Tweet1. I worry, extensively and probably needlessly, about expectations.
2. I define friendship and closeness by how comfortable I feel when we are together in a new place.
3. Negativity. I don’t do it. Don’t want to be around it. Can’t explain it but I know it when I sense it.
4. Contrary to gender stereotype, men grieve. And it looks like a dam bursting when they allow themselves the emotional release of expressing it outwardly. More than dam. A bomb.
5. I care about what others think until it sounds ignorant.
6. Compassion is growing more and more extinct while bullshit terms like tolerance keep growing in popularity.
7. The more we forgive ourselves, the more we forgive our parents.
8. The more I love, the freer I feel.
9. Physical movement can be a prayer.
10. God doesn’t care what you look like.
TweetBelow is an incredibly brief processing of the conference I went to a few weeks ago, “Amazing Grace,” the Cleveland Archdiocese’s Forum on Race and Faith….
I recently had the pleasure of attending a conference, “Amazing Grace: The Diocese of Cleveland Forum on Race” two weeks ago. There were provocative keynote addresses and rich breakout sessions to discuss the impact of race in our world and in our faith.
How race and ethnicity affect our world is a complex matter and there’s no way to address such complexity in a few hundred words. The most effective and powerful way to address the sin of racism in the church and in our world is to cultivate two paths of understanding: the path of self-awareness and basic functions of racism itself.
We all come from stories of belonging and exclusion. All of us. All of our stories can be told with moments of pain and forgiveness, just and unjust conditions, but our commonality ends there. We are incapable of knowing the details of how discrimination has impacted others through power and privilege. It is not our responsibility to know every single story, but it is our responsibility to understand and believe that the world runs on a system that normalizes, standardizes, and distributes resources based on a racialized lens. Poverty, violence, and injustices often come to the most vulnerable and least protected. These are often communities of color who are disenfranchised by society. To deny this fact in our faith is to deny the message of Christ.
Jesus’ order to “love one another” is a clear, holy, and discomforting commandment. It love, to truly love one another is not to pretend we are all the same, it is to regard one another with radical humanity, fully embracing the differences between us. We are called to love one another. We are not called to be a “post race” mentality or be color blind to the reality of the shades of our skin.
To live out this commandment, it is not enough to love others the way we want to love them. Racism pushes communities to look for sameness and present difference as frightening, wrong, and unlawful. Love defies all these tendencies. But it must begin with understanding that love in action, us humans trying to live out God’s love will make us uncomfortable. And that discomfort is a blessing.
I usually beam when Ohio makes news. Usually. In presidential election years, the inner grin shows its teeth when I hear the famous phrase, “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.” Over the past several months however, as a writer living in the Buckeye state, I have found this saying applicable as we continue to survey the damage in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape case.
Ohio, famous for being the mirror of the United States, reflects the healthy tension of the American populous. We boast an almost even distribution among liberal, conservative, and swing opinion. Our medium sized cities are connected by the rural roads lay flat for both the Amish buggy and eighteen wheel semi-trucks transporting goods in every direction. There’s support for and against gay marriage, reproductive rights, and every social issue you can battle. In other words: what makes us special is our perfect average-ness. We’re the middle. Our breath is often staked as the wind in which the direction of the nation will go. We are the political battle state that rests with the burden of revealing the civic psyche of the most powerful nation in the free world. Meaning, what happens within our state lines can be an indication of what the rest of the nation is doing. So, what do the events of Steubenville, Ohio mean for our country? It means what happened in Steubenville not only could happen anywhere. It already is happening everywhere. It means rape culture is alive and well.
As the abhorrent details of how two male teenage football players were found guilty of raping and disseminating nude photos of a 16 year old girl made headlines, writers and bloggers have asserted advice and coverage based upon their own ad hoc subcultures of parenting, activism, sports, and politics. From the cloying, maternal columns suggesting we teach our sons to “be kind” to fiery debates on how we need to “teach men not to rape” to victim blaming, to learning “enthusiastic consent” before engaging in sexual activity, to boycotting CNN for their rape apologist reporting, there is no shortage of opinion on rape culture. But there isn’t much on how to transform it. Perhaps what makes it so difficult to pinpoint is its powerful yet amorphous nature.
Rape culture is like smoke. Insidious, it hangs in the air, getting into everything, staining and deteriorating whatever it touches. It’s highly adaptive, cunning, clever in its ability to morph into whatever context it is placed. Rape culture prices and prioritizes human dignity, as if it’s something to earn and not inherent. Rape culture sets behavioral prescriptions and if one does not adhere it them, they are deserving of violence or, at the very least, somehow responsible for it. Rape has no age, transcending language and time. It has been a part of the human conversation since the beginning of recorded story-telling found in religious texts and even mythology. It’s long standing presence in our history gives indication of one glaring social failure: we have yet to envision, let alone achieve, radical equality.
The Steubenville rape case, with its vile details possesses an eerie, almost scripted horror story that begs to be used for confronting teen issues: acquaintance rape, sexuality, gender essentialism, alcohol, bullying, jock and sport pathology, hyper-masculinity, social media, judicial justice, consent, decision making, bystander mentality, moral codes, and accountability.
But for those of us many years removed from football practice and August end-of-summer-no-parents-home parties, it is time to identify what is our responsibility in transforming rape culture so we let this story become not fodder for the next generation of perpetrators and survivors, but rather an entry point for nuanced conversation?
Rape culture is not a separate, external entity corrupting a few in Steubenville, Ohio. It is a deeply engrained and believable operating system in our collective conscience, whispering its influence into every aspect of life, at every stage of personal formation and development. Rape culture is not a separate culture from the one you and I are living in. They are one and the same.
The rape culture that formed Trent Mays’ and Ma’lik Richmond’s decisions to carry a girl from party to party, raping her at their leisure and entertainment is the same force that tells us which survivors deserve our empathy and which ones we ignore. How interesting it is to read the harsh judgment pointed at the bystanders for not intervening on what they were witnessing. One of the witnesses testified he didn’t know it was rape because “well, it wasn’t violent.” If we used the Steubenville bystanders as a mirror to our country, how many of us would see ourselves ignoring what is happening right in front of us because we didn’t see it as “violent?”
Rape is one of many violent forms of oppression – stalking, abuse, domestic violence, trafficking – but they come from the same culture. Rape culture thrives in any society that assigns and thwarts power according to prescribed traits, identifiers, and behaviors. It is intensified through lenses of race, class, physical and cognitive ability, and occupation among an endless list of factors. Some call this systematic assignment of privilege patriarchy. I prefer kyriarchy.
It even continues in the aftermath, in the determination of whose stories are deemed worthy and which ones are less significant. So before we throw stones at the ignorant teenager who claims he didn’t know what rape looks like, ask yourself if you know what it looks like. Not just for Jane Doe, and not just in cases of heterosexual aggression, do you know what sexual violence looks like for a queer or gay survivor? Or a trafficked person? Or an undocumented survivor? Or a transperson? Or a sex worker? What about what it looks like for an incarcerated survivor? Are you pleading innocent because you weren’t aware and couldn’t identify what it looked like?
Feminists, activists, and bloggers alike are taken with this concept of “training men not to rape.” In some ways, this plan can work. It tackles the Steubenville situation, but does it address rape as social construct? It may dismantle many of the problems, but it doesn’t transform it for everyone.
If we are to transform rape culture, for everyone, the salient thread is deepening our comprehension of how we view power, how we award and punish one another based on concepts of social-norming and acceptability. How we teach power – not how we give consent – is the core essence of rape culture. This is the task of writing a new prevention plan that leaves “no means no and yes means yes” behind. It is the most basic and daunting call because it requires we all, not just feminists and activists, become cultural workers in our everyday lives, examining the deep roots of our own agendas, dreams, and sense of safety. This calls for us to ask uncomfortable questions around justice (how we conflate judicial sentencing and incarceration with accountability and justice), healing (how and if communities respond in the aftermath of crisis), and violence (trauma and its lasting impact on survivors and their families).
We each must acknowledge and accept that we will not and should not come to a unified “how to” agenda to wage a global war to end rape. This is not a call to abandon all the work that has been done to address rape, particularly acquaintance rape, through the lenses of heterosexual rape and consent. These are important strategies to implement to prevent further crimes. Neither is this a suggestion to ignore the fact that women represent the majority of rape survivors. This is a call for expansion, not generalization. It is our responsibility to be mindful of the profundity of our goal to “overcome” rape culture. We’re not overcoming rape culture for some survivors, we are transforming it for everybody, and that includes not just survivors, but for perpetrators and bystanders as well.
To put my money where my mouth is, I looked at my own life as a mother to a young son, as a feminist writer residing in the “heart of it all,” as a woman of color cultural critic/worker, my responsibility lays in a multifaceted sphere. Steubenville serves as a dramatic guideline for how to shift from being a culture based on power to a culture based on relationship. In building upon the work of so many who have voiced their expertise on their own cultures and subcultures, here are a few of my own organically grown strategies for not only combating but transforming rape culture in a region whose social nervous system is held as the microcosm for the United States.
Transforming Biology as Destiny to Exciting Possibility
My 3-year-old toddler boy received endless comments for his physical attributes especially his height. Apparently his unusually high growth rate makes turns adults oracles, predicting futures that all include physical sport participation. “Do you want to play basketball when you grow up? You are so tall, but you gotta be fast, too!” While there is nothing inherently wrong with asking a child if they want to play sports, a repeated question, identical in assumption, sends a strong message of performance, expectation, and preference, and what it might take to please others.
Using one arm, I open the space for him to think freely, opposing rape culture’s tendency to shrink masculinity to focus on physical coordination as a sign of worth by adding a tagline, “We definitely practice his free throw shots, but he really loves maps and he’s also dabbling in piano. We make rhymes, too, so maybe a future poet. Lots of fun options to explore.” With the other arm, I tweak the expectations of family and strangers alike, “It’s so exciting to think of all the things kids can try, isn’t it? Who knows who he will discover himself to be.”
Transforming Teenage Angst to Mentoring Opportunity
I wouldn’t be able to identify my 14 year old niece, a sprouting African American young woman, if her phone was not attached to her right hand, oscillating between holding her phone arm’s length away to snap another picture of herself or finger scrolling her friends’ pictures of themselves on Twitter. She shares details of 8th grade life, which include secret boyfriends and girlfriends, inside jokes, half-truths, and almost manic swings in friendship sagas.
It’s hard, but I put aside my temptation to place all my Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua books in the most obvious parts of her room and ask about other parts of her life that don’t revolve around her social life. Trying to put focus and energy on her gifts that don’t receive as much attention, I ask to see her pencil sketches, create reasons for road trips, volunteer to be her Wii partner for Just Dance, and accompany her on retreats. With careful and appropriate disclosure, I share my own struggles as a woman of color remembering being a girl of color in the Midwest, providing a safe place to share her anger and confusion about racist and sexist encounters, and brainstorming self-care options. Just as I wonder if anything that I’m doing makes a difference, she casually remarks, “The other day I was really thinking about what you said and I try not to do that at school.” I give her a quizzical look and wait for her to elaborate. “You know, that thing you said about not dumbing yourself down for the sake of someone liking you. I see that in a lot of my friends. Yeah, I’m not going to do that.”
Transforming Buried Ignorance to Liberating Truthfulness
A few months ago, when delivering my phone to a technology service desk for a repair an employee asks me what I do for a living. I falter, about to give a generic answer to avoid discussion about writing. I go with honesty, “I write about feminisms, culture, and gender. Human rights, too. I try to anyway.” Immediately his face lights up and he says he finds this fascinating. We go back and forth in conversation. Standing in the middle of a store, he shares his story about his experiences as a transsexual man. He soon asks me questions, wanting to know my opinion about issues pertaining to the trans community. The pressure to nod and spit terms that I didn’t completely understand creeps up my face. I was embarrassed by my ignorance, but transparency wins. “Truthfully, I don’t know enough about trans issues or lives. I know it’s not your job to teach me. So, I need to know more before I try to answer.”
While he fidgeted with my gadget, the conversation grew from him sharing how he grew up knowing he was different from his peers, to sharing what it means to for him to be a transsexual graduate student in the engineering field. After our legs begin to ache from standing in one place too long, he gives me his card and asks to connect over Facebook. I leave, mystified and high off conversation.
For me, I don’t want to just end rape. I want to transform the mentalities that posit sexual violence as a sensible outcome of its logic. We must transform rape culture by wielding our own power in the spaces where we are most present: our workspaces, family, neighborhoods, businesses, relationships, religious or spiritual gathering places, and even our corners of the Internet. Think personal and local. Think relationship and specificity. Think human decency. Begin there. When we identify and name the spaces where we show up and are present, when we are charged with our own authority to claim and demand human dignity for ourselves, we begin to demand it for one another. We must choose our battles, yes, but we must respond knowing that no situation is too big or small for that charge. This is what it means to transform rape culture.
If we are to learn anything from Steubenville, it’s that Steubenville can easily be anywhere. Anyone can be Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. Anyone can be Jane Doe. It is sobering to know that if this kind of tragedy happened on one random summer night in Ohio, similar tragedies are occurring a thousand fold across the country. If it’s happening here then it’s happening in your hometown as well. And who is better equipped to transform your hometown than you?
1. Redefining justice for survivors outside judicial proceedings
2. Incorporating the study of sex, gender, power, and violence into high school curriculum.
Cross-posted at Xavier University’s Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice Blog
There are a million things I’d rather be than a Catholic Feminist.
It was a gnawing and haunting restlessness that pursued my conscience like a ravenous lioness. It was relentless. And once I acknowledged it, it was like pressing UNMUTE on the button of life. I could not deny the pattern that was emerging from my life experiences, reflections, and work. Personal, professional, familial, academic, spiritual – the thread punctured all layers of my conscience.
The something was the ungodly needle of gender oppression. It began quietly, observing theory and famous authors with a gender issues bent, like studying Wollstonecraft at Xavier. And then it became visceral holding the hands of sexual assault survivors while doctors performed a rape kit on them at 3am in an emergency room during my Jesuit Volunteer Corp experience. While studying trauma and pathology in graduate school, I took a feminist theology class at Harvard that ripped down every door that I thought was securely nailed to the hinge. Then I found myself listening to stories of female college students selling their bodies to pay for tuition. Then I found myself hotly negotiating paid time off, benefits, and maternity leave in preparation to give birth to my son. With each passing year of my adult life, I saw that the world more clearly. And I saw that it spun on an axis that disproportionately distributed violence, poverty, and disadvantage to women and girls, especially women and girls of color.
It was right around the time when in the morning I was trying to convince a suicidal grandmother to report her two person sexual assault and later that same afternoon was dodging spitballs from high school boys sneering at my lectures about power and sexuality that I realized for the umpteenth time that the world was deeply problematic. But that deeply problematic realization quickly morphed into a deeply inconvenient epiphany when it hit me that I was partitioning my faith from the rest of the world instead of using it as a tool to help heal it.
The separation of faith and feminism was a futile, self-serving, psycho-segregation act. How does one reconcile feminism – distraughtly misunderstood movements with a history of both progress and digression – with Catholicism – a distraughtly misunderstood institution that has danced on both floors of social justice and injustice? I know how labels work. In today’s water cooler conversations, use the descriptor “modern Catholic” or “contemporary feminist” and see how long it takes before someone utters a negative stereotype about feminists (male-bashing, abortion loving radicals) or Catholics (gay-hating, scandal cover-up hypocrites). Watch how quickly and thoroughly ignorance washes their thoughts, as quickly as the water they drink. Watch how quickly the opportunity to engage disappears because of preconceived notions with their cultural attributes rather than remaining open to the person holding them.
In these early days of March, Women’s Herstory Month, it is easy to be caught up in media headlines and sound bytes which profile fantastic activists of the past, scholars and philosophers with visionary quotes about equality and human rights. I celebrate this as well, but I also want more. I want liberation.
Engaging and critiquing both the women’s rights movements and the Catholic Church has birthed a perspective to view the chaotic world; a way to organize thoughts, probe issues, and build a more critical and relevant conscience for the 21st century.
It is only through profound empathy and solidarity with the least in society that Catholic feminism resonates. It is a holy call to education; to unravel racism, transform violence, and challenge systematic oppression. Understanding the role of gender in the assignment of privilege, punishment, and power in the world is one of the most urgent and rudimentary calls of Catholics today. Our faith is bolstered, not weakened by feminist praxis, and feminist methodologies must more deeply embrace the spiritual gifts of their activists, not shun them in fear of conservative religious propaganda. And though some might argue there are fundamental differences between the two that prohibit peaceful co-habitation, I would kindly offer this experiment:
Find five active Catholics and five active feminists. Put them in a room for one hour and ask them one by one to articulate their vision of liberation, of radical love in the world. I believe they would have much more in common than one might guess. Their rhetoric and politics may seem incongruent, but is the point of progression to achieve same opinion or a better outcome than the present?
TweetEvery year I write a reflection about the past year of my life and deliver it on my birthday. This year, the address will be given twice. Once to my husband Nick, who is in Rhode Island, using FaceTime at midnight. The second time address goes to a dear group of friends, my dinner guests, to help celebrate 34 big ones.
I could eat 34 avocados over the next year.
I could throw a quarter, a nickel, and four pennies into a fountain with a hefty wish.
I could donate $340 to my favorite charity. I could run for 34 minutes.
I could write a 34 word haiku, or even write a 34 word haiku everyday for the next 34 days.
It seems that that’s what birthdays have come to mean to a lot of people, doing something to commemorate the number of years they’ve survived lived.
I’m not doing any of those things. Instead, I sit down and give myself the curse gift of an honest reflection. Once a year, I become a coroner over the body of a life I lived for the past year, investigating the scars, the stretches, the entry and exit wounds of the bullets of life. All the evidence is gathered to be delivered in a report I call The State of the Self. And it’s not just the wounds that are noted, but the signs of growth, ghost trails of joy, mapping personal achievement and meaning over the past year. This is the seventh year I’ve done this and still, like every year before, I struggle to convey what a year of life, my life, can mean in words.
It was the year of breaks and break-throughs. Friends and neighbors died. Break. Nick finished his MBA program. Breakthrough. My book was picked up by a publisher. Breakthrough. The publication journey began. Break. Praise finds me, blithe criticism follows.
The year went on like that. Life goes on like that.
In my Catholic peer circles, when they found out I was 33, would often remark, “Oh hey! It’s your Jesus year!” To which I thought, “Oh, awesome! That’s the year he was betrayed by his closest friends, tortured, arrested, wrongly convicted and crucified. Excellent.”
No, 33 took a different route than crucifixion. It was the year that I radically accepted the mysterious paradox of making life choices. I relinquished Robert Frost’s most beloved image – the diverge in the wood and the less traveled by road making all the difference - in favor of Sylvia Plath’s terrifying image of a fig tree as my touchstone:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantine and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
My figs are beautiful and plump, and represent different parts of me. Upon intense scrutiny, they all seemed to have my initials imprinted on them. One fig was a tireless journalist. Another was an artistic photographer. One fig is a respected novelist. Another fig was a psychotherapist working with survivors of violence and trauma. Yet another fig was a gender and women studies professor. Another fig was a zumba instructor. Another fig was a mother of four. Another fig was a nomadic missionary. A priestess fig. A globe-trotting human rights lawyer fig. A smashing activist fig.
The fear of failure, of things and life ending, the fear of publicly stumbling, the fear of turning around and finding oneself alone in a crusade, the fear of being wrong impedes the fig-selection process. Fear is a contagious mental illness, the mouth that never stops whispering. Despite those devilish whispers, we must choose.
I’m tempted to write an ending that describes the fig I chose, but the significance isn’t which fig I chose, it’s the fact that I actually and tentatively chose one. For now. Unlike Sylvia’s figs, which wrinkled, darkened, and fell to the ground, mine did not follow suit. Sylvia watched her figs die and I refuse to sit as she did and starve into the bend of a tree. Off the page and in real life, Sylvia Plath took her own life, the violent refusal to choose any fig at all.
My figs are still glowing, but the real milestone of 33 was not the choosing. It is the knowledge that even if I did watch some figs die, I know that I am not. I look back at 33 and see a woman of choice, deliberation, and active honesty, sometimes painfully so. Yes I am afraid, but I am not paralyzed. I know my figs won’t last forever, but they’re here now and so am I.
The coroner’s report read three simple words: She chose well.
TweetFor the last twelve years, I walked around with an idea about helping survivors of rape and sexual violence. For the past three years, I’ve been working intently on finishing and publishing a collection of letters, essays, and prose written by survivors for other survivors exploring issues of justice and healing. Each time I’ve arrived at my screen to work on it, it’s been an uphill battle. Though I am comforted by the contract that it will be published, I still sit with the same heavy question as I did twelve years ago: What will it take to end rape and violence against women?
In my experience working with survivors in the context of mental health, advocacy, and now publishing, I’ve articulated some cornerstones/reminders/mental sticky notes that keep me grounded in this labor.
1. Power exists. Most folks know this, but don’t KNOW THIS. The majority of folks still need mentorship and education on its dynamics; what it is, how to use it, and its impact in daily action and relationship.
2. Gender…Essentialism. Stereotype. Discrimination. Whatever label is assigned. Gender_____ must be addressed. Ongoing. Never ending. There’s nothing more loaded or consuming than a dialogue unfolding the layers of the invisible gender laws of US society.
3. Discerning leadership. Every campaign, movement, or rally must acutely examine its use and spaces of power, privilege, and cultural differences.
4. A global dance, not choreographed. Each community must take the primary role and responsibility of creating and implementing its own actions toward ending violence against women. (Yes, United States of America, this means you. Stop trying to diva your way into lands and peoples trying to save them. They’re quite capable of their own liberation.)
5. Be mindful of the bokeh effect. Bokeh is a photography term. It’s the blur of a camera lens, throwing something in the background out of focus for an aesthetic quality. I fear this is the case for many movements to end violence against women. It throws so many out of focus. The reality is that men are not an accessory to ending rape, they are the primary target and tool to the fruition of this reality. We need everyone. Men. Children. Gender non conforming people. Transwomen. Transmen. Houseless folks. Mentally ill folks. Physically disabled folks. Todos/ALL. Everyone must be included in building a transformed world. Women cannot be the disproportionate population surviving rape and then be the ones who take majority over the work in ending it. How does that make any sense? The work must be shouldered and inclusive.
As Vday 2013 comes to its final hours in the United States, I sit watching the sky darken and wonder…
What happens on February 15, 2013? What happens when the 1 Billion Rising are risen? What happens when the music stops, everyone gathers their things, and heads home? Before I throw support behind a cause, I ask a question: Does this effort dismantle rape culture action or transform it? If it dismantled, it’s focused on awareness. (Keeps the issue bobbing like a buoy. It’s important and sustains it on media’s radar.) If it transforms, it digs deep, trying to get rid of the bokeh. (Works at a deeper level of change, goes to the root of the issue utilizing timeless questions about sustainability, liberation, and vision.)
I’d never say 1 Billion Rising is a bad thing. It’s a great thing. But the music will stop (if it hasn’t already). And the wonderful movement that uplifted the Rising will carry them home while those who did not dance may or may not catch a faceful of the stirring breeze the Rising created. That’s it. From what I gather, there is no clear follow-up for organization or education.
I ask my question: Did it dismantle or transform rape culture? I think it’s clear that 1 Billion Rising is about dismantling, not transforming rape culture. That’s not a bad thing! Every project fills some kind of void gathering forces to make a statement has a role in ending rape. I’d never discourage anyone from participating in action that brings energy and inspiration, but it’s also helpful to keep in mind how many more consciousness-raising campaigns we promote in the name of ending violence against women when we know full well that as long as we keep using bokeh – keeping one billion in focus and blurring the other six billion – we are not advancing forward. We are not ending violence against women, we’re just delaying it by a day.
I want more than One Billion Rising. I want Seven Billion Transforming.
We’re Divided by Power, not Gay Marriage: What Firing Mike Moroski Says About Catholic Church Leadership
The termination of Mike Moroski as Dean and Vice Principal at Purcell Marion High School in Cincinnati, Ohio is reaching a national audience. Recently, Moroski offered these questions as prompts for deeper analysis:
WHEN do institutions go too far in trying to quiet their members?
HOW do you reconcile your faith and your own personal beliefs that are the direct result of that very same faith?
WHY are some people seemingly so afraid of differing opinions?
WHAT is the REAL issue in all of this confusion?
The impact of this situation has always been much larger than Moroski’s unjust punishment or standing up for gay marriage. In my opinion, if you take a closer look at the fallout, you’ll see a prime example of what is eating the Catholic Church from the inside: a hierarchal leadership removed from the needs of the people.
When my partner, Nick, was an employee at Moeller high school at the same time when Moroski was teaching English, Nick often commented about a gift that Moroski possessed. It was an undeniable and rare ability to connect, truly connect, with teenagers. “God love him” was my reply because if you work with teens, observe youth groups, or sit in on high school theology classes, you know that anyone capable of entering the often ear-budded tunnel leading to a 16 year old mind can only be described as a miracle worker.
How we educate the Catholic youth is, in my opinion, one of the most pressing crises of the US Catholic church. It’s not just the statistics of school closings. (In the 2011-2012 school year, 34 Catholic schools opened while 167 were consolidated or closed. And we know that this pattern will only continue.) What makes Catholic education so dismal is the manner in which Catholic adults, notoriously, mark their faith formation beginning and ending with Sunday school programs, sacramental preparation classes, or formal Catholic education. Once a diploma is in hand, or high school youth group is over, the faith formation often ends as well. Catholics often regard faith formation like algebra class: learn what you need to get through it and survive. I imagine that Mike Moroski’s approach to education and faith formation somehow penetrated that superficial layer. From the outpouring of student support, the emotional upheaval is clear: the students listen(ed) to him and they loved him. The archdiocese removing that kind of educator from Purcell’s environment not only devastates the community, but models an abuse of power that not only insults and damages the students who stand to lose the most, but it insults and damages us all.
My generation finds itself repeating history, we are once again living in a time when the combined use of our vocal chords and critical thinking skills is a threatening action deemed punishable by church leadership. When we put our conscience into action, when we speak from the multi-lingual living God who. dwells. in. each. of. us., we are not met with open curiosity or inquisitive invitation. Those of us who publicly and openly claim our identity and embrace our “divergent” beliefs are met judgement, with condescending suggestion to study Scripture more closely, we are advised to find the REAL truth of our lives by prioritizing someone else’s reasoning over our own. It’s as if there is a myopic, linear way to God. It’s as if our human history hasn’t already spoken volumes about the evil we are capable of when we misuse systematic power and control in the name of God and orderliness.
It is most certainly not a modern trend to be an outspoken Catholic, to be in the fray. It was the searing call of the earliest Christians. Our history books reveal multiple instances of church leadership changing their tune, ideas and decisions (slavery, capital punishment, the priesthood to name a few). Does that mean there is no merit to having leadership or believing its teachings? No, of course not. Quite the opposite. The church leadership should stand with us in dialogue, not above us. Why is that such a threatening position, to stand shoulder to shoulder? Could it be that we’re equal (no master is greater than the servant) and that equality doesn’t neutralize power, but rather perfects it? This collective massaging of truth does not make it inauthentic or morally relativistic nor is it about making it convenient for everyone to lead comfortable lives. Quite the opposite! HIERARCHY is the easy way out. The social and religious construct we currently practice IS the convenient way. We may have moments like this when many are in uproar and as tragic and outrageous as this situation is for Mike and Katie Moroski, it’s also a lot easier to deal with this than it would be to engage each and every student, educator, catholic, priest, lay person, minister, child, friend. Operating as a love-centered, God-revealing community would mean that we actually and actively reflect upon our lives as we strive to understand the mystery of grace. Hierarchy is the convenient way to run companies, organizations, and institutions. Yes, it limits creativity and spirituality, but it does remove our sole responsibility to own our lives of faith. Hierarchy. It’s instructional and thereby the very definition of convenient. We Catholics pay lip service to “The Process” or “Discernment” or “The Journey” of faith. Yet, in my lifetime, my own personal discernment of love, sexuality, identity, human rights, reproductive health, and power is commendable only if I arrive at the same answer as church leadership. If and when I arrive elsewhere, I’m labeled a liberal, a moral relativist, or a rebel, a heathen, ignorant, uneducated, lazy, unsaved. I reject these labels. I reject the idea that unless I completely embrace all the teachings of the Magisterium that it disqualifies me from asserting a valid, thoughtful, sacred insight of my own, born out of the fire of my own God-given existence.
I believe church leadership is capable of rich goodness and wisdom. I believe that its guidance and prudence has a place in our church community, but its patterns of behavior, its unapologetic bullying and abuse of power – the very model of leadership that Jesus overthrew – is not only spiritually killing its faithful, but viciously destroying our ability to pass on the faith to the next generation.
Moroski says that for him the issue has always been about the acceptance of diverse opinion. For me, the issue is much uglier than that. We all know that Catholics possess different and opposing opinion, but how it is publicly handled is the problem. This is not about accepting diversity, it is the prioritization of details over children, of dogma over community, of uniformity over reality. It is about how we are treated by our brothers in leadership positions of the highest levels of church. It is about being callously thrown around like dispensable objects instead of sacred vessels. It is about church leaders being so removed from the people that they do not see they are persecuting their own sisters and brothers in the name of church doctrine. It is the lack of relationship with community that these situations arise. Or, perhaps, it is the utter lack of faith (or is it fear?) that God is speaking through others that paves the way to Calvary.
Today, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Catholics receive a marking upon our foreheads and souls reminding us we are entering a season of change. I reflect upon “change” and conjure up some of my favorite images of Christ which pertain to the restoration of the senses. The blind see, the deaf hear, the diseased walk, the dead rise, the mute speak. If one of the messages of the new covenant was absolute clearing and openness, why do we expend so much energy on the opposite? Why does church leadership spend so much time and resources trying to mute those who are speaking?
May this season of reflection bring inner transformation for us all.
TweetOne of the most challenging calls of being a modern day Catholic is to openly and publicly be yourself.
For years, the combination of working for the church and writing progressively on issues relating to feminism, gender, and reproductive health made me feel like I was living a double life. I would turn down writing opportunities that would let my writing career flourish or deepen because I didn’t want the inevitable questions to arrive: how can you believe ______ when the Catholic Church says ______this instead? (insert a variety of issues pertaining to women, sexuality, gender, liberation) It’s a difficult thing to balance: your call to write your vision of the world knowing its very core lies in conflict with the walls of the Catholic Church where you’ve been educated and formed. After years of working at an adult education center that eventually was investigated by the Vatican because of reiki and yoga sessions I helped program, after attending retreats by excommunicated priests whose message was identical to that of Sunday homilies, after being raked and silenced by the archdiocese for participating in social justice organizing with interfaith communities, after turning down yet another assignment because I didn’t want to publicly deal with the inevitable outrage, after self-editing my own soul, after reflecting for the umpteenth time upon how my now partner had to choose between living out a vocation either as a priest or married person, after meditating on the sexual abuse scandal while simultaneously editing an anthology about sexual violence, I left my position working for the church. Willfully. Quietly. I work now on a project-by-project “consulting” basis because I didn’t want to arrive at the day or situation that Mike Moroski has now found himself in.
Mike Moroski is many things in my life. He’s a good friend. He’s a human anchor for Cincinnati, Ohio and, truthfully, for all who know him. Nick and I just attended his and Katie Moroski’s wedding back in the fall. They are the kind of people who remind you why you’re alive. They embody not just a Catholic spirit, but a human spirituality. A fleshy, tangible joy that celebrates good music, the miraculous nooks of our planet, food, love, justice, and community; all the best things in life. Whenever I see one or the other, or better when they’re together, I am flooded by emotional memos to enjoy more, live deeper, and cultivate my being.
No, I’m not exaggerating. They’re that kind of good.
Which is why, unfortunately, I was not surprised that Mike was given an ultimatum to either be terminated from his position as Dean from Purcell Marion High School in Cincinnati, Ohio or take down his words on his own website and blog voicing his support of gay marriage. It was heart-wrenchingly predictable to read this news. And it was my own reaction that was the most depressing to absorb, my non-shocked state. Everything about that choice – be silenced or lose your livelihood – sums up the prison/call of being a modern day Catholic. Most Catholics I know profoundly disagree with at least one component of church doctrine or dogma and for those of us who have professionally chosen to wade even deeper in the Catholic ocean by working for it, being aligned with it, and getting paid by it, we know that the risks and punishments are severe. The punishments always seem to lie with being silenced one way or another. You’re ostracized, excommunicated, fired, cornered, bullied, or trampled on by the powers that be because of the very existence of the diversity of belief, the diversity of faith. Catholics who believe in equality, in social progress, those of us who want to see more peace in the world – and care a little less about who marries whom or who loves whom – are cast out of Catholic institutions because the sign of conflict is perceived as disorderly, not as unity.
So many people over the years have said the obvious, “Just leave the church.” I chose one year to discern that. For one year, I thought intensely and darkly about leaving the Catholic church and weighed it all: family, culture, choice, spirituality, power, oppression. I came to the decision to stay when I was singing at mass one ordinary Sunday. I was looking around my worship community who come in every shade and size and background and ability, all of us fumbling, all of us so heartwarmingly hapless, trying to love and forgive in this world, and the song – lyrics and rhythms I’ve known since I was a young child – overpowered me with simplicity. The choice wasn’t about staying or leaving, it was about growing. Deciding WHERE and how to grow was the question, how to position myself to best hear the Inner Voice, how to stay close to my Conscience. It came down to this: where does God speak to me? At the time, I told folks it was to focus my energy on writing and give myself to freedom to openly write my positions. Inside, I was screaming for air. I no longer wanted to be questioned or defend my beliefs which I thought to be as basic as breathing. The first thing I decided was to give myself my own breath back. I chose to stay Catholic, but leave my position of leadership.
Mike Moroski and Katie Moroski came to a decision because of an illusion of a choice the archdiocese gave them. The media will report that the choice is either to take down a blog post or resign from your job. That’s not a choice, that’s a silencing. Either way, there’s an attempt to silence him. Mike, typically, finds his way to rise and says he’ll take the consequences that come with voicing his opinion. In this unsurprising dilemma, Mike will join a very long line of Catholics who have dealt with the illusion of choice by the church (abortion: mother or child; vocation: marriage or holy orders; sex: abstain or count fertile days; gay issues: deny yourself or deny yourself) and I hope he knows that regardless of the outcome, he is not alone in this turmoil. Mike, you are not alone.
My prayer is not for Mike. I know him and have every confidence in the physical and spiritual world that this will only strengthen his resolve and core to continue to be the anchor he already is to his communities. My prayer is for all of the modern day Catholics, especially young folks, who think this is about gay marriage. It isn’t. It’s about the future of the church, who we want our leaders to be, and how to teach ourselves and the next generation how to fully respond as the person God has called you to be in voice, in action, and in uncertainty.
Be, write, love, live who are you called to be. Answer only to your own conscience, the place where you and God converse. This is the signature commandment and challenge enscripted for our generation. On this wall, I gladly sign my name, too.