Jeff Sessions Knows Fuck All About Scripture

I admit that I’m coming into this piece today full of piss and vinegar but how could I not? I read yesterday about how Sessions quoted Romans 13 to justify tearing refugee families apart at the southern border. This piece of scripture reads in full:

13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

It sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? But like everything in the bible, we have to take a few things into account. First, we must read this and ask ourselves, for whom was this written and why?

Paul (supposedly) wrote this advice for Christians at a time in which Christianity was quite literally illegal in many parts of the empire. So, right off the bat, just being a Christian was flouting authority and therefore seemingly antithetical to Paul’s advice. So, what’s going on? How can one obey the authorities and yet remain a Christian? For Paul, it was all about example and walking that fine line between obedience to authority and obedience to Christ. One of the stereotypes about Christians at this time was that they were uneducated and uncouth criminals. Also, the Zealots, a group of Jews who wanted to overthrow the empire, were clearly a threat to existing order. The empire was constantly on the alert for Christians, Zealots, and other groups who they believed could upset the status quo. One way for Christians to avoid getting the attention of the state was to conform as much as possible to existing laws. Sadly, we see this same injunction given today to African American males who are criminalized simply by their skin color and for whom police attention often means death. Many black mothers have the same conversation with their sons that Paul is having here with his followers, even when they realize that they shouldn’t have to.

But what about the part about God establishing that authority? Isn’t that an endorsement of the state? This one is admittedly much trickier and, in fact, harder to reconcile. It does seem like Paul, in stating that the authorities are “God’s servant for your good” is basically saying that the state is always correct. But here again we have to look to context. First, and most importantly, people in Paul’s time were not into democracy as we know it today. Not only were they not into it, they could probably never have even imagined it as a possibility. While it is true that Greece had a form of democracy in place beginning about five hundred years prior to Paul, it was nothing like what we know today. Very, very few men (and it was always men and only of a certain classes) had any say in anything and there was certainly no thought for minority groups. Thus, Paul and his contemporaries were operating out of a very different political reality, one that believed that God had indeed set rulers above the people. However, that does not mean that they believed those rulers were necessarily put there as a favor. In the thinking of Paul’s day, God often showed displeasure with its people by giving them unjust or imperfect rulers. But when we read Romans 13, we see Paul talking not about an unjust ruler but about God instituting rulers who have our good in mind. Paul is clearly talking about obeying conscientious rulers which leaves open the idea that civil disobedience is still available to the Christian in some cases.

But let’s dump this all aside for a second and look at today. The fact is that no matter what you believe about God or scripture, our lives are very different today from what they were for the oppressed Jews and their gentile allies in Paul’s day. Christians are no longer persecuted on anything like the scale they once were and, thanks to Constantine, Christianity has been in bed with the state here in the west since the fourth century. Moreover, THE BIBLE IS NOT AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL. It is not a rule book you flip through to find the right rule that applies to your situation and it never has been. The bible, huge though it is, was never designed to carry the answer to twenty-first century problems and situations that its writers could never, in their wildest dreams imagine. The bible is the story of the nation of Israel and, later, the unfolding of the life and ministry of Jesus. While the bible holds an incredible amount of wisdom that we’d be idiots to ignore, it is ultimately the story of the development of thought about God and what it means to be human. Though we certainly have books like Leviticus that have lots of rules in them, nothing in that book is infallible simply because it is written in that book. Like the traditions we receive, scripture is meant to be consulted, pondered on, and respected while not being idolized.  Bronze and Iron age males did not hold all the answers to questions we are asking today. And if you are disturbed by that thought, ask yourself WHY you feel you need a rule book. The fact is that many Christians openly and without shame throw out bits of scripture that are not life-giving. We don’t have to contort ourselves in explanation. The bible is not magical. We can throw out those “texts of terror” that some guy wrote thousands of years ago to describe his own situation and society. Those passages we find useful we can reclaim. The bible is chock full of moments of revolution, rebellion, and insubordination. What are we to make of that? What do we do when one part of scripture written by one group of dudes seems to contradict another part of scripture written by another group of dudes hundreds of years apart? We do what people over the ages have always done – we look to our conscience, that “still small voice” that many believe God gave them to use in situations such as this.

And now, tell me, when you get quiet for a few minutes and tap into that voice, what does it tell you? Does it tell you that God wants us to separate parents and children? Does it tell you that small, scared children are enemies of the state? Does it tell you that Trump is a just leader? Does it tell you that people of color are to be feared and despised? Or does it tell you that something else is happening here? Does it tell you that Sessions has no interest in God, or love, or scripture? Does it tell you that maybe, just maybe, he, like many politicians, is subordinating God to the state for other interests?

Because let’s be honest. Sessions doesn’t even believe his own bullshit, does he? If he did, he would advocate just as strongly for laws that promote the rights of women, girls, and LGTBQ people. Because they’re laws. In fact, Sessions wouldn’t even have a goddamn JOB because in the form of government the scripture passage describes and in the way that Sessions interprets it there is no quibbling about the law. What the ruler says goes and our job is simply to obey.

But guess what? We don’t live in an Iron Age occupied land. We live in a twenty-first century (kind of) democracy where not obeying is a time-honored tradition for Christians and non-Christians alike. In fact, it kind of, sort of is what MADE this country.

But Sessions appears not to understand either this or scripture. Jeff Sessions knows fuck all about either apparently.

Who Is For Me?

Who is for me_

My ministry and, indeed, one could say my entire way of being, is quite different for some people. This isn’t a shock. I’m an abortion doula. I help women access reproductive healthcare and I construct theologies that support reproductive justice. It’s not standard church fare. As such, I’m used to being either a little ostracized or feted, depending on the crowd. There are times when people love what I’m doing or they fear it. You really need good support system to do this work.

Yesterday was an interesting lesson in who my supporters are. When I turned off the lights and climbed into bed last night, the people I thought I knew who had my back when I got up that morning had changed and I was physically sick with apprehension. It was a day filled with intense anger, some of the most white hot fury I’d ever felt in my life, and a day of abject sadness and isolation. It was also a day in which I found myself more grateful than ever for the people I love.

***

It’s really hard sometimes being an aspiring clergywoman who advocates for the positives of abortion care. But one place where I’d felt completely supported in my work was in my doctoral program. After all, its here that I’m studying the spiritual lives of abortion care workers and everyone knows what I’m doing – or so I thought. I had been struggling for about a year with a couple of people in my program who weren’t quite sure what I was doing regardless of having read my work. At first, I thought perhaps I hadn’t been very clear myself. So, I send out my lit review to a few outside informal advisors who assured me that my work was quite clear. So, I persevered with the two in my program until it came to a head last week. The details are unnecessary but the summary is this: these two had negative views about both abortion and feminism that were making it difficult for them to be able to understand the crux of my work. Unfortunately, it was these same two people who had the responsibility of conveying my progress to the doctoral committee. In short, I realized that for an entire year, no one at the school had the facts about my work, nor did they know anything about my background, my education, or my experience. For the last year, I had been looking like a joke, like a loose cannon who was writing a “dissertation” on how great abortion is and that everyone should have at least ten of them.

I was alarmed and immediately met with the appropriate person at the school to express that alarm and hopefully find a solution. This person was very sympathetic to the situation, thankfully, but they, also being on the committee, had no idea of my background and began to ask me questions based on assumptions they had made from imperfect information.

She said that she remembered that I said I ran a bible study. It’s called Bible Study for the Rest of Us and is a way for people who have no interest in being converted can study what scholars have said about the bible through the ages. It’s a safe place for theists, nontheists, and post-theists to find common areas of appreciation for wisdom literature. But while this might sound harmless to most of us, she asked me a question that lit a fire of fury in me. She said, “Where do you get the confidence to think you can teach this?”

In other words, what gives you the right to engage in this ministry when you’re not a bible scholar. She said she was worried that people taking part would see that I’m a student of theology and have “certain expectations” that she seemed to think I wouldn’t be able to fulfill. “Why,” she asked, “do you think you can give them answers?”

And right there we have the problem, folks. There are still people (especially in the academy) who believe that laypeople and even students of theology are not equipped to read bible scholarship and talk about it amongst themselves (by the way, this would make every single church bible study illegitimate). The implication is that without a formal degree (yet, or ever) somehow no one has or ever should engage in learning on their own.

Friends, this is EXACTLY the bullshit I try to push against every day in my ministry. “How can you help people get abortions and be a Christian?” “How can you be a Christian and not believe in a theistic God-being?” In other words, how can I or anyone else be exactly who we are? Ironically, it is because we HAVE studied and we understand the long traditions that support both post-theism as well as reproductive justice. It’s a process called theological reflection that is as second nature to us as breathing. I shared with her that I didn’t feel I needed permission and that the confidence came from an intimacy with scripture and the support of those who felt I could introduce them to it. Moreover, I said, I come from a liberation theology perspective which believes that both theology and biblical interpretation are built from the ground up, not handed down from on high.

I was then told as an aside that when I speak of being ordained in the Anglican Church, I need to make sure I tell everyone that it is ordination to the diaconate and not the priesthood. The assumption here seems to be that the diaconate is an inferior order and that we don’t want people to think I’m in any way getting above my station. But the truth is that in the Anglican Church, the diaconate is a “full and equal order,” not a lower part of a made-up hierarchy of awesomeness. Moreover, I am always happy to talk about the diaconate but who the hell knows what that is? I don’t have the time during an introduction to talk about the history and significance of the diaconate so, when I meet people, I tell them that I am discerning ordination in the church. If they want to know more, that’s great, I will happily tell you why I chose the diaconate over the priesthood or, rather, why God made this choice for me.

At this point in the meeting, I was very upset inside but kept it together on the outside. I left as soon as I could and drove home, literally screaming the whole way with the windows up. I had never been this angry in my life! Seriously! Like, EVER. Once I got home, I curled up into a ball on my stairs and sobbed. I felt that everything that I am, all that I hope to do, was deemed inadequate by the powers that be, the people that apparently get to decide these things.

My question for them is, “WHERE DO YOU GET THE CONFIDENCE?”

Where do you get the confidence that you hold the answers?

Where do you get the confidence to assert that only those with multiple theology degrees get to tell everyone what’s what?

Where do you get the confident belief that laypeople haven’t read extensively, haven’t studied constantly, haven’t had a passion for wisdom that is worth sharing?

WHERE DO YOU GET THIS CONFIDENCE?

***

I sat there sobbing on my stairs until my priest and great friend Colleen texted me to see if I was okay. She suggested I stop by for knitting and tea, so we could chat about what had happened. Colleen is kind of the most amazing human being ever. She is open, sunny, and very easy to talk to. In fact, as I cried in front of her, I was startled to realize that she was the first person I had never apologized to for my crying. We chatted (well, I ranted) and she gave me what I absolutely most needed at that moment – reassurance that I wasn’t delusional, that I was doing good work, and that my research was important. Because as much as I rail against pointless authority and ridiculous assertions by the academy, something in them makes me doubt myself a little. I told Colleen all of this and about how a lot of it stemmed from my mother not really believing that I was capable of college, let alone an advance degree and ordination. I told her how ridiculous I felt that at almost 40 any of this still mattered.

But it did matter. I DO have moments of doubt. That’s what its like having ministries like mine or being someone who thinks a bit differently. We’re not the people who get famous or win massive adherents to our way of thinking. We’re the people who continue to do our work, even when in pain, because we can’t NOT do the work. God has called us to something for some damn fool reason we don’t quite get and our lives aren’t right until we answer.  We’re told in scripture, specifically, Romans 8:31 that “If God is for us, who can be against us,” but I’m not so good at claiming that I know what She is about. But I do know that God wants me in this stupid, agonizing, lame-ass struggle.

And this is why human support is so vital. No, I’ll never be famous. I also know I may not have the support of my program. I’ll never have more than a handful of supporters but that is all I need. I just need someone to feed me tons of tea and Chocolate Crack and tell me that the work that I love so much matters.