Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sometimes You Just Can't Get Away

Two nearby churches of my small denomination had a special drama for Holy Week, one running the play on Maundy Thursday, the other on Good Friday. It was co-written by a couple we know. I chose to go to a different Good Friday service because I didn't want my Easter politicised. I didn't fully know at the time that was my reason for avoiding the drama, I just vaguely knew there would be something, hmm, unfocused about anything by them. They are lovely, kind people, of sincere faith and depth. But like most of the religious left, their political categories bleed over into their spiritual ones (the Bleeding is supposed to go in the other direction).

My own pastor attended one of the services, and summarised the drama in his sermon this morning. I should have known. Sometimes you just can't get away.

I should fairly point out that there was much possibility for spiritual nourishment in what was described, and the focus was ostensibly spiritual in the entire. There was no political rhinoceros in the room - not even baby rhinos. A few armadillos, maybe. I doubt anyone would see the political connection except those such as I, who was looking for it. That is not a saving grace, however, but the specific danger. At the end, you have absorbed a political lesson without noticing, washed down with the spiritual one.

A prostitute, a person in a wheelchair, a homeless person, and an autistic person tell something of their stories - with some good spiritual meat in there. At the end, it is they who serve communion to the congregation. A fabulous idea in many ways.

My first thought was to feel offended on behalf of the autistic person and the person in a wheelchair, and maybe even the homeless person, to be lumped in with the prostitute. While it is true that all four categories are neglected or devalued in some way, there is nothing sinful about autism or paralysis. Nor is homelessness per se sinful, though sin is often involved. It is also fair to note that prostitutes are often more sinned against than sinning. But we have a serious mixing of categories here, and it is ultimately not accidental. Unconscious, maybe, but not accidental. The mixing is yet one more example of the precise blind spot of the religious left. There's this mushy idea of the downtrodden and dispossessed that we should y'know, care about more than we do.

Perhaps I am already off on the wrong foot. Religious conservatives are likely already getting while I'm driving at, while religious liberals - who usually think of themselves as balanced and centrist, BTW - are immediately shaking their heads about how it is I (we) who don't get it about the disenfranchised and how Christian values tie into political ones.

Another tack: I know a lot of people in all four of those categories, but I would be surprised if they had encountered more than a few of each. These are categories of people who are talked about, particularly among good caring people who want to do ministry to everyone, leaving none behind. If they really wanted to capture the despised of the earth in their context, they should have had the congregation receiving communion from an AIG exec who just got a bonus, and a noisy fundie who they know has been a sexual hypocrite, and the bombastic selectman who voted against funding for the arts last year. People who claim to be transformed, but a whole lot of people aren't sure. That's the Mary Magdalene equivalent. That's the Saul of Tarsus equivalent.

The prostitute is a stock literary figure, used to exemplify the sins common to all, just worse. It's a good image. We are supposed to be reminded that we are not much better, perhaps not any better, than she is, and a lot closer to her in spiritual condition than we are to Jesus. But there is a second stereotype, derived from the spiritual archetype but essentially secular. This is a poor girl who is rough around the edges, foul-mouthed and tough, but really good deep down. All she needs is a fair shake. All she needs is someone to show her a little kindness. This secondary image, a woman in need of secular salvation, fits nicely with the other three categories in the drama. A hug and some good legislation and she's going to be fine.

There are some like that. Certainly there are many who could hardly deserve what they have been through. But let's not overlook the obvious. I know many of these women (and men), and they have been offered rescue many times. They have been sent to expensive rehabs and hospitals at someone else's expense. They have had good boyfriends that they left, kindly aunts that have taken them in, churches that have helped them out, and a slew of government agencies involved with resetting their clocks. They don't need a kind word and an understanding society - they need transformation.

Less often, but still very often, the homeless fall into this category. The news agencies focus on the human-interest stories of folks who were scraping by until some difficulty hit, and now everything is shot to hell and they're living in a tent. Because of the economy. Because of the heartlessness of society. And this bleeds over into the idea that the Church, of all institutions, should do something. And care. This also fits nicely with the autism and disability categories: Through no fault of their own. It could happen to anyone.

That's not generally true. It is sometimes, and I willingly grant that there are many in this category as well who are more sinned against than sinning. They have trusted the wrong people. They have made impulsive decisions. They ran on the edge of life with no cushion, and the first difficulty pulled them under.

But in addition to finding cheap housing, applying for government or charitable benefits, and arranging for rent and security deposit for these folks, I also collect their histories. Most homeless people have been set up by some relative, some agency, some church, several times in the past. The news agencies don't lie, exactly, but they mislead. Thus, the people who talk about the homeless have a skewed idea what the situation is. Legislative and secular solutions will not help all that many (unlike the autistic and disabled). Transforming society's attitude or the Church's attitude toward these folks is not often the issue. They themselves need transformation.

Because some might be transformed, we should perhaps rescue all, over and again. That's fine, and a fit discussion for Christian influence on society and government. But if that's what were intended in these dramas, we wouldn't have this confusion of categories. We've got the sheep and the goats together and being told they're all pretty much sheep, really.

Jesus healed all manner of ills, but he made distinctions between the meaning of those ills. He in fact went out of his way to make those distinctions. In the context of a society that often confused the categories, believing that the merely unfortunate had somehow deserved their fate, Jesus still drew a sharp line. The Gospel is not that misfortune is the same as sin.


Ben Wyman said...

Coincidentally, I am traveling to the port of Houston this week to interview prostitutes. The fact that prostitution - especially forced prostitution/child prostitution - is particularly heavy in the Houston area has offhandedly hit home at our church, and they feel that it's time to, y'know, do something. So the missions pastor and I are going down with a video camera and literally no plan of any kind.

We know, to some extent, how to help homeless people. Likewise, we know how to help the autistic. We know how to help people in wheelchairs. We have no idea what to do about prostitutes.

TomG said...

Best of luck to ya Wyman - given prostitutions sinister qualities as a subject matter. So much of it has to do with human bondage via drug dependency, since humans don't willfully trash their dignity - rather the impetus for starting out in this "career choice", by those not duped (the most prone from fractured homes) or kidnapped, is economic desperation ... which is a difficult thing to measure, never mind observe tangibly. Even when interviewing one-on-one, it's a worly of lies upon lies - since they're used to lying to themselves, especially about the idea that "this is only temporary, until I get back on my feet" (pun not intended, but apt). Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Why do I have the feeling that some who complain about our heartlessness toward child prostitutes manage to find somethig cool about Spitzer-type "call girls" and Nevada ranches?

Larry Sheldon said...

I have never found prostitutes attractive or interesting.

Well, not quite.

When I worked in "downtown" San Jose, California some years ago (before the revival by the Vietnamese immigrants) my truck was broken into every day or night (depending on the hours I was working) it seemed like[1]. Unless I parked up along William Street a few blocks away where the prostitutes patrolled (and hence, so did the San Jose police department) and walked the several blocks to work.

(Given lie to the response one of my co-workers gave to a San Fransisco-based programmer who wanted to come visit us. He had asked how long it took to walk from the train station to our office and had gotten the answer "We don't know, nobody has ever made it").

When I worked in San Francisco, on the other hand, I felt safest along the route to the train station there (heavily populated with panhandlers and other "unsavory" sorts) for the opposite reason, it was an area seldom visited by the SF PD, whom I feared greatly.

[1] An obvious exaggeration, it was certainly no more than once a week.

Gringo said...

AVI: That ain't fair! You're interjecting nuance into a clear-cut case of people doing good. Such things like a knowledge of the subject. Not fair.

Buz said...

Why is it that Eddie Haskell comes to mind (see old re-runs of "Leave It To Beaver") ? You and I are Wally and the Beav, and your friends are Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver ... "Wally, why can't you be like Eddie, he is such a nice boy!"


karrde said...

It seems sad and strange.

I saw an article on prostitution by a Christian-oriented newsweekly some time ago.

The article spoke of people who ran rescue efforts. It also spoke of women imported from Mexico to work a dozen (or more) cheap clients a day inside a trailer. It spoke of the way that pimps use violence to control their prostitutes, and of the need for change inside the person.

I haven't seen anything else written about prostitutes that had as many personal stories embedded in it.

I also haven't seen anything else written about prostitutes that managed to avoid some Grand Plan to fix the problem.

Retriever said...

Like you, AVI, bothered by the way the mushy left mixes categories. Sort of like what I call the Somalia/Ferragamo shoe juxtapositions in the NYT Sunday Magazine: glossy stories about ghastly wars and evils FAR FAR away that the CARING can emote about while their eyes stray to the ads for expensive Italian shoes.

And (as the mom of an autistic kid) I am somewhat offended by the way his diagnosis is a way for trendy liberals to emote about how much they care (tho they still don't want odd kids in after school child care with theirs, or in their youth group, and they look suspiciously at them--the caring is at a distance.)

Vis a vis the homeless, and prostitution, I am thinking about Jesus' words about "the poor ye have always with you." and his telling the woman he saved from stoning "your sins are forgiven, go forth and sin no more." Not to rationalize cold-heartedness, but to emphasize that we cannot fix everything for people, that they have the biggest role themselves. I'm surprised the church show didn't have an addict and an alcholic and a mental patient to round things out....Then I could rant about moral and spiritual choices people make that either exacerbate or keep at bay disease or compulsive processes....

Sorry to rant. I had my own disappointing Easter sermon to endure. The problems arise when pastors stray too far from the Gospel story. Just the facts, I mutter crossly under my breath from the gallery as he waffles on with some Midrash tailored to the glossy crowd of Easter Christians. Gaaah!

terri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
terri said...

Sorry to rant. I had my own disappointing Easter sermon to endure. The problems arise when pastors stray too far from the Gospel story. Just the facts, I mutter crossly under my breath from the gallery as he waffles on with some Midrash tailored to the glossy crowd of Easter Christians. Gaaah!Loved that paragraph!

Nothing is more frustrating than a 30 minute sermon that never gets to the point of what it's all about, but meanders from distracted thought to distracted thought.

copithorne said...

The Gospels themselves consistently show Jesus tending to prostitutes and adultresses and people with mental and physical handicaps and people in poverty -- just as the play did. He doesn't do much else.

Something triggered AVI with regards to the implied views he perceived regarding politics or government involvement. And that's understandable.

But I can't think of any Gospel support for the idea that Jesus divided his ministry into good adultresses and prostitutes and bad ones, good handicapped people and bad ones, good people in poverty and bad ones.

"Whatsoever you do unto the least of these you do unto me" is unqualified. It includes prisoners -- surely the guilty as well as the innocent.

Because the transformation at stake is not that of OTHER people. The transformation is our own.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I said nothing about good and bad prostitutes. You have an amazing ability to read into other people's words what they didn't say, as a jumping off point to making a personal point. Have the humility to accept that you might not have understood, and ask for clarification rather than making quick accusations, thank you.

copithorne said...

You say: "That's not generally true. It is sometimes, and I willingly grant that there are many in this category as well who are more sinned against than sinning."

Certainly, we can understand you mean that there are also many who sin more than are sinned against and that this distinction is meaningful to your faith and understanding.

That distinction may well be meaningful politically. But I would uphold that in terms of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is not a meaningful distinction.

Also, you say that there are sheep and goats and it is a mistake to efface that distinction. In the parable in Matthew's Gospel, that is a distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous. If that is not what you meant, clarification of your views would be in order.

The goats BTW, the unrighteous in that parable, are those who do not minister to the naked, the poor, the prisoners.

jaed said...

The Gospels themselves consistently show Jesus tending to prostitutes and adultresses and people with mental and physical handicaps and people in poverty -- just as the play did. He doesn't do much else.Apart from ministering to tax collectors, Roman soldiers, and others who are broadly disapproved of - not just held in contempt mixed with fashionable faux compassion, but people who it might actually be a challenge to the righteous of the day.

Can you see Jesus as ministering to AIG executives, copithorne? Men who hire prostitutes? Republicans? Our host AVI? People you actually disapprove of - not just patronize, but those you consider sinners and unrighteous?

It's easy to experience feelings of compassion toward someone you see as a victim. Much harder to do so toward someone you see as a genuinely unrighteous man.

copithorne said...

Yes, my point is that Jesus isn’t dividing up people into those who are worthy of help and those who aren’t. Those who are easy to help and those who aren’t. The transformation that Jesus summons us to is not transformation of others; it is transformation of ourselves.

I don’t identify AVI as a sinner or unrighteous. I perceive him to have political views which I experience as ideological and damaging. But he is evidently a great family man, community member and he does lots of good work in community mental health serving the populations we describe in this post as much as anyone – certainly more than I do. Political reasoning is a surprisingly discrete domain.

In this thread, I am just trying to uphold the radical character of the Gospels. In the parable in the Gospel of Matthew, the sheep and goats are those who care for the naked, poor, and imprisoned and those who do not. In AVI’s reading the sheep and goats seem to be different populations of the naked, poor, and imprisoned – those who can be helped by help and those who can’t. This misreading is colored by AVI’s resistance to a political orientation he sees in others but which he appears to be demonstrating himself.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you for the clarification. We are still not in entire agreement, but it is at least clear where the difference is.

My point is that autism and paralysis are not in themselves sinful. Each person with autism or paralysis is of course sinful and in need of transformation, but it is not these conditions which merit the need for spiritual transformation.

Prostitution is more mixed, and homelessness more mixed still. There is always some element of individual contribution to those conditions, however much others may be more responsible. Speaking from a purely practical perspective, those conditions are generally not improvable in this world without some spiritual transformation as well. In the overall picture of the condition of their souls, however, they are neither better nor worse off than all the rest of us. Whether you earn 1% or 1.1% of your way to heaven is clearly not especially important, and that is the difference between the best of us and the worst of us compared to God. (Quibble over the actual numbers as you like, but you take my point).

For the rubber-meets-the-road aspect of how we are to treat people, I think copithorne and I are in one way entirely in agreement, and in another, not at all.

If I am coming forward for communion, I am accepting it from the hand of a homeless person or a prostitute as easily as from a person with autism, paralysis, or any of the thousand ills that humanity is subject to. If they have dared to put themselves forward for the task, then I dare to receive. Everyone knows this as a theological point, but in actual practice it is very hard to receive communion (and I use that as a proxy for some some sort of full acceptance into the Body of Christ, as I believe the playwright intended) from one we have argued with, or think is a jerk or hypocrite. That's the lesson of the radical nature of the gospel. I think copithorne and I are in full agreement up to this point.

My disagreement on the next point is not on the theoretical nature of sin, healing, and wholeness, but on what I read in to the playwright's intention. I admit I am reading in, but even upon reflection am sure I am reading accurately. The playwright has symbolically suggested that it is society's attitude which is the problem that needs to be solved. Society's attitude is absolutely what needs to be solved in the case of the paralysed and autistic persons. Society's attitude is only part of what needs to be solved in the case of the prostitute. That the church must often learn radical acceptance in such situations I agree with. But the solution to the person's unfortunate life does not lie entirely with society. Some behavioral transformation (which usually only occurs within the context of a spiritual transformation) is not merely desirable, but necessary, or all the good will in the world will have no effect.

If I believed that the playwright's intention was that society's attitude must change to all four persons, I would agree entirely. But the specific choices of Problem People led me to suspect a different intent on the part of the playwrights, perhaps even unknown to them.

I know them. If I spoke with them about this I have little doubt they could make the distinction I identify, that of course sinners have to mend their ways to achieve the practical effect of redemption. My point is that they have not fully thought this through, and are fuzzy on this point. They have unwittingly injected political issues into spiritual ones because they don't think clearly. I am calling them on it.

If copithorne wants to think that I have injected the politics all by myself - that I am over-ready to read politics in - I have little offer in defense that I have not stated already. That the four categories chosen did not include the people who the playwrights really do react to as sinners is highly significant to me. They have not picked these four in confession, but in accusation. They think they are among those who want to do right by these people, while society in general wants to deny them their due. They didn't pick the categories of people the world actually hates, but the categories of people that liberals think that conservatives screw over. It was all just too neat, too safe, too easily accusing others without looking at one's own soul.

Let me switch examples entirely to see if I can explain the difference. In the 50's there were anticommunists. They were opposed by two distinct groups of people: the anti-anticommunists, and the actual communists.

The anti-anticommunists, which I will loosely call the liberals here, made some excellent points in criticism of the anticommunists. The McCarthyites were indeed quick to judge, quick to overinterpret minor political differences as evidence of socialist tendencies. All that is fair criticism.

But in adopting that critical-of-anticommunists view, they seemed to lose all ability to criticise actual communists. The millions killed, the millions enslaved, the millions impoverished, somehow these counted for nothing. Their complaints were accurate, but in the end were little more than straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

So too with the current liberal Christian view of who we should be accepting of. If they wish to suggest that we should be accepting of all, then I challenge them to wrestle with their own demons, not just make accusations concerning the groups that "society" seems to have difficulties with. In wrestling with their own difficult categories - in including the AIG execs and military enthusiasts - I believe they would see my point that the autistic and paralyzed are in different categories. Not spiritual categories, for we are all in the same boat there. Everything wrong needs healing. But autism doesn't require forgiveness, however much any individual autistic person might.

I make this distinction because Jesus did, with the man lowered through the roof, with the man born blind, with the moneylenders in the Temple.

copithorne said...

Well thanks for taking the time with the long reply. I've read it closely.

You see at least one message of the play was to accuse society of not caring enough about homeless people, prostitutes and disabled people. And it came with the sense that if we cared more then these problems would be solved. It’s as though you see the play saying: Jesus says we should become a liberal then homelessness and disability and prostitution would be solved.

We could agree that this may be naive or not fully perceptive of the Gospel of Christ and that it would be a service to criticize the distortions here.

After all, Jesus also said, the poor will always be with you. And we spend lots of money on homeless people keeping body and soul together. But it is very hard to piece together a program that can transform people and help them live dignified, productive lives.

And we can agree that Jesus is not calling us to transform society but to transform ourselves.

But my point in this thread is a small one. Jesus said, among other things, sell all you have and give to the poor. Leave your family. What you do to the least of these, you do unto me.

And we could take the approach that Jesus really didn't mean that, that he would understand or forgive our social or family obligations. We certainly rationalize how our failure to sell all we have and give to the poor is still consistent with being a Christian.

So my preference is not to use Jesus Christ to rationalize my compromises. It is not that Christianity is compatible with my burgher life because Jesus was a savvy, practical, easy going guy and so I am a good Christian even though I have stuff. I think it is more appropriate to place the blame on myself – I am not a good Christian, I am constrained by fear, I fail to live up to the radical demands of the Gospels.

And in most cases that will be the best approach for a Christian – the Christian approach even – the approach most consistent with faith. If we feel criticized for failing to live up to the Gospels, it will be more constructive to accept that the criticism is correct than to argue it is incorrect.