cards. I remember learning that once we passed boundaries there was “no going back,” and that it was my responsibility (as a female) to keep the physical side of the relationship in check. During college, a group of friends were talking when someone opened up that she had been raped freshman year. One well-meaning but misguided friend’s first instinct was to ask if her boyfriend knew she wasn’t a virgin.

This pervasive fixation is aimed at girls remaining pure. And in all those lessons I learned–directly and indirectly–there was no grace.

The full context of the casting stones verse involves a woman about to be stoned for adultery. She is about to become a victim of the male-dominated purity code. She is marginalized, just like every person for whom Jesus went to bat. When people trot this verse out, lacking context, in defense of an abuser, they miss the point entirely. When high-profile men lose positions of power and authority because of sexual abuse or sexual assault allegations, they are not victims. Their victims are victims.

On Thursday, I said I feel no nuance about standing on the side of the marginalized. These girls–now in their teens–don’t have hash tags or social media campaigns. But I’m guessing they have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. Maybe they feel like chewed up gum. Maybe they only now understand the full extent of what happened to them as young children. Maybe they are horrified by the support offered to their abuser while they feel ignored or revictimized.

The church has done a terrible, terrible job of standing up for abuse victims/survivors/overcomers. It rushes “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” and centers the abusers instead of uplifting and surrounding the hurt and abused. Is it any wonder the rest of the country stares back, agog?

Fit Friday: My Grammy Moves It

I’ve written about my grammy before.

My grammy’s name is Ila. She was born in 1921, which makes her 93½ years old. There is a lot I could say about what she’s seen and done in those years. But right now, today, I am going to show you what she is doing in this second half of her ninety-fourth year, in this video my cousin recorded this week: my grammy showing her great-granddaughter “Roo” the exercises she does every morning.

Movement and exercise and activity that is sustainable and enjoyable is worth doing. My grammy has been a member of TOPS for over 30 years and has taken care of her body and her health with regular check-ups, sensible food, lots of laughter, and help from her family when she needs it.

She has experienced her share of physical pain, sickness, and limitation, but she has found movement that she can accomplish. Her body is a good body.

All bodies are good bodies.

Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

Most of the blog posts I’ve read that defend a Christian accused of a sexual crime against another person (or persons) get the concept of forgiveness really, really wrong.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote briefly about the difficulty I experience writing about religion. I currently attend a Christian peace church that turns the mainstream idea of church hierarchy on its head, but I have attended and witnessed churches and church relationships that cause a great deal of hurt to individuals and groups. I am conscious of the contributions the church has made to historical and modern constructions of racism, misogyny and sexism, privilege, power, and the language and action of oppression. I have also seen the church participate in reconciliation and liberation.

It’s safe to say I have a complex relationship with the church. It’s full of wrestling and nuance, which is something that often gets lost as soon as tempers flare and parties start shouting past each other.

Granted, there are some things about which I feel no nuance. Deconstructing power. Sexual abuse. Standing on the side of the marginalized.

And in that vein, I have read some very troubling things over the last week. I am not going to link them, because page hits. Also because I ended up in a very angry rabbit hole last night following the push behind a specific blog post. It was ugly and confounding, and I decided not to go the route of a detailed illustration of the parallels between featuring a blog post on forgiving abusers while simultaneously featuring specific language that has been called out as being sexist and damaging… the more I dug into it the more I realized my emotional health couldn’t handle it. Especially not before bed.

Forgiveness.

Through the lens of power, here are my responses to points of conversation as I have read it to date, and what I assert has been missing from nearly every conversation involving a high-profile sexual assault:

“We should forgive him!” That is not within our power; forgiveness is not ours to give. Unless we are the target or victim or God Himself, it is not our responsibility to forgive.

“He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him.” There are many variations of “The perpetrator did X, so the victims should do Y,” and they are problematic. First, an apology is not an equation. It does not guarantee forgiveness. In my 12-Step group, when we reach Step 9 and make amends we do so with the full understanding that forgiveness may not be proffered in return. When my students get an apology, they say “Thank you;” I have taught them not to say “It’s okay.” Because usually it is not okay. Second, forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced as part of a conditional agreement or system. “He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him” is an expression of the exact same abuse of power and authority that manifested as the sexual assault. The hierarchy of perpetrator over victim remains in place, and the authority remains in hands of the assaulter.

“Move on.” A lot–and I mean a lot— of blogs and articles and opinion pieces have mentioned and paid lip service to the victims. The amount of ink they get compared to the perpetrator is a dismal ratio, and maybe that’s to ensure they’re privacy. Then again, maybe not. In this specific case, we’re told the victims got counseling. We don’t know what kind. We’re told they moved on. Or, we’re told they should move on. Empty cries to “move on” ignore very real issues that happen in churches and families around us. One woman wrote about her similar molestation, and that she was counseled (by a lay member of the church, a non-professional) that forgiveness was required, and that moving on was the only thing that would glorify God. And a five-year-old child cannot complete counseling. For one, counseling is an ongoing process. Furthermore, if a child cannot fully process what happened to her body, she cannot understand the implications of forgiving that sin against her. It’s distinctly possible that if/when she chooses to forgive her assailant, she will need to re-forgive him every time the memory of abuse reemerges as a power in her life. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the only person who can decide when she can move on, forgive, let go of some of the hurt. As far as us moving on? If we do not have real conversations about child sexual abuse, the systems that facilitate its commission, and the barriers to intervention, it will keep happening. We need to have conversations about how to best separate victims from their abusers, how to help victims recover and heal, and how to rehabilitate abusers so they do not abuse again.

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

Abuse and the Use of Power

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

I’ve stared at this blank blog post for a while.

My heart is heavy and more than a little frustrated. I do not want to jump into the fray regarding the latest high-profile abuse scandal to capture our attention. The coverage of such stories bothers me, the way we center the narrative on the perpetrator and fixate on how and why he did it, on whether his consequences were served in the right time and manner, and on whether the appropriate public response should be outrage or forgiveness. Although my heaviness and frustration have been triggered by this latest event, it is by no means limited to this incident, nor is it centered on the tradition or the adherents from which the abuse sprang. There are well-written pieces on that, and that is not my area. Moreover, I have found this happens across traditions.

To date, I have written about the intersections of gender, race, social class, and language. I have written comparatively little on the topic of or intersection with religion. It’s a difficult topic for me. I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, got my B.A. from a liberal Lutheran college, spent a lot of energy not fitting in to the Evangelical circle during college, and currently wrestle at a Brethren church. I know a lot of people who have been hurt in and by the church, regardless of tradition. I have been hurt by the church and by well-meaning church people.

It’s hard to write about something to which I am still so closely tied. But that’s why I attend a church that decides most things by consensus. Where the pastors defer to the congregation, rather than the other way around. Where the pastors are a husband-and-wife team with equally strong voices. It’s not perfect, but once when a pastor said something in a sermon that caused me to become visibly uncomfortable, I got a text message later (because I prefer texts) so we could hash out the intent, how I heard it, and why I was bothered.

It has become abundantly clear when there is an imbalance of power, there exists the potential for abuse. I learned this from the church. My graduate work has confirmed it. And the current media firestorm illustrates this even further.

Allow me to elaborate:

I am currently preparing a manuscript with two additional authors on the abuse of women and girls with disability. The paper covers twenty years of research studies into the topic, and finds that across all age bands and across all categories of abuse, women and girls with disability experience abuse at higher rates than women and girls without disabilities. The single most common theme that emerged? Victims were more vulnerable to abuse as a consequence of power being used inappropriately. We also wrote:

[The] difficulty in achieving justice in the court system for women with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted stems from the failure to recognize the abuses of trust, power, and authority in the relationships of these women.

Further factors that conveyed risk or protective factors were isolation vs. social inclusion; that source indicated the degree to which a woman was socially embedded mitigated the likelihood she would experience partner violence.

So how does this relate to the current news cycle? Everything.

The pieces I’ve read have fit into two categories: those that have used carefully selected language, and those that have called out the careful words for softening and whitewashing what was an act of sexual abuse and violence against the bodies of young girls. But both categories seem to be so caught up in the politicization of the scandal that they miss some really important information.

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

And it is this part of the narrative that bothers me so much, that most conversations are missing: however it was (or wasn’t) handled, after whatever counseling did (or did not) occur, the person in question still went on to achieve positions of power and authority. 

Most of the pieces I’ve read in the Forgiveness camp demonstrate some simplistic and/or disturbing misconceptions of what forgiveness means. I’ll get to that later this week. But the amount of power, authority, and leverage ascribed to his (former) position with the Family Research Council is troubling, snarky and/or frustrated comments about anti-LGBT campaigns aside (those are worth discussion, but not in this blog post).

The way we center our coverage on perpetrators is disturbing. Our concern for victims/survivors’ wellbeing rarely seems to match our morbid curiosity for the details of their violation. We need a new lens: power, and why give it back to the perpetrators.

What Kids “Get”

Content note: social class, classism, art, accessibility

Poor Kids Get Art!

That was the thrust of the piece by Rachel Lu in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks at the ribbon cutting of the Whitney Museum in New York.

I agree. Poor kids do get art. But the First Lady never said they didn’t:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.

And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.

The First Lady understands the both the broad and nuanced implications of power, privilege, and marginalization; this is her lived experience.

From Rachel Lu’s piece, and her lived experience:

I myself once took a group of African-American eight-year-olds through the Chicago Art Institute [sic]. Admittedly, they were from the West Side, not the South Side, so maybe they weren’t as underprivileged as Michelle Obama had been.

Once. She took underprivileged kids to an art museum once.

Later, as she showed them Monet’s haystacks:

The question inspired some rousing discussion among the group […] But eventually they started to get it. “Maybe it would be cool,” one boy remarked thoughtfully, “to see how things look at different times of the day.”

“And now you can,” I told him. “Right here in this room. That haystack is surely gone now, but the whole world can see what Monet saw when he looked at it, just by visiting this room.” We were quiet for a moment as the kids took in the room. I reflected with a tinge of sadness that haystacks and sunsets probably weren’t a big part of their concrete-jungle existence.

Here we have some reflection, followed by pity. She also takes credit for opening the students’ eyes to Monet specifically and Art in general. It reminded me of the short-term mission trips popular among my peers during my evangelical days, a kind of privileged tourism. Those poor kids, were it not for me, would never have understood [blank].

Lu’s single experience taking a group of children to the Art Institute of Chicago was enough evidence to counter the First Lady’s assertion that poor children of color do not see museums and other centers of culture as welcoming places. That is the epitome of privilege: my opinion supersedes your lived experience. In fact, the way Lu positions herself as the gatekeeper in that scenario, as the White, middle-class volunteer with the time and the knowledge, keeps the art she loves inaccessible.

In my own field, the astonished Deaf Kids Get Poetry! should give me pause. Of course they do. As a gatekeeper, I need to make sure that I am not making the literary form even less accessible than it already may be. My students proved to me this year that they get poetry–in English, in ASL, signed or spoken. My students chose their own poems this year. I helped them crack the code, but the “getting it” was in their own power. When it came to translating, I know my students see the world differently than I do. I may have the grammar, but they have the images.

My students also “get” condescension. They are tuned in to the adults around them. They know when someone doesn’t expect much from them. They know when a face or a voice is insincere. They would “get” Rachel Lu, even through an interpreter.

I have my own problems with the First Lady’s remarks. Institutions like the Whitney should be doing outreach not with the hope of reaching the next great artist or the next First Lady, but because all children should have access to the arts as a form of expression, culture, and identity. Art should be seen not just as a tool to “rise above,” but also to simply be. Art should not be reserved for the privileged galleries, although some of it is housed there. Art needs to be in the streets, on our hands, on our lips. Kids get art, they get poetry. It’s the adults who fail to understand what that means when their privilege gets in the way.

Sunday Smörgåsbord: May 17, 2015

Syttende Mai!!!

(That’s May 17, for you non-Norwegian folk. Norway’s Constitution Day. Also, for you non-Swedish folk, a Smörgåsbord is literally a “sandwich board,” or a buffet, as we use the term in the States. So my Sunday summaries are a buffet of the Ampersandwich)

I am DONE with my first year of graduate school. I have but two weeks left of my seventh year of teaching at the school for the deaf. And what a year it’s been…

More on that later. For now, what a week it’s been… rather, two weeks:

  • Last Monday was my first day back after being sick for far too long. I wrote about being sick, and how having a treatable (and treated) chronic condition does not mean the condition no longer exists. Forgetting that fact likely contributed to the length of my illness (I’m still mad that I spent my favorite month of the year with bronchitis).
  • The following Friday, I discussed the sexism embedded in the (seeming) vast majority of K12 dress codes.
  • Next up: the double discomfort of puberty, while being unable to fully discuss it with your parents because of communication barriers.  What may be considered TMI in most classrooms is considered basic life-skills instruction in my classroom–I showed my student where I stash my tampons, and that I have hell-raising cramps, too.
  • Idaho makes headlines (again) because a school district is facing a challenge to a novel in the curriculum (again). I have words.
  • Finally, my take on standardized testing as it applies to my population, and what meaningful progress documentation really looks like for my kiddos. The kind that builds up and encourages rather than shames and discourages.

Seven teaching days left. So many words to write. Onward.