• So Much For Soft Hearted and Squishy Headed

    There’s a popular stereotype which says that people who worry about the homeless, racism, poverty and other social ills have soft hearts and squishy heads. Those who do not share their concerns will often accuse them of abandoning logic for emotionalism. Because emotions are for silly women, queers and other people not to be taken seriously, of course.

    However, my friend Sonya (hi, Sonya!) recently passed on a study which shows that, scientifically speaking, this stereotype is dead wrong. Researchers using brain scans found that rather than being driven by emotions, people who are concerned with issues of social justice make greater use of the logic centers of their brains than people who do not:

    Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.

    As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

    But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected.

    The conclusion was clear, Decety said: “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

    This goes a long way towards explaining some of the facebook conversations I’ve had lately. You know the kind; someone saying something idiotic responds to factual evidence that their claims are wrong by jumping to their next talking point or looking for some petty inconsistency in your argument rather than deal with reality. They aren’t being logical, but are driven by the emotional imperative to avoid being wrong. Ahem.

    You can read more about the study (conducted at the University of Chicago) here.

  • The Quality of Mercy

    I want to follow up on that last post with an account of a sermon given by a Christian man who is doing what he can to change our broken system. His name is Mark Osler. He used to be a federal prosecutor in Detroit and sent many men, particularly, black men to prison for drug crimes. He did it with the best of intentions, motivated by a genuine love for his home town which was falling apart before his eyes. But eventually, after he left the job to take a position at Baylor University in Waco Texas, he began to question the justice of what he had been involved in. He was seeking ways to bring his work and his faith into proper relationship with each other, and in the process has become one of the most influential lawyers working to change our drug sentencing laws and bring a different sort of justice to people caught up in the drug trade. Justice which is joined with mercy, not justice which demands the sacrifice of the lives of young men of color.

    “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” Osler reads before getting to the less frequently cited sentences. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

    Osler pauses. “Sometimes,” he says with a grin, “the Bible is not very reassuring for a fairly affluent straight white guy from Edina,” referring to the Minneapolis suburb where he and his family live. “But that is me, and this is one of those times. In this passage, Jesus is talking about turning everything—everything—upside down. The poor will have the kingdom, while the rich will face woe. The hungry will be filled, while those who are full will be hungry. Those who are reviled will be blessed, and it’s bad when all speak well of you. This teaching, this idea of turning everything upside down, is dangerous.”

    Continue reading

  • Black and White Drug Dealers in America

    Late last Saturday night, my husband and some friends were driving home when there was an accident a ways ahead of them. A piece of debris from the accident punctured the gas tank of our family’s only vehicle. Which, of course, we had used our last pennies to pay off the day before. Because, of course.

    On the upside, one of my husband’s friends has stepped up and is driving him to and from the bus stop while they work on replacing the damaged gas tank. He took my husband to buy the replacement, brought over the tools needed and has spent at least 6 hours so far on our cold, filthy garage floor helping my husband remove the damaged tank. Obviously, he’s a very good friend.

    However, about 15 years ago, he was our town drug dealer. He sold everything, but particularly cocaine and meth. And he had become a meth user himself. He says that the first time he tried meth, he felt so good that he thought, “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” Big ambitions.

    He was still in high school at the time and one day, just a few months short of his 18th birthday, he was caught on school grounds with a large quantity of drugs and cash in his car. At this point, his fate was in the hands of the county prosecutor.

    There were enough drugs and cash in the car that it was obvious he was the source of a lot of the drugs being used in the area. And he had been found with them on school property, during school hours. He was close enough to his 18th birthday to be charged as an adult with multiple felonies and sent away for a long time. In fact, the DA and the local police would be able to make some real political hay with the case. Plus could hold a press conference with the drugs and cash laid out on a table, announcing that they had just taken out a major player in the local drug trade. Continue reading

  • What Ever Happened to “Shake the Dust From Your Feet?”

    Words of wisdom from Scott Dannemiller, aka The Accidental Missionary on how to deal with those you disapprove of:

    Recall what Jesus told his closest buddies the first time he sent them out. He told them to heal, cure, and comfort, proclaiming God’s name along the way. And he added,

    “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” (Matt 10: 14)

    Sounds harsh, right? But he doesn’t add, “And leavest thou a flaming bag of poo on their doorstep, and drape their olive trees in Charmin.”

    Jesus is telling us to let it go. Self-righteous outrage is not worth the trouble. If judgment is to come, let Him be the sword. Meanwhile, save your words. They hold little value anyway.

    But . . . but . . . even Jesus got angry, right? Sure. And let’s look at what Jesus got angry about:

    A “hangry” Jesus got mad at a fig tree when he walked by and noticed it bore no fruit. He overturned tables like Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse, outraged with the money lenders turning a temple into a strip mall. He expressed outrage toward anyone who would harm a child, sounding a bit Tony Soprano-like when he said they would be better off sleeping with the fishes.

    Got that? Jesus got angry about hunger not fed, the commercialization of the holy and harm to children. If what you are angry about is one of those things, fine. But if you’re angry about any of the usual hobby horses that drive conflict with and in the church, Jesus says to let it go.

    Don’t yell and scream. Don’t appeal your case to the powers that be. Don’t explain your position over and over and over again to people who have already rejected it. Don’t go to war with those who reject you, your message or God himself. Leave it for God to deal with. Even if you think it’s an idiotic way to do things.

  • Colonizing Cities for White American Jesus

    No one likes to think of themselves as racist or prejudiced. Even the KKK denies being a racist organization. Which for some people just affirms the deeply held idea that there’s something wrong with people of color. If there wasn’t something wrong with them, people of color wouldn’t have so many problems now that racism isn’t a problem. How can racism be to blame when there are no more racists among us?

    Of course, racism and the residual effects of centuries of being raped, robbed and pillaged continue to be an issue. If we’d ever like to get to the day when there really are no racists among us, we need white people to be a lot less clueless. Like, for example, we need for this to become unthinkable, particularly for Christians:

    When I asked the white pastor of a large suburban multi-campus church to . . . reflect on whether he has earned the right to do ministry among the oppressed, he responded by saying, “Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine.”

    Or this:

    One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist.

    Those quotes come from a really excellent article by Christina Cleveland called “Urban Church Planting Plantations” which ought to be required reading for every suburban pastor. And for you too. It’s super good.

    I had heard talk of urban church planting and knew that most such church plants fail miserably. Often they become money holes for the church supporting them. Even relatively successful ones find that instead of ministering directly to poor, struggling communities, they are attracting a crowd that doesn’t actually live in the area the church is supposed to be ministering to.

    In fact, the last church our family was seriously involved in was an urban church plant supported by a large, predominantly white denomination. They had a long history of working for racial reconciliation and so did better than most. They hired African American pastors and ministers who were at least somewhat familiar with the community. They were even paying for additional education and training to bring the pastors up to the denomination’s standards. But at the same time, we were driving 40 minutes each way to get there. Urban ministry is much harder than Pastor “It’s my turn” thinks.

    Continue reading

  • Men, Sex and Love

    I would really, really like to quote the entirity of Micah Murray’s post on the idea that men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love. But doing that is frowned upon here on the internets, so I’m just going to quote a couple juicy bits. But these are no better than the rest of the post.

    It seemed reasonable enough. And it fit neatly with the gender stereotypes I’d heard all my life: Men think about sex every seven seconds. Women aren’t visual. Men are like microwaves; women are like crockpots.

    But, as a newly married man, I soon discovered that these ideas were both inaccurate and damaging in our relationship. Beneath the glib cliché was an economic model of sex-bartering that undermines the very essence of love.

    If it’s true that men give love to get sex, then our shared sexuality is simply a business arrangement, a deal brokered in flowers and kisses. My wife is a deluxe call girl with a long-term contract, marriage is sheer capitalism, and love is a filthy currency.

    I have to be perfectly honest and say that this view of men as base creature who want sex more than they want anything was a real problem for me. I suspect it’s been a problem for a lot of people and the church isn’t doing any favors peddling this sort of outdated stereotyping of men and women.

    I like sex. My husband says I’m good at it. But I don’t like sex so much that I’d put it above love. Frankly, I can’t imagine what sort of person “gives love” in order to get sex. At the worst, such a person is someone who uses me for his own enjoyment. At best, such a person is not someone I can really trust. What if the sex is bad? What if I’m sick or injured and can’t have sex? What if I’m upset or angry or busy? I can’t trust in a person’s love for me if it’s dependant on the quality of our sex life. How can I even understand such a person? They’re like some weird, alien being to me.

    And really, that was long how I viewed men. How I viewed my husband. I thought of them as untrustworthy, alien beings who I would never be able to really understand. Which is a horrendous perspective to bring into a situation where two people are expected to “become one”! How can I become one with someone whose love resides in their genitals and not in their heart? How could I trust their heart? Did they really have one or did everything run through their little head instead? How could I raise my boys if this were an immutable part of their mental make up?

    Of course, as Micah points out, and I’ve been learning, this isn’t actually the reality of men, love and sex. Or at least it shouldn’t be true. Any ways. You should go read the article. And pass it on!

  • Christians and Interracial Marriage

    Guys, what is this world coming to? Aljezeera America recently used the parable of the talents to explain current events. Christianity Today, the flagship publication of conservative, Evangelical Christianity, is promoting interracial marriage. And discussing racism. And even relying on the voice of a black women to explain the theology of the whole thing. The world’s going all off kilter here. 

    I know the rest of the world (and many of us) find it ridiculous that the church still struggles with these things. But we are a people whose founder said he’d go back for the one sheep dumb enough to get left behind. So perhaps it’s part of being church in the world to be a sanctuary for those who just can’t keep up with the pace of change in the world. That doesn’t mean they need to become the sanctuary’s leaders and spokespeople, of course. It’s still a work in progress.

    But look at this fruit. Doesn’t it make your heart sing?

    God abhors racism. Miriam’s skin was turned “leprous, like snow.” Her punishment was directly related to her sinful prejudice against the dark skin of the Cushite people. I did a quick search to examine the effects of leprosy. (Not recommended.) Her punishment would change the way peopleviewed her. It would not affect the way they thought of her per se, but the way they looked at her. As Miriam once looked at the Cushite woman with distain, she would now know exactly what that was like.

    What Miriam forgot, and what so many others still forget, is that all people are made in the image of God, we are all from the same Adam, and now we are all redeemed equally through Christ. Interracial marriage isn’t merely acceptable; it reflects the beauty and glory of the gospel.

    Through the gospel, we are reconciled first to God, then to one another. We are made brothers and sisters in Christ. We are counted as righteous. The gospel breaks the barriers that once divided us.

    You can read the whole post by Trillia Newbell here. Her book Union can be purchased here.

    For the last several decades we’ve heard that we ought to accept interracial relationships for two reasons. One is that we can’t tell other people what to do or who to love. The other is that all races are equal. And those are fine things. Except “everyone should be able to do what they want to do” is something a 7 year old would say. And equal does not mean the same. We still have to figure out how to deal with those differences.

    On the other hand, Newbell’s vision of interracial marriage is built around reconciliation and our true identity. She challenges us to see interracial marriage not only as an acceptable thing, but a good thing. A reflection of God’s Kingdom, in fact.

    Perhaps this is why research has found that among people who attend highly segregated churches (read: among people who attend church), those who report praying and reading their bible frequently are more likely to date outside their race. Wouldn’t it be funny if being in an interracial relationship started being on of those easily recognized markers for being Christian? I mean, we can be induced to wear cheesy and often offensive T-shirts as a way to show what super, duper, committed Christians we are. Picking a dating/marriage partner from another race in order to look like a good Christian could become a thing in our hypercompetitive church culture.

    Of course, wearing a t-shirt doesn’t grow or change you. Interracial marriage most certainly will. So maybe we should start spreading the word that interracial marriage is a thing that super committed Christians do. It’s got to be a better plan/witness than a “God’s Gym” t-shirt!

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    Will the New Covenant Kill the Church?

    My 14 year old has a bad habit of trying to engage me in conversations which he really ought to be having with his peers rather than his parents. Because, really, only a teen wants to spend hours sitting around talking about their favorite bands, watching weird, nonsensical videos online and complaining about their teachers. Although I do appreciate that he insisted in introducing me to The Room. Because some sorts of genius idiot disasters do transcend generational lines.

    Anyways, last summer, he was trying to regail me with yet more information about the bizarre genius of Trent Reznor which quickly started sounding like, “whaa-waa-waa-whaa-wa-wa” to me. So I stopped him and said, “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you go and learn everything there is to know about the character of King David and his influence on Jewish thought through the ages and then have a conversation with me about it? Tell me something new that I might care about.”

    To which he responded, “see, religion is your thing. I figure that what you’ve taught me makes sense and I believe it. I pray and live by what you’ve taught me. So I don’t have to spend my time worrying about it or trying to work it all out. Which leaves me free to learn about all sorts of other things. Like Stockhausen. Noah and I have this theory that maybe his mother fed him live tadpoles as a child and that’s what turned him into a scary lunatic.”

    And I kid you not, something very deep in me said, “this is the future of the church you are looking at.”

    Which sounds odd, but stop and think for a moment; what would it be like if an understanding of God, morality and spiritual matters were just a given. If we all pretty much understood and agreed on them and weren’t continually arguing or preaching or fussing over them? Maybe there would be a few of us who were vocationally drawn to studying and thinking about such things who would continue to do so. We could be a resource for people when they needed help or wanted to deepen their understanding. But otherwise, people would be free to spend their energy on other things, secure in the knowledge that they were living in right relationship with God, self, others and creation. Wouldn’t that be something?

    Now, the idea may seem far-fetched or even undesirable. Yet this is actually the new covenant which God says is coming:

    “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

    “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

    ~ Jeremiah 31:34

    This passage is also quoted in Hebrews 8:10-12 and 10:16 which is a long discussion of the forgiveness of sins through the new covenant established in Jesus. Hebrews 8:13 says that the old covenant is “obsolete” and is in the process of “disappearing”. Paul explains that at this time Jesus is “waiting for his enemies to be brought low and put under his feet.”

    As always, we need to be wise about enemy language in scripture. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms“. The enemies of Jesus and of believers are not people. They are spiritual forces.Like say the spirit of violence, greed, hatred, condemnation and will to dominate.

    So, God has told us that there will come a time when such enemies are brought low and placed under the feet of Jesus. And when that happens, the new covenant will come to fruition. Meaning that once things like violence, greed, hatred, condemnation or a will to dominate are no longer seen as valuable or tolerable or acceptable in light of the call to love, serve, heal, free and elevate each other, the new covenant will take the place of the old, dead one.

    And you know what? I think we are seeing the first signs of this happening now. We certainly aren’t there yet, but there are fewer and fewer groups of people who are set aside as acceptable objects of hate. There is a growing awareness that declaring a country an enemy doesn’t turn its citizens into subhumans who we can kill at will. There’s less and less tolerance for treating women as inferior to and under the rule of men. Greed is certainly still rampant, but there are powerful, wealthy men and women who have made it their life’s goal to improve life for others. We’re still a hot mess, but bit by bit, in the hearts of people, we are putting those old enemies under the foot of Christ.

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that as this happens, more and more people are walking away from the church. For the most part, they are not walking away, as some religionists imagine, to live lives of debauchery and selfishness. Rather, people are seeking ways to be good without anyone trying to teach them to “know the Lord”. Whether they realize it or label it as such, more and more people are embracing what our faith says at the outset – that their heart is made in the very image of Love. And they are looking to see what Love has written on it.

    Now, I don’t mean to imply that we’re just a half step away from some progressive utopia where everyone follows their own heart to their own bliss. In fact, I suspect that humanity’s about to explode and it’s going to be a hell of a storm before we get to calm. But that’s a story for another day. All I am saying is that when I look around, I am seeing the first dawning of new light. Candles being lit to provide light through the storm, most likely.

    It seems to be my lot lately to tell you things you won’t hear taught in church. And what I’m saying most certainly isn’t being taught in any church which hasn’t decided to use a nautilus shell in place of some recognizably Christian symbol. But let me ask you something. How do you suppose the church will react when the day comes that God’s law and word is written on each person’s heart and no one will teach their brother to “know the Lord”? Do you really think they’ll be pleased? Do you really think they will be quick to say, “follow what God has put in your heart, not what man (including our pastor) teaches”? That seems very unlikely to me.

    It seems much more probable that there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Hangwringing over the death of Christianity. Attempts to condemn and guilt those leaving into coming back under their control. Endless attempts to lure people back, figure out where it all went wrong, staunch the flow of those leaving, etc, etc, etc. As Paul said in Hebrews 8:13, when something becomes obsolete, it begins disappearing. It’s dying. And dying hurts.

    Now, am I saying that we are seeing the beginning of the death of the church? Um . . . kind of. But it’s a spiritual death, not destruction. Like all death, it’s not the end. It will eventually give way to new life. What that might look like is what I’ll be discussing later this week.

    In the meantime, I know that there are a lot of people who have left the church, although they certainly have not left God. And I know that there are a lot of people who are very concerned about what appears to be decline in the church. But this is really what’s supposed to happen. We’re not going to be teaching each other and telling each other “know the Lord” forever. And we shouldn’t be too alarmed to see it start to happen.

    I’ve seen the future of the church in my own living room and it looks like a kid who hasn’t been in a church in 7 years, is secure in his identity as an image bearer, who loves God and seeks his ways, has read his bible and just doesn’t worry too much more about it. It’s what freedom in Christ looks like, it seems to me.

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    The Least Have the Answers

    Back when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I wound up without a place to live. The counselor at the crisis pregnancy center which was helping me navigate this time reluctantly referred me to a homeless shelter/half-way house for single moms as a last resort. She didn’t come right out and say it, but my sense was that she was none too impressed with the way the program there was run.

    And she was right. In the year and a half that I lived there, not one of the women who went through the program was able to move from the shelter into independent living. They were all either kicked out or ended up moving into another unstable setting to get away. When I asked the social worker who we met with regularly, she could only think of one former resident who had moved on to independent living after her time there. And that was because she had scored a section 8 voucher. Given that the stated goal of the program was to move single moms from homelessness to independent living, this was kind of a big deal.

    A few months after I moved in, the leadership of the program announced that they were re-hauling the program and the house rules women had to abide by. They asked us to write down any suggestions we had for how to make the program more effective and our lives better. Me being me, I wrote a very long, thoughtful list of changes that I thought would help, complete with explanations.

    Several months later, the board of the organization put out the new rules. Of all the suggestions I and other women in the program had made, just one was adopted; we would now be allowed to have Christmas trees. Not only were none of our suggestions adopted, but the new rules actually moved in the opposite direction of what we had said would be helpful to us.

    After the new rules were implemented, women cycled in and out of the program faster than before. I was eventually kicked out for taking on a second job without discussing it with the social worker. My now-husband arranged for me and our son to sleep on a his friend’s pull-out sofa for a few months while I tried to find someplace safe that would rent someone under the age of 25 with bad credit. I had never met the woman before I showed up with my bags and kid.

    The people who ran the program, when asked about their lack of success in reaching their stated goal, would sigh and say it just shows how hard it is to work with people who wind up in trouble. Frankly, if your program is unable to help a compliant, college educated young woman from an upper-middle class background, who doesn’t party, has worked continually since age 10 and has never been in trouble with the law to get on her feet, it’s safe to say that your program doesn’t work.

    The reason I’m sharing this story is to illustrate why it is we as a society cannot solve the problems we face. The problem with this program was the same problem that nearly all programs meant to help those in need have. It was designed and run by successful people according to their experiences and assumptions about how the world works. And that’s why that program didn’t work and why most government social programs don’t work and even why so many schools don’t work.

    We have this tendency to think that if we want something fixed, we should listen to people who are successful. It makes a certain sense. If you’ve succeeded, then you know how to succeed and can share the answers with others who would like to succeed.

    However, before I became a homeless, single mom or got involved with the man from a bad family who is now my husband, I came from a family of 2%ers. My dad and his three siblings all have masters degrees. His dad was trained at Harvard by the Army during WWII and went on to be president of a company. Two of my mom’s siblings are multi-millionaires. So, I was born, bred and raised among successful people.

    I’ve seen people at both the top and at the bottom, up close and personal. And I have a secret for you; if you want answers for how to help people who are struggling and failing, don’t ask successful people. Ask the people who are struggling and failing.

    The answers which successful people have for how to overcome adversity are the same answers that everyone has. They don’t have anything unique to offer in that respect. They also don’t have any real understanding of the problems people face.

    In fact, I can say from experience, when you are successful it’s hard to grasp that there really are problems. It’s hard to understand why what made you successful won’t work for everyone else. From the vantage point of the sort of person who makes rules, starts programs and runs things, the problem must be with the people – they just aren’t willing to do it right.

    People on the bottom have answers that people on the top don’t. They know why people aren’t doing it right. They know what the obstacles to doing it right are. They know the obstacles people face even when they are doing it right. They know what people need in order to overcome those obstacles. In fact, if you look at the few social programs which are working, nearly all of them are run by people from the bottom.

    Of course, we humans aren’t in the habit of listening to people at the bottom. They are losers, failures, suspect. What do they know about how to suceed? If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be in a position of needing help, right?

    The governing board of the shelter I was at didn’t listen to any of the opinions of the women living there in good part because they didn’t trust us. They were like multi-millionaire lawmakers who are reluctant to build a safety net, lest people lose the drive to support themselves. They thought our goal was to avoid being responsible and disciplined and saw it as their job to force responsibility and discipline on us. They couldn’t imagine that we might understand our problems better than they did. They were sucessful people with families and homes. We had failed at life before we had even started. Clearly, they knew better than we did.

    This is a common problem; even when people at the bottom can make their concerns and ideas heard, we don’t trust them enough to listen. We look for any excuse to ignore, discount and disagree. We refuse to consider that perhaps the people at the bottom are able to see things that people at the top don’t. We refuse to believe that the world is so hostile or the odds so stacked. And frankly, we often refuse to listen to people at the bottom because the problems they point to seem too large and intractible to be solved.

    The thing is that while successful people rarely understand what the problems are, successful people often have skill sets, networks and experience that people at the bottom don’t have. And those things can be incredibly valuable. Someone at the bottom often knows just what needs to be done to help people, but lacks the skills, networks and experience to make that happen. So it’s not that successful people don’t have anything to offer.

    We all know that Jesus said that his followers were to serve those in need and to consider the last to be first and the first to be last. Usually, we see this as a call to alleviate suffering, show compassion and grow in love. Which is certainly true. But I also think that these teachings are a bit of a trail of crumbs he left for us as well. That he knew the answers to the problems we face would be found among the least and not the greatest. Besides, Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we are also doing for him. Might Jesus who says if we love him, we will listen to his words, also expect us to listen to, learn from and take seriously what the least have to say? It is very much how his upside down Kingdom works, no?

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    Of Teen Boys and Scantily Dressed Women

    I don’t usually write about parenting, in part because it feels like tempting fate. I’ll write parenting advice and then my kids will end up being drug dealers, pornographers and going out in public dressed like a cartoon pony character. But there are a few things I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten right, so over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be sharing some ideas about parenting with y’all.

    Today, I’m going to talk about the supposed problem of teen aged boys (and men) and the threat posed to them by girls and women who have the gall to walk about without their denim jumpers on. Really, this shouldn’t even be a thing that needs much discussion. But over the last few months, I’ve run across what seems like an increasing number of discussions on the subject. And more often than not, what I’m reading is alarming rubbish.

    These discussions generally fall into two categories. Either they attempt to shame/scold/convict women into covering it up in consideration of the men who see them. Or they advise men on how to “bounce/avert their eyes” in order to avoid looking at the female forms wandering the streets around them.

    As the mother of two teen boys (ages 14 and 18), I find both of these approaches infuriating and insulting. There is another way entirely to approach the subject. One which helps boys grow into, you know, mature adults who don’t think “boobies” every time a woman with some cleavage goes by. And which isn’t sexist and shaming to women. It’s crazy, I know. But bear with me here. . .

    So let’s go back to a little over a decade ago to when I was walking through Target with my then 7 year old son pushing the cart next to me. Suddenly I noticed that he had begun walking strangely. Like he was clomping his feet. I asked him what he was doing and he explained that he had been walking with his eyes closed. In order to avoid looking at a picture of a woman in her underwear which was hanging from the ceiling. 

    I don’t remember the context, but apparently at some point, I had told him that a good man doesn’t look at women’s bodies – even if they are hanging them out for all to see. So he was doing the gentlemanly thing and closing his eyes to avoid looking at a woman’s body. It was kind of cute, but it did make me think teaching my kid something that had him walking around with his eyes closed wasn’t such a great idea.

    After that I hit on a really novel idea; what if I taught my boys to view women – even naked women – as (wait for it . . . ) human beings? Like what if I taught them that instead of seeing women as potential mates or sex partners or walking titillation machines, they should view them simply as fellow human beings? What if I taught them that considerations of a person’s appeal as a sexual partner should be limited to a woman they want to be in a committed relationship with? Crazy, I know.

    So now I teach my boys that I don’t care if a woman walks up to him wearing naught but the skin she came in, they’d better look her in the eye and talk to her like any other human being.

    Now, some of you are saying, “but Rebecca, boys – hormones – sexy – it’s only natural!” Well, sure. Boys have hormones. They can turn anything into a dirty joke. Women are sexy. That’s reality and I’m not naive enough to think simply telling them to view women as fellow humans will change that. (Nor would I want to change that, really.) So . .

    Next, I decided that the real solution to the problem of boys and boobies was to allow them to become accustomed to the female form. After all, nudists manage to live together without the men having to shift uncomfortably and cross their legs every time they are in the presence of a naked woman. Men in tribes where clothing is minimal don’t get a woody every time a woman passes by. Why do we act as if it’s unavoidable that a male who can see a woman’s body is going to view her in a sexual way?

    I certainly didn’t encourage them to leer or decorate their rooms with pin up girls. But the picture of a woman in her underwear hanging from the ceiling at Target? I think I need some new underwear. Let’s go stand under it. The nude scene in Titanic? No fast-forwarding it, just sit and watch it as if it were the most normal thing in the world. We’re not German enough to sit down for dinner naked, but casual nudity became deliberately more common in our home.

    Basically I made a point of treating the female form as completely normal, non-sexual and unremarkable as I could. Certainly no more suggestions that women’s bodies were a sight to be avoided. No treating the female body as a threat to their purity or standing as good men. We all have bodies. Half of us have female bodies. We all need to get over it instead of treating it like a scandal.

    But still – boys – hormones – boobies – lust!

    As any male can attest, pubescent boys can find anything sexy. They get turned on when the wind blows in a certain direction. And let Miss Schoolmarm wear a tight sweater to school and soon the poor boy’s grades begin to suffer. But the thing is that this is a stage. It’s a normal stage. Like all other developmental stages, a person can get stuck there. Or they can experience it and move on.

    If you want them to get stuck with the mind of a 12 year old, unable to concentrate in the presence of the nefarious boobie, here’s what you do. First you tell them that if they experience sexual desire, they are going to get in trouble. Like they will go to hell. Baby Jesus will cry over them. That way rather than experiencing and getting over this normal state of development, they will spend much of the rest of their lives trying to fight it.

    Or you can let them know that it’s normal. It’s kind of silly and occasionally embarrassing. But that they will grow out of it. That way they know that while being distracted by and sexually attracted to random women they meet is normal and not bad, it’s also a sign of immaturity. Real manhood lies on the other side of this stage of their development.

    So add in some discussions about consent, rape culture, porn and sexting and that’s what I’ve done with my boys. As much as I hate to call down bad juju by claiming parenting success, it’s working. There are things about my boys I’m not entirely pleased with, of course. But when it comes to dealing with women and managing their sexuality, I don’t mind saying that they continual impress me. May it always be so! ;)

    This is already longer than I intended, but before I go, I’d like to share something I realized just recently. It has to do with the importance of touch. This past summer, my 18 year old spent three weeks away from home working. He reported that while he was gone, he found himself “checking out” girls far more often than was normal for him. He said he’s pretty sure that it was because while he was gone, physical touch was almost completely absent in his life. We’re a (deliberately) high touch family. At home, he regularly holds and sits with his sisters while reading, watching TV and the like. Hugs are frequent. We sit close together while talking, etc. We humans NEED physical touch. Unfortunately, we tend to be a low touch culture. In fact, once we’re past childhood, sexual activity is one of the only ways that many people experience touch. My son’s observation made me wonder how much teen sexual behavior is driven by this need for physical contact. My younger son is much less comfortable with physical contact, but oddly, he’s much more willing to engage in hugging and even sitting close together as he’s entered into adolescent. So I would suggest that giving teens ample opportunity for non-sexual touch can be a good way to reduce their need/desire to get their touches through sexual behavior.

    And now I’m done. :)