Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Privilege, Job's Friends, and Ferguson

[The following post was written for the website Mormon Liberals, but I figured I might as well share it here too.]

I recently listened to a captivating podcast about the Book of Job. There was a lot of good stuff in it, but one thing that jumped out at me as relevant to the tragedies going on in Ferguson (and elsewhere) was the discussion of Job's friends. When Job is in the depths of anger and frustration at the horrible things happening to him, his "comforters" set him straight: no, it isn't possible that Job didn't bring this malady upon himself via sin--God only punishes the wicked! God blesses the righteous--that's an axiom found throughout scripture! Job, you need to repent and admit you've done wrong!

With hindsight (and/or thanks to the omniscient narrator of the story) we know that Job hasn't sinned, but the crucial point here is that his friends literally could not comprehend that that might be the case. Their identities were bound up in the idea of an immediately just God, one who could never allow suffering of the kind Job experienced to come upon someone who didn't at least deserve it. That was the water they swam in. We are meant to be yelling at Job's interlocutors: "Shut up and listen! Consider that you might be wrong!" But the point is that *we* are Job's friends.

The idea of "privilege" is one way of thinking about why Job's friends reacted the way they did--and why we often do too. I recently read an article that does a solid job of explaining privilege by analogizing it to how bikers and drivers view the world. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the gist is that bikers have to constantly be aware that cars could at any time seriously injure them, while the system allows drivers to barely give any thought to bike riders at all. Drivers are relatively safe and don't have to think too much about getting from point A to point B in safety, while bikers don't have that luxury. The article points out how that does not at all mean that drivers are bad people as individuals--some are very good people, some are jerks, most are meh--but simply that there is a system in place that makes life easier for drivers than for bikers. The entire infrastructure of transportation just makes it easier for drivers regardless of their actual thought process or behavior: "Nice, non-aggressive drivers that don’t do anything at all to endanger me are still privileged to pull out of their driveway each morning and know that there are roads that go all the way to their destination. They don’t have to wonder if there are bike lanes and what route they will take to stay safe. In the winter, they can be certain that the snow will be plowed out of their lane into my lane and not the other way around."

Job's friends had the privilege of health and material prosperity--a/k/a ability privilege and class privilege. Their theological system more or less cohered with their lived experience, so they didn't have to think about how solid it actually was. Job's pain, rather than causing them to ask hard questions about what they had always believed, was seized as an opportunity to explain how right their understanding of the world was.

For white people (like me, by the way), there is an invisible-to-us system called racism that benefits us--whether we want it to or not. It exists in bigger and smaller ways: we don't have to think about the fact that we aren't followed around in stores, or that people don't touch our hair, or that "Jacob Martin" on a resume generates more interest from potential employers than "Jamal Washington," or that a police officer is more likely to think an object in the hands of a black man is a gun than the same object in my hand. We get that luxury. That's privilege. [1]

When African-Americans speak up, protest, agitate, rally, and get mad about the police killing Michael Brown, an(other!) unarmed young black man, the replies from too many whites that "He stole some cigarettes" or "Black-on-black crime is an epidemic, though" or even "Let's wait for all the facts to come in," [2] strike me as too much like what Job's friends said. These responses miss the mark in many ways, but one of them is that African Americans are crying out about an entire system that is stacked against them, and their "comforters" are playing whack-a-mole by nitpicking at their particular examples.

At this point, you might be nodding along, saying "Yeah, those racist ignoramuses at Fox News are the worst!" But that is much too easy. Liberals get in on this act, too: political affiliation does not a cure-all for systemic oppression make. I've heard too many stories about liberal and/or democratic Mormon facebook groups that tolerate harsh misogyny, racism, trans-antagonism, and all kinds of other problematic behavior. Just this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published an article talking about how, for at least some black Mormon women, the Ordain Women movement is seen as focusing on white issues more than those affecting people of color. Again, most of these examples are not done with the intent to harm or exclude (I know that OW, for example, has taken explicit steps to try to be more racially inclusive), but pain caused by ignorance or in spite of good intentions is still pain. Listening and humbly changed behavior are required. The lesson of Job's friends, and of privilege, is that we need to look inside ourselves and be humble enough to lift our siblings up and truly comfort and support them, not tell them why they're wrong.

Privilege is not about hating white people, or men, or anyone else. When I hear an invitation to check my privilege, I hear a plea to live out the creed found in Mosiah 18 to bear one another's burdens. Inevitably, I screw up. When that happens and I'm called out on it, it's easy to feel attacked or argue. The question of the gospel is whether I will be like Job's friends and get defensive and double down on my worldview when someone who is suffering points out my unhelpful approaches, or whether I will stop, listen, and change.

The events in Ferguson were sparked by a tragic killing that unnecessarily took a man's life. But that cannot be all that it is. We need to talk about ongoing segregation in housing, education, government, and every other walk of life. We need to talk about police efforts that disproportionately target people of color. We need to talk about how all of this interacts with class, gender, sexuality, and so much more. Ferguson needs to be a critical time for each of us to look into our own hearts and commit to be better, to admit where we stumble, to be led by marginalized communities who are teaching us how to improve this world.

I pray that each of us can look at ourselves and recognize the areas where we are privileged, where the world is easier for us than others because of unjust systems that often feel invisible to us, the benefited. Let us be Christ's hands to embrace those who are suffering, let us seek out the beam in our own eyes, let us be humble. The rhetoric of privilege is most productive when we find it benefiting ourselves and work to change the systems that perpetuate it. I believe this is what the gospel calls us to do.

[1] And of course racial privilege is just one example; analogous--though not interchangeable--systems support men, heterosexuals, cisgender people, relatively wealthy people etc.

[2] Yes, by all means, I want more facts, too. But if we use that as an excuse to discount the anger and frustration that's being expressed right now then we're part of the problem.

Monday, August 4, 2014

e.e. as a grammatical phrase

In addition to "i.e." and "e.g.," I think we should have "e.e." as a grammatical phrase. It would be used to introduce a clause that is inspired by, or quoting, E.E. Cummings. For example: "Everyone should contemplate the nature of mortality, e.e. how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to Make Epic Pancakes With Your American Fire Safe

I recently came across this recipe for making pancakes with a rice cooker, and after seeing the results, I found out that I could do one better: making a pancake with your fire safe!

Ingredients:

  • Your favorite pancake mix
  • A fire safe
  • A fireplace
Directions:
  • To start, simply toss your pancake mix and any other ingredients it calls for into the fire safe.
  • Next, stir everything together until it reaches a uniform consistency.
  • Build a fire in your fireplace.
  • After that, lock the fire safe and throw it in the fire.
  • Turn over the safe every 15 to 20 minutes.
  • After just 45 minutes, take the safe out of the fireplace and serve your delicious pancake!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is Ada Lovelace Day! If you don't know, Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer--and her work was done about 100 years before modern computers were invented! A few years ago, Ada Lovelace Day was started to celebrate women, past and present, in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In that spirit, I just wanted to give a shoutout to two awesome women I know in those fields.

My sister Diana is an amazingly talented accountant--probably the most practical form of mathematics there is. (She also has a great gift for incisive, charitable political thinking, but that's not the point of Ada Lovelace Day so I won't mention it.)

My friend Erin is getting a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering, which is pretty freaking cool no matter how you cut it. I love talking to her about xkcd, outer space, and anything that makes us laugh.

I might have included a few other super-cool women in STEM fields, but they don't have blogs, so they lose out on this round. Anyway, I'm grateful to live in a world where people are able to enter fields they find interesting regardless of gender (though there are still plenty of informal obstacles to be conquered). Rock on, heiresses to Ada Lovelace's legacy!

Body of Christ

One of the things I like about religion (and life in general) is the way things can mean two different things. Puns are one light example, but I think of symbols as falling in this same general category. I was thinking this last Sunday about the multiple meanings of the body of Christ as I took the sacrament.

The bread of the sacrament represents Christ's literal body, which was broken and torn for us. It's a poignant reminder of his suffering, which itself is a representation of the love he had for us. But (probably inspired by this post about the sacrament) I was also thinking of the other scriptural meaning of the body of Christ. The phrase is also a metaphor for the Church, meaning the people who make up the followers of Christ. Paul speaks beautifully about how we are all part of one large body of Christ, and every body part is equally valuable. (Good thing he didn't have access to this wikipedia article.)

In this secondary context, the sacrament reminded me of how the members of Christ's church (broadly construed) are all torn and hurt, ravaged at times in ways that remind us of Christ's own suffering. As I ate the bread that was handed to me, I tried to think of the members of the Church who feel broken and bruised--and how I might be able to help them. I confess I didn't come up with any particularly insightful answers, but I did feel a kinship to my fellow sisters and brothers, and a renewed desire to make them feel like they really do belong to the body of Christ. I consider this a theological pun :)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ordaining women and Ordain Women

Personally, I can't think of any good reason women don't have the priesthood in the same sense that men do in the LDS church. [1] And I think that the church would be a better organization if women were ordained. Hence, you could say I support the ordination of women: I do think it would be a good idea.

That being said, I don't quite identify with the Ordain Women organization. Part of their mission statement reads thus: "Ordain Women believes women must be ordained in order for our faith to reflect the equity and expansiveness of [the fundamental tenets of Mormonism]." That one word, "must," is just what puts it one step too far for me, personally. "Must" to me means that the way forward has been determined, the answer is clear, there is no other valid option. While I think ordination of women is the best path forward, I don't know it. And I'm uncomfortable telling people I sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators that I know what direction the church needs to go; that's just not what I see my role being.

On the other hand--and maybe this is splitting hairs--if OW was all about imploring church leaders to sincerely and urgently ask if female ordination is not indeed a good idea, then I'd be totally in favor of it. I do think church leaders should be asking that question, and I think it's fine, and in fact good, if members faithfully encourage leaders to ask questions that are important to them [the lay members]. (If church leaders have asked this question already, and have received a definitive answer one way or the other, I'd love to know about it!) I think ultimately it comes down to whether I'm totally committed to my opinion being right, whether I think it's at least possible--even if unlikely!--that God's answer on the issue would be "no, women should not be ordained to the priesthood in the same sense as men." I think such an answer is possible--though I'd quickly add that I can't believe that the status quo regarding women is ideal; in other words, if women aren't meant to be ordained, I have to believe that there will be other ways for them to achieve much more equality with men in our church organization and culture. While I find that outcome unlikely--I do think that the ordination of women is (part of) the way the church is going to, and should, change--I can't rule it out. And that's why I don't join the OW movement. [2]

However, I'd like to emphasize that this is my personal stance. It's what makes the most sense for me and how I understand Mormonism. It incorporates theological beliefs (how God wants me to act), ethical beliefs (what is right), and pragmatic beliefs (what will be most effective in promoting gender equality). But I could be wrong--on all counts: maybe there really is no chance that some form of separate but equal when it comes to priesthood ordination is OK in God's eyes, or maybe it's just inherently wrong for this difference to persist, or maybe these kinds of bolder approaches are going to help change things for the better more quickly. For these reasons (in addition to the general prohibition on it) I don't judge anyone who does participate in OW--I see myself as more on their side than not, after all, and of the people I know affiliated with the organization, virtually of all them seem sincere and honest.

This post is already a bit long, so I won't go into details, but I will say though that the more I think about it, the OW action [3] scheduled for October 5th (women waiting in line for standby tickets to go to the Priesthood Session of General Conference) strikes me as a good thing. (I mostly love that it's generating discussion and also that it's more open to interpretation than OW's mission statement's language.)

Any thoughts? How do you feel about OW? Are you going to be waiting in line at the Priesthood Session on October 5th? Are you really mad about OW? Does my position make any sense? I'd love to hear more thoughts and have some more discussion!

----------------

[1] "have the priesthood" and "ordination" are the phrasings I'm going to use as a catch-all for the Mormon male experience with priesthood as distinct from that of Mormon women--maybe women get the priesthood in some sense when they are endowed in the temple, but that's not what I'm going to be focusing on here. [UPDATE 9/19/13: I didn't want to go through all the arguments for and against female ordination here, but I just read this great post that I think addresses a lot of the common arguments against it. I pretty much agree with everything in it.]

[2] That being said, OW's members have a range of views. This profile on their site, for example, is something I could get behind 100%. However, even though my position would apparently be welcome on their website, I'm not personally comfortable joining an organization with their mission statement for the reasons given above.

[3] I'm using the phrase they've given for it, not "protest" as some have described it.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Caveat: You Might Find This Post Boring and Technical

I was recently telling a friend about how on my mission I (sort of) knowingly lied to people all the time about the LDS church. I told people that if they got a testimony that the Book of Mormon was true/the word of God, then they would know that the LDS church is true, too. While I believed (and still believe) both those things, I recognized even then that the latter doesn't automatically follow from the former; the Book of Mormon's veracity alone could just as plausibly fit with the view that the Community of Christ (once known as the Reorganized LDS Church) is true, or that the FLDS church is true, or lots of other things. But I didn't spell that out for any of my investigators. Some people might be mad at me for lying to convert people to my religion, but I didn't and still don't have a problem with it. Here's why.

Essentially, what I did was leave out a caveat: that there are other possible inferences to draw from a testimony of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon being true does make it more likely that the LDS church is true, and it is a necessary condition of the LDS church being true. But I didn't spell out every step in my argument, and I didn't define every term precisely at the outset. I was presenting a concise version of (what I took--and take--to be) the truth. I admit, it's inherently paternalistic. But the thing is, it's also necessary. I challenge you to make any argument without leaving anything out. It can't be done. Every story we tell, every argument we make, every truth claim we assert--they're all partial and selective, based on certain assumptions and concealing certain necessary steps. (Lewis Carroll demonstrated this principle beautifully in the field of logic with his short story What the Tortoise Said to Achilles -- text and wiki summary.)

Of course, that doesn't mean you can just leave out enormous steps in any argument and consider yourself justified--if I told you that my gas station had the lowest prices of any place anywhere nearby, but I was defining "anywhere nearby" to mean "within 10 feet of my station," that's grossly misleading and not OK. But my point is that any words we use to express ourselves lie somewhere on the spectrum of misleading--the deception may be inconsequential or it may be significant, but some amount of it is inevitable. I view my statement about the Book of Mormon proving the LDS church's veracity as sitting much more towards the former, innocuous end of the spectrum. Of course, what one considers a minor or major deception depends on a lot of things and is ultimately a value judgment; personally, I feel good about still testifying that the Book of Mormon's truthfulness is one of the proofs that the LDS church is true. Maybe you disagree and think the deception inherent in that claim is unacceptably large, and that's OK. Anyway, I don't think anyone relied purely on a testimony of the Book of Mormon and nothing else when they joined the church--if there isn't a spiritual testimony of other aspects that are actually unique to the LDS church I don't think people will choose to convert.

This issue comes to mind for me all the time now after a few years of law school. Law is in many ways an exercise in trying to pin down words into one specific meaning, which is why contracts are so long and detailed, and why I personally have started getting into the bad habit of using caveats with everything I say. It comes from a good place--I want to minimize the deception I wreak!--but as a byproduct it can increase my annoyance factor and even impede actual communication when I'm in an informal (read: almost every) situation. I'm trying to talk (and write!) using fewer caveats and nuances. It helps me remember when they're actually important and when I need to let the human condition, with all its inherent foibles and shortcomings, just be.