Saturday, November 22, 2014

John Wesley writes to his wife

John Wesley statue by Samuel Manning and son
Imagine you are a woman, and you get a letter from your husband that reads:

Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me….of what importance is your character to mankind, if you was buried just now. Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God.  

That’s an actual letter from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, to his wife Molly, in 1774.   With the values most people hold today, that letter would constitute psychological wife abuse.

At the time, if you read the letter in its entirety, it’s clear that Wesley thought he was a good husband who simply had his priorities straight.  God first, and all the rest of us, way down the line, second.  It’s a one-sided view of their marriage relationship, since all you know of her is the way she is portrayed as something of a shrew in this missive by her husband.  He claims she badmouths his brother, but you know nothing of reasons she may have for doing so.  You know she has a temper and loses it regularly, and you know she has at least once fallen on her knees in guilt for having done so.  What hell this woman endured one can only imagine.

Wesley comes across as an arrogant man.  He writes to scold her, admitting that he doesn’t have his journal with the exact details of a fight they had earlier, and says he has only his memory to rely on.  He then adds, “and that (memory) is not very retentive of evil.”  Evil?  He’s describing his wife’s outburst as evil?

“Before we married,” he writes, “I saw you was a well-bred woman of great address and a middling understanding.”  You’ve got to love it.  You’re not too bright, woman, but at least you’re well bred!

Molly thought her husband was paying too much attention to other women, wondering, for example about a Mrs. Lefevre, whom Wesley describes as a “dove-like woman, full of faith and humble love.”  How dare you question, Wesley asks, “…if I did not lie with her.”  There’s Mrs. Blackwell, whom Molly insists “did (him) no good.”  Then there is the housekeeper, Sarah Ryan, who left their employ, says Wesley, because she could not stand Molly’s constant badmouthing of him.

All this could be seen as the everyday stuff of ordinary people experiencing the ups and downs of married life, and dismissed out of hand.  But not to be dismissed so lightly, it seems to me, is what Wesley makes of it as an assault on his authority as a man.  Moreover, here you have the founder of a major religious sect, and not just in the English-speaking world any more, displaying the pernicious doctrine that God uses people to teach other people lessons. 

God has used many means to curb your stubborn will and break the impetuosity of your temper. He has given you a dutiful but sickly daughter; He has taken away one of your sons. Another has been a grievous cross; as the third probably will be. He has suffered you to be defrauded of much money; He has chastened you with strong pain. And still He may say, 'How long liftest thou up thyself against Me 'Are you more humble, more gentle, more patient, more placable than you was I fear quite the reverse; I fear your natural tempers are rather increased than diminished. O beware lest God give you up to your own heart’s lusts, and let you follow your own imaginations!

In the same breath as he demands her submission and obedience to him he then uses his position as spiritual advisor to inculcate a belief that she is the source of her daughter’s illness and the death of one of her sons.   No apparent questioning of whether God was not punishing Wesley at the same time.  Just her, apparently, by giving her financial problems, and physical pain.  As she “lifteth” up herself against the Lord, she clearly “lifteth” herself up against her master, her husband, and God is not above surrendering her to her own “heart’s lusts” and “imaginations,” he tells her.

Twisting the knife he puts in her back, he then reminds her what an “unspeakable blessing” it is she has a husband “who can bear with it.”  That’s the place, by the way, where he goes into that bit about how insignificant her character is, that she should go to such extremes to defend it.  If she will just repent, he tells her, “…(t)hen shall I govern you with gentle sway, and show that I do indeed love you, even as Christ the Church.”

Ah yes, gentle husband.  Govern me.  Govern me.


I remember a time when I was in high school when I got into a discussion with somebody who had been schooled at the local catholic parochial school.  “We are followers of Jesus Christ,” she told me, “not like you, who follow Luther or Calvin.”  I realized just how much mis-education was going on in that parochial school.  “We don’t follow Luther or Calvin.  We follow the Gospels.  Luther and Calvin were ordinary men, not gods, not even heroes.  Founding fathers, yes.  Saints, no.”  I was proud of my pretty solid Protestant upbringing, and proud of the many particular traditions with which I had some familiarity.  John Wesley was another founding father, this time of the Methodist Church, as well as a whole bunch of off-shoots like the Nazarenes and the Holiness churches.

It was good to be a Protestant.  We knew of the corruption within the Roman church, the love of silks and satins and emeralds and diamonds the church leaders covered themselves in.  We knew all about the Inquisition, the abuse of Galileo, and the fact that St. Peter’s in Rome was built with money from indulgences – the selling of forgiveness of sins you hadn't committed yet.  We knew we were the good guys, the guys who had brought the church back to its original place and the source of the “good news” of Jesus Christ.
It would take many more years for it to sink in that for all our pretentions to a higher moral ground, historically speaking, there were missing parts in the Protestant narrative.  And those were the blind spots that had worked their way into our so-called doctrinal truths.  I remember the first time I buried myself in the bowels of the Green Library at Stanford and seriously read the works of Martin Luther – including the bits where he urges his people to burn the houses of Jews and run them out of town.  German anti-Semitism was not simply an aberration in German history.  It was grounded in the writing of its leading religious figure, the man who single-handedly created the modern German language, and one of Christianity’s leading reformers.  Later, I learned from Daniel Goldhagen (A Moral Reckoning) the source of that anti-Semitism is the Gospels themselves.

Now here are the clay feet of John Wesley.  Some will disagree with my take.  They will excuse him entirely on the grounds that he could not be expected to be ahead of his times.  Or they will simply agree with him that God wants women to submit themselves to men.  After all, that idea is alive and well in much of the world, far beyond the stretch of Methodism or Lutheranism, and it still rules in official Catholic doctrine here at home.

One need not throw out the church because of the follies of its leaders, of course.  There are plenty of other reasons to do that.  But neither should one go on too loudly or too long about tradition.  The traditions of our religious organizations have some very sinister aspects to them.  The Enlightenment and an advocacy of universal human rights didn’t come out of nowhere.  They came in response to the dark parts of our religious traditions.

“Traditional values,” ­­– the phrase is meant to be shorthand for all things bright and beautiful.
Until you take a closer look. And when traditionalists speak of the “founding fathers” (and this is true for religion as well as for political history) they intend to be understood as appealing to authority.

But check it out.  Some of the “greats” on whose shoulders we are supposed to stand may not be all that great.  Follow them, if you insist.  But follow with great caution.

photo credit

Friday, November 21, 2014

All Mascots Must Wear Underpants

You can’t make this stuff up.  All over the news this morning, picked up by all the agencies, is a bit of fundamentalist silliness from Poland. Apparently the good folk of Tuszyn - at least their elected officials - put their heads together in search of a mascot for a children’s playground, and came to the conclusion that whatever it was, it couldn’t be Winnie the Pooh because he’s a hermaphrodite.

Tuszyn, which Wikipedia informs us is a town of some 7,201 souls in Łódź East County, Łódź Voivodeship, less than two hours from the capital, is apparently still mired in the same mindset as the school board of Gilbert, Arizona. Remember them? They're the bozos who wanted to rip pages out of school textbooks that mentioned birth control.  In Tuszyn’s case, the problem is a naked teddy bear.  Both because he's naked and because he doesn’t have genitals.  According to one Tuszyn council member, "It doesn’t wear underpants because it doesn’t have a sex. It’s a hermaphrodite."

Now you know God didn’t put hermaphrodites in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve to ride around on dinosaurs or the Bible would have mentioned it.  Guess if you were born with questionable genitals, you’re the same sort of people as those born with an uncertain gender identity.  You’re possessed, in other words.  Wonder if Tuszyn was a sister city of Salem back in the 17th century.

The good folk of this Polish village have not pursued the question of whether Winnie the Pooh suffered from 5-alpha reductase deficiency; androgen insensitivity syndrome, aphallia, clitoromegaly; congenital adrenal hyperplasia; gonadal dysgenesis; mosaicism regarding sex chromosomes; ovo-testes; progestin-induced virilization; Swyer syndrome; Turner syndrome; or Non-Klinefelter XXY. They simply dismissed him tout court.  

Dumb twits.

There is no intelligence requirement to serve on a town council, God knows, or there would be a whole lot fewer town councils.  But where did this dunderheadedness come from?  My first thought was, this is Poland.  It’s got to be a Catholic notion that hermaphrodites (hermaphrodites? Seriously folks? Hermaphrodites?) are bad folk.  I know, I know.  Nobody on the committee actually said “according to my religious beliefs.” But it's highly unlikely the members of the committee belong to the Rodzimy Kościół Polski,  a group of traditional Polish, pre-Christian folk who believe that nature, not religious scriptures is important, and have a kind of live-and-let-live philosophy which puts stock in independent thinking and empathy for one’s fellow creatures.  Far more likely they are members of the church that centers morality on what you do with those things you hide under your underpants and are not supposed to use unless you’re making babies for Heavenly Father. (I use the Mormon term for Big Daddy now that the Catholics have teamed up with the Mormons to save the family.)   

But then again this church, which has a demonstrated sexual dysfunction problem and an unhealthy fascination with the naughty parts, to say nothing of priest-pederasts, celibacy as virtue, opposition to abortion, birth control and women in power positions (if I'm not being redundant here), may not be to blame for this one.

The Aleteia Organization, a conservative web-based Catholic information provider which takes the usual anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-euthanasia church line, informs us that the Church has no official position on hermaphroditism.  At least it’s not mentioned in the Catechism.  No papal statements. No Canon Law addresses the issue.  

According to Father Stephen F. Torraco of the Eternal Word Television Network, a TV network that provides round the clock Catholic answers, “Everyone has a right to be a member of one sex or the other, and... everyone has the right to have the inconsistencies of his sexual anatomy corrected by plastic surgery and/or pharmacological therapy.”  

Since Winnie the Pooh has no genitals to begin with, however, Father Torraco’s advice would seem not to apply.  There is no mention of adding genitals.

So where did this prejudice against children’s sexless toys come from, if not the church?  

Could be they’re just a bunch of silly people worrying about the fact that Winnie doesn’t have a weanie for their own personal reasons. I’m not sure this falls under the rubric of some serious Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden type whistleblowing, (and for a longer list of whistleblowers in history, click here  ) but somebody decided to record the meeting and leak it to the press. And that means we can attribute the folly to particular individuals.    
Hanna Jachimska, for example, blames Alan Alexander Milne for cutting off the Pooh’s testicles with a razor because “he had a problem with his identity (sic).”  

And Ryszard Cichy believes the fact that Winnie is naked is inappropriate for children.  

One has to ask whether Ryszard has ever seen a doll without her/his/its clothes on.

As Timothy McGrath, the author of the story in the Global Post, points out, once you eliminate all the cartoon characters who don't wear underpants (and are therefore arguably hermaphrodites) you're pretty much left with Goofy. And even then, I suspect if you were to take down Goofy's pants, you'd see that no underpants are the least of Goofy's problems, genitally speaking.  

You know those responses people give you when you ask a question to which the answer is obviously yes? Is the pope Catholic? Is the sky blue, is grass green, does a bear shit in the woods? Those are easy answers. The real question is whether, when he's done, he pulls his pants back up.

Wonder if there is a catholic answer for that?

Pooh Bear credit

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Pastor and his Husband


I’m having a serious future shock experience.

I came across an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung yesterday about two gay men living together in Lichterfelde.  Both are Lutheran pastors, and both have congregations that appear to be accepting of their sexuality – not merely tolerating it, but actively accepting it.  One is pastor at a church in Kreuzberg, the other at Martin Luther Church in Lichterfelde, barely two kilometers – a 20-25 minute walk, give or take, from where I lived as an American soldier in Berlin in the early 60s.

That was in the Andrews Kaserne, a barracks that once served the SS but in my day housed the Army Security Agency troops who went to work every day on top of Teufelsberg, listening in on the conversations of East German communist party officials, as well as keeping track of what the Russian troops were up to in East Germany and Poland.  A heady time for a 23-year-old cold warrior. 

That sounds like I'm boasting.  Don’t mean to.  It was the height of the Cold War and I was in uniform, so that makes me a cold warrior, in some people's eyes.  I was not dodging IEDs or sniper fire, wasn’t risking my life in any way to make the world safer for democracy or anything like that.  I was just climbing into a bus and going to work every day in a windowless room, with headphones, digging through miles and miles of taped conversations for anything that might be of interest to the NSA folks back in Fort Meade.  And then going back to the barracks at night and having nightmares.  Not about the Russians.   I was coming to the realization that I was gay.

Being gay in those days, at least in the world I was raised in, was a shame of such horrendous proportions that the fact of the matter had to stay submerged in the subconscious.  And what created that shame, what forced me to live in absolute denial, was the fact that I was raised in a religious home.  It was religion that taught me to hate my instincts, religion that kept me in a constant state of self-loathing, religion that made me feel I was born with a twisted sinful sexuality that I would have to escape somehow or spend my afterlife in eternal pain and suffering.

Lutherans are not the most regressive of religious groups when it comes to homophobia; they are, in fact, relatively progressive.  But it was the Lutheran Church that I claimed as my religious home from the time I first took on an adult’s understanding of Christianity.  They were not a source of comfort in my struggle to understand my sexuality.  They were close to the source of the problem, the folks who believed God had directed that “man who lies down with man” should suffer eternal punishment.

So imagine my surprise when I come across this photo of two men, Lutheran pastors both, one of whom pastors a church in Lichterfelde, two kilometers from where I first came out to myself.  And they are featured in a major German newspaper as a sign of the times.  A new age of acceptance for lesbians and gay men.  Not just in society, but in the church itself.

We’ve come a very long way.  And not all of us made it.  My friend Merrill, the first person I shared my self-discovery with, was also gay.  He came from a Mormon family in Utah.  In a few years we would leave the army and Berlin and share an apartment in San Francisco.  He was a kind of mentor to me, having accepted his sexuality – or so he said – way before I was able to accept mine.  A few years after that time, after becoming a lawyer and establishing himself out in the larger world, he was visiting a brother in Texas one day, got hold of a loaded rifle, and shot and killed himself.  Religion of the Mormon variety was even more hostile to homosexuality than religion of the Lutheran variety, and, as the youngest of twelve children, he simply couldn’t handle being ostracized by his Mormon family.

I can’t tell you how many times I have lain awake at night wishing he might have held out.  He died in the early 70s, before Stonewall, before Harvey Milk and the gay liberation movement, and before he was able to read, as I was yesterday, about two pastors of a Lutheran church, two kilometers from where we met, who were living as a happily married couple.

Things have been looking up lately for gay people in Germany, in the United States, and elsewhere, at least in the modern world.  Not so in Uganda, of course, where American fundamentalists have persuaded the locals to demonize gay people.  Or in Russia, which picked up the habit of scapegoating gay people as a way of rallying religious and other conservatives.  But in the world where I live, at least, life has improved for gay people.  I was able to marry my partner last year and nobody I talk to who sees my wedding ring seems concerned it identifies me as a lifetime mate of another man.

Most of you will not want more detail on the lives of these two Lutheran pastors from Lichterfelde, but I made the effort to provide an English translation of the article, just in case.  You can read it here.   As always, apologies for the liberties and the errors of translation.  It is, I believe, “close enough for government work.”

I also want to mention in passing that I went to the website of Pastor Zabka’s church and found their mission statement, and have appended that to the translation of the Süddeutsche Zeitung article.

Look at #4 of that statement:

We are open to people in different life situations and life styles with different gifts and abilities.  We listen to one another and are open to new ideas.  We understand this diversity as enrichment.

Pretty cool for a church group, don’t you think?

photo credit