For Japan

A community I visited north of Tokyo, the Asian Rural Institute, sent a message to its friends about shattered glass, structural damage, no electricity, and lots of aftershocks, but no fatalities. My friends and family in Japan are safe, as far as I know. But no one is OK. It will take more than one lifetime for people to recover.

Unless you’ve been to Japan, it’s hard to imagine the destructive force of the tsumami that raced as far as 6 miles inland. You have to imagine half the population of the U.S.–150 million people–living in an area about 20% of the size of California, most of that area on the coastal plains that hug the seacoast. Now, massive, sprawling garbage heaps have replaced the towns and villages that once were squeezed along the northeast coast. Profoundly worse, however, for the only country to survive two nuclear bomb attacks, is the threat of a nuclear explosion at Fukushima’s reactor.

I haven’t got words for how I feel. My friend Tyler Boudreau, a Marine veteran of Iraq and author of Packing Inferno, thought of me and sent me this song, “Requiem,” by Austin musician, Eliza Gilkyson. It’s from her album, “Paradise Hotel.” The Mother Mary reference may seem culturally out of place, but the primary deity of Shinto is the goddess Amaterasu. And during the 250 years of hidden Christianity during the Shogunate, Christians used statues of Kannon, the female Buddhist saint of mercy as a stand in for Mary (Kannon as the Madonna). Here are the lyrics. Amen.

Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson

mother mary, full of grace, awaken
all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken
taken by the sea
mother mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
hear our mournful plea
our world has been shaken,
we wander our homelands forsaken
in the dark night of the soul
bring some comfort to us all,
o mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
mary, fill the glass to overflowing
illuminate the path where we are going
have mercy on us all
in fun’ral fires burning
each flame to your myst’ry returning
in the dark night of the soul
your shattered dreamers, make them whole,
o mother mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace,
lead us to a higher place
in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole,
o mother mary come and carry us in your embrace,
let us see your gentle face, mary

The Anxieties of X-treme Winter

It used to be  that the weather was just the weather, to be enjoyed or complained about depending on how much it affected your occupation or vacation plans.

We’ve had a long gray cold winter here in Northern California. I know, the rest of the country has been buried under blizzards, and I shouldn’t complain about the X-treme deluges and the frosty mornings out here—evidently there was a day in January when 49 states had snow cover. Only Florida escaped it that day, by a few miles (Hawaii has mountains that get snow).

Still, relative to a normal winter in the Bay Area, this one has been interminably sodden. Our coastal rains transmogrify into tons of the white stuff in the mountains. Mammoth Mountain, in the Central Sierras, claimed it had the most snow of any ski area in the world over the winter holidays, which is a clue to how much moisture we’ve had. Used to be the X-treme skiers were the crazies who shot off cliffs, jumped turns down a chute of snow that looked vertical, and lived to tell about it. This winter, even beginners can claim to be in the X-treme ranks because of snow levels under their skis.

I’m a skier myself, and I’m thrilled about the white stuff, but not as thrilled as I was forty years ago when I learned to ski. Now, I feel a vague undercurrent of anxiety about global warming and too much X-treme weather. Two weeks ago, as I was riding ski the lift at Tahoe and looking at the gi-normous amount of snow on the slope below, I had a pang of worry. It did not manage to dampen my enjoyment of the skiing, but it did give me pause.

It used to be that the weather was just the weather, to be enjoyed or complained about depending on how much it affected our occupation or vacation plans. Why we have excessive rain, heat, cold, and snow have become political and ethical questions about how we live day to day. And, as I sat there on that lift, I thought about how downhill skiing isn’t exactly a green sport, unless you already live near the mountains and are willing to haul your skis up the slope for an hour or more for the thrill of skiing down really, really fast for 5 minutes.

In the mid 1970s, I lived in Switzerland for a couple of years, and the skiers over 70 remembered how they strapped their skis on their backpacks, snow-shoed up, and skied down. They would do it two or three times a day. No way! I used to think. Backpacking in the Ansel Adams wilderness a few years ago, I took all day to climb about 1500 feet over 8 miles carrying 40 pounds. I could not have faced skiing down after that ordeal. Skis don’t weigh that much, but then again, we were hiking in August, not in February, and not over 30 feet of snow.

In the middle of my mid-winter ruminating about whether or not I should quit my favorite sport, I received the picture below from my artist friend in Houston, Rich Doty. I think it pretty well captures my anxieties about  X-treme global warming and the conflict with my love of skiing. It’s a photo of his sculpture, about ten inches long, made of copper and bass wood with a coating of Bar Top.


Sculpture as Political Commentary

Rich Doty describes his work as visual commentary on the state of American life and politics. His work is like a good cartoon. He sculpts his commentaries in three dimensions, then he takes photos so those of us who can’t see the sculptures can still share the commentary and the laugh.

Rich Doty is a graphic artist who lives in Houston. I met him over 30 years ago when I lived there. He, his wife Sarah, an educator, and I were part of a young adult professionals group at a liberal mainline Protestant church. Every year since, I have looked for their Christmas card in the mail because it always made me laugh. Last year, he did a series of “Logos of the Season,” artfully designed. They included:

“Virgin Travel: Egyptian Get-Away Specials!”
“Roman Empire: Homeland Security, Messiah Division”
“Caspar, Mechior & Balthasar L.L.P.: Astronomical Forecast Modeling” and
“Expect a Miracle: The Yahweh Fertility Clinic.”

I was back in Houston at the end of September, and, when the three of us went to lunch, he showed me photos of his latest art work. I think Dog Canyon readers will get as much of a kick out of Rich’s work as I did that afternoon.

As an artist, he describes his work as visual commentary on the state of American life and politics, and “a million years ago” he studied at Texas Christian University to be a political cartoonist. Of the different direction Rich took, he says “I’m grateful for my job and it sucks,” which captures the paradox of working in corporate America today and the ironic tone of much of his art.

Though he went a different route, his work is like a good cartoon. He can capture a whole world of issues in one image. Unlike a cartoonist, he sculpts his commentaries in three dimensions, then he takes photos so those of us who can’t see the sculptures can still share the commentary and the laugh.

He got into sculpture when he went back for a Masters degree, following an urge to do something that was not commercial art: no standards, no customers, no compromise. His wife Sarah collaborates both as an inspiration for some of his ideas (like the one about education, below) and as a critical eye to whether or not they work.  After a short hiatus of a few years, he’s back at it and is working on a paranoid screen door.

A strong narrative line characterizes his sculptures and their ironic humor, and the title is key to the point. As Rich sends me photos, I’ll keep posting them here for the enjoyment of DC readers. I recommend not looking at them with a mouth full of coffee. You could hurt yourself choking while laughing.

When Cows Want to Sit
No Child Left Behind

Rotten Wingnuts in an Age of Miracles

The current Geller-Palin-Gingrich-Beck-Fox-Tea Party syndicate, funded by the third richest family in the U.S., takes wingnuttery to a whole new level. They believe ordinary Muslim Americans (5 million of them) do not exist, because 19 terrorists from Al-Qaeda (maybe 10,000 of them) attacked us in the name of a fundamentalist form of Islam.

Conservatives have brains that work differently from the rest of us. They do not tolerate ambiguity, conflicts, or paradox well, and they prefer structure, clarity, and stability. This brain research might offer what one blogger called a  “Unified Field Theory of Wingnuttery.” Does the theory explain the last month of rabid anti-Muslim fervor stirred up by the Geller-Palin-Gingrich-Beck-Fox syndicate?

Defaced Sign at Islamic Cultural Center in Tennessee.

It might, though this batch of nuts is so profoundly rotten, they reek. Ordinary wingnuts cannot hold two ideas about one subject together if the ideas point in opposite directions, so they confuse fiction with reality. For example, the Tea Party-Beck rally in Washington D.C. gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the great Civil Rights march while obeying instructions warning them to stay off the Metro lines to the Black areas of town, like Howard University.

Because they cannot hold opposing ideas together, Wingnuts believe: “we are good, ergo nothing we do can be bad.” These traits run on steroids when religion is involved—ergo, nothing rightwing white Christians do is bad. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed some of these traits among leftwing religious activists as well—these are my people. Religious left folks can be sure of our own rightness, making us unable to see our heterosexist, racist, or culturally offensive behavior. Christians have a trope about being sinners that softens the certainty somewhat. However, the true Wingnuts, left or right, prefer to spend 99.99% of their time denouncing the sins of others.

The current Geller-Palin-Gingrich-Beck-Fox-Tea Party syndicate, funded by the third richest family in the U.S., takes wingnuttery to a whole new level. They believe ordinary Muslim Americans (5 million of them) do not exist, because 19 terrorists from Al-Qaeda (maybe 10,000 of them) attacked us in the name of a fundamentalist form of Islam. Come to think of it, those terrorists also probably didn’t believe Muslim Americans exist; they certainly did not care whether or not they lived or died.

These extreme wingnuts have managed to make W look better, which is a flat out miracle; he did, after all, enlist the help of liberal Muslim leaders like Imam Faisal Rauf after 9/11 to spread the word that Islam is a religion of peace, whereas this new Wingnut gang has tried to turn Rauf into a terrorist. Another miracle: I’m feeling oddly grateful for Orin Hatch of Utah, who is no friend to feminists. But he’s the first Republican leader to support the building of the Islamic Cultural Center at Park51. Go figure.

I think the syndicate will fail to halt the Islamic Cultural Center in New York because over half of New Yorkers support its being built and the various arguments against it have started to bother even Orin Hatch. But the rotten wingnut propagation of negative views of Islam have increased vociferous anti-Muslim uprisings all over the country. Recently, the construction site for a new mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, was torched and is under federal investigation—an act of terrorism 886 miles from Ground Zero.

Such hate campaigns usually spawn apoplectic confusions, so that anyone who vaguely resembles a Muslim, like a Sikh or Hindu, may also be targeted for violence. This lumping of South and West Asians into the 1.5 billion people in the world who are Muslims, many of whom look nothing like the stereotypes, has been happening over and over since 9/11. Diane Marsh O’Connor, who lost her daughter and unborn grandchild in the 9/11 attack, knows the implications of such bigotry. She bemoaned the defensive replies to the charge that President Obama is a Muslim, as if the charge were a negative accusation. O’Connor does not want another group of American children to grow up believing something is wrong with them; the pain behind her concern was evident when O’Connor described the impact of racism on the African American children in her classroom.

I live in Oakland, CA, which has a thriving Islamic Cultural Center downtown and many Muslim communities around the city. They co-exist with Jewish congregations and Christian churches, as well as Buddhist, pagan, Hindu, Sikh, Unitarian Universalist, Mormon, and other religious communities. A year after 9/11, the Islamic Cultural Center opened its doors to a major peace march. I had just moved to Oakland that summer, and it was my first, but not my last, experience of Muslim hospitality in the city. I’ve been back to the Islamic Cultural Center a number of times. I’m grateful they are there and grateful to be able to pray with my neighbors. I’ll be joining them, along with folks from my UCC church in Berkeley, on September 10th to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the finish of Ramadan. We belong to a network called the Axis of Friendship, and we’ve been asked to bring a message and pray with our friends at the Eid festivities.

I don’t think all the wingnuts can be changed; then again, miracles do happen. But a miracle comes from a lot of good people working really, really hard against the odds, while other things line up to put the wind at their backs, and everyone is surprised by the outcome. Orin Hatch might have been persuaded by one of his Muslim American constituents—the University of Utah has had a center for Middle Eastern studies for 50 years. Or, perhaps, as a Mormon, Hatch is sensitive about religious persecution and the moral implications of Islamophobia.

Given that only 9% of Americans claim to be familiar with Islam, the first step in disempowering the rotten wingnuts is to get to know our Muslim neighbors, to support their rights, and to hold teach-ins about Islam in our local communities. We have to reach across the stinking wingnut pit of hate and violence, shared with the terrorists they demonize, and take the hands of our Muslim neighbors. That’s the only way to believe in miracles—by making them happen.

The Cordoba Initiative Should Not Cave to Hate-Baiting

On top of what the Muslim communities near Ground Zero endured from the 9/11 attacks, bigots have associated them with the terrorists who murdered those they loved and destroyed their neighborhoods.

Imam Faisal Rauf speaking at Intersections, an Interfaith Understanding Organization in NY

At the beginning of August 2005, a DogCanyon friend in Austin, Texas, Glenn Smith, called me and said, “you’ve gotta get down here and help Cindy. She’s camped in a muddy ditch in Crawford with a bunch of veterans and military families, and she’s doing too much. She needs some support.” We had met Cindy Sheehan when we invited her to speak at an interfaith peace service at Riverside Church in New York on the April 4th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech against Vietnam.

In response to the call, another clergy friend and I flew down to offer pastoral care—this was just before the media feeding frenzy that summer, which turned Cindy into a national figure and shifted the polls against the Iraq War. We got there as the asphalt had begun its afternoon heat blast. Someone had found Cindy a tiny trailer as shelter from the unforgiving sun, sudden thunderstorms, swarms of mosquitoes, and fierce armies of fire ants. After walking down the road with her and meeting other campers, we took shelter inside for a half hour.

As we talked and prayed, there was a knock on the door. When we opened it, we saw a somber-looking man and woman. She was dressed in a hijab and long pale coat, and he wore slacks and a long sleeved white shirt; they looked Middle Eastern. The woman held a small picture frame with a portrait of a handsome, smiling young man wearing a mortarboard. As the man spoke, the woman wept and wiped her eyes:

We are sorry to bother you, but we came today from New York to speak to you personally, and we must return tonight. We came to thank you personally for what you are doing. [The woman handed Cindy the portrait and nodded as her husband spoke.] This is our only child; he was a good son. He was killed in the 9/11 attack. He was the most important thing in our lives; we loved him very much. We are so sorry you also lost your son. We want you to know our son would not have wanted your son to die for him. He would not have wanted a war; killing is wrong. The terrorists who killed him, they are not true Muslims. We want you to know Muslims believe in peace; we are Muslims and we want peace. We want you to know we support you. What you are doing honors us and our son. Thank you so much.

We’ll never know exactly how many people were killed in 9/11, but we know that at least 59 Muslims died and that Muslims were among the first responders who rushed in to help. Muslims suffered deeply in the wake of 9/11. One mosque was just 4 blocks from Ground Zero, and for 27 years, Imam Faisal Rauf led a community just 10 blocks away–Rauf also spoke at the same interfaith peace service we organized at Riverside in 2005.

On top of what the Muslim communities near Ground Zero endured from the 9/11 attacks, bigots have associated them with the terrorists who murdered those they loved and destroyed their neighborhoods.

We’ve seen this kind of hate-baiting before. Many of my older Japanese American friends were imprisoned in World War II on the basis of similar guilt-by-association ignorance and hysteria. The U.S. government eventually apologized for that travesty of justice. I hope we stop the travesty of Islamophobia now, this ignorant tossing of all Muslims into the cauldron of Al-Qaeda.

Fundamentalist terrorism is not Islam’s problem alone. I am a Christian, but I am in no way the fringe kind of Christian Tim McVeigh was. The Christians I have known all my life uphold compassion, love, hope, a fierce commitment to justice, and a desire to heal and transform the world, not blow it up. We know we often fail to be our best selves; we support each other in trying to be better people so we can help build a better world. We share this commitment with our Muslims neighbors. McVeigh’s kind of Christians, like his Al-Qaeda counterparts, believe God is a terrorist, ready and waiting to destroy the entire world on behalf of “true believers” when the time is right. Their ilk foments the emergency politics of fear, resentment, isolationism, outrage, and a murderous heart of violence.

A rabid Islamophobe and right-wing liar, Pamela Geller, founder of “Stop the Islamization of America,” stirred up this crazy fuss about the Islamic Cultural Center. called Geller “the looniest blogger ever.” She originally claimed the Center was an insidious terrorist plot. When it turned out Imam Faisal Rauf was a progressive Muslim leader who helped Bush reach out to Muslims after the 9/11 attack, the tactic shifted to claiming that the Center will violate sacred ground.

As Jon Stewart asked, how is an old, closed Burlington Coat Factory sacred ground? More sacred, say, than a space where Muslims can gather to pray? How many visitors to Ground Zero have ventured out far enough to notice the shuttered store or even remember it if they passed it? How many visitors have walked the neighborhoods around the area and seen the closed stores and struggling businesses? A thriving cultural center in the area could be an important part of neighborhood renewal.

Because of the venom of the attacks against Imam Rauf and the Cordoba Initiative, some Muslims are afraid moving forward will only lead to making it a flashpoint for Islamophobia. Though it took awhile, the U.S. eventually got over demonizing Japanese Americans, and, once the hateful and hate-filled nature of the campaign against the Center is more fully exposed, the hostility and uproar may eventually subside. Someday, we’ll able to point to the Center with pride as a symbol of all that is good about being an American and having the freedom of religion, and we’ll be grateful that the Cordoba Initiative built their Islamic Cultural Center at Park 51 in New York. What else could affront Al-Qaeda and Geller more than Muslims who welcome their neighbors, live peaceably with those of other faiths, and work to build a better world for everyone?

Jesus Supports Marriage Equality

While Jesus and Paul differ on marriage, they differ for the same reason: love. They … do not make the purpose of marriage procreation, which separates sex from love.

Adam And EveJudge Vaughn Walker’s decision to allow resumption of legal same-sex weddings in California has right wing Christians claiming his ruling against Proposition 8 threatens “Bible believing Christians.” I’ve read the Bible pretty carefully myself (I read it cover to cover when I was in high school) and even taught it as a college professor. It is not a source I’d turn to defend traditional marriage. But I think it does offer ways to think about ethical marriage.

First, let’s just dispense with thinking the Bible offers us good examples of real marriages. What woman wants to marry under duress or by deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and/or murder? The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her—for this, she was supposed to be grateful. The ideal of a housewife that Diana Butler Bass recently lifted up in Proverbs 31 –as opposed to reality shows about nasty “real” housewives–suggests that a decent married life for women might have been possible in biblical times, but actual examples are as rare as they currently are on TV.

Jesus and Paul disagreed about marriage, radically. Jesus thinks of marriage as divinely sanctified while Paul thinks of it as an option for the morally weak who need to avoid fornicating. They lived around the same time, and both were Jews, so why did they differ so extremely? As extremely as, say, how some Christians today vehemently oppose marriage equality while others like myself think it is essential, if you are going to have marriage at all? Even evangelicals differ; poll data show that, in 2008, 84% of those under age 30 supported same-sex civil unions or outright marriage equality while only 54% of their elders did.

So let’s at least get clear about one important fact: there is no Christian view of marriage; there are different Christian views, even for Bible believing Christians. For over a millennium, the Christian church in Europe leaned toward Paul. It did not sanctify marriage but regarded it as a civil ceremony instead.
Continue reading “Jesus Supports Marriage Equality”

Madly Addicted to Mad Men (and Women)

Mad Men eerily captures the desperate, driven, liquor-saturated mid-century society that emerged in the wake of World War II and Korea.

“Who is Don Draper?” In the silent, tense seconds that followed the reporter’s innocuous query at a power lunch, everything that defines season four of this series unfolded in Don Draper’s face. Under his banal blank stare, an instant of panic flickered, followed by intense canny thinking. After a silence that was one heartbeat too long, Draper posed a careful, probing counter-question, and, finally, he offered an evasive, noncommittal response.

“Don Draper” desperately needed to figure out how much the reporter knew. The wrong answer would have meant the collapse of years of deception, desperation, talent, and ambition that had secured his position as head of the creative department of a Madison Avenue advertising firm—this web of deception, if exposed, would have killed his new struggling breakaway start-up company that emerged as the surprise ending of season three. Unnerved under his cool, controlled exterior, Draper clammed up and gave an interview so opaque that his partners and staff team went into crisis management mode when the interview in “Advertising Age” went to print.

Mad Men eerily captures the desperate, driven, liquor-saturated mid-century society that emerged in the wake of World War II and Korea. The Cold War, civil rights marches, and the traumas of assassinations haunt the show as flickering black and white images on a television set; they are broadcast constantly in the office of the guy in charge of TV advertising.

It would be hard to miss the irony of the era the show depicts. We watch the story of the rise of our consumer-driven society—the selling of Lucky Strikes, Playtex bras, and Glo-Coat wax—as we currently live with its financial meltdown, broadcast on our TVs and posted on our computer screens in living color.

Mad Men is like “The Donna Reed Show” meets “Twin Peaks.” A strange, often creepy disquiet permeates each scene as the characters struggle in their own personal soap operas, seemingly oblivious to the larger vortex of social forces around them. We see their personal lives of slick pretenses, driven by restless anxieties that simmer below the dutiful suburban-marriage facades. Even the kids in the show are weird. This season, the boy across the street, who seemed a budding sexual predator, is back, and now he has taken up breaking-and-entering vandalism.

Continue reading “Madly Addicted to Mad Men (and Women)”


Dan Maguire is to Catholic social ethics what Molly Ivins was to politics: a sharp, incisive progressive commentator with a flair for language and a talent for laugh-out-loud zingers. He refers to the Vatican campaigns to oppose all things gay (priests, marriage, etc.), stem cell research, and reproductive rights for women as an obsession with “pelvic issues.” I had the pleasure a few years ago of editing his book for The New Press, Whose Church? A Concise Guide to Progressive Catholicism.

Dan sent me this piece, and I have his permission to share it with Dog Canyon readers. In a few precise words, Dan captures the hypocrisy of the Israeli attack on an unarmed ship in international waters carrying humanitarian aid to the people on Gaza—and the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Israel and Somalia are brothers in the international crime of piracy, attacking unarmed ships on the high seas.

There is a difference between Israeli piracy and Somalian piracy: Somalians do it to make profit; Israelis do it to attack mercy ships carrying wheel chairs for crippled Palestinians and medicine for sick children.

Israel has no need to do piracy for profit: it receives more than ten million dollars a day from its client state, the United States of America. Long John Silver and the Somalian pirates would retire if they had an income like that. Thanks to U.S. aid, Israelis are the richest and best armed pirates in history.

We Need a Better Coalition for Immigrants

Guest writer Joshu Joh-Jung in D.C.
Guest writer Joshu Joh-Jung in D.C.

Social revolutions can take awhile, but the rise of young activists is heartening. Right now, white evangelical Christians are facing a generational crisis because those under 30 are comfortable with civil unions or same-sex marriage by a significant majority, unlike their elders. The younger bunch are interested in addressing issues like climate change, poverty, and war.

Among many Christians who are not Anglo, another issue looms large: immigration. Nearly three fourths of Asians in the U.S. are immigrants. Joshua Joh-Jung is the son of immigrants. He attends Evanston Township High School in Evanston, IL. I ran into his mother a couple of weeks ago—she’s a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a friend of mine—and she was amazed at how involved he had gotten in immigration issues, to the point of going to a march on Washington March 22.

Here is Josh’s “take” both on the march and on immigration issues. The noise around porous borders and fences, especially here in California and in the Southwest tend to frame immigration in terms of undocumented Hispanics because of the proximity to Mexico. Josh offers another take on it as a native born American of immigrant Korean parents.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Arizona’s House passed one of the most extreme anti-immigration Bills that a generation has seen. Arizona is attempting to do what totally red-state Oklahoma failed to do. Strict anti-immigration laws are signs of what some Americans are feeling about immigrants and undocumented folks.

As a second-generation Asian American born in this country who speaks native English, I still get asked, “where are you from?” Stereotyped as a perpetual foreigner, I have always been interested in immigration and how immigrants have shaped this country. Anti-immigrant bills cropping up across the country are a sign that our federal government must act on immigration reform before more states pass bills that put this country to shame and that poison life for the immigrants who will stay and raise their children as Americans.

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“Lamentation” Friday and the Power of Love

heloise-abelard1A lot of Christians are going to attend a “Good” Friday service this week and hear how Jesus loved us so much he gave himself out of love for us, to save us. This is what is supposed to make his torture and murder “good.” They’ll be told that if they love him back enough, they will be transformed to love in the same way and forgive unto death.

This is a not so much an idea of love so much as an idea of unrequited passivity. And it encourages acquiescence to evil. The Canadian Catholic Bishops actually apologized in 1990 for teaching these ideas to victims of domestic violence. The Vatican has not apologized yet, but it might be too distracted right now with sexual abuse scandals to notice its been using this bad idea of love to shame victims into silence.

The ideal of love as self-sacrifice emerged in the twelfth century after Charlemagne started using Christianity as the propaganda arm of his empire. The main person who emphasized love as self-sacrifice was a brilliant, controversial scholar and teacher named Peter Abelard, but this piece is not about him; its about his amazing wife Heloise, who was both his most loyal supporter and his most astute critic.

In the face of the bad preaching about love that will fog the air on Friday, I offer the brisk, bracing clarity of Heloise, Abbess of the Paraclete. The affair of Heloise and Abelard has been idealized from medieval times as a great romance brought to a tragic and premature end by his castration. Heloise’s own letters to Abelard, which place her squarely among the most rhetorically brilliant and compelling ancient writers on love, probably constructed the popular legend and their mythic place in the pantheon of great lovers. However, her actual relationship to Abelard, found in her letters, was fraught with tensions.

Her differences from him reveal a remarkable figure whose understanding of love resisted violence, false piety, and the romance of suffering. Her voice has integrity, is steady, and resists self-deception or self-pity. She is honest about human feelings of love and loss and is committed to responsible uses of power—and she offers compelling antidotes to the dangerous pieties erupting from the cloisters of her age, which still deeply infect Western Christianity.

The young, intellectually gifted Heloise and Abelard, twenty years her senior and her charismatic teacher, became secret lovers. Heloise regarded voluntary love as a stronger bond than marriage, which was not a church sacrament at the time, but a civil contract, saying she preferred “love to wedlock, freedom to chains.” She observed that women often married for money, which she viewed as a form of prostitution. She asked if anything ordained by God, such as sexual intercourse, could be sinful, and asserted that she would rather be his mistress than his wife. “God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.”

Continue reading ““Lamentation” Friday and the Power of Love”