Religious Liberty and “the Pill” for All

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on February 14, 2012.

The year 2011 proved to be a particularly challenging one for women’s health. The overall efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict abortion and general reproduction rights, and argue for a clarification between “rape” and “forcible rape” resulted in many referring to these and similar events as the “War on Women.”

It seemed in many ways that we had suddenly catapulted back in time a few decades. Are we really having these same conversations all over again? As many of us continue to work for and hope for a day when women’s bodies will be valued and women’s choices trusted, the various efforts to regress were frightening.

The break of 2012, however, has assured us that though the “war” will wage on, we can still make progress. The first of the year brought with it Obama’s effort to provide birth control to all women. The general gist of his initial hope was to require all employers—with the exception of mosques, synagogues, churches, etc—to provide insurance coverage for birth control without co-pays. The dicey part was figuring out what to do with religious institutions such as universities and hospitals. If these religious institutions oppose the use of contraception, does it then become an infringement on religious freedom to require them to cover birth control?

Obama’s first solution was to include these religious institutions in the new plan but to allow them one year before it would take effect. Many people were not happy with this initial plan. Rick Santorum believes the entire effort was unnecessary as “This has nothing to do with access. This is having someone pay for…something that shouldn’t even be in an insurance plan anyway because it is not, really an insurable item. This is something that is affordable, available.”

While I adamantly disagree with such a statement, it is not difficult to comprehend (though not excuse) why he might believe it given his personal context.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Sister Carol Keehan who is the head of a Catholic hospital group and seen as a voice of the religious left, also disagreed with the proposal. She stated her belief that Obama’s decision was principally and politically dangerous and could threaten the “the future of health reform.” Again, I may not completely agree, but I can understand her perspective.

What I have a much harder time understanding, however, is the mindset of those like New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte who asserts, “This is not a women’s right issue, this is a religious liberty issue.”

Isn’t it both? Having access to adequate health care is certainly a woman’s right issue. Having to pay for a drug your religion rejects is a question of religious liberty. How can these be extracted from one another?

As Christians, it is incredibly tempting to believe our religious liberty has no negative impact on absolutely any other realm of society. We want to believe that if we are being faithful to our religion, to our God, then we must be doing the “right” thing.

The difficulty arises, however, when we realize that our faith does not take place within a social vacuum. Our individual relationships to God cannot be severed from our social impact on other individuals. There are times when religious liberty will butt heads with women’s rights, or pluralism, or marriage equality—and things get messy.  Often, Christian claims to “religious liberty” are favored over the rights of persons indirectly involved.

In this case, the rights of the women working at various hospitals and universities who do not share the religious values of the institution seem unclear to me. How to handle religious liberty in light of its societal implications remains ambiguous in my own mind.

Fortunately for Obama and for women across the nation, Obama found a way out of the ambiguity while managing to compromise neither women’s rights nor religious liberty. The religious institutions in question will not have to pay for birth control – the issue will be completely out of their hands.

Instead, the insurance companies will be held responsible for the free contraceptive care which works in their financial favor.  As a result, women will have access to the health care they need starting August 1, 2012. I couldn’t be more pleased about this step in the right direction for women’s health. It is a great cause of celebration!

Yet, the ambiguity of religious (particularly Christian) liberty in light of the on-going “War on Women” warrants further exploration. It is not a new question, but it remains an unresolved one. Where do we draw the line on religious liberty? When do we ask those with other values to respect religious beliefs?

I don’t have clear answers. What I do know, however, is that we do not have the luxury of separating women’s, queers’, atheists’, etc. rights from the religious liberty of Christian individuals and institutions.

The Fatigue of Result Oriented Hope

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on January 24, 2012.

Last week at State of Formation, a number of fellow contributors wrote inspiring posts about the meaning they find within their respective religions. One of these posts in particular caught my attention.  My friend and colleague Amanda Robinson wrote a very thoughtful piece entitled Meaning Vs. Hope. In her post, she expressed her frustration with result-oriented hope and pointed to the emphasis on human action within the Jewish tradition as the place where she finds meaning. Given her dedication to environmental issues in a time of ecological crises, she has found that basing her actions in hope is mostly disappointing but basing them in meaning can sustain her work and passion.

I enjoyed her post because I share her feelings about result-oriented hope. I too am done with it. As a lesbian ecofeminist, it is far too easy to be disappointed by my own actions, the church’s actions, and society’s action in regards to issues of sexuality, environmental concern, and violence against women to sustain a result-oriented hope. I do not anticipate a day in which all of society’s ills will be mended. I don’t expect racism, sexism, or poverty to disappear no matter how many people are dedicating their time and energy to such causes. However, it is my religious life which sustains my involvement in activism and my belief that the hard work so many people are doing is invaluable.

For many years, my understanding of Christian hope was built upon the idea of progress. I thought that with enough effort and patience, time would inevitably bring good changes. As a Christian, it was my job to contribute in partnership with God as we moved forward to a better day—always better than yesterday.

However, as I was introduced to feminist thought, this understanding of hope began to seem naive. I realized that as much progress as we have made in terms of women’s issues such as the right to vote, the legalization of abortion, and the opportunity to have a career, the chance of ever achieving full equality is slim to none. With each step forward, we take one, if not two, back. Today there are more ways than ever to objectify women’s bodies via technology, violence towards women continues to be a cultural norm, and Christian language about God remains as exclusive as ever. The needs and concerns of women across the world are a millennium away from being heard and met.

Once this reality set in for me, I began to find the same truth in other justice related issues. The result-oriented Christian hope I believed in for many years became nothing more than a disappointment. To work for betterment in the world with motivation built upon success is a guaranteed path to burnout. Here, I share Amanda’s desire for a different sort of perspective – a more honest one.

I have read a wide range of Christian theologians’ perspectives on hope and many of them coincide with the result-oriented hope I can no longer uphold in my own spiritual life. However, when I read feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner’s “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” I found an understanding of Christian hope that I can get on board with.  Tanner’s explanation is not bound by results or progress but on reflecting the eternal life of God in the present.

Though it has been a long time since I have read her good words, what I remember of her explanation has transformed my daily life and perspective on justice work. Tanner’s theology suggests that in Christ we are invited into the eternal life of God, a life which is free from all social injustices where the earth is cared for, queer teenagers are not bullied, and the hungry are fed. Our hope lies in the opportunity to reflect this paradigm of God in the world. As receivers of God’s gifts, we in turn give to the world – not motivated by success or failure but motivated by the desire to bridge the gap between the life of God and the life of this world.

With this theology, I work towards equality for women—not because I think it will be achieved globally, but because to do so reflects the eternal reality of God on earth. I can advocate for animal rights or inclusive language and not get burnout when tomorrow brings no sign of change. My actions or the actions of my community are founded upon the life of God and the opportunity to reflect it in the world, not founded upon success. This is my hope.

Learning to Climb

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on November 24, 2011. 

Having just returned from my first AAR experience at this year’s annual meeting in San Francisco, my mind is still spinning. For me, it was five glorious days of nerd-heaven where theological reflections on everything from identity politics to cyborgs abound. The only responsibility I had to fill during those days was showing up and learning something. Easy to do in such a context.

In the midst of an incredible session hosted by Lesbian/Feminist Issues in Religion and Gay Men in Religion, a student in the crowd gently reminded all of us of the privilege we hold in the mere fact we could be at such a conference. Not only did we have the means to travel to San Francisco from across the country, but we all had the opportunity to receive the education that birthed our being in a room enjoying scholarly conversations. Regardless of the diversity in gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation present, we shared in the privilege that allowed us to be there.

As a student, I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about methodology, nit-picking theological claims, and (dare I admit publicly) crafting titles of various papers I long to write one day. It was good to be reminded of the privileges inherent in scholarly life and intellectual play. However, I am often tempted to think holding such privilege means I should give up the opportunity. Not everyone gets to spend hours and hours thinking and writing – so why should I? Such questions lead me to the thoughts expressed in myprevious post on scholar activism. There is a way to remain engaged in the academy and work alongside others in efforts to create systemic change, difficult as it may be. What I am learning is that acknowledging my privilege is less about giving up the opportunities before me and more about sharing them. I was reminded this week of political activist Angela Davis’ assertion that we must “lift as we climb.”

I witnessed the embodiment of this phrase in a few places this past week. First, I watched two well-respected theologians respond to a panel of student papers in such a way that authentically uplifted the students and their labor. A kindhearted critique, genuine respect for the strong work they presented, and the respondents’ belief in the students as necessary and qualified voices in the academy must have inspired every student in the room. I know I left a little more empowered. The respondents, in their scholarly prestige, lifted the students in an abnormally compelling fashion. It was wonderful.

Later, I attended a panel of five scholars. Most of the work was strong but one particular presentation was difficult to follow. Her thoughts were somewhat contradictory and her argument unclear. However, the next presenter spent a large portion of her time slyly lifting up the work of the previous presenter, making her argument shine. By the time she was finished, it was difficult to remember what didn’t make sense about the original piece and hard not to respect it. The second scholar used her time to lift the otherwise embarrassing performance of the first.

These examples, along with a small handful of others, were rare glimpses into privilege used well. In the world of the academy (even the religious one), the name of the game is often competition. Far too frequently, it’s a place for people to show off or have their egos rubbed.  In such cases, the privilege that accompanies the life of a scholar is wasted. Power inevitably comes with occupational success but what is done with it is completely up to the individual. With each step forward we must remember to look back and ask – who is being unjustly left behind (within or outside the academy)? What voice is not being heard?  Who can I lift as I climb? Ideally, these questions are pondered by those who hold power within the academy over those who don’t, but also by those of us who even have the privilege to be part of the academy at all.

Giving up opportunities, especially as a member of any marginalized group, is not helpful in and of itself. It does nothing to change the unjust systems of privilege at play. Recognizing privilege and using it to elevate others, however, is like a sneaky way of transgressing the system. With each step “up,” we “lift as we climb.” And so does that person. And the next…

On Having to Choose: Scholar or Activist

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on November 7th, 2011. 

This past August, Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Human Rights Campaign hosted a series of workshops on the issue of religion and sexuality. Though I was not actually a part of this event, I was excited about its occurrence for a couple of reasons. First, as the field of queer studies continues to grow in religious academic programs, it is necessary to create space for future scholars to consider their role in discussions of religion and sexuality. I imagined it being incredibly empowering to gather with other students from across the country who are queer, religious, and doing doctoral work. I was also pleased, however, because one of the lectures was given by feminist theologian Dr. Mary E. Hunt entitled “Responsible Academics are Useful Activists.”

Just one week before the event, I wrapped up my summer internship at WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual) of which Mary Hunt is co-founder and co-director, along with Dr. Diann Neu. The lecture she delivered at Vanderbilt was illustrative of some of the most important wisdom I gained while working at WATER.

I am now in my third year of an MDiv program and am applying to PhD programs in hopes of studying ecofeminist theology. Over the past year, I have struggled deeply with my seemingly contradictory commitments to both the world of academics and the life of an activist. For a long time, I imagined having to choose between one of these. I could sit in an office writing or a classroom teaching or I could engage social and religious issues in a concrete fashion through a nonprofit organization. I saw these as separate vocations and struggled with the perceived need to choose one of them. However, at WATER I learned that this traditional split is far from the only option.

As so thoroughly discussed in her lecture, Mary Hunt is a scholar activist engaged in both the academy and on-the-ground work in feminist and queer liberation. WATER provides a unique space to do just such work. It is an inter-religious, academic nonprofit which identifies as an “international community of justice-seeking people who promote the use of feminist values to make religious and social change.” It now acts for me as a model of creative possibilities for scholar activism as I envision my own future.

In the all-too-short ten week period I had at WATER, I witnessed and participated in a wide variety of activities that speak to Mary’s conviction that “responsible academics are useful activists.” A few examples of what WATER does that illustrates this dynamic:

  • Monthly teleconferences in which a scholar, activist or minister is invited to share their current work and anyone around the globe is invited to call-in and participate. Bridging the academy and the masses, these conferences empower and educate all who are interested in feminist religious work and connect them with otherwise difficult to access scholars such as Shawn Copeland, Patrick Chang, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.
  • The internships they offer have benefitted 42 interns to date! Spending time in the WATER office, working with Neu, Hunt, and a variety of other women working hard to create social change is an empowering experience which is shaping future feminist leaders.
  • Each year at AAR, WATER hosts the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network during which scholars and activists gather together to share knowledge about their work and network with one another. It is a place to support one another as scholars working towards a communal goal in the face of a very individualistic academy.
  • On top of general WATER activities, Hunt does a lot of writing and teaching. She and  Neu recently edited New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views, and Hunt continues to work on both scholarly articles and popular writing.

I could go on and on about participation in legislative briefings, the newly forming LGBTQ project, or their “In a Different Style” program which provides people with disabilities the opportunity to gain work experience at WATER. All of these programs intersect the scholarly world with concrete efforts to create social change through the religious sphere. Dr. Hunt points out in her lecture that such models are hard to come by for a number of reasons. For instance, as scholars, there is pressure to fulfill a particular set of criteria in order to be respected as an academic. Generally, to claim one’s starting point as “feminist” or “queer” is risky. There is still pressure to pretend there is a possible objective starting point and those who claim such are esteemed for being “unbiased.” Further, much of the work done by scholar activists is not what institutions are looking for when considering whether or not to grant someone tenure.

Making time for activism while fulfilling the requirements of an institution is difficult, and to do it well, might mean finding a nontraditional job outside of the academic mainstream. But as I learned at WATER this summer, it might not be easy, but it is possible. WATER is making it happen along with other nonprofit organizations like The Faith Trust Instituteand the Resource Center for Women in Ministry in the South.

We need feminist and queer scholars in the religious field and we need activists on the ground, but these positions do not necessarily have to be held by different people. With creative thinking, a willingness to go against the grain, and a collaborative mindset, it is possible to become a “responsible academic and a useful activist.” This gives me hope, for who I hope to become as a scholar, for the future of the academy, and for the on-going efforts to achieve religious equality for all.

Seeing Church in Occupy Austin

This post was originally published by State of Formation on Oct 6, 2011. 

Last evening I ventured to City Hall in Austin, TX where a mass of people gathered for the Occupy Austin General Assembly which is being held each night until the actual Occupation on Thursday, October 6th.

In the midst of the meeting, an upside down hat was passed around the group to collect donations so that flyers could be printed. As the hat was circulated, I overheard a young man quietly suggest to his friend that the occurring event was “like church, but for a good cause.” The assertion caught my attention as I was just thinking to myself how the experience unfolding before me was very similar to what the church intends to be.

In a sanctuary of sorts, I sat among the most diverse group of people present in one setting that I have seen in some time. The space was one in which each voice was valued. The agenda of the meeting was voted on by all present and those leading the meeting were volunteers who have to switch out after two meetings are complete. There is no one person in charge of the movement, no one person with the “right” perspective.  As the meeting proceeded, a young man carried around a bag of granola, offering each of us the opportunity to partake in the snack. As our stomachs and our communal hunger for justice were fed, we discussed the mission statement, tactics, and ambiguities of the days ahead. People were encouraged to watch for newcomers, filling them in on the story thus far and it was made clear that every person present was necessary for the job to be done well.

I don’t mean to claim it was a utopian experience.  It took us two hours just to approve the agenda for the evening, and let’s be honest–honoring every voice is hard work and often frustrating for everyone. But in and through the struggles of the evening, the vision was maintained, the meeting was a success, and all were included.

Throughout the meeting, I found myself reflecting on the Christian Ethics class I had just that morning. We’ve spent a lot of time lately discussing churches which are more concerned with maintaining safety and security than being a prophetic voice in society. The church has an incredible opportunity right now to be a forerunner for justice, but for the most part, it is only acquiescing to the status quo – if not reinforcing it. Poverty, political and corporate corruption, the whole long list of –isms beg for people courageous enough to speak out in response to their religious claims, even if that results in loss. In theory, the church is a counter-cultural space founded upon love and righteousness.

Yet, the young man who was present at the meeting sat amongst others who were concerned with equality, justice, and inclusion and the only connection he made to the church was the fact that money was being collected.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is growing quickly because people are sick and tired of nothing being done in response to mass injustices and a national framework which does not allow for the flourishing of all people. I am curious to see how the church will respond to this movement. Will it recognize the congruencies and be empowered to live into its own confessions by participating in the movement or creating a parallel response? Or will it let yet another opportunity to exhibit the love of Christ in the world pass it by? Whatever the means employed, I hope we soon give the young man at the meeting a reason to believe the church too is a “good cause.”

Who I Am First

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on Sept 15, 2011.

For many years, my primary way of identifying myself was as a Christian. Before daughter, student, woman, athlete, or American, I was Christian.

As I understood it, my relationship to God was supposed to be the priority in my life, above all other relationships, concerns, and interests, and therefore being a Christian was the center of my identity. Everything I learned and all of my experiences were to be filtered through my Christian lens so that whatever was in contradiction with it could be quickly rejected.

Although I still believe my relationship with “God” should be a first and foremost in my life, my understanding of how that is accomplished has changed dramatically. I no longer correlate Christianity and the Divine the way that I once did. In my young faith, they were one in the same – no distinction necessary. Over the years, good people and life experiences helped me change my perspective.  I now understand Christianity to be the framework which nurtures my relationship to the Divine – to transcendent and mysterious things like what connects us to one another or what compels us to love. These things comprise my understanding and experience of “God.” Christianity and my unrelenting commitment to its doctrines which I had never given a second thought became an idol, distracting me from the Divine.

In the past year, I moved Christianity down a notch and moved ecofeminist to the top. I have identified as ecofeminist first, filtering everything through that lens and unashamedly rejecting that which does not make it – even if it came from my Christian tradition. This has been my attempt to reject that which causes harm or is not life-giving for each creature and for the earth.

But just when I’m feeling high and mighty in my righteous views about the world, free of prejudice or oversight of any people or creature in need, I come across ads like this oneby Ethical Oil. This ad uses the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia to convince viewers to support the controversial KeystoneXL Pipeline. It implies that the oil will be inherently ethical because we won’t support oppressive treatment of women by getting oil from Saudia Arabia. Ethical Oil is focusing our attention on the suffering of women but completely dismisses the harm to the earth, creatures, and many people that will come with the Keystone pipeline. They are claiming a feminist lens in this ad, and as much as I am a supporter of women’s freedom and rights, they are doing it at great cost to the environment and those living around the potential piping.

And then I come across the work of PETA which is making great strides in animal justice but does so using the bodies of women. They have long been criticized for their objectification of women but their newest commitment to creating a XXX porn site to promote veganism has again captured the attention of feminists. PETA spokeswoman Lindsay Rajt recently stated in an interview with Huffington Post, “We live in a 24 hour news cycle world and we learn the racy things we do are sometimes the most effective way that we can reach particular individuals.” PETA sees no harm in encouraging the ongoing objectification of women in order to liberate animals.

Ads like these remind me to check myself. They remind me that I will never have the “right” view of the world and that I will always need other voices correcting my ideas and actions. Whether my primary identity is ecofeminist, Democrat, Christian, or any other identifying label, I can never have an entirely harm-free view of the world with which to filter all that I hear or learn. I have biases, like everyone, and no one ideology can free me or others completely. I remain committed to the ecofeminist perspective, concerned with all systems of domination and their interconnection, as a necessary perspective for healing in and of the world. However, just as I came to realize my Christian lens did not provide me with a harm-free view of the world (far from it) I recognize my ecofeminist lens will fail me and others too.

I’m not certain what the solution is for the messiness of seeking justice from a particular context, but I am sure it has something to do with listening along the way.