Friday, September 4, 2015

Asking Forgiveness of Myself on Yom Kippur

We are closing in on the High Holy Days – a time of reflection, celebration, and forgiveness. It is a new year that is filled with possibilities and it begins with the Ten Days of Repentance. As a Jew by Choice it’s this time of year that is pregnant with meaning for me. I do not have a long history of Hanukkah celebrations and Passover Seders. Nor did I have the privilege of listening to my grandparents talk about  putting carp in the bathtub or building a sukkah. The large family oriented celebrations have no back story for me – none beyond their biblical context and their historical significance. But the High Holy Days make it possible for me to connect with Judaism in a way the other holidays don’t – in a deeply personal and reflective way.

But they are also problematic for me. I struggle with forgiveness – forgiving. And I admit that I struggle with knowing when I should ask for forgiveness and of whom I should ask it. As a child who grew up in a highly dysfunctional home where violence was the norm, I struggle with my responses as an adult to that past. I struggle to find the line between forgiving my mother and step-father and the necessity of not allowing their dysfunction back in my life. I struggle too with their deeply held, but extreme religious beliefs that center on paranoia, fear and disdain of gay people. Do I forgive them? Do I ask forgiveness – and for what – for being me? For being angry that they will “stand with Kim Davis” in Kentucky but not with their gay daughter at her civil union? How and what should be the scope of asking and receiving forgiveness on Yom Kippur? Do I ask forgiveness for demanding a place at the table? Or for wanting to be accepted “Just As I Am?” I don’t have the answers – and even at 49 – almost 50 – I struggle with the ways in which the dysfunction in my past have, in many ways, colored my present – often in ways that I don’t even realize.

The key to gaining forgiveness from someone is by asking –and I admit that my step-father asked me once – almost twenty years ago. At the time I was not ready. Many things had been done and said in my childhood and young adulthood that were too big for me to simply brush away with an “I forgive you.” In many ways, I was (and perhaps still am) that 12 year old girl whose arms he pinned to the couch as my mother slapped at my face. I was 12 – and had flipped over a coffee table so my step-father would stop hitting my two younger sisters. It worked, because he chased after me as I ran to the bathroom, flipped me over his shoulder and threw me against the sofa. As he held me down, my mother hit me. And from that key moment in my life I felt – and continued to feel – as if my mother had taken sides – and had chosen the perpetrator’s side over her own child. She had always come to my rescue before this – if she couldn’t physically intervene, I could always hear her voice of protest. But that was now over.  Things like this loom large – and restrict the relationship I have with my mother and step-father. No  matter how hard I try to overcome these things, I cannot obliterate them – possibly because they have never specifically apologized for them. Whether it was my step-father hitting my mother, my younger siblings, or tying a garbage bag over the head of our dog and beating him, he has never said, "I am sorry for causing you pain, for creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, for blaming you for my marital problems, for not loving you enough to stop the violence."

And for my mother it was the same, her harsh words and ability to deflate hopes and dreams was unparalleled, Whenever I chose to say, “this is what I really want in my life,” she was quick to stick a pin in it and downplay the importance. She continued to choose the perpetrator, the religion, the politics, over her child. And she continues to “stand with Kim Davis” and to leave her child on the opposite side of the divide. That’s her right, I suppose, but it’s not something I can understand. And I’m not sure it’s something I can forgive. She has repeatedly demonstrated to me that her choices and her loyalties lie elsewhere, not with me – and so I struggle with – do I forgive her? How do I forgive her? Should I forgive her? Is it possible to forgive her?

Perhaps these things cannot be forgiven, forgotten or obliterated. Maybe they have to remain in place – a barrier to reconstructing a fictionalized account of my life. My growing up was largely one of fear, self-hatred, violence, and anger. In my teen years I tried hard to cultivate a deep spirituality which was always undercut with a well-timed “You need to get your heart right.” from my step-father. It always left me reeling and unbalanced – unsure of who I really was or what I was really doing – I tried to change  - to be better – to do more – but always, without fail, was met with “get your heart right.” I would, in the language of fundamentalism, “walk down the aisle” – repeatedly seeking to be relieved of the false mask – to finally find that sense of spiritual acceptance. But no matter how many times I left it at the altar, my parents were there to hand it right back to me the next day or week.  Emotional, physical, and spiritual insecurity was what they offered me – their enduring bequest to me.

But as an adult – able to make choices for myself – I have to be ready to acknowledge that these things place me at a disadvantage but cannot define me forever. And perhaps I also have to learn that I cannot re-create a relationship that never existed – or at least one that was broken beyond repair. I cannot make them accept me anymore than I can wish my past never existed. And so I have to choose to move forward and not backward. I have to  take that broken part of myself and use it and grow from it. But I know from watching the world and from watching far more successful people that these “parent” issues never really go away – and so I have to be prepared to live with the brokenness – as Jacob had to learn to walk with a limp. A symbol of struggling with the limitations of being human.

And so as  I approach the High Holy Days – and the Days of Repentance, I think that perhaps this year I should finally ask forgiveness of myself. And I should be ready to forgive myself. I should forgive myself for not being what others think I should be – because it’s okay to just be who I was meant to be. I must ask forgiveness from myself for constantly questioning my own self-worth, my value – and basing it on what others say or think of me. I must ask forgiveness of myself for belittling my own pain and seeing it as something that should be simply brushed aside for the greater good, rather than as a valid response to dysfunction and hurt. I must also ask forgiveness of myself for not seeing my own intrinsic goodness. I am a good person—who has worked hard, put herself through college, and has done all the right things. I did this without the help of my parents, and should be proud of that. I should also be prepared to forgive myself when I still feel the pain of a dysfunctional family. It is right and normal to feel the pain of loss - even as an adult. I should forgive myself when I am imperfect and hurt – and when I long to be loved on my own terms – even though I know it is not always possible. I should forgive myself – because – I am still human after all.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dear Christians: What’s Wrong with being Politically Correct?

My newsfeed has been exploding with outbursts of despair: the Confederate Flag is being removed from state buildings, painted over on “the General Lee,” and is generally (and finally) being recognized as a symbol which represents slavery, racism, and hate. This association doesn’t come out of thin air. Segregationists rallied around it, the KKK uses it, Neo-Nazis in Germany use it place of the outlawed swastika, and white supremacists fly it with pride. While the argument is made that is represents “southern pride” and heritage, no one can deny the use of this flag as a fight against equality and black voting rights in the south. When a symbol has more negatives attached to it than positives, it’s time to put it away. But like the old “lost cause” school of the early 20th century, many refuse to let the old Confederacy go – and they refuse to allow the old symbols of treason, hate, and racism go with it. Yes, I said treason, because those citizens who take up arms against the United States are/were traitors.

What is most surprising to me, however, are the numbers of Christians or so-called Christians, who are bemoaning the societal pressures to be “politically correct.” They are chaffing at the unpopularity of offensive nicknames, words, and symbols. Really? Not being able to use the “N” word is offensive to you? As a Christian? How does that work? The fight to rename the Washington Redskins, because it is hurtful to the Native peoples of this country somehow is bad thing – and as a Christian you can effectively make that argument work for you? When a group of people make it very clear that they want to pass judgment on your life based on “Christian” principles,” or loudly proclaim that the United States is a “Christian” nation, but also want to retain hurtful monikers and symbols as if they are sacred, I have to wonder how they make than jive with Christian scriptures.

I might be Jewish now, but the mikveh did not erase 40 years of Christian teaching and interaction with the Christian Bible. Nor did it erase 10 years of Christian education including training at a Bible College. At this point in my life, Christian language and scripture are still very much second nature, and that will probably remain true for the rest of my life. So I am completely at a loss as to how and why the idea of  being politically correct is such a blasphemous thing for Christian conservatives who see the Bible as God’s ultimate word on every subject: “God said, I believe it, that settles it” is a mantra they say they live by.

The first and only place to start for this issue is the Christian New Testament – the manual by which Christians are supposed to pattern their lives. According to Jesus, the very heart of Jewish Law and the foundation of his own belief was the command to “do unto others as  you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7.12) He elaborated in Matthew 22 when the Sadducees asked him “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To which Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as  yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22.36-40) Every other commandment in the Torah is a demonstration of how to love God and our neighbor. The same can be said for the gospels and epistles of the Christian Bible.

At another time the question of “Who is my neighbor” was brought to Jesus and he responded with the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan, rather than the priest and the Levite, stopped and helped the wounded man. He was of a different nationality, of a despised religious group, possibly even hated by the very man he helped. But he acted in the spirit of the law. His actions weren’t toward someone of his own tribe, or faith, or family, but rather toward a stranger who perhaps in some other circumstance would have walked to the other side of the road if the Samaritan approached him. The true test of loving one’s neighbor then is whether one can extend that love beyond our own comfortable circle – at least according to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of the Christian faith.

So at the core of the Christianity is the concept of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Jesus has defined the most important laws in his religious worldview, and he has defined the object of that religious faith: God and one’s neighbor. He has even defined what he meant by the word “neighbor.” The writers of the Christian Bible go on to elaborate on these two core principles so that the followers of “The Way” would understand just how to put these ideas into practice. Paul, formerly Saul, even explained the importance of love in one of the most famous passages of the Christian New Testament: I Corinthians 13: “If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing ….” (I Cor. 13.1-3). Without love, a Christ followers words would be nothing but clanging cymbals and gongs – and the practice of that faith (prophetic words and faith), would be nothing, would mean nothing, would do nothing. Love was – and is –key to living out the imperatives of the The Way.

Love, Loving God, loving one’s neighbor – and being filled with love are supposed to be the cornerstone of Christian belief and practice. Emulating God – Who, according to John “So loved the world….” Jesus wanted his followers to “love their enemies.” And Paul described this love in the following way: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”  Jesus has defined the key principle as love and explained whom we are to love. Paul has explained what it means to love – what love looks like. But what does it mean in real life – to love one’s neighbor?

For a Christian, the practice of this love is supposed to be the one thing that marks their behavior. The measuring stick for a Christ-follower isn’t political affiliation or protest: it is supposed to be the acting out love. Paul exhorted the Romans: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them … do not repay anyone evil for evil … if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God … If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12.13-21). In Romans 13 he says, “owe no one nothing, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law … love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law”".

This Christian religion – rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3.17)  is supposed to produce certain actions or fruits. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5.22). This Christian way of life should lead a believer to live a life worthy of their calling: “with all humility, and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love.” (Eph 4.1-3) Further on Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ as forgive you. Therefore be imitators of God … and live in love.” A mark of Christian – living out love as an imitator of God is to be gentle and kind and generous … and to be subject to the other – wives to husbands, husbands to wives, children to parents, slaves to masters – and masters to slaves.

Each person is to submit their personal desires to the will of others. In Philippians Paul explains that “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians2.3-4) He reiterates his ideas about Christ-like living in Colossians: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience … Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” And if one thinks that this only applies to those within the group, Paul notes, “Conduct yourself wisely toward outsiders … Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt ….” or in I Thessalonians: “…aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands …. so that you may behave properly toward outsiders ..” One should remember that the good Samaritan extended his love beyond those of his own religion or his own tribe.

And for leaders it is even more imperative that they be a cut above and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” (I Timothy 6.11) Further they should “not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” (2 Timothy 2.24-25). To Titus he wrote, “a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled.” (Titus 1.7-8)

The Way of Jesus – to love God and to love one’s neighbor was supposed to entail a life lived in submission to others – or in the service of others. Paul encouraged believers to “Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.” (Titus 2.7-8) He then said, “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (Titus3.1-2). This is what it meant when the founders of the Christian faith said to love their neighbor.

Which brings me back to the title of this piece: “Dear Christians: What’s Wrong with being Politically Correct?” As far as I have observed over the course of my life and my exposure to fundamentalist Christianity, many have chaffed at having to temper their language and not call people by derogatory names like Japs, or Spics, or fags. Somewhere along the line they have forgotten that while they have a first amendment right to speak – they have religious mandate to be gentle. If being politically correct means that, as a nation, we have reached a point where we realize that referring to a sports team as “redskins” is potentially offensive to someone – it would seem, based on the Christian Bible, that Christians should be in the forefront of that fight. If Paul demanded that Christians act in the best interests of others rather than in the best interests of themselves then dropping offensive names and language  and symbols  - should have been a gracious act of Christian love rather than decried as downward spiral toward despotism. Can you really claim we are “Christian” nation when you act like a petulant child every time you are barred from offending another human being?

James, the most Jewish of the New Testament writers was very clear about the power of language and the use of words: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! … but no one can tame the tongue … with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so … Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom … the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3.5-18) Gentleness is referred to again and again … gentleness is supposed to rule the day … a gentleness born of love … birthed from the most important commandments in Judaism: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.  You may choose to call it “political correctness” - -- but isn’t really just a call to walk in someone else’s shoes and to treat them they way you would want to be treated? Isn’t being ‘PC’ just another way for a follower of Jesus to live out their faith – to avoid hurting the feelings of others and demonstrate the love of God? What is so wrong with not wanting to deface the image of God in another human being? What is wrong with being politically correct?