Thursday, October 28, 2010

This I Believe

When I first started this project, my then-agent wanted me to write Southern Cross as a series of 50 short chapters, each beginning with the words "I believe..."
Unauthorized Product Placement
Unauthorized Product Placement
Every chapter would reveal some inspirational, enlightening truth, of the sort known only to 29-year-old freelance writers with time on their hands. The interviews and anecdotes that followed would supply the type of tidy, accessible spiritual answers that could be readily consumed on the treadmill at the gym, or while ingesting a single serving of strawberry yogurt.

There's nothing wrong with accessibility, but that approach didn't really appeal to me -- I was much more interested in the views and ideas of the people I was interviewing than in rehashing my own. Since then, I have had a number of readers of the manuscript ask why I didn't share more of my own beliefs in the text. It's a topic I've blogged about in the past, and I talk about it some in the book's epilogue. I will say this much about my own beliefs:
  • I believe that God is conscious and compassionate.
  • I believe that Christianity is a system of social and psychological control.
I also believe that if anybody starts telling you, "God wants you to do this," or "God wants you to do that," you should probably run away as fast as possible.

This much I believe, unambigously.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Go and Do Likewise

Several months ago, I ran into Canadian academic and activist Leigh Brownhill at a party. She kindly offered me a copy of her book, Land, Food, Freedom, in exchange for a review on my blog. Brownhill traveled to Africa to record the stories of a movement that spanned generations and involved hundreds of thousands of Kenyan peasant women. How could I resist?

Leigh Brownhill reads from her book

The result is a fascinating read, if academic at times. These women fought for their right to reclaim their land and determine their own destinies. They endured concentration camps, rape, and torture during the 1950s Mau Mau War against the British, followed by the "housewifeization" campaigns of the new post-colonial government, designed to impose European standards of beauty, dress, diet, and submissive feminine behavior in the 1960s.

What impressed me was how practical and successful they were in reaching their goals -- perhaps because women did not take their cues from a single political party or charismatic leader, but from a network of social groups organized for resource sharing and mutual support. During the general strikes of the early 1950s, they created an alternative food distribution system that served thousands of strikers. Flash-forward to the 1990s and see Mau Mau veteran Ruth Wangari launch a successful hunger strike and year-long vigil involving more than 10,000 people at "Freedom Corner" to release 52 political prisoners - one of the events that led to the downfall of dictator Daniel Arap Moi. Or recall Wangari Maathai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in founding the Green Belt Movement for tree planting and soil conservation across Africa.

The historical person known as Jesus came from a country under occupation, full of dispossessed farmers expelled from their land by the Romans. Christianity is one of the earliest examples of a nonviolent social protest movement that worked. We need more examples.

May Day 2010 - Holyoke, MA

Photos by Peter Palmobella.
Visit Leigh Brownhill's website at

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It Gets Better

I haven't had time over the last few months to post a lot in this blog, but this was one topic I couldn't overlook.

If you are a conservative anti-gay Christian, please watch this video. It could change the way you think.

If you are a gay, lesbian, or transgendered teen or young adult struggling with thoughts of suicide - in part because you are being told by the religion you grew up in that being who you are is wrong and sinful - please watch this video - and more from Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project. It could save your life.

Full disclosure: my little sister is gay. This is not an issue I can be neutral about. If you put her down, I am going to want to kick your ass. Apologies if that is not a very Christian sentiment.

Living in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal and honestly, Not That Big a Deal, it is easy to forget what it's like to live surrounded by institutional church-sponsored homophobia. It's easy to write off all bigots as stupid and ignorant, and thus assume they would have no power over somebody able to think for themselves. Except when those bigots are your parents, your youth group leader, your teacher, or your therapist, they have a tremendous amount of power.

I heard plenty of horror stories while researching Southern Cross, and if I hadn't found a faith community with the opposite set of values, there is no way I could have stayed a Christian in the South. By grace and luck, I found Christians who were warm, empathic, tolerant, welcoming -- and eager to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folk as full and honored members of their community.

Off to church now...