August 11, 2010

Tom Little and Christian Mission in Afghanistan

Last week, 10 medical aid workers were killed in Afghanistan. The leader of the team, Dr. Tom Little, was the father of my good friend. Tom Little and his wife Libby spent over 33 years living and working in Afghanistan while raising three daughters. I met my friend the week following the attacks of September 11. Having followed in her parent’s footsteps, she had recently returned from aid work in Afghanistan. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, her father was one of the first aid workers back into Afghanistan and she soon followed. Although I never met Tom Little, I knew something of his life from stories my friend would share. What impressed me most was the apparent connection between Tom Little, his wife Libby, and many Afghani people. To see this connection and trust violated through his violent death is tragic not only for the Littles but also for the Afghanis who have worked with and cared for the family. Although the Taliban took responsibility and denounced the team for proselytizing and spying, the fractures in the social fabric of a war-ravaged country unable to restrain violence may also be a significant factor.

As I have read comments to U.S. internet news stories of the killings and the life of Dr. Little, I have become doubly grieved by certain angry and critical sentiments. The suspicion that Christian aid workers simply must be proselytizing ranks high among a number of comments. So also, the criticism that Dr. Little should have been giving free eye care back here in the USA. Knowing the family, I have no doubt that the group did not proselytize. Furthermore, how could one survive as an aid worker for three decades by disregarding this prohibition? Yet, there is also a larger theological issue at stake of what Christian mission must mean. Must mission, by definition, mean proselytizing? Is the only mission of the Christian church to convert souls for Jesus? Certainly within a feminist liberation theology, the demand to counter oppression in all its forms from spiritual to material beckons Christians to work that includes medical aid. Engaging in a Christian mission of medical or humanitarian aid should not be seen as a partial mission limited by the contingencies of the legalities of proselytizing. Rather, from a feminist theological position, attending to human health participates in the caring for creation.

Furthermore, as Emilie Towne’s work on African American health teaches, human health is inextricably interwoven with issues of social justice. That Dr. Little would be criticized for working in Afghanistan rather than in the U.S. indicates a failure to acknowledge or take responsibility for the global inequities deeply connected to structures of U.S. policies and wealth. One interview about Dr. Little’s work described the beginning of his mission as taking disposable eye care products from the U.S. and refurbishing them for use in Afghanistan. Certainly the U.S. healthcare system is deeply flawed and many in the U.S. do want for adequate eye care. However, to narrow the scope of care to national boundaries reinforces a transnational imbalance of power that enables a country such as the U.S. to produce disposable eye care products while a country such as Afghanistan relies on medical aid. Notably, Dr. Little’s eye care organization not only provides clinics, but also supports the education of Afghanis to provide eye care without relying solely on U.S. or European aid workers. Little explained his view on the importance of an autonomous Afghan program in a 2004 article. "That way, if we're ever kicked out of the country again," he said, "the hospitals don't have to shut down and people can still get glasses."

During the last seven years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have been working towards my doctorate in religion, gender, and culture. Watching my friend come and go from the U.S. and back to Afghanistan, the West Bank of Israel and Iraq has often left me feeling distant from the wars and instability of these regions as I sit at the safety of my desk. Yet, reading these articles and comments reminds me of the importance of continuing to teach and develop critical feminist thought on religion that promotes a material care of creation that extends beyond national borders. Hopefully, the promotion of such a view of Christian mission will better grant the full respect and honor to the generous and faithful lives of medical aid workers such as Dr. Tom Little and his team.

Stephanie May
Doctoral Candidate
Harvard Divinity School

June 4, 2010

Honoring Karen McCarthy Brown

On behalf of the co-editors of, I am writing to share a request that was forwarded to us regarding Karen McCarthy Brown. Author of Mama Lola, Karen’s work has crossed boundaries in the study of religion, anthropology, and women's studies. Indeed, finding Mama Lola on my book shelves took a moment as I tried to recall into which category the book had landed. I read Mama Lola in the first semester of my doctoral work. Years later, fragments of vibrant images of Vodou rituals and Mama Lola remain as I recall the work. Mama Lola taught me not only a bit about Vodou, but also raised fundamental questions about the study of religion. In the seminar in which I read the book, newly matriculated doctoral candidates debated the question of “insiders and outsiders” in the study of religion. Describing Mama Lola as an “ethnographic spiritual biography”, Karen McCarthy Brown challenged scores of scholars to reconsider the relationship between their work and themselves. (Preface to the 2001 edition)

I trust many of the FSR community have had an opportunity to read Karen McCarthy Brown and Mama Lola. For this reason, we are sharing with you a letter from her husband, Bob, and friends, Gail and Claudine. Please read and consider supporting their request.

Stephanie May Co-editor

To Honor the Work of Karen McCarthy Brown
A letter to friends and colleagues

As most of you know, our beloved Karen, inspiring scholar of religion, is suffering from a particularly rare form of dementia. Before the disease dominated her life she was working on getting her path-breaking book, “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” translated into French. Karen had identified a remarkable translator in Paris and a distinguished French publishing house to take it on. Now that project is stalled for lack of funding. This is an appeal to a broad community of friends and fans to help raise the funding for this endeavor to honor Karen. It also honors Mama Lola.
The French version of the book has been long in coming but it is more than ever needed as many vicious media attacks on Vodou and Haitian society have taken place after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. In the aftermath of the quake, at a moment when Haitians are seeking sources of support even beyond material relief, some believe that Vodou as national religion and source of humanistic values has much to offer to the project of national reconstruction and reconciliation. Haitian culture is not well understood, so the book is an opportunity to continue to educate and inform. Ultimately, this translation will help restore the Haitian ancestral religion to its proper place and will serve Haiti well at a time of such extraordinary challenge for the country and its people.

With this letter, we invite you to join the group of scholars and friends who believe that it is time to have this important book available in Haiti and in the Francophone world in general. Hopefully this will happen within this coming year. Our goal is to raise the necessary funds to undertake the project by December, 2010. To get there we need your help now.

How you can support this effort: Some of you may wish to contribute direct financial support as a way to honor Karen and Mama Lola and this extraordinary book. You may also have contacts with foundations or sources of grant funding and may know a broader network of friends and colleagues who should be alerted to this effort. Karen herself, her husband, Bob, and friends like us, Gail and Claudine, would so appreciate any thoughts and ideas you may have.

Again, we express our gratitude for your participation in this community effort to honor the work of both Karen McCarthy Brown and Mama Lola and the extraordinary relationship they nurtured in the process of working together for more than 30 years. It is also about continuing Karen’s long legacy of restoring Vodou as a legitimate belief system that offers hope and communal support to its adherents in Haiti and beyond.

We join our voices to thank you for supporting this most cherished dream of Karen; we also thank you on behalf of those who have long awaited the translation of “Mama Lola.” If we can answer any further questions about this project, please feel free to contact any one of us.

With our most sincere appreciation, Bob, Gail and Claudine

Robert Machover
Milford, New Jersey

Claudine Michel
Department of Black Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara

Gail Pellett
Gail Pellett Productions
New York, NY

For more detailed information on the project and how to help support the translation please click on image:

May 11, 2010

An endless waterfall

I listened to songs from Cris Williamson’s album The Changer and the Changed (1975) recently. I hadn’t heard that wonderful and historically important “women’s music” since the mid-80s. Williamson reminds us that change happens when we open ourselves to the sacred in life, making ourselves vulnerable in order to pursue justice, to speak truth, to dare to learn so that we can grow in wisdom and teach others. Consider her lyrics in “Waterfall”: “When you open up your life to the living /All things come spilling in on you /And you're flowing like a river /the Changer and the Changed /You've got to spill some over /Over all. /Filling up and spilling over /it’s an endless waterfall.” Can you feel the cool spray on your face? Can you see the surge of dark-green water moving swiftly around every obstacle? Can you hear the waterfall thundering onto the rocks below? At the risk of sounding like a 1980s idealist who has not yet lived the complications and disputes of third-wave feminism, I want to affirm Williamson’s powerful image of an endless waterfall of women’s truth poured out and continuously renewed on behalf of all living creatures.

In the tiny rivulet of my own family, I am grateful for women of three generations who are doing remarkable things with their energy and creativity. B., an 83-year-old Roman Catholic widow and the mother of ten grown children, is tireless in her activity on behalf of her struggling community, which is situated in one of the poorest counties in the United States. B. lives in a small Southern town where, according to the 2000 census, 49.3% of the population lives below the poverty line. B. works for healing and reconciliation on personal and structural levels in her community, bringing chicken soup to the ill and housebound despite having endured quadruple-bypass surgery herself not too long ago, volunteering for her church, and attending municipal meetings about the bitter race issues that continue to fracture her town. She would adamantly decline any identification as feminist; the socially and theologically conservative milieu in which she has lived her entire life names “feminism” as something socially repugnant and antagonistic to Bible-Belt construals of godliness. Nevertheless, B. is one of the most powerful women I know. She has touched the lives of many through her compassionate service and her fierce, unabashedly opinionated leadership.

L., a 46-year-old Episcopalian and married mother of an eleven-year-old daughter, has a love of intellectual seeking that spurred her to earn not only a B.A. from Oberlin College but Master’s degrees in conducting and flute performance, both from Penn State, and a Master’s in early childhood education from Indiana University. L. is passionate about intervening in the lives of young children who are growing up in situations of social and educational deprivation. She has analyzed the damage inflicted on young children by the heteronormative assumptions that are pervasive in the preschool classroom. Committed to promoting nonviolence in all dimensions of our educational system, L. wants to make visible the political and cultural expectations that operate at the level of the “hidden curriculum” in every classroom. She is deeply concerned about the moral power of teachers to mold or even subjugate children by constraining a child’s creativity and growing sense of self in order to have the child conform to group expectations. She wants to challenge the rigid metrics of accountability that dominate our current educational culture, and she hopes to work to remediate the fear of difference, fear of change, and silent complicity in the oppression of minorities that can mar early childhood education. L. is considering pursuing a doctorate in curriculum studies or the philosophy of education in order to advocate for practices of justice on behalf of young children in preschool and elementary classrooms.

D., 16 years old and recently returned to the Episcopal church after sojourns in atheism and Wicca, is an ardent feminist and committed writer who is already unusually knowledgeable about women’s, transgender, and queer advocacy and is committed to working for racial equality as well. D. has been a courageous witness for women’s autonomy, progressive education around issues of sexuality, and reproductive choice. It has not always been easy for her as a sophomore in a Roman Catholic girls’ high school. Fully 25% of the student body is non-Catholic, but D. is sometimes the only person in her classroom who dares to advocate for a position other than that endorsed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. While she loves her school, D. has often experienced frustration. She hears her peers regularly denigrate Barack Obama, she has endured “purity”-based education about sexuality founded on misleading or incorrect data about the inadequacies of birth control, and she has listened as a teacher counseled her class that “while college is important too,” girls should be spending a lot of time praying about their future husbands. Recently D. was told that her project on “Yes Means Yes,” which sets a higher bar for consensual sex than does the familiar “No Means No” slogan, could not be accepted for a class assignment because it did not accord with Roman Catholic teaching. D. remained undaunted in her advocacy, initiating a sustained conversation with the teacher about her project. Her teacher has become enthusiastic about D.’s project and is allowing it for the assignment. D. cannot wait to turn eighteen so she can volunteer for Planned Parenthood, and she is already eager for women’s-studies classes in college.

You may have figures in your life who have drawn you into the thunderous and irresistible waterfall of women’s empowerment, women’s wisdom, and women’s advocacy for transformation. B., L., and D. are such figures for me—unsung heroines, they are quietly changing the world. When I consider their lives and their witness, I can hear the roar of Cris Williamson’s waterfall thundering in my ears.

Carolyn J. Sharp

Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures

Yale Divinity School

April 30, 2010

Liturgical Reform in a Time of Crisis

Ecclesial reform has been on my mind lately. In search of some inspiration, I picked up Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book Catholic ≠ The Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism. At the outset of this book, Ruether outlines a vision of “authentic Christian community” that is multicultural, democratic, liberated from sexism, and committed to the poor and oppressed. This vision of community is one that lives by grace, where prayer and social action go hand in hand. In other words, one of the key elements of working for transformation is the cultivation of a mature spirituality. As Ruether suggests, we need to become people of prayer. In her words, this means overcoming the split between spirituality and social action, a split that has been enhanced by the mystification of the ritual prayer in Roman Catholic communities.

Last week a new English translation of the Roman Missal was completed and will be implemented in parishes as soon as it is approved by Pope Benedict XVI. [The Roman Missal contains prayers and instructions for the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass.] This translation is based on Pope John Paul II’s 2002 third revised edition of the Latin text. While this is certainly not the first time the Vatican has revised the language of the liturgy, what is unique about this edition is the criterion used for translation into English. According to Ratio Translationis, the English translation will be marked by a grammatical structure that closely follows the Latin text and reflects the noble tone of the Roman Rite. Consider the following examples, available on the USCCB’s website:
  • Any time the celebrant greets the congregation with the phrase: “The Lord be with you,” the congregation is to respond “And with your spirit.” The current response is “And also with you.”
  • The penitential rite will be expanded to include the words “greatly sinned” and “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” The present version is simply “sinned through my own fault.”
  • The Nicene Creed also reflects a number of changes in translation. “We believe in one God” becomes “I believe in one God,” “consubstantial” replaces “one in being.
While these are just a few examples of the changes to come, they signal a significant shift in emphasis in spirituality: one that emphasizes divine transcendence over immanence, individual over community, spirit over body. As a native English speaker, professing “I believe” instead of “we believe,” conjures up the image a lone individual standing before God. Whereas, stating “we believe” foregrounds the communal dimensions of making an act of faith. Similarly, the addition of the words “and with your spirit”—to the average English speaker—connotes a distinction between “spirit” and “body.” [For instance, think of the difference it would make to respond “and with your body.”] For too long, Christian spirituality has operated out of a dualistic framework that has valued spirit over body, men over women, human beings over the natural world—a framework that has been used to justify the exclusion of women from positions of leadership in religious and political spheres.

As feminists have long argued, God-talk is far from value neutral. Liturgical language does more than point toward the reality that is God; it functions in the human community, shaping our commitments to one another and the earth. In a time in which the church is the midst of a crisis, our communal prayer needs to be that which empowers and nourishes the community to work to bring about justice and peace in the world.

April 12, 2010

Iowa One Year Later

It’s been a year since Iowa shocked progressives on both coasts and became—as local t-shirts love to proclaim—“officially cooler than California.” On April 3, 2009 our Supreme Court unanimously declared that all citizens have the right to access the civic benefits and responsibilities that come with marriage. Theirs did better than any ruling so far to directly address public confusion about the role of religious freedom in all of this. Our justices carefully explained why recognizing the right to marriage for all citizens does not violate the religious freedom of any community of faith and why denying equal rights to marriage does.

We’re marking the anniversary with gala affairs, celebrations of love and family, federal and state tax complications, and a visit from Fred Phelps.

I’ve been an ambivalent participant in the marriage equality mania. This wasn’t the issue I would have chosen to occupy center-stage for the lgbt movement. When I officially married my two friends three months after the ruling, I was thrilled that R. would finally have access to health insurance through her firefighting spouse and relieved she could finally get that long overdue mammogram. But, I couldn’t shake the bitter sense that her right to a mammogram existed long before the Court recognized her right to marry.

Still, when the ruling came down I felt compelled to show up and be counted—an out and proud lesbian living in Iowa. And, I was deeply moved by the courage, hope, and pride that overflowed in the halls of our County Recorder’s office. One couldn’t help but feel that she was taking part in history. Meanwhile, the crowd gathering to apply for marriage licenses was by far the most racially and generationally diverse group of lgbt people, folks who appeared to come from a variety of socioeconomic classes, that I have seen in my six years living here. My fears that marriage equality is an implicitly white and middle-class lgbt issue or that the racial cleavages and white ignorance we saw in the aftermath of Proposition 8 in California are necessarily inherent to the marriage equality struggle have been challenged during the last year. I have been pushed to think with more nuance.

The belief that same-sex marriage is a magic harbinger of full-blown equality for all lgbt people—and thus the issue—or the “next” chapter in the civil rights struggle—implying the one for people of color has been successfully concluded—is one that can only be held by those of us privileged enough to be insulated from the ongoing daily effects of white supremacy, unbridled capitalism and an array of other oppressive forces. But, as I have witnessed the effect of marriage equality on lgbt people in Iowa—a place in which it is arguably more difficult to be out and proud than it is in many other places in this nation—I have come to believe that privilege also shapes the lens of those of us who too easily dismiss marriage equality as irrelevant, meaningless or as nothing more than the wrong issue. The argument for disregarding, abolishing, or simply opting out of our very imperfect, but powerful, social institutions is made much more easily by those of us with the power to mitigate or negotiate the impact institutions have on our lives.

Family law is imperfect, but the ability to draw on the protections of the law and courts is something some lgbt folks (or their children) sometimes need. The public recognition and formal respect that marriage equality confers matters for those of us who face other kinds of public dismissal, disparagement, or vilification because of race, class, nationality or a myriad of other disparaged social locations. Marriage equality does not solve many things, but here in the Iowa it has changed the social landscape, the public discourse, and sometimes simply the relationship between neighbors for the better.

Still, the venom of Fred Phelps’ press release was spewed not only against lgbt people, but against a society that would embrace a Black president, religious pluralism, empowered women, and virtually any other group or idea that represents the possibility of realizing something other than Christian, white, male supremacy. He brings us a critical reminder of the connections between racial justice, gender justice, the empowerment of lgbt people, religious freedom, and economic systems that humanize the lives of the people who inhabit them. And so, as we raise our glass of celebration here in Iowa one year later, as we courageously sustain the struggle against the public calls for us to move back to where we were 53 weeks ago, we must not pause even for a moment, but instead keep our feet to the pavement working to realize liberty and justice for all.

Jennifer Harvey

Associate Professor of Religion

Drake University

February 23, 2010

Clergy Sexual Misconduct and the Abuse of Power

While I usually get a range of responses, I was struck by the fact that this year three of my students described situations in which family members left the Roman Catholic Church due to a priest’s sexual misconduct. The concerns of my students, along with a recent incident taking place in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, point to the need for a critical reassessment of the Roman Catholic Church’s implementation of policies surrounding clergy sexual misconduct on a local and global scale. The incident in question, as reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,** is described below:

After deeming allegations of sexual molestation of a 16 year old girl in the 1970s credible, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh announced the reassignment of Fr. Alvin Adams as a chaplain to the Sisters at Whitehall convent. According to the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesperson for the Diocese, Adams’ duties would be restricted to sacramental ministry to the sisters who lived there. The next day the Diocese revoked the assignment due to complaints from parents of children who attend a day care located on convent grounds. When asked about the decision-making process involved in the priest’s reassignment, Lengwin explained:

"Rome would say that there was no crime at that time [1976] because a 16-year-old was considered an adult. In a prior case, not in this diocese, a priest had to be returned to some form of very restricted ministry.”

While the diocese was aware of the day care on the convent grounds they did not believe it posed a problem because it was in a separate building from the convent AND the priest in question was never accused of interest in small children.

Fr. Adams maintains his innocence.

[**Sources: “Diocese Reassigns Priest Over Abuse Charges” and “Accused Cleric won’t Serve in Convent, Diocese Says,” by Ann Rodgers on February 19, 2010 and February 20, 2010, respectively.]

In the local media frenzy surrounding this issue, conversations have centered on the young girl’s age at the time of alleged molestation. Diocesan officials maintain that because she was 16 years old at the time the abuse began in 1976 and legally considered an adult by canon law, “no crime” was committed, and, therefore, they were unable remove Fr. Adams from all ministerial responsibilities. In light of this legality, Fr. Adams’ case cannot be classified under the jurisdiction of child molestation. Given the fact that the incident occurred with a student at the Catholic high school in which he was serving as vice-principal, this classification seems to go against the spirit of the law. While the issue of the girl’s age with respect to canon law is important from a legal perspective, it obscures the real issue at stake in cases of sexual misconduct: the abuse of power. And, in this case, gender inequality plays a large part of the equation. Until these issues are addressed, the Church’s efforts at healing and reconciliation among its members will continue to limp along.

While the Pittsburgh Diocese did the right thing by rescinding Adams’ placement [and I think their quick response points to a sincere effort (on the part of Church officials) to listen to concerns of the local community], it does not address the fact that for 34 years Adams continued to serve in a public ministerial capacity. Nor does it suggest that there are any substantive practical consequences for sexual misconduct. Moreover, in reassigning a priest charged with allegations of sexual misconduct—on the grounds of a technicality—the Diocese missed a critical opportunity to take a stand against the ills of domestic and sexual abuse, both which of have a high prevalence in Allegheny county. [According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Allegheny, Fayette, and Somerset counties have some of the highest rates of reported domestic and sexual abuse in the state.] Clearly, this story points to continued need for ongoing reassessment of the policies surrounding sexual misconduct and abuse in the Roman Catholic Church as well as a greater involvement of members of the local community in addressing the reality of violence against women.

February 18, 2010

Women, Religion and Nicholas Kristof

I recently read with interest Nicholas Kristof's piece in the New York Times about the importance of religion in dealing with justice for women. While we who have been doing that work for decades think it is old hat, he and the Elders, a group of senior statespersons, are apparently new to the discussion. My piece on this can be found here.

I would welcome discussion here on how we can get our work our to a broader audience, how we can operationalize it for policy use.

I look forward to your creative ideas.

Mary E. Hunt

February 16, 2010

The Feminist Imagination

I was on retreat at Canterbury Cathedral in England all of last week. A luminous and powerful place – the 11th-century undercroft is a truly extraordinary place to pray. One morning at breakfast, we met a lovely woman who was one of the first female deacons in the Church of England, ordained in 1948. Naturally, she had been subjected to all sorts of indignities and invective from male clergy and lay people (male and female) opposed to the ordination of women. A courageous and gentle foremother whose witness should have been heartening to me – but instead, I was saddened by two things. First, she said that the hardest thing about serving as a deacon was standing there as the worship liturgy unfolded, “knowing that my very presence was a symbol of disunity.” Second, she was anxious to assure us that she was “not a feminist” but simply had felt called to diaconal ministry. It was clear that these are her current views, not reportage about how she used to feel years ago.

The idea that systemic misogyny and androcentrism might be the actual sources of “disunity” in disputes over the ordination of women does not seem to occur to many people, even people who are in favor of progressive change and who fight local micro-battles with verve. And that “feminist” would be a noxious label to a woman who was a pioneer in breaking through a gender-related ecclesial barrier – I understand it (she’s rejecting the caricature of feminism that was current some decades ago among its detractors), but it deeply disheartens me. Now, I’m as mired in my own presuppositions and cultural constraints as the next person. But nevertheless, I am staggered by the wholesale deforming of women’s imaginations that has been perpetrated for millennia in androcentric cultures. What has been lost is incalculable.

I’m teaching a course this semester on the work of biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann. For years, Brueggemann has worked with the category of “imagination” as the spiritual faculty by means of which we experience transformation when we encounter the Word of God in Scripture or in preaching. The God whom Brueggemann sees in the Hebrew Scriptures is tumultuous, odd, and unruly. Regular encounters with this God can train our imaginations to become restless, unsettled from our habitual numbness and false assurances, open to radical new possibilities. Thinking of the ordination of that octogenarian Anglican deacon puts me in mind of this from Brueggemann’s The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness (Fortress, 1996, p. 86): “we are created and ordained for a deeper, more demanding restlessness. It is that other restlessness beyond virtue, so elusive and so urgent, that both satisfies us and places us in crisis.” I hope that all of us – whether 85 or 45 or 25, whether Episcopalian or Wiccan or atheist – can dare to enter that place of restlessness, and that we can bear the crisis of seeing with wide-open eyes the systems of oppression that have deformed our imaginations for so long.

Carolyn J. Sharp

Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures

Yale Divinity School

February 9, 2010

New sexuality education curriculum worth remembering

In the January 27, 2010 "Justice for All" blog put out by the American Association of People with Disabilities, there was an announcement from Green Mountain Self-Advocates about a new sexuality education curriculum, designed for team teaching by people with developmental disabilities and support staff, teaching together.

Glancing through the table of contents and the sample lesson plan (on the Planned Parenthood website), I noticed that the curriculum appears to comfortably include same-sex relationships.

Here's the blurb from the Green Mountain Self-Advocates:

"New Sexuality Education Curriculum for People with Developmental Disabilities"

"We are excited to send you information about a curriculum developed by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Green Mountain Self Advocates. This curriculum, the first of its kind in the country, is designed for people with developmental disabilities and their support staff to work together as a team to teach a sexuality education series. Go to this web site to view the table of contents and a sample lesson."

February 7, 2010

"Crippled" Woman Bound by Satan for Eighteen Years (Luke 13:16)

We who are called to a ministry in solidarity with people in historically marginalized groups know their/our struggles against the poison of problematic biblical texts. We are acutely aware of potential scriptural minefields. We who are called to preach a prophetic message -- to re-educate ourselves and the larger community and deconstruct what some call biblical texts of terror -- struggle with what always seems to be a hopelessly inadequate amount of space or time:
20 minutes in a pulpit
50 minutes in front of a lecture hall
650 words in a blog post
We who are called, ask, "God, I can expend 650 words in one breath. How do I say what is needed in so few words?"

We do what we can -- and sometimes we skip over those difficult lines of scripture. In the too-short time we have in the pulpit or at the front of the lecture hall, we ask ourselves difficult questions. Do we derail our positive message by bringing up the troubling text; hope people will tune in to a second sermon; or hope to fit it into a later lecture in which we will work on that distressing text?

Can we change the dominant oppressive paradigm if, when all is said and done, we "sort of skip over some of it" in our teaching and preaching?

I recently had the privilege of watching a televised sermon "Healing the Infirmity of Spirit" preached by one of our sister-colleagues Barbara Lundblad, Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary, whose commitment to anti-oppression ministry is deservedly acclaimed. She preached from Luke 13:10-17 -- the story about a woman who had been bent over ("crippled") for eighteen years but who stood up straight when Jesus touched her. Watching the sermon, I admired her homiletic skills -- how she wove commentary about inclusion and accessibility with scriptural phrases to help listeners connect positive contemporary ideas with the text, and how she preached about spiritual rather than physical healing to encourage listeners to disconnect the archaic ideas of disability and miraculous cures.

There is so much that needs explaining about the ways in which disabilities are portrayed in scripture, where they are most often used as symbols to demonstrate miracles -- associating disability with sinfulness, despair, suffering (a good example is the Pool of Bethesda story in John 5:2-14) and with demon possession. In fact, in Lundblad's selected text, Jesus says that he is setting a woman free "whom Satan had bound for eighteen long years," (Luke 13:16). This was obviously not something that Lundblad wanted to include in her disability-affirming sermon -- she didn't bring up the text's Satan-and-disability link.

In a post-sermon interview, when the interviewer asked about her omission, she smiled (a bit ruefully, I thought) and replied, "I think that's a very tough part of the text. I sort of skipped over it, as preachers sometimes do." My heart resonated with her reply. I ask readers not to think that I am, in any way, being negative about Barbara Lundblad or her liberating work, yet when I heard her say that, I felt a pang. I felt that she had, perhaps, cheated the listeners of an opportunity to learn something about the way our Bible portrays people with disabilities.

No, on reflection, what I really felt was that by omitting that "very tough part of the text" she had missed an opportunity for solidarity with people with disabilities whose lives are sill affected by the poisonous bits in the Bible. Because those church-going people who encounter that "bound by Satan" line without having the tools for any sort of critical analysis, may continue to glance at the woman with a disability sitting in the next pew -- and wonder.

(628 words)

January 28, 2010

Haiti--No place to give birth

Amongst the survivors of the deadly earthquake in Haiti is an especially vulnerable, yet mostly invisible population: the more than 63,000 pregnant Haitian women who are without access to medical care or even a sanitary place to give birth. It’s not surprising that when disaster strikes, the risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, and other complications are higher. One doctor, unable to find space in the overcrowded hospital nearby, performed an emergency caesarean on a park bench.

While the earthquake has exacerbated the dangers for pregnant women and their children in Haiti, the dire need for access to reproductive health care, especially family planning, extends far beyond the current crisis. Haiti has the highest maternal mortality rate in the Western hemisphere (670 per 100,000 live births). A majority of married women would like to have no more children, but without access to family planning, they have no way to prevent a pregnancy. With close to 40% of women ages 15-49 who lack modern contraception, Haiti has experienced an explosion in population, especially among the most impoverished sectors of society who are most likely to have no access to health care. The resulting cycle of poverty is nearly inescapable for those born into it.

Effectively addressing the unmet need for family planning , both in Haiti and around the globe, is a matter of life or death. Every minute a woman dies from complications during pregnancy or childbirth, leaving more than two million children motherless each year. But if all women were empowered to plan and space their pregnancies as they wished, maternal mortality would drop by a third.

Like all women around the world, Haitian women want healthy lives for themselves and for their families. As relief continues to pour into the country and as plans are formed to rebuild what has been lost, we should insist that our foreign assistance includes effective strategies for ensuring that family planning services are available to all women who want and need them.

Katey Zeh

General Board of Church & Society, The United Methodist Church

Katey directs the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet Project. Through education and advocacy, the goal of the project is to raise awareness among United Methodists in the United States about the importance of international family planning and reproductive health. The initiative is funded by the United Nations Foundation.

January 15, 2010

Tributes to Mary Daly

The Public Voice blog is a forum for Feminism in Religion . . . and we invite you to join in the tributes and comments for the late Mary Daly.

Add your thoughts . . .